The actor talks “Search Party,” Brad Pitt, and her love of painting.
https://www.newyorker.com-By Carrie Battan
Photographs by Carlos Jaramillo for The New Yorker
If there is a television show that has managed to harness the energy of the Trump era—the mania and the chaos, the absurdity and the delusion, the creeping nihilism and the suspicion that things might spin out of control—and channel it into something special, without ever explicitly referencing politics, it is “Search Party.” For five seasons, Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers’s satirical whodunnit has followed a group of twentysomething friends who set off to find a missing peer as a means of validating their own lives. The show whipsaws across tones and genres with abandon, leaning into its own insanity and its characters’ misapprehensions.
When “Search Party” first aired on TBS, in 2016, it was presented as a winking commentary on millennials, but it quickly abandoned that premise, morphing from a Nancy Drew-style mystery to a screwball court procedural to a psychosexual thriller. The show’s fifth and final season, which premièred last week, takes on themes of cult worship and eccentric entrepreneurship (think Elon Musk and Elizabeth Holmes) before unspooling a zombie-apocalypse plotline. (It also guest-stars Jeff Goldblum.) At the center of the show’s mess is Alia Shawkat, the actress who plays its protagonist and seductive villain, Dory Sief. We’ve watched Dory evolve from an aimless Brooklyn millennial to a murderer to an online folk hero to a mental patient to a cult leader. She’s the hardest type of character to play: someone so out of touch with herself that she is constantly becoming a new person.
For Shawkat, “Search Party” has also represented a career renaissance. The thirty-two-year-old is no stranger to television notoriety: at fourteen, she got her break playing the role of Maeby on “Arrested Development,” a show that initially flew under the radar before it acquired a devoted fan base. Maeby, a moody teen-ager with a renegade sense of humor, became iconic enough that she defined Shawkat’s work for a long period of time. Now “Search Party” and Dory have become cult favorites in their own right. Shawkat is, in many ways, the consummate modern entertainer, keeping her hands in many pots. She helped produce “Search Party,” and wrote the 2018 experimental indie film “Duck Butter.” She’s a devout painter, and she’s working on a new TV show based on the life of her father.
Shawkat was in New York City in December to attend the première of “Being the Ricardos,” an Aaron Sorkin project that chronicles the behind-the-scenes crises of “I Love Lucy.” (Shawkat plays one of the show’s writers.) With her signature freckles and mop of curls, Shawkat is unmissable in person, and also disarmingly frank. We spoke over breakfast about the end of “Search Party,” her friend Brad Pitt, and being half Iraqi.
“Search Party” has always been about chaos and tone-shifting, but this season really goes off the rails. Do you like the note it’s ending on?
We blow up the world this time, and it feels like the appropriate ending.
It’s funny. When the show first aired, it was characterized as this millennial critique. But now nobody even cares about millennials.
I think, even at the beginning, the show was mocking the idea of caring about millennial stuff. Dory is a character who’s so obsessed with discovering who she is, to the point of actually killing someone by mistake. The showrunners have always done a good job of being aware of the culture we’re living in, and making the show a satirical thing. And never taking it too seriously. That’s what’s funny about my character—she’s taking everything so seriously, and the rest of the world has gone haywire.
Do you spend any time with Zoomers?
I have a small group of Zoomer friends. There are a lot of things they don’t know about, but they don’t want to know.
References. Even just film references—actors, etc. They just don’t have the need to impress. And you’re, like, “But I spent so much time learning about this!” I feel like, when I was younger, it was all about seeming like I knew about a lot of shit. From something as benign as movie references to . . . bad sex. All my twenties was bad sex! But the Zoomers are, like, “No, we only have beautiful, connected sexual experiences.” Well, good for you.
Also, people in my generation battle their relationship with Instagram and social media. They’re on it, but they hate themselves for being on it. The younger generation doesn’t even question it. They’re, like, “Whatever I do is up for grabs to share publicly, and what’s wrong with that?” I very much enjoy taking long breaks from my phone.
In this season, Dory becomes a kind of wellness guru with a cult-leader edge. Did you get into any cultish figures while preparing for this season?
Dory kind of has the Theranos vibe, but I was more into Ram Dass, who I love and used to listen to back in the day.
There’s a plotline about an enlightenment pill, which is unleashed on the public prematurely. Was there any connection to the vaccine there, or concern that it might be perceived as a commentary on vaccines?
I think it’s more commenting on the idea of packaged wellness. Don’t do the work, take a pill! It’s easier. Not to judge medication that saves lots of lives, but it’s about this concept of “How do you get happy as fast as possible?”
