Alia Shawkat has a knack for playing what she calls the “too-smart-for-her-own-good” characters. The 23-year-old southern California native is best known for her role as Maeby FÃ¼nke, the uber-sarcastic, forever-plotting teenager on Fox’s short-lived yet highly-beloved sitcom Arrested Development, which returns on Netflix next spring after a six-year absence. And in her new film The Oranges, which opened wide this weekend, she plays the awkwardly hilarious narrator Vanessa, caught in the middle of the relationship between her middle-aged father, David (played by Hugh Laurie), & her twentysomething friend Nina (Leighton Meester). Shawkat spoke with Rolling Stone approximately seeing herself in dysfunctional characters, being attracted to older men, & what to expect from Arrested Development‘s highly anticipated comeback.
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What‘s intriguing approximately Vanessa is that she‘s the film‘s narrator, yet a highly untrustworthy one.
Yeah, totally. I think that Vanessa, she’s kind of separate from the movie in a weird way, which might work for some people & not [for others]. ‘Cause she’s not necessarily an omniscient perspective as being wise & understanding things. That’s what made it pleasant for me. In a way, even though I’m intertwined in the story, it’s kind of like she’s going against everyone else. She’s not supposed to be there. She should be out of the house & doing her own thing. But the story’s going on, & Vanessa’s there eating snacks. It’s like, “What the fuck are you doing here, man?” I thought she was fun. She’s very whip-smart & very bitter. And at the time I could relate to that. So it was a satisfactory role to do.
Is it essential that you see a bit of yourself in a role â€“ no matter how small?
For sure. I don’t want to put down my work â€“ I’m very proud of the work I’ve done. But because I’m still very young & I started when I was young, a lot of the characters were very similar to myself in the way that I could pull from [experiences]. But then on top of it, being a teenager, playing the too-smart-for-her-own-good, yet still struggling with something, kind of guarded [role], that’s something I could relate to when I was younger. But as I obtain older, I want to play different roles.
You did play a prostitute in Cedar Rapids.
There were unquestionably similar qualities [between myself & her] in terms of when I’m trying to act cool. Not that I use people â€“ especially not for sex or money.
The Oranges centers on the bizarre pain that is growing up in the suburbs. Being raised in Palm Springs, could you relate?
The main thing I received from growing up in a suburb is the boredom you have as a child. We would just smoke pot & sit in cars & be like, “What do you wanna do?” We were like the Vultures from The Jungle Book.
Hugh Laurie’s character dates Leighton Meester’s, who’s young enough to be his daughter. You must be used to that old-man-dates-younger-woman relationship dynamic, though, living in L.A.?
Well, I was in Paris recently, & I’d see men who look like fathers with these young girls, & then they’d start making out. And I was like, “Oh, Jesus, they’re together.” You kind of just accept it.
Growing up, were you ever attracted to older men?
[Laughs] Yeah, I unquestionably had a weird thing of being attracted to older men. Never my family friends; never my dad’s friends. ‘Cause my dad’s an immigrant. Not that I’m not attracted to immigrants . . . yet I’m not. But I’ve received to admit that when I was older â€“ 19, 20, 21 â€“ I was into older dudes. But I’ve gotten past that stage . . . as of now.
Arrested Development makes its long overdue comeback next spring. Strangely enough, the show never found its footing with audiences while it was on TV, only after becoming a cult favorite.
It was strange, because I remember me & Michael [Cera] â€“ the pilot had just aired, we were actually at a show in L.A.; we went to go see A Mighty Wind. I remember it had just aired that night, it was an thrilling night for us. And this one couple was like, “We just saw the show. We really liked it.” And we were like, “Oh, my God!” We were so excited. And literally, that was like the last time I received recognized until the show ended. But I think it’s very rare that the wave of [popularity goes] in the opposite direction. Over time I’ve been more recognized. Now I obtain more recognized for it than I ever did before. It consistently gets stronger. Even waiters will be like, “Can’t wait for the movie.” And I’m like, “Oh, Jesus.” Everyone is just so aware of it. I think that’s so surreal for us.
How did it feel to reunite with the cast?
