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Definitely Maeby

15 minutes with Alia Shawkat

By Russ Espinoza, 3:15PM, Tue. Mar. 11

Alia Shawkat (l) in Wild Canaries
Alia Shawkat (l) in Wild Canaries

To know her as Arrested Development’s Maeby Funke is to love her. But actress Alia Shawkat has a life and evolving career beyond the quirky cult-classic that made her famous at 14.

Now almost 25, her latest project is a madcap murder mystery called Wild Canaries that debuted at SXSW Film on Saturday. In it she stars as a Brooklyn lesbian at a personal crossroads alongside husband-and-wife acting duo Sophia Takal and Lawrence Michael Levine (the latter of whom also serves as the film's director and writer).

Shawkat kicked it with The Austin Chronicle over the weekend for a very impromptu and informal chat on the price of fame, partying for work, music, and how God might receive her in the great hereafter.

Austin Chronicle: A lot of people – and you may hate this by now, I have no idea – they associate you with Maeby…

Alia Shawkat: They do, yeah.

AC: And I get the feeling that there’s a lot of people out there who want to get to know you, as a person.

AS: Yeah, who doesn’t? [laughs] I think that’s the funny thing, I’ve been acting since I was 9 –

AC: You were in Three Kings

AS: I was in Three Kings, that was my first film as a little runt. It’s a great film. But then, yeah, so Arrested Development: I did the pilot when I was 14 … I’m 24 now, and we just shot the new season last year. So, it’s literally a decade of my life with that show, so it’d be silly to ever want to separate from it. And then on top of it, it’s one of the best written shows, I think, of all time, and coming back I was so excited because I was not a kid anymore, more of an adult, and [to] be more present with what was happening. So I’m very proud to be Maeby.

It’s funny how people react to it, like any kind of fame or any kind of reaction to stuff on film and television, you know – people feel like they really know you, and I don’t have a problem with it. It’s like, I still have a good relationship with it, where I am recognizable, but only in certain crowds. Like here, a lot of people are recognizing me, but everyone’s out here for film and stuff, so… For a while it used to feel kind of like an albatross, where it was just like, “No one’s gonna think of me any way else,” you know? Just as Maeby. But I think every actor has that: They want to define themselves differently, because I want for people to believe me in different roles – just be a believable character and also play different kinds of characters.

I’ve done a lot of independent film for the last five years, and I’m very proud of all the work I’ve done. You know, none of them are as wildly successful as Arrested Development was – we didn’t know Arrested Development was gonna be successful, it wasn’t when we were doing it, so it’s kind of like a weird aftermath effect. After all this time, more people recognized me now for it than ever. So it’s kind of funny, but I’ve gotten used to it. I feel kind of lucky that it is at the level where it’s at, where it’s like: I do get recognized but it’s still, like, maintained and, the fans are really cool; like, they love the show, it’s not just like, “Are you that chick from that thing?” I mean, I still get that sometimes, like, “Did we go to high school together?” I’m like “No.” Sometimes I pretend we did just to get it over with, but …

AC: Is that right? [laughs]

AS: Yeah. [laughs] But um, I feel very lucky. I mean, it was just one of the coolest things ever, working with such amazing writers and actors and stuff. Like, when we came back I was like, “This is fucking neat.” Like, this is one of the coolest shows; the way the new season was written was so impressive and smart and, like, hard to keep track of that it made me feel like a better actor.

AC: Austin right now is saturated with people predisposed to know who someone like you is – to recognize you in a crowd.

AS: Right. That’s true.

AC: Can you do normal things at events like this? Go into a bar, have a drink with a friend without people tapping you on the shoulder?

