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Alia Shawkat

On how to be famous and keep cool

Text by Kate Finnigan
Portraits by Colin Dodgson
Styling by Jasmine Hassett
Issue nº 28, Autumn and Winter 2023

Growing up on the sets of cult TV productions such as Arrested Development, Alia Shawkat learned how to keep up with the adults. In three decades on screen, she’s honed a surgically precise technique that’s the toast of her generation of co-creators, Zoë Kravitz, Hailey Gates and Natasha Lyonne included, whose female voices are being sought out at last. We will next see Alia, 34, in Severance, The Old Man and Pussy Island – and her own series, Desert People, is in the works. But first, she’s attending a debut of a different kind – that of her son.

When she was a child actor living with her family in Palm Springs, California, and commuting the 100-plus miles to Los Angeles to play Maeby Fünke in the TV sitcom Arrested Development, Alia Shawkat was a grown-up little thing. “I used to dress like a 40-year-old woman,” Alia, now 34, says when we meet on a hot July day in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles. “Yeah, I used to have tiny little purses, and I would dress like I was going to work: a button-up and dress shoes and a purse. I didn’t even have anything in the purse – maybe a sparkly lip gloss – but there was something in me that meant I was like: I have to be an adult.”

Alia has been an adult, then, since she was eight. She has been on screen for longer than any of us have had smartphones. And her reputation as an actress with an eye for an excellent script and a talent for comedic timing and spot-on delivery, her distinctive cherubic face with its freckles, her brunette curls and her nuanced facial expressions are ever more familiar to ever more people. “She is one of those rare actors who all but guarantees that a project is going to be worth your attention,” Rebecca Nicholson, The Guardian’s TV columnist, says. “Often her presence suggests that whatever is happening might be a little less obvious than your run-of-the-mill production.” For Alia, that usually means a script with laughs – wicked, satirical, picking-at-the-scabs-of-humanity laughs. “It’s my favourite thing to make,” she says. “A comedy that’s really fucked up.”

Alia is eight months pregnant with a boy. She doesn’t want to name the father, her partner, but suffice it to say it’s not Brad Pitt, her friendship with whom the tabloids made a great fuss of a few years ago. She’s in that late stage when your baby carries your weight so far forward you have to alter your gait and put your balance into the back of your body else you’ll topple over. But she’s feeling good. She’s been swimming a lot – “I sneak into my friend’s house when she’s out of town” – and she laughs when she tells me that just as she’s about to stop being pregnant she’s finally “learned how to dress for pregnancy”. A faintly striped oversized button-down shirt flaps open over black Martine Rose ripstop shorts and what look like black wrestling boots by The Row on her feet. She has just finished filming Atropia, directed by her friend Hailey Gates. “We circled each other for many years,” Gates tells me by email from Los Angeles. Atropia, a feature-length version of Gates’s 2019 short, Shako Mako, for Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales series, also starring Alia, follows an aspiring actress working in a simulated Iraqi war zone on a US military training base. “As an actor, she is a surgeon,” Gates adds. “Her control is almost sinister. And what’s confounding is that she makes all her work invisible. She can play all the strings at once – humour, heartbreak, ennui, in one sneeze. Envy-inducing shit.”

This year, Hollywood labour disputes permitting, Alia will resume her role of Angela Adams, the FBI agent in The Old Man, alongside Jeff Bridges and John Lithgow, and you’ll catch her in the second season of Apple’s Severance. She will also be seen in Pussy Island, the directorial debut of Zoë Kravitz, who has been one of Alia’s best friends for more than a decade. Kravitz, writing by email from New York, remembers first seeing Alia “at a cafe in LA wearing a 1950s one-piece bathing suit and carrying a stuffed animal, maybe it was a penguin, and clearly I was like, ‘Who is that?!’” Alia says she was a little more hesitant about Zoë. “I thought she was too cool, we’d never hit it off. But she’s so warm and loving. A good friend.

“Working with friends has become a big priority for me,” Alia says. “And not just making small things, but feeling like we’re all kind of expressing the things we really want to say and putting it out there. We’ve been talking about it forever: ‘One day we’ll make our own stuff!’ And now it’s really happening.”

Here, Alia — eight months into her first pregnancy — wears a red T-shirt by CDLM and vintage Prada pants from the stylist’s archive. In the previous page, she is pictured on her modular Roche Bobois Mah Jong sofa in a blue cotton shirt and black polyester football shorts, both by MARTINE ROSE. The red bra is her own.

Alia was born in Riverside, just east of Los Angeles, in 1989. She is the middle child of three; her older brother, Paul, is a teacher, and her younger, Sharif, recently decided to become an actor. Her father, Tony Shawkat, an Iraqi who came to America in the late 1970s, is a film producer who started the only strip club in the Coachella Valley with Alia’s mother, Dina, some 30 years ago. Tony continues to run Showgirls today; Dina has taken a step back. “She thinks it’s so funny that people judge it,” Alia says. “If you met my mom, she dresses beautifully, and she’s definitely on the more conservative side, not a hippie by any means. She looks at it – as does my dad – very much as a business.”