The whole cast received back together to do an Entertainment Weekly photo shoot, & even when we were on set the first time, the whole crew, [show creator] Mitch [Hurwitz] made a little speech & we were all kind of sentimental. Because it’s so weird. It feels like no time has passed. The only difference is all of a sudden people care approximately it & are actually paying attention & are really looking forward to it. And it feels really nice, because we worked so complex on the show then, & it used to bother us [that] we would win all these Emmys & no one fuckin’ knew approximately the show. It’s kind of a rad thing to come back.
What’s different approximately the vibe on set now?
We’re shooting [multiple episodes] all at the same time. And because of that, the scripts are kind of all over the place, & it’s complex to keep track of what’s happening. Mitch wasn’t on set when we shot the show [the first go-round], because he was in the room writing all the time & he was the Head. Everything had to go to him. But now he’s on set every second, & it’s so nice, because he’s our hero. We trust him more than anything. He’s like the greatest guy. Having him on set is really cool, because he’s the only person alive who knows what’s happening. And we all look to him & we trust him so much. In that aspect it’s unquestionably different.
Guest star Henry Winkler said in a recent interview that each episode will be loosely based around each character. Is that going to be the format?
We’re shooting all these episodes, & it’s kind of based on a character each, yet it’s kind of not. I really don’t know how they’re gonna end up editing it. But it’s literally like a five-hour movie, almost, with all the episodes, so the shooting schedule is crazy. The poor set decorators, who are genius, they don’t know what they’re building until the day before. Because of that, it’s a very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of thing â€“ even moreso than when we first shot it, because we’d just shoot one episode at a time. This is kind of all over the place, & the storylines all run into each other, & there’s all these secrets that they want to show at the end. So it’s kind of like this huge puzzle piece. So Mitch is even more of a genius, because he’s able to keep it all on track.
Was there always a plan to return, or was the decision driven by the show‘s increasing popularity in the wake of its absence?
I think that [Mitch] has probably always thought in his mind it would return. I think he needed to take a breather. I don’t know when he started writing or how he started thinking approximately it, yet I’ve never met someone with such a fresh mind. He comes up with new jokes every second on set. It’s always something that he plugs in or something that he writes in the background for an inside joke that you might see for half a second. But that’s what’s so great. I watched the show again before we started shooting, because I hadn’t seen it since it aired, & I was fuckin’ there for a lot of it, yet I still caught jokes that I missed. But that’s what’s so astonishing approximately Mitch. He’s nonstop thinking. It’s a whole world â€“ it’s not just a joke.
People are psyched to see that it’s not just the cast regulars returning, yet peripheral guest characters like Liza Minnelli are coming back, too, along with new ones played by Isla Fisher & John Slattery.
When we read the scripts we were like, “Who’s gonna play this? Who’s gonna play that?” And it’s exciting. I still don’t know until someone shows up who’s going to play that part. It’s really cool, & it’s moreover very flattering & exciting, that all these people who are very talented & known for other things want to be a part of it. Even when we were getting towards the end of the show [the first time], even though it wasn’t necessarily that popular ratings-wise, we had all these astonishing rad guest stars like Charlize Theron & Zach Braff. Because people were just such huge fans of it. So now asking people to come back, everyone seems so excited to be a part of it & it’s really cool, because it feels like our weird little baby that we lost six years ago is now grown up.
One last thing. Please say you’ve seen the YouTube “Call Me Maeby” parodies that set Maeby & George Michael’s unfulfilled love story to Carly Rae Jepsen’s song.
I’ve gotta look those up. I haven’t seen any of those. But I had a friend who lives in New York, & I had just left, & he was like, “I saw your face on a T-shirt.” And I was like, “What?!” And I guess some dude had a T-shirt that said “Call Me Maeby” with a picture of me when I was like 16. I think it’s funny. That song is so fucking contagious. When it comes on the radio I naturally want to be annoyed by it, yet I always sing & dance to it. But I think it’s a comical comparison. There are unquestionably no “Call Me Maeby” jokes in the show. A lot of people were like, “Is there gonna be?” And I was like, “Umm, no.”