Why ‘Arrested Development’ Star Alia Shawkat Chooses Roles That Make You Uncomfortable

HOLLYWOOD, CA - AUGUST 15: Actress Alia Shawkat arrives for the screening of Magnolia Pictures' 'Drinking Buddies' at ArcLight Cinemas on August 15, 2013 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Source: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

While most folks might recognize her as Maeby Fünke, the sly, manipulative granddaughter on the cult show Arrested Development, Alia Shawkat has spent the last several years branching out in film, taking on projects that deal with femininity, politics, and everything in-between. And with her latest film, the acclaimed thriller Green Room, in theaters now, Shawkat is taking on one of her most intriguing roles yet, one that, she tells Bustle, is a different type of part for a woman than is typically shown on-screen.

“This role made me really think about the stories that women are able to tell—we’re not just interested in getting married and making babies,” she says. “I’m really interested in the stories women don’t necessary feel comfortable telling.” 

In Green Room, Shawkat plays Sam, the electric guitarist for a hardcore band out on the road and desperately in need of another gig. A fan hooks them up with a spot at his cousin’s bar, a dive full of right-wing, white-power skinheads out in the Oregon woods. When the band witnesses an act of violence that they weren’t supposed to see, the leader of the neo-Nazi group, played by a steely Patrick Stewart, decides that they have to disappear. It's a fascinating role for Shawkat, but one that actually was never meant to have her in it.

"My character in Green Room was originally written for a man, but none of the dialogue changed after I was cast. Not a lick," she explains. Director Jeremy Saulnier attempted to find a male actor, but when none seemed fitting, Shawkat says, he decided that it would enrich the film to include another female role. The result is an nail-biting thriller that features several fantastic performances by women.

Green Room is just the latest memorable role by Shawkat, whose career began 15 years ago on TV. After a few stints in ‘90s faves like JAG, she became a star of Fox Family’s State of Grace, playing a Jewish-American preteen named Hannah. The series' thorough observations of post-War Jewish identities in the wake of the Civil Rights movement offered a challenging role for the young actor, and one whose themes of feminism and strength have clearly resonated with her throughout her career. 

“I do feel lucky that I’m able to tell the stories of strong girls, and have met other people in the industry who are interested in telling those stories with me,” Shawkat says. Many of her past characters have echoed the personality of Maeby Fünke; in many respects conventionally feminine, but also plotting and superficially confident, hiding any weaknesses under a sarcastic exterior. And Shawkat has also made a point of choosing roles that offer her complex parts and female co-workers. The daughter of an Iraqi immigrant father and an Irish-Italian mother, the actor has often gone for projects directed by and centered around women, from Whip It to The Runaways

“Obviously, there’s a wave of discussion around women in film,” she says, “Which is ironic because women have always been in film. People are talking about it like it’s this hot topic.” 

Shawkat, is aware of the issues and limitations that come with talking about “women in film,” “women in art”, etc, and focuses on her own feminism, rather than that of others or the conversations around the subject. “I’m interested in anything that gets conversations about gender started, but I’m ultimately more concerned with my own actions," she says. "I’ve gotta make sure that what I am doing is honest.” And while she's experienced her share of sexism, she says, she’s ultimately unfazed by it. Adds the star, “They’re not going to stop me from doing the projects I want to do.” 

Which are, Shawkat says, often about on-screen experiences for women that have nothing to do with tired rom-com narratives or cliches about female friendship. Says the actor, “I think there are a lot more stories being told that aren’t about women’s love interests." She's also interested in playing parts that aren't simply "strong women," those without any other complicated characteristics. Says Shawkat, “I go to do a lot of press stuff, and they’re always asking me what it’s like to play a strong, independent woman. When a guy acts that way, we just call him a cool guy. I have no problem owning that I am strong and independent, but I also don’t want my gender to be the first thing people notice.”

It makes sense, then, that she's drawn to projects like Green Room, which, while featuring great roles for women, is not focused on the subject of gender. The film, which was released Apr. 15, has received rave reviews, and Shawkat is clearly excited to be a part of its success. “You try not to have expectations going in when you do a film,  but in making it I knew it was something very special and intense," she says. "There were so many pieces moving. When I saw the final product, I was really proud.”

Green Room, though, is just one of Shawkat's many projects at the moment. In addition to being an actor, she's an artist, and says she spent her downtime on the Green Room set processing a recent "really bad breakup" by painting. She also recently released a book, “a collection of my journals from the past five years" called Duende Vol. 1, that she seems particularly proud about; says Shawkat, “It was a giant release to put out readings that I would never share with anyone. I really value that vulnerability and see it as a form of power. I measure the success of my work by how honest I am being... whether it’s through acting or painting, I’m looking to do something I can’t do in reality. I’m trying to lose and find my words at the same time.”

The star is as busy as it gets, but she's happy to keep her schedule packed with a variety of projects she's passionate about. "It’s all a series of stages — you build up your experiences and then you poop them out," she jokes. And with Green Room, her art, and the book all happening at once, it's clear she's building up more achievements that one would think possible.

Images: A24; Fox Searchlight

Must Reads