Alia Shawkat Considers Her Purpose
With the Search Party over and a crucial role in Being the Ricardos, the actor contemplates her next chapter.
“Should we go into the dark room?”
The actress Alia Shawkat looks at me with a mischievous glint in her eye, a brown curl falling just above her brow as she adjusts the bright green Tyrolean hat she’s wearing. She motions toward a pitch-black viewing space inside the New Museum, where a video installation is playing on a loop. Shawkat, 32, has chosen the Manhattan museum as the place for us to meet on a sleety day in December while she’s visiting the East Coast from her home in Los Angeles on a press tour for Search Party, the horror-murder-mystery-comedy on HBO in which she stars and has concluded with its fifth and final season. “I saw a really great Sarah Lucas show here once—the picture with eggs on her boobs,” she says, referencing the British artist’s Self Portrait with Fried Eggs.
Although Shawkat, who has spent the past 20-plus years writing, directing, producing, and of course, acting in shows and movies including Arrested Development and her latest project, Being the Ricardos with Nicole Kidman, she’s something of a visual artist herself. On her Instagram, she posts ripped-out pages of notebooks, wall art, and canvases bearing her abstract, cartoon-like drawings and paintings. While we walk through the multilevel galleries, Shawkat points out her favorite works featured in the museum Triennial, titled “Soft Water Hard Stone”: Gabriela Mureb’s “Machine #4,” a mechanic arm repeatedly touching a stone (“You’re gonna have a good time describing that,” she says. “‘A rock is being delicately tickled.’”); Jeneen Frei Njootli’s “Fighting for the title to not be pending,” small piles of beads strewn all over the museum (“They're following us.”). By the time we reach the dark room, she’s visibly invigorated. “That's the one thing about art: on one hand, it’s amazing,” Shawkat says, emitting a hoarse laugh. “And on the other hand, you’re like, What is this?”
To be clear: Shawkat respects a “What is this?,” artistic moment (her own performance art show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2019 called “The Second Woman” consisted of her standing on stage for 24 hours with more than 100 different men). Plus, painting was clutch during her early days of lockdown, when film sets closed and all prospective projects were put on hold. “For the first couple of weeks, I was alone at my house,” she says. “I started dressing up in all my clothes, performing, alone. I was dancing a lot, taking mushrooms. And then I was like, Uh-oh, no one's watching me. It was a really good moment for me to be like, you need to chill the fuck out. Stop performing so much. I was coming to terms with not having to be productive all the time—my life [until that point] was a little too, ‘What’s next? What’s next? What’s after that?’”
Alia Shawkat was born in Riverside, California, the daughter of a film-industry family—her father is the producer Tony Shawkat, and her maternal grandfather is the actor Paul Burke. By the time she was 14 years old, she’d already participated in a handful of television series and films, including the ABC Family drama State of Grace and CBS’s Without a Trace. In 2003, she was cast in the role of Maeby Fünke in Arrested Development and her performance as the cheeky teenager was met with critical acclaim throughout the series’ 5-season run. The experience honed Shawkat’s approach to comedy and solidified her cult status among fans who would follow her work in future indie movies (she co-wrote the film Duck Butter and appeared in A24’s First Cow) and comedies (Broad City, Drunk History, Transparent, and Search Party). Despite her loyal fanbase, she insists she generally goes unrecognized in public—although the double-takes and whispers that followed us as we toured the museum would suggest otherwise.
Both on-screen and in person, Shawkat exudes a laid-back everywoman quality that makes it nearly impossible not to root for her—or to think of her as a friend already. To wit, when paparazzi photos of her at a concert with Brad Pitt in 2019 prompted romance rumors, there were many who thought Pitt should be so lucky. (The two, for the record, are just friends.) Her easygoing and friendly personality is the antithesis of what you’d expect from someone so deep in Hollywood, but it’s omnipresent, persisting even before we meet, when she books our museum tickets under her own full name—no alias required. Being cast in a film like Being the Ricardos, with its intense star quality, might have puffed up another actor’s ego. For Shawkat, the move manifests as a gentle push into another realm of her career, where the actress remains true to herself despite all the hubbub.
