Actress Alia Shawkat on Bold Projects, Broad City & Being Queer in America

Alia Shawkat
Courtesy of Imagination Worldwide

With her latest project, Paint It Black, Alia Shawkat trades in droll comedy (Arrested Development, last year’s breakout series Search Party) for full-on psychodrama. In the film, directed by her friend and fellow actress Amber Tamblyn, she plays Josie, a hard-living party girl whose boyfriend, Michael, has just committed suicide. Its big twist? The intriguing relationship that develops between Josie and Michael’s resentful, piano-playing mother. 

What attracted you to Josie?

With any part, you don’t want to think, Oh, I could do this with my eyes closed. But with this part, it was like, I don’t know if I can do this with my eyes open. There aren’t many female roles that are both campy and very real. I appreciated the risks of this movie.

Josie lost her boyfriend, but her main connection seems to be with his unhinged mom (Janet McTeer).

It is the main romance, or the main passion, of the story. In a way, Josie is able to be more vulnerable with her. It’s not about the guy — it’s about two women grappling with their emotions. It was almost more titillating being in scenes with her. What was she going to do next?

You’ve also taken on more explicitly queer roles, like when you played Ilana Glazer’s look-alike lover on an episode of Broad City. What was that like?

I’d been mistaken for Ilana a lot, and I’d heard from her friend that she’d been mistaken for me too. Next thing I know, I’m on a group text with the girls. Then I had a script. I’ve been recognized so much since. A guy in New York pulled up and said, “Hey, you Ilana’s lover, huh?!” 

How do you identify with these characters?

I was a tomboy growing up, and I remember my mom asking me when I was 10, “Are you attracted to boys or girls?” I said I don’t know. Now I consider myself bisexual, and I think balancing my male and female energies has been a big part of me growing as an actor.

Did working with Portia de Rossi on Arrested Development help shape your identity?

Portia started dating Ellen DeGeneres during the show’s first three seasons, and I’d met her previous girlfriend, but I think my influences are more from growing up in Los Angeles and being exposed to lots of gay artists.

How do you feel in the current climate, moving forward as a queer artist?

I co-wrote and star in a new film called Duck Butter, which opens later this year. I love that it was written for a man and a woman, but we couldn’t find the right guy, so now it happens to star two women [as lovers]. I used to be less outspoken. But as a woman, an Arab-American, and a member of the LGBTQ community, I have to use whatever voice I have. There’s no more delicacy in being quiet.

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