Alia Shawkat: I think my teen self would be happy with me

The former Arrested Development actor talks about co-starring in buddy movie Animals

A two-hour drive from Los Angeles, in the Coachella Valley desert, lies the resort city of Palm Springs: upmarket hotels, golf courses, palm trees as far as the eye can see, mountain ranges sprawling majestically in the distance. It was a slow, suburban kind of town a very chill place to grow up, says Alia Shawkat. By the time we were in high school, we would drive around in cars and park them and smoke weed, look at the mountains and be like: One day were going to get out of here.

Shawkat did get out of there: in 2003, aged 14, she joined the cast of sitcom Arrested Development, which ran for three seasons to critical acclaim but poor ratings, only to become a cult show after it was cancelled in 2006. Shawkat has since starred in films spanning roller-derby drama Whip It to punks versus neo-Nazis horror Green Room; she is now the lead in the smart, caustic comedy series Search Party.

Perhaps it is has to do with the characters she plays often carefree, slightly lost, with a deadpan sense of humour but Shawkat has the aura of someone you could imagine being friends with. Speaking on the phone from Los Angeles, she is open and relaxed, veering between serious and amiably goofy. When shes telling stories, shell sometimes impersonate the people speaking, in a subtle way that enhances the anecdote rather than showing off her thespian talents. She seems like the sort of person youd have a really, really good conversation with around 3am on a night out.

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Shawkat,
Shawkat, left, with Holliday Grainger in Animals. Photograph: Bernard Walsh

Which is perhaps why she is perfectly cast in Animals, the new film directed by Sophie Hyde and based on Emma Jane Unsworths book of the same name, described by Caitlin Moran as Withnail with girls. Shawkat plays Tyler, the Withnail of the relationship: the larger-than-life yet complex and vulnerable foil to the marginally more restrained Laura, played by Holliday Grainger. Shawkat was leaving a boozy brunch with friends when she remembered she had a Skype call with Hyde from Australia. Id forgotten I had a work meeting but it kind of worked: a couple of shots and a champagne in, and we got along really well.

When shooting started in Dublin, Shawkat and Grainger had a few days to create a bond that could pass for being best friends. Hyde set tasks for them: go to some bars, have a few drinks, and ask each other questions from a list Hyde provided. Who was their own Tyler or Laura when they were younger? How did their first relationship affect their friendships? When were they partying too hard, to the point where they had to question themselves?

On screen, they portray a friendship thats both riotously fun and fraught with the kinds of setback common in any long-term relationship: priorities change, directions start to diverge. As women we have these relationships in our lives, even more intense than a romance in some ways. And thats when it gets hard: when one doesnt feel like theyre moving, and the other one does, someones going to get hurt.

Shawkats interpretation of Tylers character, she says, was based on a certain kind of girl I used to hang out with who was just so free-spirited and wild that, when youre at the party, they seem like the biggest hero. But you realise: Oh, she is sacrificing a lot in order to be that person every night. Shawkat turned 30 earlier this year, and this has brought with it a newfound introspection. For me its the first year I dropped a certain kind of excess emotion. Not that I feel disconnected, but it was just: Oh, I dont really need to overthink this as much, or: I dont need to define myself based off of this feeling.

From an early age, Shawkat started going back and forth to Los Angeles to act in film and TV. I felt like I was living two lives, she recalls. Film runs in her family: her maternal grandfather was actor Paul Burke (Valley of the Dolls, The Thomas Crown Affair); her father is a film producer. Back in Palm Springs, there wasnt much to do for teenagers: restaurants closed early; every now and then someones rich grandparents were out of town so there would be a house party. In the summer, when the heat became overwhelming temperatures regularly reach 49C (120F) it turned into a ghost town. People were partying really hard at a young age because they were bored, she says. I smoked pot, not much else. But looking back, people were doing heavy drugs, just in high school.