Alia’s first screen role was in David O Russell’s Three Kings, a 1999 film set during the Iraq war on which her father was an advisor. (Her interest in acting had started when she was watching a children’s sketch show called All That and thought, “I can do that”; she soon began asking her parents to take her to auditions.) Two years later, she co-starred in the comedy series State of Grace. But her big break was winning the role of Maeby on Arrested Development, the five-season cult comedy that received 25 Emmy nominations and won six. The show starred Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi and the young Michael Cera as Maeby’s cousin George Michael; the two teenagers were impossibly attracted to each other. “We were learning on a very fast level there,” Alia says. “Me and Michael talk about this. How we were reading scripts and figuring out timings. We maybe didn’t even understand the jokes. And everyone’s laughing at the table, and you have to figure out why it’s funny. That was kind of invaluable. And tricky, because I read scripts now and I’m like, Oh, this is just terrible! Like, I’m used to good scripts!”

She also thinks she benefited from being in the public eye at an early age. “I know people who started acting, like most people, in their 20s and 30s, and they’re a little more caught up by it,” she says. “They believe it’s so real, and so important to be looked at by that person or go to that event. And I feel really lucky to have had that – like, I’ve seen it for a long time. When you’re a kid you have radar vision, instincts about people. I was around people when I was pretty young, seeing the way they carried themselves and being like, Oh, that’s bullshit. That’s not real. I don’t believe it.”

Her mother, Dina, is the child of the late actor Paul Burke. “She didn’t have the best experience with it, being a kid. My grandfather was successful in the late 1950s and 1960s, and then work dried up when he was older,” Alia says. “But when he became famous he left the family for a little while. They reconciled and became very close later in life. But, yeah, I mean, fame isn’t a healthy thing, especially for a kid. And my mom just tried to keep me on the up and up about that.”

Alia was only 18 when the first run of Arrested Development ended (it was revived by Netflix for two series in 2013 and 2018). At that time, she didn’t feel like she was being offered the right roles – though she would go on to star in independent films such as 20th Century Women, alongside Greta Gerwig; Duck Butter, which she also co-wrote; and more recently the starry, Aaron Sorkin-scripted movie Being the Ricardos, alongside Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. So in 2007 she moved to New York, where her then boyfriend lived, with the idea of more study and doing some theatre.

She took up painting and line drawing, a practice she continues today, producing seven-foot canvases in oil and charcoal, and occasionally ceramics. Anthony Chen, the director of Drift, which also stars Cynthia Erivo, asked Alia to do the artwork for the promotional poster. “I like it when I have a brief,” she told me. She also likes the solitude painting brings. “Sometimes after a job I need to sit in a room and be alone. On set you’re so sociable, and I thrive in it, I love it. But when I go to my studio it’s a very different mindset. Getting that rhythm again… I like switching between that and being super social.”

In 2016, Alia became known as Dory Sief in Search Party, the critically acclaimed dark comedy series that ran for five seasons and gave her great dramatic scope. “It started as a murder mystery and became one of the most inventive series of recent years, with each season assuming a new genre,” Rebecca Nicholson says. “As Dory, she had to lead a murder mystery, a crime thriller, a legal drama, a horror and a cult conspiracy, all within the same show. It was remarkable.” Alia became a producer and director on the series. “I learned so much on Search Party,” she says. “We were very much making it all together – the same age, same sense of humour. It was all the things we were thinking about and talking about.”

Alia is wearing a treble plaid wool vest by BODE with her own black skirt and yellow Arrested Development cap.

“It’s my favourite thing to make – a comedy that’s really fucked up.”

Alia enjoys the shared experience – the romance – of the troupe. “You know, we’re gonna see each other every day for this short period of time, we’re gonna bond and, ideally, really trust each other, make some cool shit.”

Alia spent most of last summer in the Yucatán jungle, wearing a bikini, on location for Pussy Island. The film is a thriller starring Naomi Ackie as a waitress who starts a relationship with a tech billionaire – played by Kravitz’s partner, Channing Tatum – and is taken to his mysterious private island, where things turn out to be more than a little twisted. Kravitz wrote the script with ET Feigenbaum, with whom she worked on the TV series High Fidelity. It draws on true stories about power-wielding sex offenders such as Jeffrey Epstein holding sordid parties in remote places. “It was a big undertaking for her, to have such a big film for your first project,” Alia says. “But Zoë had been working on it, writing it, for a long time. I always kept being like, ‘Send it to me, I want to read it, I want to give you notes,’ or whatever – just encouraging her to really follow through. I think she’s really proud of it. But she doesn’t want any of the actors to see it till it’s, like, done done.”

