Alia Shawkat talks the return of Maeby Funke in Arrested Development Season 4, debuting Sunday, May 26 on Netflix
At just 14 years of age, Alia Shawkat found herself starring alongside comedic all-stars such as Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and David Cross in the Fox comedy series Arrested Development as Maeby Funke. 10 years and numerous film and TV credits later, the actress and the rest of this talented Arrested Development cast is back with 15 brand new Season 4 episodes, debuting simultaneously Sunday, May 26 on Netflix. After attending the press conference a few weeks back, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Alia Shawkat one-on-one to discuss this comedy's return. Here's what she had to say.
Since each episode this season centers on a particular character, I was curious how many episodes you show up in, aside from your Maeby-centric episode?
Alia Shawkat: I was shooting a lot of scenes for the first two months, and my episode wasn't even written yet, so I'm doing things, but I wasn't knowing why or what I was doing, so (series creator) Mitch (Hurwitz) would have to answer those questions for us. Within one day, I'd be shooting scenes from five different episodes, so it's definitely confusing, but, as Jason (Bateman) said earlier, thank God I didn't have to keep that all in my head. They would bring me new scripts sometimes twice a day, to the point where I didn't want them to send them to me anymore, to save paper. I'll just show up on set and read the new pages. I don't need to read every script. But, yeah, Mitch has this crazy Arrested Development world circus in his head. You ask him any question, and he has the answer.
Alia Shawkat: I think some of it is a surprise. There are some new characters in my episode, and I think Henry Winkler is in mine, and Steve Holt (Justin Grant Wade), perhaps. I have a couple new characters that are strong, and Mort (Jeff Garlin) is back.
At the press conference, Michael (Cera) talked a bit about coming on the show at such a young age. During those first few seasons, was there anything you learned from all these guys that you will always take with you, about the craft?
Alia Shawkat: Yeah, definitely. I did the pilot when I was 14, and now I'm 24, so it's been a decade, part of that being on this show. It definitely formed, whether we liked it or not, our sensibility, our sense of humor, our timing, and the way we read scripts. Working on scripts like that, at such a young age, definitely made it harder for any other scripts to live up to that, especially the kind of character I played, the easily-rounded character. Since then, I've read God knows how many scripts that are just like a horrible interpretation of that, but, Maeby being such a well-done version of it, I was able to tell that difference. Yeah, I feel very lucky. You're able to work on something good, and it sharpens your palate.
I read you grew up in Riverside, which isn't exactly O.C., but were there aspects of your childhood and your upbringing that did mirror Maeby's path, in a way?
Alia Shawkat: To a degree, yeah. I have a slightly dysfunctional family, but still pretty functional, compared to this one. I grew up in Palm Springs, so there was this rich kid kind of vibe, old fathers, young mothers, people losing their money. The whole idea of false wealth was very prevalent where I grew up. I remember talking to Mitch about what it's kind of based off of, experiences he's had in his family, his in-laws and stuff, and it definitely relates. There's something about suburban wealth in California that is unlike anywhere else, and it's a funny, funny story to tell. Yeah, there are pieces I can definitely relate to.
Obviously you can't spill a whole lot, but is there a part of this Maeby-George Michael relationship that you're excited for fans to see in these new episodes?
Alia Shawkat: Honestly, I'm excited to see it too, because we shot a lot of stuff and I'm not necessarily sure what was chosen. It's obviously talked about and it's relevant, and it's in our episodes, but I think it's less on the nose than people might think. It's not exactly answered straight-forward. It's kind of like the way were were raised. Our reactions to our future relationships are affected by the way we were as kids together.
After all these years, is there a fan interaction that always sticks out for you?
Alia Shawkat: Everyone is pretty great, the fans. They know the show, so it's not like a fame-hungry attention-seeking thing. They're real fans, so they're very respectful. I did meet a girl on a subway once, and she just hugged me and she was kind of crying and asked me if I could come home with her. I chose not to, but yeah, there's definitely a strong kinship people feel. That's the strange idea of fame anyway. People feel like they know you, but my favorites are when people walk by and go, 'Hey, you're really funny.' And I go, 'Thank you.'
