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SXSW Interview: Actress Alia Shawkat on Pee-wee, Search Party, and Hipster Humor

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This year is on track to be a big one for actress Alia Shawkat. The actress, still probably best known for her character Maeby in Arrested Development, starred in two films at this year’s Sundance Festival in January (The Intervention and Green Room), and is in the upcoming A Driftless Area, has guest appearances this season on Portlandia and Animals, and has four more films awaiting release.

We caught up with the actress at SXSW, where she had two projects to share with audiences: the pilot episode of Search Party (which just got picked up to series) and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, the delightful Netflix original film. In Pee-wee, Shawkat plays one of three “bad girls” who take Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee hostage, and in Search Party (created by Fort Tilden’s Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers), she plays Dory, an aimless 20-something who wants to find a missing person (it’s a comedy). Shawkat talked about her new projects, returning to TV, and making a childhood dream come true.

TMS: What kind of history did you have with Pee-wee Herman as a kid?

Shawkat: I watched Pee-wee’s Playhouse a lot, but Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one of my favorite films. I watched it all the time and still remember it as Tim Burton’s first film and just the style he had from the beginning. The uncompromising choices in that movie definitely made an impression. So being involved with this follow-up film felt pretty epic.

TMS: It must have been pretty cool to see that this new film had a lot of the elements, being a road trip, from that original film.

Shawkat: Yeah, but I think they managed to have its own style. Because it’s hard anytime you do a sequel or something based on a known character, you know that it is always a risk because it might not be as good as the original. But I thought the film came out great, so pure and sweet, and manages to stand on its own. But the whole thing was pretty surreal.

TMS: Had you met Paul Reubens before getting cast?

Shawkat: No, never. But now I get to call him my friend.

TMS: Paul used to be known for treating Pee-Wee as this separate part of his career. What was it like being on set with him?

Shawkat: Paul wouldn’t stay in character between takes, because he was also a producer and always very involved in every detail of the film. He had opinions on costumes and sets, and knew all the props he needed, so he was always very busy. But he’s also just an amazing person to be around. He’s an amazing storyteller and very relaxed and kind with everyone all the time. He interacted with the whole crew, knew everyone’s names and birthdays, he was just this great guy. Full of a lot of love and shares it with people.

TMS: The movie has a strange sense of nostalgia, rather than going back to the 80s it goes back to the pop culture of the 50s and 60s. And you play characters you might see in some Roger Corman movies about bad girls on bikes. Did they tell you to look at any of those earlier films?

Shawkat: Paul told us to watch films by Russ Meyer, a B filmmaker I’d heard about before, and we watched this movie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! because our characters were based off of those characters. Stephanie, Jessica and I each took our own inspiration from those films, but our characters were all inspired by those over-the-top, sex-doll, badass girls. And we had fake butt pads and boobs, and the costumes didn’t hurt, so it was really fun. I’d never played a character like that, she’s almost like a cartoon.

TMS: Are you in a different mindset on a film like this, where the character is extreme and cartoonish, compared to something like Search Party, which has more of a sense of realism?

Shawkat: Definitely. With something more subtle, like Search Party and most things I do, I think about where the character came from, where they are, making sure you’re just as present when someone else is talking. But with something like this is more like choreography. The emotions are there, but there are fewer choices. Subtleties don’t play well in this tone, which was a challenge. I was nervous because I’m so used to staying in this more realistic tone, but with this I had to make bigger choices and be more aware of how I moved my body. So it was definitely a bigger challenge, but once we got started it was so fun I found it kind of addictive.

TMS: When you have to be exaggerated in a film, and you don’t have a sense of how exactly the film will ultimately look, is it tough to find the line and know how big you can ultimately go?

