Growing up in Arrested Development - Alia Shawkat on coming of age in comedy
The actress, famous for her role as Maeby Funke, on adulthood, Michael Cera and why Portia De Rossi is lovely... now
For Alia Shawkat, Arrested Development was more than just a cult comedy show that was cruelly cancelled in its prime. It was her childhood.
“Literally the minute Michael [Cera] and I finished a scene, we had to go into the school room,” she recalls, laughing. “We became close whether we liked it or not. We hated our studio teacher because we were like ‘get us out of here, we wanna go play!’ You change a lot during that time. I did the pilot when I was 14, finished when I was 18, now I’m 24. For the last 10 years, most of my youth, it’s been a part of my life; an arrested development.”
And now, after six years, she returns to the role that moulded her: Maeby Funke, the long-suffering daughter of Lindsay Bluth and Tobias Funke, and the ‘close’ cousin of Michael Cera’s George Michael. Despite starting to act the age of nine (she made her debut with George Clooney’s Three Kings), it’s a role that, even with recent parts in The Oranges and Ruby Sparks, still defines her. A thing, and testament to the quality of the show’s characters, that could be said of many of Arrested Development’s cast, but for her and Michael Cera, returning to their roles is more than just another job. It’s a return to a time that they were never really old enough to appreciate in the first place.
“My parents put the show on every channel in the house, trying to gain ratings - as if that helped,” she explains “I hadn’t seen the show since it aired. Not by choice - I just never watched them again until I found out we were really coming back seven years later. So me and Micheal watched the first handful episodes together. When we watched them in the first season, we were very young and I was sitting on the couch next to each other and I was looking at him and looking at the screen, and it was so surreal going ‘Look at us! We’re freaking children.’ And we were.”
“Watching your own work anyway is always strange… But I think when enough time has passed, you’re able to believe the characters in a way where it’s not like looking at yourself now. You think ‘that’s not me’. It’s like looking at home videos almost in a weird way.”
As anyone beyond the murky wilderness years of teenage can relate to: the Alia Shawket of now is not the Alia Shawkat of then. She’s a grown up. A real, fully-developed person – as opposed to whoever the hell you think you are at 14. Surely, like a comedic school reunion, returning to the show as an adult is a different, intimidating experience?
“Totally,” she agrees, “I wanted to show I had life experience. As an adult you’re still always changing, but you present yourself in a certain way. But when I was 16 I didn’t know what was going on, and I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. In some ways I wanted to reintroduce myself to these people and, at first, I kind of snapped back to being a teen again. I’m still acting like a kid! My voice is higher, I’m being too polite, trying too hard to impress... For example, Will Arnett [who plays Gob] is someone I thought was hilarious and I would want to impress him as an adult, or just show him I could keep up with his sense of humour, which ended up with me just sitting there silently...”
“Everyone, in a strange way, is very much the same, though. Everyone has a specific role within the group. I’d have to say Portia [De Rossi; who plays on-screen mother, Lindsay] has changed a lot - I’d say for the better! We get along much better now. She’s lovely… Now."
“Everyone’s lovely now! It’s just, because I was a teenager, there were certain people who treated me the same and certain people who treated me as a kid, and now neither is a problem. So people who I’d passed judgements on have faded. Honestly, in comparison to most, you find how rare it is to find people who you connect with a lot when you shoot. We’re all different ages and lifestyles. When we all come together there’s like a magic quality about it. There’s a very fun dynamic on set; laughing all the time on and off camera; never a dull moment.”
Seeing a group of people you haven’t seen in years is one thing, but re-visiting the mightily successful, specific tone of a dead show and the part of a teenage girl who has now grown into a woman is quite another.
“The first week I felt a little lost just because the scripts were kinda all over the place too and I had no idea where my character was going. I was a little nervous coming back because Maeby had evolved as I have as an actor and a person. The writing kinda set the tone, but it really took working with the actors like Jason Bateman again to get that rhythm back, and also with Micheal Cera. The George Micheal/Maeby scenes really helped me click back into Maeby as she’s most comfortable around George Micheal, and able to plot and scheme and get excited around him and really show herself whereas when she’s around her parents, she’s always trying to fuck with them.”
The last time we saw Shawkat’s teenage Maeby, she had miraculously blagged her way into becoming a Hollywood script editor with nothing but a catchphrase – “marry me!” – and a smile. More interesting, however, was her love that dare not speak its name with bumbling cousin George Michael. It was a forbidden ‘romance that, in the series three finale, was revealed to be legitimate – with Maeby’s mother turning out to be adopted. Unsurprisingly, it left questions.
“There’s so much that’s happened,” she giggles, “but I can’t talk about it; which sounds so cool, but I can’t… What I will say is that when she was younger she acted like an adult, but what I can say is that as an adult she acts more like she’s younger. I think, you know, shit hits the fan all the more for her this time around. Things aren’t as easy as when she was a kid.”