Is there any amount of creative freedom that you've noticed by doing this on Netflix now, as opposed to the first three seasons on Fox. Are there boundaries you get to push that you couldn't have otherwise?
Alia Shawkat: I think Mitch would probably recognize those differences more than I did as an actor, because it didn't affect me directly. Even when we were on Fox, it was challenging because of the ratings. Again, that never affected me directly, but Mitch was still able, even if it was more of a battle, he was pushing the creative envelope and getting things out, even when he's making fun of the network we were on, towards the end. He was never slighted, he was never dumbed down. He would just snap back in their face with something even funnier, before they realized they were being mocked. It is refreshing to have (Netflix chief content officer) Ted Sarandos on the set, laughing at every joke and is completely of the same spirit of Mitch and the show, which is let's just make the funniest thing ever. It really sets the vibe on set.
Alia Shawkat: Yeah, I play Fiona, one of her best friends. It's a great, great cast, and I think it's going to be a very funny movie. A very fun summer flick.
Alia Shawkat: It was wonderful. It's funny, actually, because when we were shooting this, I had to leave for 10 days to shoot that, and it's a very different tone. It's very realistic and slow, but she's a wonderful director. Jesse Eisenberg was really wonderful to work with. It was very cool, but it was funny going on that tone, but then coming back to this, where it's really fast-paced and the words are quick. With Kelly, we would improv and takes would go on for 12 minutes and we would just find it. I felt very lucky to have these two very opposite styles of acting. I play a girl named Surprise, one of the interns.
If Netflix picks up even more episodes, is there something you've always been dying to do with Maeby that you would want to explore, if given the chance?
Alia Shawkat: I could never come up with as many good ideas as they do, but I remember Mitch once emailed me, and asked if I could do a Liza Minnelli impression. I was looking up YouTube videos and trying, but it never made it into the script. I wouldn't mind trying that.
Do you think the way this season was shot may revolutionize television in any way? I know it's very hard to do something like this without a model like Netflix, but do you see others maybe taking off from this format?
Alia Shawkat: It's been interesting, the last seven years, to see how the original show affected so many shows, the way shows are shot, and the dysfunctional family aspect. I guess mimicking is a form of flattery. I think that this format is a very challenging one, and Mitch is maybe the only genius who can pull it off. This format is really special, especially for the fans, because he's giving them so much more content, all in this one big web, instead of piecemeal. It's very impressive, and if anyone else can pull it off, I'd like to see them try. I think any good art inspires more art.
You said the ratings when you were on Fox didn't really affect you, but is it still a relief to not have to worry about that at all on Netflix?
Alia Shawkat: Definitely. Again, I wouldn't focus on it as much, but every week, we'd come back, and I'd hear Jason (Bateman) and people talking about how we didn't do so well, and we were in competition with something else, or how we got bumped again, and American Idol was taking our spot. We never have a problem with ratings. We don't need advertising. They used to say they never knew how to advertise the show. Just put up a f---ing billboard, I don't know. So, I think there is some bitterness that formed because of it, just because it was such a good show, and we wanted people to see it. But, as Jason said, three seasons in America, that's a great amount of episodes to tell a story. It's great to come back, because it's a unique way of telling it, but I think we had our due diligence. The only thing that I thought was frustrating was if Mitch ever felt like it wasn't good enough. Now he knows more than ever that it was too good. That was the problem.
They talked about how this is going to be the first act of three acts.
Alia Shawkat: Yes, I had just heard that since I've been here. That's very intimidating.
Has Mitch shared anything with you about how the second act might play out?
Alia Shawkat: Sometimes, when we're talking about a story line we're shooting, I'll ask a question, he would say, 'Oh, and she does this, and this and this.' I'm like, 'Wait, what?' And he says, 'Oh, that's not for awhile.' I think part of the reason why Mitch is such a genius is he's so present, not only as a person, but creatively. When one thought leaves, a really strong fresh one comes out. That's rare to see in any person, and I think that's what makes him so smart. He's very focused on one step at a time. Even though there is the thought of a movie and 2,500 new episodes, who knows what will happen. He's still editing, and I just want to work one step at a time, like he does.
Great. That's my time. Thank you so much.
Alia Shawkat: Yeah, thank you very much.