The star of Arrested Development and Search Party talks about using her dreams and journals to make brutally honest artworks
Making a name for herself as an actress in Arrested Development at age 14, Alia Shawkat since has flourished into a millennial Renaissance woman. With a filmography spanning 19 years, the 29-year-old continues to star in television shows – including Arrested Development and, most notably, the existential whodunit Search Party. She also sings with the jazz band New Orleans Swamp Donkeys, and has had five exhibitions of her sprawling, intimate visual art.
In 2016, she released Working Hard To Maintain Equilibrium, an art book comprised of a decade’s worth of journal-writing and sketches. Her deeply personal artistic output continued this year, when she wrote, produced and starred in the intimate dramedy Duck Butter, as well as playing a real person, Sybil Rosen, in Ethan Hawke’s tender biopic Blaze.
Through it all, Shawkat sustains a clear sense of self — a rare ability in the TV industry. At the Melbourne International Film Festival, Dazed sat down with her to talk about love, boundaries, and maintaining equilibrium.
You seem to have a lot of integrity. You’ve never done a project that seemed to me like “selling out”, for lack of a better term. Has that been easy?
Alia Shawkat: The industry is a lot trickier than people think. It’s really about synergy. I’d do a small part in an indie movie that nobody saw, and the producers from that all of a sudden were doing another movie, and I’d do that, and maybe that one would get seen a little bit more. I’ve gotten to do my best work through the people I’d meet, and through friends. It’s really about getting a good instinct with people. Especially when you’re a filmmaker, you have to have good instincts. “Am I interested in their perspective; can I trust them; do we collaborate well; do we listen to each other; are our egos in check?” It’s like friendships. You get drawn towards people.
I just wanna work with my friends — my ultimate goal is to have my own production company and be like, “We all get to make the movies we want, together.” But it’s hard. There definitely are times where I’m like, “I wanna be in something that a lot of people see, so eventually I can finance a movie.” But it’s also fate. I don’t think anyone is in as much control as they think. If I don’t get a part that I really thought would catapult me to some other level, I trust that it’s for the right reasons.
Alia Shawkat: I’ve been doing it since I was really young, so I’ve had the experience to realise that it’s not about me if I don’t get something. It’s not like, “I’m not good enough.” I don’t take it personally. Ever since I was young — I wouldn’t get a part, I’d be like, “Alright, next thing.” But when I was, like, 18, I was really sensitive about not looking the right part; not being the ‘it girl’, or whatever, and. I had to rattle myself and be like, “Why are you doing this? Not to get famous. You’re doing this ‘cause you want to work with cool people.” And making it is always the best part, not how people react to it. That, you have no control over.
“I’ll have a dream about something, and then I’ll write it the next morning, and it’s like Jung therapy. You look at your dreams and you’re able to see how you feel about something... and I’m able to laugh at myself in this amazing way, like, ‘Oh, you fuckin’ idiot, it’s right in front of you’” – Alia Shawkat
You’ve said that when you were writing Duck Butter, you started with the question, “Why does love hurt so much?” Have you read Eros the Bittersweet by Anne Carson?
Alia Shawkat: Eros the Bittersweet? No.
She says that pain is not a problem, but an integral part of love. When you fall in love with someone, you have this desire to merge with them, physically and metaphysically, and that conflicts with the reality of physical boundaries and metaphysical boundaries.
Alia Shawkat: Right. So it’s always gonna be unattainable.
And that’s painful. Watching Duck Butter, I felt like Sergio embodied that desire for boundlessness, and Naima was all boundaries. I’m interested in your relationship to boundaries; your website says you use visual art to “test (your) boundaries of what feels safe”.
Alia Shawkat: Boundaries are fascinating, because they have to evolve. You don’t just set certain boundaries and then they work forever. You always have to create new ones, and you have to specify them, and they get deeper, or more complicated, or more painful. I’m still figuring that out, especially when it comes to sex and relationships. In my art, I have a good relationship with being able to share, because with art, there aren’t really boundaries, right? It can be anything – figurative, literal, visual – as long as it creates the right feeling. In real life, you can’t really live that way. If you’re like, “It’s all about feelings!”, you might lose your mind a little bit. I’ve had a lot of that experience in my life, of being like, “If it feels good, do it.” In getting older and maturing, I’m like, “This feels good now, but I don’t know if it’s going to feel good tomorrow, or next month, or next year.”
If I want to build something — say, a relationship — I have to set certain boundaries and know how to take care of myself; what it means to really value myself. It’s a tricky thing, but art helps me re-identify my boundaries. It’s like dream work. I’ll have a dream about something, and then I’ll write it the next morning, and it’s like Jung therapy. You look at your dreams and you’re able to see how you feel about something, without consciously knowing how you feel about it. I’ve been doing that a lot recently, and I’m able to laugh at myself in this amazing way, like, “Oh, you fuckin’ idiot, it’s right in front of you.” Obviously, you want to read, and take advice from people you trust, but at the end of the day, I think we already know the things we really need, and it’s about deciding how ready we are for them. When it comes to my personal boundaries, I’ll still play in a dangerous zone sometimes, because a part of me is like, “Alright, you haven’t learned the lesson yet. Keep doing it until you’ve really learned this lesson.” But I’m changing, a little bit. (laughs) Slowly but surely.
