Since becoming an actor at age 11, Alia Shawkat has always been known for her intelligent and sarcastic characters, and this time her stint as Vanessa in Julian Farino’s The Oranges is no exception. Vanessa is the narrator of the story, and the daughter of David and Paige Walling (Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener, respectively), who’s across the street neighbors Terry and Cathy Ostroff (Oliver Platt and Allison Janney) are more like family than friends. They live in a suburban bubble that holds a comfortable, if not happy existence. When the Ostroff’s daughter Nina (Leighton Meester) returns, she and David find themselves strangely attracted to one another. The Oranges tells the story of the aftermath of their affair, and how the families must pick up the pieces and deal with the fact that though unconventional, they may need to accept being different to be happy. (Also starring Adam Brody as Vanessa’s brother Toby).
During an exclusive interview with Shawkat at the press junket for The Oranges in New York City, she talked about beating out Ellen Page for the role, what her original audition was like, scenes that got cut from original versions of the script and why she likes the current ending of the film better than the original. She also discussed her tendency toward playing “quirky” characters and the atmosphere on this close-knit set. Finally, she told me all about being back on Arrested Development, which is currently shooting another season. I got the low-down on some of the differences between film and TV, what it’s like to work with all the same people after a 6 year hiatus, and she tells me about the strangeness of watching herself and Michael Cera onscreen while sitting next to him. She also discusses her painting career, and how fans can check out some of her work and gallery shows.
Question: All right so, before we start, do me a huge favor.
How do you correctly pronounce your name?
Shawkat: Ok. It’s Alia (ALI-UH) Shawkat (SHOW-KAHT). It’s tricky though, I really should be more confident in saying my name, but it’s spelled Shaw-Cat, which I’m okay with Americans saying, but it is Arabic. And the way they pronounce it is Alia SHO-KAHT. So I’ve just been raised saying Alia Show-kaht, but if you say Shaw-Cat, I’ll also respond. But it’s definitely AH-LI-UH. Not UH-LI-UH.
I totally get that, I have a last name like that too.
Shawkat: Yeah, what’s your last name?
Cheirif (SHARIF) but it’s pronounced CHE-REEF in Spanish.
Shawkat: Oh no way, that’s my little brother’s name, Sharif.
Shawkat: Yeah, exactly, that’s who he’s named after.
Pronounced the same, spelled differently, there’s I’s where you don’t expect them so I get you. So tell me how you personally got involved in the film The Oranges.
Shawkat: Yeah, I um…I auditioned for it, I actually met with Julian for a coffee first, like a year, almost, before I auditioned for it. And he actually was talking about, weirdly enough, I give him shit for this now, but he was like, (British Accent) “You know, I really think we want Ellen Page for the part of Vanessa.” And I was like, (angry face), and she’s like a really good friend of mine and so I was like even more pissed. But I had, I remember talking to her about it, and I was like I really want to get this part in “The Oranges” and she was like “I know, I was offered that part, but you know I don’t think I’m right for it you would totally be so much better for it” and she was like “I’m not gonna do it anyways,” and I was like, “okay”.
And then like, so much time passed and I auditioned for it and then more time passed, and I auditioned for it again, and so then by the second round I had known this character, I felt like I had been sitting with her in the back of my mind for a very long time. And uh, so then I got it and was very excited. And yeah that was pretty much how it happened, I mean, the scenes working, I remember in the audition went over well, but I remember in the audition I also had to do the voice over bit like sitting there in the chair just reading the voice over. And that was more challenging because it just uh, is a hard thing to get across how it will come, you know what I mean, in an audition. And then even in the final filming and editing I had the do the voice over several, hundred, times until I got it right. (Laughs), so it was kind of exhausting, that just voice over in general, but it really can set the tone, you know, what direction you go in. But yeah, that’s how I got involved. I was happy to be a part of it.
Of course. What scenes, just out of curiosity, did you do at first in the audition?
Shawkat: I did, um, let me see. I did the scene…with…when I find out that he’s sleeping with Nina? (Thinking). I think? And a couple more, a couple with my dad, I don’t remember the exact scenes because you know, the script changed, a little bit too. Um, there was one scene that got cut from the script, it was a scene with Toby [Adam Brody] and I was like decorating Christmas lights with my dad [Hugh Laurie] and it was like me and Toby fighting and I actually liked that scene but they cut it.
Were there any more scenes that you really liked that got cut? Or things that you filmed?
Shawkat: Yeah, you know I actually haven’t seen the final cut, I’m gonna see it tonight, which I’m excited about, but stuff changed a lot, like the whole ending changed while we were on set, they were rewriting it, cause the writer were there with us everyday, Jay and Ian. So a lot of stuff was kind of evolving and changing and you always miss scenes but then, at the end of the day, you know you always end up seeing them and being like yeah, it wasn’t worth it. But as an actor you want to just like, act as much as possible.