Are you susceptible to dogma about wellness?
A little bit, but not really. I’m still trying to quit smoking. I’m not as balanced as I’d like to be. I do yoga. I get depressed, and yoga is the only thing that really brings me out of it.
Did anything about making “Search Party” change when you migrated from TBS to HBO Max? A bigger budget?
I was hoping for a budget increase. [Laughs.] But there was not. The only thing I would say is, the writers didn’t have to write to commercial breaks. It’s better for the writers—we’re free to have it flow. And now I feel like people can actually see the show. When we were shooting in Brooklyn—especially in Brooklyn—you could tell the viewership had increased. People would see us out and on the street and be, like, “That’s fucking ‘Search Party’!”
You’re credited as a “creative producer” on the show. What does that mean?
I was always involved creatively, from the beginning. At first, we didn’t know if it would be anything—it was this pilot presentation idea. We made the pilot like an independent film, kind of, before it was attached to a network. I think that’s also why I was able to be the lead, because if “Search Party” was already attached to a network it would have been harder for me to be the star of a TV show at that time.
Why would it have been difficult to cast you as the lead?
If it’s on a certain network, you have to screen test. We were able to make “Search Party” exactly as we wanted it, and hire the actors we wanted to hire. It was super grungy and lo-fi—stealing shots on subways, wearing some of our own clothes. All the crew was super young. There was nobody there telling us how to make it, and what the tone is. When you’re trying to explain a show to suits, it’s, like, “Trust me, it’s going to be funny!” They don’t get it.
Have you ever tried to sell your own show?
I’ve been doing that recently. Pitching is hard, because it’s a very vulnerable experience. You have to be a showman. I’ve been making television for so long, and I’m an actor, but a pitch is my worst nightmare. It’s very embarrassing.
That’s what’s so interesting about “Search Party”—we got to make five seasons slightly under the radar. Now it’s getting harder, because I think a lot of these networks are basing decisions on algorithms. I swear to God, I made this joke: people just want dogs and robots. Then we were driving in L.A., and I saw a billboard for a Tom Hanks movie. And it was literally Tom Hanks, a dog, and a robot.
What is the show you’re pitching?
It’s about my family. My father is Middle Eastern, and he owns a strip club in Palm Springs. So that’s the show. Knock on wood, we’ll be pitching it pretty soon.
He’s Iraqi, correct? Did the recent hubbub around the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 resurface anything interesting from that time in your life?
It’s so funny. I was talking about this last night. My friend Natasha Lyonne was, like, “9/11, huh?” I was, like, “Why are we talking about this?” And we all went into our 9/11 stories. I was eleven at the time, and obviously it was very intense. I think it is funny that it’s just a big “Oops!” to Iraq. America was able to generate this fear and get everybody on board with attacking and destroying a country that had absolutely nothing to do with this terrorist attack. Now everybody is, like, “Oh, yeah . . . that’s weird.” Jon Stewart is the only one who’s, like, “What the fuck?” No one even cares. It’s so sad.
But yeah, my father was interrogated a lot. And my father loves America so much! When all the Trump stuff was happening, it was sad how the American flag was reappropriated. You’d see a flag, and it would be kind of scary. And my father would be, like, “That’s OUR flag! Don’t you ever confuse that with something that’s not patriotic.”
Your Instagram is very lo-fi and very much not self-promotional. You mostly just post pictures of whatever painting you’re working on. I have to imagine that your agents and managers are thinking you should change it up a bit.
I think they’re definitely thinking that. I delete it all the time. I’d rather just not be on it at all. But now “Search Party” and this movie are coming out, and I should just do a little push and try to advertise myself. But I literally have this fear that I’ll press the wrong button and post a nude selfie, which I don’t even take. I have lots of friends who are actors who really use it to their benefit. They’re really doing it a lot. I used to judge it, but now I don’t. It’s part of work.
But then there is a certain élite layer of Hollywood that doesn’t even need to use social media. Someone like Jennifer Lawrence has the luxury of never needing to sell herself online.
Trust me, I think about that a lot. And I do have these moments where I’m, like, “If I were more active on social media, would it literally help my career and make more people see the show?” But I just don’t have a brain for that. And I’m always trying to figure out my relationship to it: Just because I’m an actor, does that mean I’m completely politically awakened? Yeah, abortion rights are being challenged right now, which is the most upsetting thing ever. I’m reading about it and staying up to date, but I don’t necessarily want to share my story. Would it help? I don’t know.
Jeff Goldblum is your co-star in this season. Was he already a fan of the show, or did he have to be pitched on it?