It was an unusual situation, working with a friend. “Hailey and I became close making the short, so I kind of met her in a professional context,” Alia says. “Zoë, we’re more like buddies. I know her better than maybe any other person in the cast except Channing. So I could see if she was stressing out or she wasn’t happy about something maybe a little bit more than someone else might. But, yeah, I feel like the friendship gave us a shorthand. I always know exactly what she means, and I felt I could be really intimate in front of her, so it’s easy to get the performance. I felt safe.” For her part, Kravitz says meeting “work Alia” for the first time was fascinating. “She’s a lot more serious at work than she is in her life. She takes her work very seriously. It was a very interesting shift to witness as someone who has been so close with her for so long. She knows what she needs to do her job well, and she’s not afraid to ask for it. It feels like a happy accident, but it’s wildly impressive.”

Here, Alia’s in a Winchester rose crochet shirt, also by BODE, and brown wool Roan trousers by THE ROW.

“A lot of the work of becoming older has been about being playful.”

For the first time in the history of the entertainment industry, women’s voices and stories are actively being sought out, and Alia has stuff to contribute. “As much as you can, be a part of something where you actually believe what it’s saying,” Alia says. “You have to be conscious of it. What are the characters you’re putting out there, the stories you’re telling? You don’t realise how much they affect other people. People forget that. They just want to make stuff that is titillating and exciting.” Alia’s been tackling ideas around “women acting like they have power, but maybe not – the whole feminist math problem” – for a long time. Circumstances have given Alia – as a child actor around adult actors, as a woman of colour, as the daughter of an Iraqi immigrant father and an American mother, and as the daughter of parents who owned a strip club – an interesting perspective on many things.

She has been working on a script for a TV series about her family’s club for a few years now. It is called Desert People, and Natasha Lyonne is a co-creator. “The strike has slowed it down. And now I’m pregnant.” Alia shrugs. “It’s, like, the most personal story, and it would be the biggest thing I could make for me, but it takes so much energy and heart. And you know, I worry about my family, even though it’s fictionalised and they’re super supportive of it.”

She wasn’t allowed to go through the door of Showgirls until she was 21. “The first time I went in, it was really trippy. Because something hadn’t sunk in until I was actually there as a customer,” she says. “The girls were the same age as me, and even some a little younger, and they’re looking at me like, Oh, you’re the boss’s daughter. And I’m like, Yeah, hi, sorry, I’m not in my bikini.” She laughs. “And then the psychology about family and, you know, father complexes, sexuality, and that thing of wanting your father’s attention. It was just this weird cycle, being the daughter of someone who owns a strip club. My father’s very respectful of all the women and all that stuff, but it’s still super layered.

“I think the equation, or not, with the strip club is that these women have a lot of power when they’re on stage, and then the minute the song is over and they’re on their knees collecting the money it seems like the power is gone. And all of a sudden you’re confused by the fantasy. And you’re like, But I thought she had the power? Now she doesn’t?” She nods. “Because she’s not allowed to keep her power. She can’t go home with it.”

Alia was photographed and interviewed on 5 and 6 July 2023, before the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists strikes. Here, she wears her own skirt and T-shirt.

When she lived in New York, Alia would often go to watch Woody Allen play in a jazz band at the Carlyle hotel. “I barely had any money, and I’d go there all dressed up, thinking he’d be like, ‘Wait a second! You at the back!’ I’d try and catch his eye. And now I’m like, Why was I trying to catch his eye? It was the power. Right.”

It’s hard, Alia says, trying to come to terms with your own agency as a woman. Although she likes to think she was a feminist always, “I don’t think in practicality it was until I was probably really in my late 20s. Until I stopped using my body to get what I wanted, you know? And then I was like, Wait a second. I’m much more powerful if I don’t give it away? Yeah, it takes a minute. You’re there thinking, I’m doing whatever the fuck I want! And then it’s like, Oh, no, actually, they’re doing it to me. It’s hurtful. Then you have to heal and forgive yourself.”

It’s an evolved perspective, perhaps the result of being a professional for almost her entire life but more likely due to what she calls “the good work” she’s put in to make sure she has emerged resilient and self-aware. “So now when I’m on set, instead of being, like, Hey, I’ve been doing this for 20-plus years, which I definitely did for a while, I’m trying to be like, No, I’m learning from everyone, and we’re here to have fun.” She has put away the purse. “It’s a lot of pressure when you’re young – to learn lines, to buck up, to put in 12-, 14-hour days. So a lot of the work of becoming older has been about being more like a child, more playful and being, like, I don’t have to be the responsible one all the time. I don’t have to be so serious or in control. It’s OK.”