You seem to value patience in your work. You didn’t rush things with Duck Butter, and Working Hard To Maintain Equilibrium took many years, right?
Alia Shawkat: Yeah, that was, like, ten years of journaling. Patience is something I still struggle with all the time. In my work, I’m able to be like, “I exude patience!” because it’s something I want. There’s times where you feel like the world’s gonna be over tomorrow, and you’re like, “I gotta make this now! It’s relevant now!” But I have to take a second to look around and notice all the signs pointing me in that direction. All of a sudden a film will come up, or I’ll meet someone who’s the right person to meet for a project, or I’ll travel and see something and think, “Oh my God, that’s perfect for this.”
With writing, you have to have a lot of patience, and trust that nothing worth doing can be done overnight. In a way, that’s why I like painting, ‘cause I can see a reaction to my work more instantly. But even that – I used to just do little day sketches, and now I’m like, “I’m gonna work on a painting for a while.” Every day I’m trying to take a little more time.
I trust in the metaphysics of things – being like, “Oh, this is meant to happen for a reason,” and wanting to prep myself – so the more projects I’m writing or making, I realise I have to have patience with myself to unveil what I fully want to say. By the time you actually make something, it happens so fast. It’s run and gun, and then it’s over. I felt that way with Duck Butter. I took notes every day. I’d hear a conversation and write it down, I’d see a painting and screenshot it – I had a photo library on my phone just for Duck Butter. Everything that made me feel what Duck Butter made me feel – colours, everything it needed to look like. Some of the images are actually used, but it was mainly just to have a consciousness of it always growing, like a library. And you have to give yourself time to do that kind of thing.
“We’re all struggling with something very specific to what it means to be a woman, in different environments — dealing with our sexuality, and how the world views us, all that shit” – Alia Shawkat
So, with Working Hard To Maintain Equilibrium, did you kind of have a sense, like, “Now’s the time to put all this stuff together”?
Alia Shawkat: Yeah. I’d always kept journals, and I was painting, but not as ritualistically. I wasn’t taking it as seriously. I’d only draw in my journals, and always had a dirty notebook in my bag, for ten years. So I had a bunch of ‘em, and I’d save ‘em. I would write those journals not expecting to show them to anyone. It was always just for me, so it was the angry sides, the jealous sides, the gross sides, the sexual fantasies, whatever. I’d fill ‘em with cool stuff, or paste things in there, and I always liked the aesthetic, but just for myself. Then a friend of mine who owns this company, Dilettante, was producing these art books and said, “I want you to do the first one.” I didn’t want a small book of just drawings, so I was like, “Well, I have these journals. We could go through them.” And this amazing poet named Jacqueline Suskin was the editor. Showing her the journals, I realised I was at a place to let them go.
The craziest part was looking back through all of ‘em, being like, “Oh, the same patterns, over and over again”, but being able to process them and let them go. The days I had, the months… it took a long time. But looking through them and being like, oh, my God, every lover, every pain, expressed in all these crazy ways – I was allowed to have perspective; to separate from it and be like, “Oh, that’s not who I am anymore.” It was really therapeutic, to detach from this idea of myself. Publishing something that I never thought I’d share, I was a little scared sometimes. But by the time it came out, it felt so great to be like, “Look at the shit that I had in my head.” It allowed me to really move on from it. I still keep journals, but they’re very different than they were back then. It came out a couple of years ago. Ten years – 17 to 27. There were a lot of big discoveries, and a lot of emotions flying around.
That’s an intense period, 17 to 27.
Alia Shawkat: It’s an intense period. I recommend everyone keep journals. Especially if you’re a writer. I really think it helped develop my voice. Back then, I didn’t think I was going to be a writer. I thought, “To me, this sounds really poetic and cool, but most people are gonna think this is trash.” But Susan Sontag has an amazing collection of diary entries that I read, and some of my favourite books are from these authors – queer women – that made me think, “Fuck. They’re writing shit that I still relate to now. We’re still connecting.” That gave me the confidence to be like, “Maybe one day – 40 years from now, 60 years from now – a girl will pick up my work and be like, ‘Woah, I still feel this way’.”
I had a similar experience reading Carrie Fisher’s diaries. She was a young woman in Hollywood — a completely different world, doing Star Wars — but the feelings are the same, and universal.
Alia Shawkat: The feelings! Totally. And you realise that’s the goal of writers. I would read Bukowski when I was younger and think, “I feel like I am this guy!” But I will say that when I read Susan Sontag’s stuff, I connected to it a lot more. A good writer makes you feel like you’re with them, but as you get older, you realise the kind of women that you connect to as artists. And we’re all struggling with something very specific to what it means to be a woman, in different environments — dealing with our sexuality, and how the world views us, all that shit. It’s really, really powerful, and has encouraged me to write. I was like, “These are just my own weird, little, isolated thoughts,” but no, people that you look up to — fuckin’ Carrie Fisher was dealing with this, or Susan Sontag. We can all connect.
Duck Butter is on Netflix now