On Fox's critically adored yet ratings-deficient comedy Arrested Development, Alia Shawkat stood out amongst a deep cast (Jason Bateman, David Cross, Will Arnett) as Maebe Funke, the possible daughter of Cross and Portia de Rossi who may or may not be related to “cousin” George Michael (Michael Cera). Best. Incest. Jokes. Ever. Now, in Cedar Rapids, the 21-year-old actress is all grown up and playing a kindly, and seductive, hooker who befriends insurance rep Ed Helms (The Hangover). Together, they go on a rather funny drug-bender, a memorable scene in a solid comedy that also features a hilarious turns from John C. Reilly and Anne Heche. It’s a great project for the still-on-the-verge Shawkat, who’s looking to establish herself as a comedic spitfire in the wake of Arrested Development. Complex sat down with her to chat about playing Ed Helms’ call-girl of choice, dealing with skeptical casting agents, and the thorn in all Arrested Development fans’ sides—the long-awaited movie.
Complex: What drew you to Cedar Rapids?
Alia Shawkat: I had met Miguel [Arteta, director of Cedar Rapids] in Michigan, when he was shooting Youth In Revolt and I was shooting Whip It. We met and became really good friends. A year passed, and then he called me up and was like [in exaggerated Spanish accent], “I want you to play a prostitute for me.” I was like, “OK, Miguel.” [Laughs.] And then I went in and auditioned from the studio, and it kind of just went from there. But, yeah, Bree was always a really interesting character for me throughout this whole thing. She’s very different from anything I’ve ever played before; I’ve never really played a prostitute before, or even close to one. [Laughs.] So it was something I was very interested in.
So this was a role that was yours for the taking, then?
Alia Shawkat: Not exactly. He had talked to me about the character, and he wanted me to play it, but I’m not very known. So I think the studio was like, to Miguel, “Well, OK, but we just want to see her do it first.” So once I did it, I really solidified the part.
The “hooker with a heart of gold” character has been done many times before, so how did you make sure that Bree became something unique?
Alia Shawkat: Yeah, obviously, any character that an actor plays, you want it to seem different, and definitely like a real person, not a caricature. I was basing it off of…she does meth in the film, but I didn’t want her to be someone who had been doing meth for a really long time. Otherwise, that wouldn’t be very attractive to Tim Lippe [Ed Helms’ character]. She’s kind of based off a couple friends I grew up with in Palm Springs; just like, she likes to party, likes to go out and have fun, but has this air of disconnect from really being affected by people. They’re not sensitive because they get hardened, which I’m assuming happens once you become a prostitute. [Laughs.]
Seems like safe bet, yeah.
Alia Shawkat: And then, also, a lot of acting is reacting off of the other actors. Working off of the character of Tim Lippe, a lot of Bree’s scenes are of her in awe of this guy. She’s never met anyone like him before. Can he really be this sweet? Is he for real? She’s not surrounded by anyone like that; her family is pretty messed up.
When you’re working with someone like Ed Helms, is there a lot of improv and riffing away from the script?
Alia Shawkat: Yeah, definitely a little bit of that. We didn’t improv that much, but we definitely changed some of the lines. We would decide on them before we’d say them. Like, “Suck the shit out of my ass.” [Laughs.] That was kind of an homage to a film that [Cedar Rapids producer] Alexander Payne directed [1996’s Citizen Ruth]; it had a similar line. Miguel doesn’t like to rehearse, which I really like, too, because it makes it seem fresher when it’s happening. When we would do the scenes, Ed was throwing off all this positive, bubbly attitude, and I was just reacting to that. We jelled really well together, on and off camera. Whenever you’re comfortable with someone and you genuinely get along, I think good stuff always comes across.
Do you feel the most comfortable in comedic roles?
Alia Shawkat: Yeah, definitely. It’s also more about, that’s what I get cast in. When I was younger, the first film I did was Three Kings, the David O. Russell movie, and my audition sequence, which was also my main scene in the film, was of my character’s mother getting shot in the head right in front of me, and I’m like sobbing over a dead body. So that wasn’t very funny. [Laughs.] When I was younger, after that, I felt like, “Drama is for me.”
How old were you at that time?
Alia Shawkat: I was nine.
Watching your mother get shot in the head at nine? And you’re not permanently scarred from that?
Alia Shawkat: [Laughs.] No, I actually handled it pretty well. I had to think of a lot of sense memory to get to that place. But, anything that’s of good quality in a script is something any actor wants to bring to life. Yeah, most of the stuff I’ve been doing, which I’ve been lucky to do, is dark comedy stuff. I would be happy to do that for the rest of my life, work-wise.
Coming off of Arrested Development, are all of the scripts sent your way comedy and things similar to the tone of that show?
Alia Shawkat: Yeah, it is definitely a lot of comedy. Because of that, too, a lot of the scripts I’ll read are with the angsty-teen role kind of thing, and that is something that I’ve been lucky enough to stay away from, and play more adult roles. So, it’s been fun. Anything that I read, I do always see the funnier side of it, or think, “How can I make this funny?” I feel like that’s the honest way I like to express myself.
You mentioned earlier that Fox Searchlight, the company behind Cedar Rapids, wanted you to audition first because they weren’t all that familiar with you. Does that happen often?
Alia Shawkat: Yeah, all the time. [Laughs.] I think studios don’t know what to do with me; they’re a little like, “Huh?” A little confused.
Why do you think that’s the case?
Alia Shawkat: You know, I haven’t been in a lot of big films that have made butt-loads of money. In this economic climate, too, all studios want are names. There’s a small pool of young actors who are in everything, but I’ve been lucky that every role I’ve done, they’re really happy with the performance. That gives me a good reel to send out to casting agents and people like that.
One project you’ve been attached to for over a year now is the HBO pilot you’re working on with your Whip It co-star Ellen Page. What’s the status of that?
Alia Shawkat: Yeah, it’s still called Stitch & Bitch. [Laughs.] Nice title, right? It’s a show about hipsters, and we’re still in the works. We’re at HBO, still working on the script, and I think we’re having a table read soon. It’ll be cool if it comes to fruition.
Is it pro-hipster or anti-hipster?
Alia Shawkat: I think it’s a mix of both. They’re lovable characters, but at the same time they are silly hipsters. But that’s something that’s so funny about hipsters, that they take it as an insult if you call them that word. It is making fun of them, but also making fun of ourselves, because Ellen and I are a part of that world, I guess.
My next question is about another long-talked-about project. [Alia Smiles knowingly.] Do you want to guess what I’m talking about?
Alia Shawkat: I got it—is my hair real?
[Laughs.] That was my last question, actually.
Alia Shawkat: [Laughs.] Well, the answer is “Yes” to that one.
Much appreciated. Now, on to the oft-delayed Arrested Development movie. Any updates since the last time one of your fellow cast members vaguely addressed the question in the press? And do all the Arrested Development questions annoy you?
Alia Shawkat: No, it’s not annoying. I think it’s funny how, now, every time someone asks, there’s a prerequisite of, “I know you’ve probably heard this question a million times before.” It’s fun, though. I’m really proud of being a part of that show, so I’ll never complain about it. We’re—meaning the cast members—kind of still in the dark as much as we have been, except I saw the release that Mitch [Hurwitz, the show's creator] made, so that’s very exciting. But, I think how it’ll happen is, Mitch will just email us the script one day. He’s not really updating us. It’s a very exciting prospect, and I think everybody’s gung-ho to do it, so I hope it happens.