That character is such a loud, big character. We needed a big name to really pull it off. Every year, there are such well-written guest-star roles. We always try to get a big name or an interesting actor, and we’ve always been so successful at it. Goldblum hadn’t seen the show before, but they sent him the first couple of seasons. He watched it, and he responded to it really well.
What’s he like?
He’s as Jeff Goldblum-y as it gets. There is no one else like him. There’s so much dialogue with that role, and sometimes it’s hard for older actors to have that much dialogue every day. It’s hard for anyone. But he was so off-book and musical and loose. He came dressed, always. He’s quite an essence—he was like a very curious child. He was, like, [doing a Jeff Goldbum voice] “Oh, my God, it’s youuuu. And you’re amaaazing.”
He looks unbelievably good.
I think he has a fucking routine. He doesn’t have sugar, caffeine. Whereas I was expanding as the season went on. He has a beautiful wife who’s a dancer. He’s very in shape and in tune; his body is his instrument. He looks better now than he did before, in some ways.
You’ve worked with a lot of A-list Hollywood heavy hitters: Nicole Kidman, Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, Jeff Goldblum. Do you notice anything different about the way they work?
They’re not on their cell phones. That’s honestly the biggest thing. I try not to bring my cell phone, because it’s very distracting. But actors of a certain ilk, who have more responsibility, they’re more like athletes. They’re very focussed and primed and physically charged. They’re conserving their energy to release it on camera.
You went viral in 2020 when you were spotted hanging out with Brad Pitt, and tabloids spread the rumor that you guys were dating. Is there still runoff from that moment? People still following you around, hoping to get close to Brad Pitt?
Thank God, no. It came in hot and left as fast as it came in. It happened during COVID, and I was alone with it. It was so weird. Now it’s like a weird dream, where I’m, like, Did that happen?
Was he amused by it?
He had no awareness of it at all. Which is so funny. Because he doesn’t read that shit. I was, like, “You know everyone thinks we’re dating? And there’s this whole thing, and I’m being followed.” And he was, like, “I’m sorry. It happens. If you hang out with me, it happens.” He had no awareness of it at all.
But the other day I was at my grandmother’s house, my father’s mother. She’s been in this country for over thirty years and still barely speaks English. An Iraqi Muslim woman. She’s sitting there, watching her Turkish soap opera. And next to her is this old gossip magazine with Brad’s face, and my face in a small circle. And it says “Brad’s New Girl!” And then on the inside it’s old Instagram photos of me and friends at dinner. It was, like, “ALL ABOUT ALIA.” This whole made-up story about how we were healing each other by spending time together. All this crazy shit. I looked at my grandmother, like, “Why do you have this?” She’s, like, “It’s you and this movie star! And it’s your face.” I was embarrassed by it. I told her she had to throw it away. And she laughed.
At the time, were you not entertained by it at all?
At the time, it was not fun at all. I’m not an actor who has ever dealt with the paparazzi. They don’t know who the fuck I am. There’s something ironic about it. It has nothing to do with Brad as a person—he’s a great fucking guy. But of course the idea of me being romantically involved with an older white guy is what gets me the most attention. Not a twenty-year career. That’s what gets me. And it’s ironic and gross and stupid. But yeah, again, it was super brief. And I was fine. I was shaken up by it, because I have a studio in Highland Park where I go every day. And I was, like, There are these photos of me carrying way too much shit to get inside. There are all these embarrassing photos, they had followed me there. Then they just disappeared, and now they don’t give a shit.
You got your start playing Maeby on “Arrested Development,” and you’ve spoken about how that role boxed you in for a long time—people always wanted you to play a pissy teen-ager. These days, which character defines your career: Maeby or Dory?
For so long in my life, even when I wasn’t working for a while, it was Maeby. That’s it. I can quit acting, and I’ll always be Maeby. And it kind of haunted me. I was bitter. It has shifted to more of an over-all awareness of my work in general, which is always refreshing as an actor. I’m no longer just known for this one thing that I did when I was fifteen years old. I’m just another actress.
When you were playing Maeby, did you understand the humor of “Arrested Development”?
To a degree. When we’d do the table read, sometimes me and Michael [Cera] would get laughs, and we didn’t necessarily know why. The incest jokes, we understood, but sometimes certain sexual innuendos went over my head.
“Arrested Development” came back in 2018, a few months after your co-star Jeffrey Tambor was accused of sexual harrassment. There was a roundtable interview with the cast that became controversial, and you were one of the few people willing to speak out against Tambor. Did that cloud the entire experience of “Arrested Development”?