Of course. If you can tell me, what was the original ending?
Shawkat: Um, what was it? I can barely remember now honestly. There had been like an added bit like, the whole fight sequence was there and stuff, but the whole like families sitting down scene was different, and I remember there was a little added bit, which was kind of cheesy and I was glad it was taken out, was me and Nina running into each other at a restaurant. And she’s like cooking and I’m like “hey how ya doin, nice to see ya” you know, or something like that. So it was a little more of a buttoned ending, whereas now it’s like, everyone on their own journey, and you see how they have changed.
Yeah, I liked that. So you say you got very attached to Vanessa as a character. Do you like her as a person? Or you’re just attached to playing her as a character?
Shawkat: I think I was, you know, attached, I’m very disconnected from her now. (Laughs.) But it’s weird, not to sound too actor but I think that any time you do a performance, you kind of take a little piece of that character, cause it’s a part of you you’re using, like, you know, I’ve never played any character thank god that’s like…unhealthy, you know like a meth head or something. Even though I have played a meth head. But I don’t like, not a character that I’ve had to feel like I had to live in a dark space for, but with her, in a way she’s a little dark, she’s kind of negative and sassy. So when I was shooting the film, a part of just me just naturally, not like I was trying to be in character all the time, but, a part of me naturally embraced that, and was kind of feeling that mode when I was there you know, like I felt like I was just more like her then than I am now. Or was before, you know? So I think yeah, I was connected to her in that sense. So when I did the scenes, a part of me was balancing out my normal life with her, you know, being kind of just like, negative and sarcastic all the time and stuff.
So you say it that way, so you don’t think that you’re anything like Vanessa, or are there parts of her that you think you’re more like?
Shawkat: Yeah there’s, I think, there’s definitely parts of me that are like her. Or parts of me that have been like her. I used to be more like her I think or have been when I felt like I was in a rut, or not really able to express myself and therefore taking it out on the people closest to me, like my family and stuff, cause I’m not satisfied in my work, and that kind of shit. And the minute I just lighten up, and stop taking everything so seriously, it’s like “oh I get to work!” and I meet people and it’s great. So life goes in those weird on and off switches all the time, you know.
Yeah, of course. So how do you feel about the suburbs in general, because this movie kind of, not paints a negative picture but definitely…there’s a lot of subtle jabs, at New Jersey. Are you from a suburban area?
Shawkat: I am, yeah. And I actually spent some time in New Jersey too, which I love. But I grew up in Palm Springs, California, which is a suburb, like a desert town and I love it. You know, like growing up I hated it, like in high school it was the worst thing ever, but now, living in a city, I get to go back and there’s no traffic, and like, parking everywhere and I can see a movie, that starts in like 5 minutes and get there in time and everything’s just like so relaxed and you’re not worried about people seeing you and there’s not that high energy of “Ooh, who am I gonna see, what’s going on.” So I really, I love suburbs, I think it’s a great way to grow up, again, even though I was frustrated, it was the best childhood I could have asked for. You know, like, soccer practice. It was all that shit, you know? So it was very cozy, so it’s nice when you get to leave and travel and be busy and then come home to that, it still feels like home. So I’ll always like the suburbs, especially my suburb.
Yeah I totally get that. Same thing. So do you think that you are drawn to kind of like, quirky, off-beat characters? Or do you think that people seek you out for those roles, or do you look for those roles, because you seem to play a lot of those kinds of characters.
Shawkat: Definitely. I think it’s a combination of both, you know, I’m not at the place in my career necessarily where I can, where I’m like offered every role, especially not roles that, you know, it’s kind of fun but I have to work for them, audition, prove myself. But yeah, I’ve been lucky to, it’s all about being right for the character, and the timing being right for those characters, and they’re written in that kind of way that I’m right for. Which does have a sense of quirkiness, in that sense that, they all seem to be like, smart with a dry sense of humor, always a little judgmental, (laughs) sounds like I guess, what I play well. But it’s a combination of what scripts are out there, what I respond to, what I’m right for, and if all those mix together in the right way then, it’s worth doing.
Yeah, that’s great. So how was the atmosphere on this set, in particular, because we’ve heard so much about how this cast you know, was good friends, and how you all lived together when you were- well not lived together-
Shawkat: Well we didn’t live together.
Well spent a lot of time together in that house on set.
Shawkat: Yeah, it was a great dynamic. It was, I remember the first day I was shooting was with the, it was the phone call scene where we call Nina on her birthday, and it was with like all the, the two couples [Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener, Allison Janney and Oliver Platt] and I remember looking around and being like I am in such good company right now I can’t believe I’m doing a scene with all these people, I’m such big fans of them. And so for that reason, I think everyone was in this mode of high energy, because not only are all these actors energetic, lively people, but that comes through in that performances, but that makes them fun to work with. There was no dud, there was no feeling of “ok I’m not connecting with you right now what’s happening?” you know, like we all really thrived off each other.