This quality made her a natural fit to star opposite Nicole Kidman in the Aaron Sorkin-directed film. In Being the Ricardos, Shawkat portrays Madelyn Pugh, Lucille Ball’s real-life right hand, and one of the only women writers on the I Love Lucy show. According to Shawkat, who got the gig after a Zoom meeting with Sorkin in early 2021, Pugh was always written as a character who propelled the narrative forward—in addition to being a huge player in the ongoing theme of supporting Kidman’s Lucille Ball as she navigated the male-dominated industry.
“Aaron is such a perfectionist—I don’t think anyone tells him what to write in his scripts,” Shawkat says. “There’s no room for improv, nothing. But in talking to him, he was really clear about it being a somewhat smaller role, but her being an important character nonetheless.”
Shawkat points to a pivotal scene, not just for her as Pugh, but for the entire movie as a whole, in which Lucille Ball pulls her aside to discuss Lucy’s being written into the show as an independent person who doesn’t rely on her husband’s validation. “I count on you to be the firewall,” Ball says, her face inching closer to Pugh’s. “I’m just a female perspective from another generation,” Pugh replies.
“It was super surreal, and a cool moment for me,” Shawkat says of working with Kidman. “I’m obviously a huge fan of hers; she’s one of the best actresses we have. Before that scene, it was the first time she and I had a lot of time to go over the lines and talk. It sounds cheesy, but there was a moment when she was just telling me about a trip she went on, and the way she was talking and carrying herself, I had this feeling of, ‘Oh, this is why you're a movie star.’ There's something so graceful and charming about her that you can’t stop watching.”
“Nicole was like an athlete,” she adds. “Both she and Javier Bardem had water bottles and assistants around them constantly. They were ready to go, like boxers.”
Bardem, who plays Desi Arnaz in the film, portrays a husband who is both in awe of and threatened by his wife Lucille’s success and smarts. Their dynamic, along with the themes that come along with a story of women working in Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, gave Shawkat plenty to think about when it came to her own position as a woman in the industry. Back at the New Museum, she pauses in front of the painting “Strobe” by Ambera Wellmann, which depicts a cluster of nude women figures languishing amid an abstract desert scene. “I’ve definitely hung out with guys who cut me down or put down anything I did, or said, ‘Well, this isn’t that cool,’” she says. “But the plight of being a woman in a heterosexual relationship is, you want to be desired. You could be the most powerful, the most attractive, sexy woman—if you’re not desired by the person that you want to desire you, none of it matters. I’ve been in that situation, too. And I’m like, What a bummer! I got it all going on—and yet, I want this fucker to want me? Why?”
“We’re gonna look back on this time and, hopefully, women’s rights and gender equality will have grown even more, but it’s still the same shit,” she continues. “Even when I play roles that maybe aren’t super femme, or if I’m not necessarily playing a romantic ingenue, I still struggle with that. I’m like, should I show my body off more? Should I be more desirable? There are all these tropes for what kind of woman you can be. Where are the lines drawn?”
To combat the feelings of confusion when it comes to her place in the world, Shawkat looks to her contemporaries for inspiration. “Now we have all these amazing women on TV who we know created the show,” she says. “You watch Michaela Coel, and you’re like, this is her story. She’s created it. Not some guy who wrote it for her.”
The actress has taken this ethos and applied it to her own work—she’s currently writing her own show, which is loosely based on her family’s story. “It's very personal,” she says of the project, which she notes she has completed a few episodes for and will be pitching soon. The story centers her upbringing in Palm Springs, California, with a Muslim-American family that owns a strip club. “The artist daughter is trying to reconcile with that,” she says.
Before ducking into the dark room to watch the video installation, Shawkat tells me something that she says might sound “hippy dippy.”
“I really think roles come to you when you’re unconsciously meant to play them, to act out some part of your life or some character within you,” she says. “I had just started writing my own show when I got cast as Madelyn: one of the only female writers of one of the most successful TV shows of all time. I thought, Live that role, be in it, and see what it feels like, both in the body and unconsciously being someone who’s standing up for a new generation of women.”
I tell her it doesn’t seem hippy dippy—it sounds like her hope for the future.
“That’s what I want to do,” she adds, resolute. “Change the way that women are seen on camera and the characters they play.”
Hair by Patricia Morales; Makeup by Sandy Ganzer.