Much to the surprise and joy of every Arrested Development fan, the Emmy Award-winning comedy series following the wildly eccentric and entertainingly dysfunctional Bluth family is back with 15 new episodes debuting on Netflix on May 26th. Having seen the first new episode, I can say that the show is as twisted and funny as ever, and feels like it hasn’t missed a beat in the seven years since the last episode aired. From creator/writer Mitch Hurwitz, the series stars Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, David Cross, Portia de Rossi, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter.
At the show’s press day, actress Alia Shawkat spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about when she realized that the show’s return was actually real, the concern that they wouldn’t live up to the memory fans have of it, what it was like to read that first script again, the constant spontaneity they had on set, how easy it was to get confused while shooting 15 episodes simultaneously, what the first day back was like, why binge watching is the best way to watch these episodes, that she had to discover who Maeby Fünke was, as an adult, how exciting it was to have an episode centered around her character, just how little improvisation actually goes on, on set, and how, even though there are no firm plans for more episodes or a movie, at this point, that she’s always willing to keep playing Maeby. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
ALIA SHAWKAT: Yeah. For seven years, it happened sporadically, throughout, thinking it was going to happen. I never really thought it was going to happen, honestly, until Netflix got involved. That’s when it became more serious and a deal was made. I was actually out of the country shooting and I got a call from the wardrobe designer who said, “We are having a fitting next week.” I was in the Middle East, so I was like, “Well, I don’t know when that’s going to happen.” And then, I got a call the next day that was like, “You’re flying back because you’re shooting in three days.” I was like, “Okay, good.” That’s when I really knew it was happening. Even half-way through shooting, I still didn’t know. I still don’t know if it’s happening.
Were you worried, at any point, that even if everything came together, it wouldn’t live up to the memory that fans had of it?
SHAWKAT: Yeah, I think that’s always a concern for anything that comes back. But, as an actor, that pressure was never on my shoulders. Maybe it was for (show creator) Mitch [Hurwitz] and the writers, but they never seemed like it. I think the spirit of the show, just wanting to make something funny, interesting and edgy, and just doing everything that they think is funny and new, continued in these episodes. There was such a big excitement. It was so cool for Netflix to take interest, but the spirit was the same. They were like, “Let’s just make a funny, great show.” They made it such a great shooting experience, just because it was fun.
What was it like when you when you read the first script back?
SHAWKAT: I remember getting the first one and being very, very excited about it. It was hilarious! And then, after a couple weeks, I told them not to bring me any more scripts because they would change every 10 minutes. Just to save paper, I was like, “Don’t send it to me anymore.” Also, they would change a lot, on the day. We’d show up and they’d be like, “Scratch that scene, we’re doing this. Here it is.” We’d do it fresh, and then Mitch would be like, “Okay, keep rolling and I’m going to shout out lines.” Everything was just so fresh that, for me to maintain my sanity, I didn’t want the scripts ahead of time. Also, I was shooting stuff from episodes that hadn’t even been fully written yet. As an actor, I was like, “I just need to know what I’m doing right now.” Mitch was the only one who could give me that answer, so we just went step by step.
Did you have that same kind of spontaneity when you did the show before?
SHAWKAT: To a degree, but not as extreme because we would at least just be shooting one episode at a time. But, they would change scenes moments before, back then, too. It was always about, “What’s the funniest thing now?” They’d write the plotlines and those would remain the same, as they did this time around too, but the actual dialogue or strange little jokes that were put in the background were all added in, last minute. And that definitely was the case, this time around. I think it felt more on an extreme level because we were shooting 15 episodes, simultaneously. Within one day, I would be shooting scenes from five different episodes, which is hard to keep track of. Mitch was the only one who really knew how to do that.
SHAWKAT: Yeah. I’ve only seen “Michael Pt. 1″ and “Michael Pt. 2,” so I’m really looking forward to seeing how it all ties together. But, watching those first two episodes is very surreal. The timing, the editing and the music is just like the show was, but with so much more content and higher stakes. I’m really excited to see how the rest of it pulls together ‘cause we shot so much. I think all of it is being used, but I just don’t know in whose episode. I’m in almost everyone’s episode, but I don’t know what’s going to be shown or how they decided to work storylines together. It’s very exciting to see how they weave it.
Was it hard not to get confused, on set?
SHAWKAT: Oh, yeah. I was very confused. I was confused, all the time. But, because of the style of the show, performance wise, I trust Mitch so much. He was there the whole time, so if I had any questions, he could answer them fully. So, I always felt like we were able to get the moment that we needed for the funniest performance to come out. But, yeah, it was definitely unsettling for the first two weeks. I was like, “I really don’t know if I’m even acting, at all. I don’t know what I’m doing.” But, Mitch reassured me.
What was the first day back on set like?
SHAWKAT: The first day, we were shooting at Occidental College, and it was me, Michael Cera and Jason Bateman. I couldn’t believe we were doing it. Especially having only read a couple of episodes, I still had no idea where it was going to go, so it was very surreal. It didn’t even sink in until the second week, when I was like, “Oh, my gosh, we’re really doing this.” The more scenes we did, the closer we got to understanding this whole storyline.
Do you think Netflix releasing all of these episodes at once will be helpful, and is that the way you like to watch television?