Not the whole experience. It was really only the press of the last season that was the bummer. We all got caught in this wave, and we were unprepared. I did my best to communicate, but it just got really messy.
But so much of it was amazing. Michael Cera is still one of my best friends. At the time, nobody knew of the show. And it became this thing after we had wrapped. It was a rare experience that not a lot of actors go through, where you make something that you feel like nobody is watching, and years after you do it you start getting recognized for it on a crazy scale. The other day, in Washington Square Park, there was this young kid playing chess, about seventeen. He was, like, “Are you Maeby? I love that show.” That show has locked into a certain young college student. They’re, like, “Here’s your dorm-room key, and here’s the box set of ‘Arrested Development.’ ”
Those first three seasons, I think, are perfect. It’s genius and hilarious. The world has changed a lot. The writing of the show still holds up, because it’s not apologetic. It’s offensive, and funny, and insulting, and gross, and all these things that people shy away from now. Because everyone is trying to make stuff that’s important. But art is supposed to be offensive, slightly, especially with humor.
This is the final season of “Search Party,” but content never really dies anymore. There’s always potential for a reboot. Do you feel that, when you’re working on a project now?
That is kind of the thing now. Everybody wants to reminisce, so it’s always, like, Remember your favorite show? Let’s bring it back! “Fuller House.” But nobody needs that. But I guess some people did, because it was a huge hit. I’m a little more, like, “I want to move on.” As much as I love “Search Party,” I’m ready to move on. I don’t really want to go back to doing old characters. It’s not worth it.
You’ve mentioned that you were always typecast as a moody teen-ager or an ethnic sidekick. Do you notice any patterns in the roles that are brought to you now?
I gotta say, refreshingly less. It’s not a type, necessarily. But there’s definitely still: a queer Arab; a different, quirky girl. Sure, I guess I check those boxes.
It’s funny. When I was younger, whatever ethnicity the role was I could play it. I had curly hair and freckles. And people were, like,“Yeah, you could be Russian!” I was, like, “Yeah, sure.” But that whole conversation has shifted so much. Nobody used to care about me being half Iraqi. If anything, it was something I used to cover up. You’re trying to fit in. But it’s swung the other way, for optics. I feel like the industry is, like, “We are all about being equal!” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sure, sure. O.K. It’s funny how the industry pats itself on the back before it’s even done anything.
How much do you concern yourself with being an artist and doing a very specific thing, versus being a working actor and getting jobs?
I fluctuate between those two ideas a lot. Something about being an actor is really embarrassing to me. And yet I’m also still really proud to be an actor, and I admire actors. But it’s a battle. There are some moments when I feel like I’m making art, and the work is connected to some unconscious message I’m trying to relay about things I think are important. With “Being the Ricardos” and “Search Party,” I’m really proud to share those stories. Is that always going to be the case? No.
With the streaming services and content being the way it is now, it feels like the studio system again. There are only five slots, and you’ve got to get a deal with one of them. I wonder if that’s going to collapse, where actors become how jokers were in Shakespearean times: actors were the lowest-level job. It’s hard to imagine that now, because actors are so overpaid. They’re looked at as royalty, celebrities. I wonder how many people would still be actors if there wasn’t fame and money attached to it, if it was just a job.
And yet the idea of the “movie star” is becoming obsolete.
There are too many punctures in it. An individual actor can’t get as powerful anymore. That’s what’s so funny about being an actor: your whole life, people just recognize you, and they only see the character that you played. But good actors are people who love people. And that’s hard when you become really recognizable, because you get further and further away from people. People are looking at you like you’re in a cage, and you isolate yourself and start only hanging out with other actors. And then all of a sudden your life experience gets really small, which is really hard for work. If you don’t have life experience and you’re just hanging out at fancy hotels with famous actors all the time, it’s hard to feel like you’re an artist anymore. What am I actually referencing? Just Hollywood parties? That sucks. Life is everywhere. To calm yourself down enough to notice what’s around you and tune in is a really good place to be.
What does painting fulfill for you?
A lot. It’s the opposite of acting, because it’s very internal. Trying to draw an image, and trying to solve it—it’s very satisfying. It’s like writing, where you have to go every day. You might not even paint every day. Sometimes I’ll just sit there and doodle and smoke cigarettes, but eventually something happens. I love it. I’m so grateful for it. In between jobs, you feel a little bit vulnerable, and tired. It’s so fun to wake up, make myself coffee, get dressed, and go to work all day. And to practice getting comfortable being alone again, letting go of whatever I just did, and just sitting with my thoughts.
Carrie Battan began contributing to The New Yorker in 2015 and became a staff writer in 2018.