AS: People do tap me on the shoulder. Or, like today, someone grabbed my elbow, which I was kind of annoyed about. But, it’s tame; I’m able to deal with it… Every actor has different levels of it, you know? It’s like, when I go out with Michael Cera, even when we’re just in New York or any city – we did a press tour for Arrested Development in Europe, and he was hounded nonstop, to the point where it was hard to walk down the street. I’m not in that situation, thank God. But, I hold my anonymity, you know, it’s very important to me. Obviously I want to be an actor and I wanna keep working and part of the “success,” quote-unquote, for an actor is to be famous – that’s kind of the trajectory.

But I love to get drunk at a bar and do karaoke, and meet some random guy and flirt with him, and make new friends and smoke pot in an alley; it’s like, those are all things I do and will do. Honestly, I think it’s about the way you look at it: For me, I meet new people because of it, and the cool ones are like, ‘Oh, you’re on that show. I really love that show. Cool.’ And then we end up being friends. It’s only weird when people separate me from themselves because they hold me up higher, think that I’m not someone to even communicate with [because] I’m just, like, this image of it, and that’s hard to connect with, because everyone just likes to connect.

But in Austin… I love Austin so much. I’ve spent a lot of time here during festivals and not, and I even like it more when it’s not the festival. It’s just such a chill town. Hanging out with friends and going to cool bars and seeing bands and stuff, it’s like, it’s one of my favorite cities. Definitely during the festival, it’s a little harder, but it’s like we’ve been doing a lot of work stuff lately, so it’s, like, work parties and that kind of thing. So, it’s part of the job. That’s what’s also weird – last night we were dancing and getting drunk and my friend was like, ‘This is our work!’ And it is! [laughs] … I think that actors and people of fame like to be like, ‘Ugh, it’s so hard, I just can’t take it. I want to quit the biz. It’s too much.’ And it’s like, you know what? You know what you’re signing up for. And it’s about how you deal with it, you know?

I worked with Drew Barrymore – and she’s a dear friend of mine, and someone who was raised in the spotlight, like very, very, very famous – and, you know, there’s challenges to it, I think, but she handles it with such grace. She connects to people, she’s kind, she moves on, she does what she wants, she still has fun, she goes out to bars. You know what I mean? It’s like, you can do what you want; you just can’t take it too seriously.

AC: I want to learn about you as a person, and so much of getting to know somebody is: Who are your favorite bands? What are your favorite TV shows? You know, have you ever seen High Fidelity with John Cusack?

AS: Yeah, of course.

AC: There’s a line where it’s like, ‘Bands. Shows. Movies. These things matter.”

AS: Yeah, it’s true!

AC: It’s a way of trying establishing common ground.

AS: Yeah. [laughs]

AC: I like to give people a Top 10 list of my favorite bands …

AS: Top 10 list?! [gasps]

AC: [laughs] Who are your 10 favorite bands? They could be subject to change, but right now, who are your 10 favorite bands?

AS: Oh gosh… [laughs] Well, the music I’m listening to now: Beyoncé’s new record. [laughs] I love Beyoncé. I’ve been listening to a lot of hip-hop lately: ScHoolboy Q, Drake – I like the pop shit. Also, this guy Jake Bugg. He’s this young British kid. He’s like 19. He’s amazing! Sometimes it annoys me the lyrics he writes, he’s like: [in a nasally Dylan voice] “I smoke to forget.” I’m like, “You’re 19. You don’t know shit.” But maybe he does. I love his record so much; I listen to it a lot.

I have a friend called Rodrigo Amarante who used to be in Little Joy. He’s this Brazilian musician. He has a new record that is beautiful, that I love. Most of it's in Portuguese, but it’s beautiful. Um… I’m not keeping track of the numbers, I’m just gonna list ’em off until I can’t anymore. We’re at four? OK. [laughs] Um, I listen to a lot of jazz. A lot of jazz. I sing jazz, I’ve done it a handful of times in New York. I’m trying to do it now in L.A. But I really love, you know, Billie Holliday, Nat King Cole. My grandfather loved jazz and was friends with Stan Getz and Nat King Cole, and so when he passed away he gave me all these amazing records and CDs and stuff. So I listened to that for a couple years only: just jazz standards. So I listened to all the standards and all versions of it, like Duke Ellington. Yeah, so those kind of things are classics for me.