SHAWKAT: Definitely. I’m not a huge TV person, but when I do watch, it’s always after the fact because I like to binge watch. It’s more entertaining for me to watch these characters fresh, after one episode, instead of waiting a whole week. Even though it sounds cheesy, it’s the wave of the future. I think Netflix is on top of things and ahead of the curve, in that way. Just the way people are watching entertainment, in general, this just seems like the natural progression of where things are going to go. I think Arrested Development is the perfect marriage with Netflix, for that reason, because it is so plot heavy and there are so many jokes that tie in throughout all the episodes. The show was like that before, but it’s even more like that now because it’s been made to frame this format. I think it’s the perfect combination because that’s just the way the show should be seen.
SHAWKAT: Yeah, very much so. Ted Sarandos, the head of Netflix, would just show up on set and have lunch with us, and we’d be laughing and talking about jokes. They’re very confidant and very supportive. Who couldn’t be, in the hands of Mitch Hurwitz? But, they have a very good relationship. Netflix has just been so great to us, the way that they’re advertising and really pushing it. It says a lot. It’s really nice.
Did you feel like you had a sense of closure with the show, the first time around, or did it feel like it needed more?
SHAWKAT: American shows can go on for 20 years. I respond more to the British format. Three seasons is a long run for them to tell a story. In a way, I think the first three seasons were a great amount. It was lucky to have that, and it told the story in a beautiful way. I think the characters are so interesting and so fun, and audience members still wanted more. The fact that so many people, after the fact, have discovered the show and love it so much, proved that it wasn’t done and that people haven’t had enough of it. People are discovering it, as we speak, and that’s a very rare thing.
Because it had been a few years, did Maeby Fünke feel like a character that you had to find again, or did she just come right back to you?
SHAWKAT: It definitely was a character that I had to find again, especially because I was a teenager when we wrapped, and not only am I an adult now, but I’ve had all of these experiences, work wise and with life experience. Maeby now is an adult, too. The writing definitely guided me that way, to see where she took off and where she is now. But, it took a couple weeks to really get back into the saddle and figure out the rhythm again and see where she is now. Maeby has actually kind of regressed. In the last season, she was a child, acting like an adult. Now, she’s an adult, acting more like a child. I think it’s an interesting shift. It’s very well written, so I’m excited to see how it pans out.
Did the dynamics between the actors feel different on set, especially with you and Michael Cera both being adults now?
SHAWKAT: Yeah, definitely. I think I was a little intimidated, when I first came back, because I was projecting all over myself. I was like, “I’m not a kid anymore. I need to prove I’m not a kid anymore.” That faded within a couple of days, just because I realized it was my own shit that I had to deal with. When you get back together and see people, after many years, it always changes, in any work environment. But in acting and making a TV show, it’s definitely different because you have scenes with these people and maybe the way you approach the characters is different. It definitely was a different shift, but it was really fun to discover it on set, even though it was nerve-wracking at times.
How much fun was it to have a “Maeby” episode, centered around your character?
SHAWKAT: It was exciting. It was a weird present to look forward to. I was like, “I wonder what my episode will be like.” It was really fun. It was greater and funnier than I ever thought it could be. My character is in a lot of the other episodes, so I was shooting a lot of scenes before I even knew what was happening in my episode, but it was really fun. It is pretty cool to be a part of nine cast members, and be able to be one person who has their own episode. It was really special. I think Mitch gives a lot of respect to the characters because there is so much content. It’s like one huge episode, instead of a bunch of different episodes. It’s an interesting format, and I think it gives the fans more time with each character, which the characters deserve, after all these years.
Will fans get to learn things about your character that they didn’t know before?
SHAWKAT: Yeah, definitely. There were things revealed that I didn’t even know about my character. There’s a lot of weird shit that she gets involved with. She does regress. She’s a very confident character, who used to get away with a lot of shit when she was younger, but that bites her in the ass a little more, this time around. She’s still always trying to get the attention of her parents, but her old ways aren’t working as well as they used to, anymore.
When comedy works and a show is funny, people tend to assume that you guys all must be improvising because you’re such funny people and it seems so natural to you. Is there much improvisation actually going on, on set?
SHAWKAT: Very little. I think that’s a testament to the writing, that it seems like improv. I think David Cross, more than anyone, does improvise, but it’s always added on to the end, or it’s something at the beginning. When I was younger, I think on the second season, there’s a scene where I come in and I have a C–, and I go, “C–, m-i-n-e-s,” because it’s spelled with a “u-s.” I improvised that and I was really nervous. I thought of the line and I thought it was funny, but we were waiting to roll and I was nervous and intimidated and like, “Oh, I hope they like it.” So, I did it and they thought it was funny, and I was like, “Oh, my god, it worked!” But, the show is so funny, why mess with a good thing? So, it’s a very slight amount. I never felt the need to really do it too much, but I did have that one.
Now that these 15 episodes are done, does it feel like things are finished again, or does it feel like there’s a possibility of more episodes or a movie?
SHAWKAT: It’s strange because 15 episodes took six months to shoot, and it’s been a long journey to get here, and people are still like, “So, what’s next?” It’s like, “Wait! The freakin’ episodes haven’t even come out yet!” As an actor, I’m just taking it one step at a time. When I wrap a job, I disconnect with it and I’m done, even if they said we’d shoot more next year, at this time, which is not the case at all because nobody knows what’s happening. So, I’m just taking it one step at a time. This was great. This was so much fun. I’m always willing to keep playing Maeby. But for now, it’s just this.
Arrested Development is available on Netflix on May 26th.