Shawkat: Yeah, but fortunately we had a great director, John Lee, who is really straightforward and honest and funny. And he told us we were all in three different movies. Stephanie’s in a Three Stooges, and Jessica and I are in a noir, my character had to be a huffy, puffy romantic that’s always out of breath. And that description definitely helped. But it was a challenge because with a movie like this, there are just a lot of different things going on at the same time, but John handled everything so well. I think the characters all work so well with and around Pee-Wee, and that moment I have at the end with Pee-Wee is very genuine.

TMS: Did you have any concerns going back to TV after working in so many films after Arrested Development?

Shawkat: I hadn’t done a series since Arrested Development mainly because of the scripts. I’m not in a position where I’m only offered movies, but I was lucky enough to work on a lot of indies and with new filmmakers, because that’s what I responded to most. But TV had been changing, so a lot of great, talented writers were going to TV, and this piece just kind of came about. I had a meeting with Michael Showalter and the creators, Sarah and Charlie, and we hit it off right away. And I liked their voices and I really liked the character. Dory is completely different from the types of characters I usually play. She isn’t someone self-assured or confident. And as an actress I’m always looking for something different. So I didn’t have many reservations. It’s a bigger commitment, and we shot the pilot not knowing if it would go to series, but now we are. It’s going to be on TBS, which is going through a new wave of comedies and trusting of the show. And it’s nice to have time with a project, because when you do an independent film you’re kind of a loner. You’re there for maybe a month, and then who knows.

TMS: Sarah and Charlie wrote and directed Fort Tilden, which won the Audience Award at SXSW in 2014. What was it about their voice in that film which connected with you?

Shawkat: The hipster culture has been mocked a lot recently, it’s sort of done. But when I saw Fort Tilden, I loved how unlikable and likable the two main characters were. It’s very hard to write characters that are unlikable that you can still manage to make likable to an audience, but I thought they did that so well in Fort Tilden. And the subtly of their jokes struck me as a little smarter than most I’d seen. And then I read the script for Search Party and met them, and they are just a lovely duo that I became friends with right away. And we filmed the pilot with Jack’s Media, like an independent film, so we had the freedom to make the film anyway we wanted. And I was involved with notes on the script. And we didn’t have an outside network influence, so I think we’ll have the same tone on set while filming the series. I’ve been reading all the scripts for the season and they are all really good.

TMS: Do you feel there is a benefit to showing a pilot before filming the first season?

Shawkat: There’s so much media content we’re competing with, so I think TBS was smart to get the show out there early, and SXSW is a great venue and audience for our show. We have four months of shooting starting this week, so hopefully the show will be on audiences mind and get good word of mouth when it comes time to air. I think it is smart, although it is strange doing press for something I really haven’t made yet.

TMS: I saw some of the films you had out last year, Nasty Baby and Wild Canaries, and like Search Party, they had this air of mystery and dark comedy. Are you a mystery fan?

Shawkat: Not necessarily. I think I’ve just been doing a lot of those lately because those are the scripts I’ve liked. But I think in life I talk with my friends about these subjects a lot, and a lot of the storytellers I’m drawn to like to elaborate on these wild scenarios. It’s interesting to think of how ill-equipped people would handle these extreme circumstances. Sebastian Silva is pretty much my best friend and I love all his films, and Larry and Sophia are so talented, they were just great people to work with.

TMS: The character in Search Party has this aimless quality and lacks the confidence to express what she wants. Have you felt that same sense of uncertainty?

Shawkat: All the time. Even when things are going well, I’m still doubting myself all the time. There is a scene in the pilot where I’m apologizing to this woman during a job interview, but it’s for a job I don’t even want. And I remember reading the script, and that scene really hit me, which is why it came out so well. I think we all apologize too much, and Dory is definitely someone who has put other people in front of herself too often. She’s been a doormat too often in her life, thinking that will be enough to make people like her. But really, we have to love and trust ourselves before we focus so much attention on other people, otherwise you can do so much you just feel empty. And that is sort of the key to Dory’s character. She’s been numb but things are starting to build up around her.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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