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 Fünke, the uber-sarcastic, forever-plotting teenager on Fox's short-lived but 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), and her twentysomething friend Nina (Leighton Meester). Shawkat spoke with Rolling Stone about seeing herself in dysfunctional characters, being attracted to older men, and what to expect from Arrested Development's highly anticipated comeback.
What's intriguing about Vanessa is that she's the film's narrator, but 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 and not [for others]. 'Cause she's not necessarily an omniscient perspective as being wise and understanding things. That's what made it fun 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 and doing her own thing. But the story's going on, and 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 and very bitter. And at the time I could relate to that. So it was a good role to do.
Is it essential that you see a bit of yourself in a role – no matter how small?
For sure. I don't want to put down my work – I'm very proud of the work I've done. But because I'm still very young and 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, but still struggling with something, kind of guarded [role], that's something I could relate to when I was younger. But as I get older, I want to play different roles.
You did play a prostitute in Cedar Rapids.
There were definitely similar qualities [between myself and her] in terms of when I'm trying to act cool. Not that I use people – 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 got from growing up in a suburb is the boredom you have as a child. We would just smoke pot and sit in cars and 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, and I'd see men who look like fathers with these young girls, and 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 definitely 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 . . . but I'm not. But I've got to admit that when I was older – 19, 20, 21 – 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 later becoming a cult favorite.
It was strange, because I remember me and Michael [Cera] – 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 exciting 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 got 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 get 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 got back together to do an Entertainment Weekly photo shoot, and even when we were on set the first time, the whole crew, [show creator] Mitch [Hurwitz] made a little speech and 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 about it and are actually paying attention and are really looking forward to it. And it feels really nice, because we worked so hard on the show then, and it used to bother us [that] we would win all these Emmys and no one fuckin' knew about the show. It's kind of a cool thing to come back.
What's different about 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, and it's hard 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 and he was the Head. Everything had to go to him. But now he's on set every second, and 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 and we trust him so much. In that aspect it's definitely 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, and it's kind of based on a character each, but 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 – 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, and the storylines all run into each other, and 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 about it, but 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, and I was fuckin' there for a lot of it, but I still caught jokes that I missed. But that's what's so amazing about Mitch. He's nonstop thinking. It's a whole world – it's not just a joke.
People are psyched to see that it's not just the cast regulars returning, but peripheral guest characters like Liza Minnelli are coming back, too, along with new ones played by Isla Fisher and 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, and it's also very flattering and exciting, that all these people who are very talented and 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 amazing cool guest stars like Charlize Theron and Zach Braff. Because people were just such big fans of it. So now asking people to come back, everyone seems so excited to be a part of it and 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 and 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, and I had just left, and 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, but I always sing and dance to it. But I think it's a funny comparison. There are definitely no "Call Me Maeby" jokes in the show. A lot of people were like, "Is there gonna be?" And I was like, "Umm, no."