Her name is as difficult to remember as her face is hard to forget. With more than 60 television and movie roles to her credit, 27-year-old Alia Shawkat is currently one of cinema’s most in-demand actresses. Her latest, Green Room, a thriller about a down-on-their-luck punk band that unwittingly stumbles upon a murder scene, opens Friday.
One can’t help but treasure many of the characters Shawkat hooks up with (three faves: Salma in Amreeka, Camille in Bart Got a Room, and Bree in Cedar Rapids), but it’s the manner in which she chooses to play them that continues to win critic’s and audience’s admiration. Expect great things.
Scott Marks: You’ve been in the business for 16 years. I was going to say that you have an impressive resume for someone your age, but your credits would be impressive at any age. When were you first bitten by the acting bug, as they say?
Alia Shawkat: I was nine years old. I grew up in Palm Springs. Even when I was six, I remember watching a show called All That. It was kind of like a kid’s SNL. It was the first time I had seen kids my age performing on TV. I approached my mom about and kind of begged her. By the time I was the ripe old age of nine, we decided to have headshots taken and sent to people.
No one responded. When my mom followed up, we were told, “She’s a little too ethnic.” That was their response. So I went to L.A. on a cattle call for a manager. You have to audition with all these kids, and within a week I got narrowed down and picked out of the group of kids. I had an agent within two weeks. And it all seemed very normal. I really wanted it. My mom was just going along for the ride. She wasn’t actively pushing it. And it all seemed easy.
My first job was a Barbie commercial. Then I auditioned for and got the part of an Iraqi refugee in David O. Russell’s Three Kings. That was the beginning of it. Looking back, it was something that made sense and that I had to do.
SM: Your father, Tony, is an actor who also appears in the film.
AS (Laughing): He was. Yeah. He’s from Baghdad. He and David O. Russell hit it off and he became an advisor on the shoot. He was helping with languages and certain turns of phrase, and David put him in as the “Slim Jim” guy. My dad got his SAG card from that movie. It was a three-month shoot and with my dad and mom there it was a familial, safety-first project.
SM: You play a pivotal role on one of my favorite comedies of the past ten years. Here’s a hint: Butterscotch.
AS (Laughing): Yeah! Cedar Rapids. That’s one of my favorite movies.
SM: Miguel Arteta is a rarity among today’s writer/director’s in that he knows how to write full-bodied secondary characters.
AS: Definitely. Where it’s like a full world. Miguel and I are very close. We’re actually working on a project together. That was really an amazing job for me, and we became very dear friends from that movie. You do these films sometimes that not a lot of people see, and it means a lot to me when they work for people.
SM: How do you feel when you get the call saying, “Hey, Alia, we’re casting a part that we think you’re perfectly suited to play: a ditzy coke whore.”
AS (Laughing): Right. The character of Bree is Cedar Rapids was more of like a hooker with a heart of gold. She’s the classic kind of girl who knows she’s on the wrong track but thinks she’s get out of there by meeting someone who wants her heart. Because Miguel is such a great creative partner we got to spend a lot of time…. I had met him through Michael Cera when they did Youth in Revolt, and we were very close during the time I did Whip It. We started talking about it back then. I decided I wanted to dye my hair blonde. He was game, but the studio was like, “Who is this? What are we doing?” He really fought for me and we were able to make these great choices. I was honored to play Bree…as messed up as she was. (Laughing.)
SM: You grew up in Palm Springs. Any brushes with the late Bob Hope?
AS: No. My mom’s father was an actor in the ’50s and ’60s. He had a weekend home in Palm Springs, and that how I ended up there. When my grandfather got older, he decided to retire in the desert. Then my mom met my father and they decided to open a business in the desert. So it was this “weekend world” that brought us there. Bob Hope was a friend of my grandfather’s. My grandfather was very much a part of that world.
SM: Do you mind my asking your grandfather’s name?
AS: Paul Burke.
SM: Sure! Naked City, Valley of the Dolls…I’m familiar with his work. Okay. Enough ancient history. Let’s get down to the reason for the call. How is it that you came to be cast as the bassist in the Ain’t Rights?
AS: Well, I’m the guitar player. (Laughing.)
SM (Blushing): At least I didn’t say drummer.
AS (Laughing): I had worked with the producers Neil [Kopp] and Anish [Savjani] on this film we shot in Portland a couple of years ago, Kelly Reichart’s Night Moves. They were trying to cast this role which was originally written for a guy. They were struggling because the guy they cast had fallen out. You know, movies. By the time you get the money…it’s like herding kittens, very hard to get everyone together. I was actually out of the country vacationing with some friends in Berlin. I got an email with the script. They were going to begin shooting in Portland in less than two weeks. I was one of the only girls they’d consider to play the part.
Me and a couple of guys going up for the same part? I was flattered to do it. I taped an audition, sent it, and less than a day later [director] Jeremy Saulnier was like, Let’s do it!” Within two days I was in Portland rehearsing with the band. I wound up being one of the best moviemaking experiences of my life. I got to be in a band in Portland. It was pretty neat, but it all happened very fast, as most good things do I guess.
Green Room official trailer
SM: This isn’t your first horror film which leads me to the question, is Green Room a horror film?
AS: When I hear the way Jeremy describes it, it’s almost like a hardcore movie. When I think of horror — and I’m not the biggest horror fan — it’s almost like, gimmicky. There has to be certain traits and certain rules in order to make it a horror movie. This is just terrifying. It’s about a punk band…and then shit goes wrong. It’s very realistic, and even though it’s terrifying, there’s no gimmicks, nothing cheap, no scare tactics. I’d say it’s horrific, but not necessarily in the horror genre.
SM: With the jackboots and the armbands and the Jeeps all under the control of an evil capitalist, is there a better political climate in which to release the picture?
AS (Laughing): I think there’s a natural timing to the way certain art…the power in the timing of when art is released. It is obviously a violent film and in a way it is commenting in some kind of political nature, but at the same time, what I take from the film — and one of the reasons why Jeremy made it — is it’s about something like punk rock that has a passion and fervor and energy to its music. It’s not negative. It’s not related to just Nazis or skinheads. With passion and with a certain kind of anger and rage comes this dark side of people.
People share this kind of music, but that’s not to say punk is evil. They’re just a bunch of innocent kids playing this music. It’s something that is alive and in the moment; you can only experience it when you’re there at a show. It’s also a dying art. Punk music isn’t really alive anymore. It something to think back on and reminisce. There is something to be said about the intent of what punk brings and what these characters connect to and how it can be misinterpreted. So in a way, if you reflect that on the times, an evil mind can take something good and make it evil again. But I don’t think the film is trying to promote any specific sides. It’s about how that in itself is scary, that we can take something like America and misinterpret it.