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Nevertheless, shes glad she grew up where she did, when she did. Like everyone over the age of 30, she worries about the effect technology is having on younger generations. I find it fascinating that kids are having less sex and doing fewer drugs than ever before. On one hand, great, theyre more aware. On another hand, are they not [doing these things] because theyre not experiencing life through actions, but through looking at things? When she was younger she would meet up with friends at the mall. It was a bunch of girls and boys, and it was the most exciting thing because we were like, how do we all talk to each other? Those moments are so scary, but they define you.

Her upbringing also provided her with material for a TV show she is currently writing. Apart from working in film, Shawkats parents run a strip club: ShowGirls Gentlemens Club in the neighbouring Cathedral City. Although Shawkat was not allowed in until she was 21, it was a formative experience. It definitely affected my perspective. It was never a secret, there was no shame around it. Her parents were very normal, slightly conservative: her dad taught the football team, her mum brought snacks to school. It wasnt like they were seedy club owners: it was a business.

Watch a trailer for Animals.

The show will explore the ways these years shaped Shawkats attitudes to gender and relationships: how it made her popular with boys at school; whether it affected some form of performative nature I have in sex or with men; her figuring out her bisexuality. It also made her interrogate her dynamic with her father. Im close with him, but I always have this kind of anger towards him: But you own a strip club, youll never fully understand me. She doesnt judge strip clubs, she adds: she loves the dances, she respects it as a profession. But its about the power the male gaze has, and how strip clubs have been around for ever and always will be. The male gaze drives not only societys view of women, but how women view themselves.

Shawkat is still grappling with the ways that, as someone in the public eye, she is turned to for political comment. She is increasingly being asked to speak on panels, which she is pleased to do, though part of her thinks: But Im just a clown, Im just an artist. Art and politics have always reflected each other, she says, but recently the lines have become more blurred. Katharine Hepburn wasnt telling people to vote. But now that is important: especially younger kids, theyre looking up to people like that. So I think there is more of a responsibility.

This development comes with its own set of problems, she says: Donald Trump became president because of some version of celebrity culture. Almost a decade ago, when he was on TV a lot, Shawkat drew a series of Ralph Steadman-inspired sketches of him. I got fascinated with the way his face looked: his skin, that hair it felt very fake. Little did I know hed actually become a political cartoon. To find hope these days, she turns to travelling (to have a perspective on things) and organising large gatherings (When anythings happening that feels so destructive to a whole community, you have to get closer). Shawkats Twitter page reveals some of her concerns: immigration, Palestine, abortion, rape. But the primary way she is responding to the political crisis is through her art.

This is also a time when women are racing to tell their own stories. After #MeToo, says Shawkat, the most noticeable change has been that more women are being hired. Friends of mine are making stuff theyve always wanted to. Who knows how long itll last, but its definitely a window of time where people are like: Oh, its cool to have a female of colour directing. I mean, it always has been, but sure, whatever you say give us the money.

Shawkats Iraqi, Irish, Italian and Norwegian heritage was something she attempted to downplay as a kid. In school, she was aware of a feeling of otherness (Me and the one Korean kid in my class became friends, because we were kind of different from everybody else), and when she started acting she was told she was too ethnic for parts. But, now, there is an appetite for different stories. Its nice to be seen for who you are.

Laia
With Laia Costa in Duck Butter. Photograph: The Orchard

In 2018 Shawkat wrote her first feature, Duck Butter a love story in which she stars opposite Laia Costa and directing is something she sees further down the line. A third season of Search Party is out next year, but Arrested Development is finally getting put to rest. She thinks fondly of those years: It was such a big part of my life, from 14 to 28. Its like family: I love it, but Im happy were moving on.

Looking back to her teenage self, gazing at the palm trees and distant mountains, does she think shed be pleased with the way her 30-year-old self has turned out? Shed like all the new clothes, I guess. I think shed be happy I was doing the art I wanted to. Thats something I always wondered: Will I have enough confidence to do what I want? I think she would be happy. I like to think so.

Animals is in cinemas from Friday

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