I like Vampire Weekend. Ezra’s a friend of mine and I think their new record is really smart and well done. Um, I like the Strokes. Let’s see… I’m trying to think of new bands that I’ve been listening to… I also have a very bad memory, which is a fun little fact about me.

AC: It sounds like your taste is very fluid.

AS: Yeah, I’m definitely drawn to all kinds of things. I don’t like country. That’s one thing I don’t like – which probably isn’t the best thing to say in Austin. But, um, I remember Buddy Rich, the famous drummer, when he passed away, I guess the last thing he said – they were asking him if he was allergic to anything because they were giving him some medication – and he said, ‘I’m allergic to country music.’ And then he died.

Lately, I listen to music to – like, I love to dance, and lately I’ve been really surging my sexual energy into dancing, because of a lack of sexual life lately. [laughs] But um, so I’ve been dancing a lot. I love dancing to, like, dirty hip-hop and stuff – that’s my favorite kind of shit. So I’ve been doing a lot of that. I really like Solange; she’s really good too. There’s so many hip-hop artists that I don’t know of. Little Wayne, I think, is a genius – a weirdo but a genius.

AC: I’m gonna throw some quick-hitters at you. I need quick answers for these. Ready?

AS: OK, yeah. [laughs]

AC: Pearl Jam or Nirvana?

AS: Nirvana.

AC: And I’m projecting my own taste onto you.

AS: OK, cool!

AC: Bob Dylan or Neil Young?

AS: Neil Young.

AC: Rolling Stones or the Kinks?

AS: Kinks.

AC: The Clash or the Ramones?

AS: Clash.

AC: Madonna or Beyoncé?

AS: Beyoncé. For sure.

AC: OK, final question, and this is gonna be like Inside the Actors Studio.

AS: [laughs] OK, like “What would God say?”

AC: Exactly! James Lipton says, “What would you like God to say to you when you arrive at the Pearly Gates if God exists?”

AS: That’s the question? [laughs] You know, we did Inside the Actors’ Studio

AC: You did?!

AS: Yeah! Last year.

AC: [laughs] Did he ask you that?!

AS: [laughs] He did! Um, I was the last to go because it was the cast of Arrested Development and I did a joke. I’ll tell you that answer, but then I’ll tell you a different answer. But my answer on the show, I think, was, because my name gets mispronounced all the time; even James Lipton was like [impersonating Lipton], “So how, I want to make sure to pronounce it right, my dear…,” and I’ve known him for years now because he was on the show too.

AC: I keeping hearing your name pronounced “shaw-QUAT.” It’s “shaw-KAT.”

AS: Yeah! And it’s “AL-ia.” People say, like, “ALE-ia.” Someone said “ALE-ia” today, like “alien,” I was like: “It’s four letters, man.” But I understand, it’s Arabic, it’s a hard name, whatever. But, the joke was, “What would God say at the Pearly Gates?” And I said, “It’s 'AL-ia, right?” Like that’s what God would say, right? Like, he’s just a human, you know, and has a hard time.

But what would I think he would say? I don’t know, I feel like it would be beyond words. He would just like – you know, he, she, whatever, it – would embrace me or something. I kind of think the best thing to say – it’s not even words – but just laughing. Laughing would be great. I did, um – I’m not worried about doing drugs – but I did DMT for the first-time recently [laughs], and it was an amazing experience. In a weird way it felt like going to heaven or whatever that is, and I came out of it laughing hysterically the second time I did it, and it was just unbelievable. I couldn’t even explain what was so funny about it. It just felt like energy and laughing.


Wild Canaries' final screening at SXSW is Wednesday, March 12, 9:30pm, at the Alamo Ritz. Keep up with all our dispatches from SXSW at austinchronicle.com/sxsw.

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