And it was just, yeah, genuinely fun, it was just like, on set, it’s like a weird summer camp. You have all this time in between and you only shoot for like, moments out of the day and it’s so fast. And then all of the other time is just hanging out and getting to know each other, and trying to keep up your energy, like we’d have these weird late night shoots, and shit would just get weird. (Laughs.) Just at least for me to keep my energy up during night shoots is really hard so I drink a bunch of caffeine and get really strange. But there’s something fun in that. And you hang out with all the crew in these late hours, I mean you see each other every day all day, so it’s definitely, I mean, I love being on movie sets. It’s a very particular setting. And not all of the time, most of the time, there’s always people you don’t like, and you have to see them every day. And on this I honestly, really, really cared about everybody like it was so great. And I was really close with the crew too, and so it was always fun. It was always a good time.
Well speaking of how film is different, how is it different from being on a TV set all the time? Because you worked on a series, so that’s the same thing every day for an extended period of time.
Shawkat: Right, definitely. Um, it is slightly different, like I just started working on “Arrested Development” again, and so we’re doing a new season. But in that context it’s a little different because, it’s kind of like a one-off, and we did it for 3 years, so it feels like the fourth year, even though like 6 years are in between. Yeah, you get a kind of familiarity on a set when you’re on a TV show that’s even deeper. Because it’s not like, “this is our only chance to be together”, it’s like, “we might be doing this for the rest of our lives.” It’s not a sedated, boring version, it’s just like you get more comfortable in the character, you know, especially when it’s episodic you have pieces in every episode. It’s not like this is my arc, and this is my chance to show that arc, whereas in a film you do. It’s like this is where she changes, this is this moment, and then I’m done with that scene for good and then that’s it I’m telling one story. Whereas on a TV show, you’re telling several parts of the story of this person’s life. So essentially a different mind state and a different way you can connect to the character, maybe not as focused as it is when you’re in a film because you’re like, this is it. This is the only time I get to be this character. So there’s definitely a difference in that way. But acting-wise, you kind of approach it similarly.
And I’m a huge, crazy huge “Arrested Development” fan.
Shawkat: Oh, cool.
Like I know every line to every episode.
How is it being back with these people? And do you watch the show, like have you ever sat and watched the whole thing?
Shawkat: Yeah, you know, I hadn’t watched it since it aired, until this year. And me and Michael [Cera] were like, “should we watch this? Just to get refreshed?” So we started watching it and it was so surreal, because we started from the beginning, and I was like looking at him on the couch and looking at him on the screen and I was like “oh my god we’re like children on this, we’re like 13, 14 up there you know? Like our voices are like (high pitched noises) like so frickin high.” So it was surreal at first. But yes, now I’ve started watching it again to get refreshed. It’s been one of the coolest experiences being back. I mean, everyone is so excited. When we first started on set, Mitch was like, making a speech like “we’re all back” like it was really emotional. It’s just so unique, it’s so crazy that this happened, and the scripts are funnier than ever and it’s again, such cool company to be in, and such familiar good company.
I know what I wanted to ask you about, I saw that you were a producer of a film at one point, or you were in production. If you’re not acting, or in addition to acting, what else in the industry do you want to do? Or something outside the industry?
Shawkat: Yeah, um, I actually, not that this (gestures to a doodle she’s been drawing) is my work, but I actually paint a lot. It’s kind of this big passion, as acting is, for me over the last couple of years. I’ve been a part of some gallery shows in L.A., Paris and Mexico City, and it’s something that’s becoming, when I’m not working I’m able to focus on that, because it’s like…acting is a very strange industry in that it flows in these weird ways, I’ll be so busy for 6 months and then nothing for a couple months, so it’s hard for me to focus and stuff. SO when I’m working I’m pretty busy with that but when I’m not yeah, I like to make music, I sing in jazz bars and stuff, and then I mainly paint everyday. It’s kind of like a different side of my mind I like to use and it keeps the other one fresh and yeah, writing, I’ve been writing with some friends. And yeah, I hope to always be doing different forms of it. I think with the whole new internet media, I’m not necessarily internet savvy, but I just feel that the way that art in general will be presented to the public is going to be different. So not that acting and filming won’t be similar, but there’s something I want to be involved in that has a combination of that, to make things more accessible and maybe using my art in film, narrative and animation or stuff like that. So yeah, that’s all stuff that I try to keep up when I’m not working.
Yeah there’s a lot of integration with those things coming around with different distribution platforms. Do you have a website where you post these galleries and gigs that people can check out?
Shawkat: Yeah, it has a lot of the pictures of my art up there, and then the shows are now in the past, the Paris show just ended a couple months ago, but yeah, for future gigs it’ll be up there and I put up new photos. I haven’t put up some for the last month or so but yeah it’s called MutantAlia.com, is the website.