Career Prospectus: Alia Shawkat
(For previous installments of Career Prospectus, please click here.)
I've loved Alia Shawkat for a very, very long time. I remember watching State of Grace, then she went on to star in one of my favorite shows of all time, and one that was egregiously canceled, Arrested Development. Shawkat has a tendency to go away for a while, or at least I don't remember seeing her in anything, and I become afraid that no one will give her a job. After a few good, supporting roles in The Runaways and Whip It, I thought maybe things were looking up for her since those movies had (more) popular actors. Shawkat tends to do a lot of independent films that rarely get any exposure, which contributes to why people are largely unaware of her staggering, young talent and that gorgeous, freckled face. I love her down-to-earth attitude and the fact that she's best friends with some of my other favorite young actors/actresses: Mae Whitman, Ellen Page, Ezra Miller, Logan Lerman, Sarah Ramos, Miles Heizer, etc. Anyway, what are the prospects for someone like Shawkat who stands out because of her unconventional looks and gets small roles here and there? Even with the popularity of Arrested Development, she is definitely not the star of the franchise.
I’ve always had a touch of bitterness that Arrested Development could foist Michel Cera onto us but not do the same for Alia Shawkat. She is so talented and has such a natural knack for comedy, it really is only a matter of time before she gets the right part in the right project and launches into the atmosphere. Shawkat is kind of a female Neil Patrick Harris. During the Tonys liveblog we talked about NPH and how he’s only just now, at 40, really beginning to be widely appreciated for the talent that he is, and that he likely won’t be truly celebrated until 50. I’m not saying Shawkat will have to wait twenty years for people to sit up and notice her, but there is a sense that her time is not yet. She’s just 24 and has a lot going on; she doesn’t have to be in a hurry.
But there’s no need to worry about her getting work—Shawkat works A LOT. On top of Arrested Development, she has four films slated for this year, including Aubrey Plaza’s The To Do List, and is already at work on another film for 2014. And it’s been that way ever since Arrested Development went off the air in 2005—she’s averaged about four projects a year between then and now. They’re not blockbusters, no, but she’s working consistently and with good people, and the roles are ever-improving. Night Moves in particular looks good, featuring Shawkat alongside Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard, and is slated for September of this year. That and The To Do List are the most accessible projects she’s had since 2011’s Cedar Rapids.
Shawkat does need something to help her connect with audiences, though. Arrested Development is a good springboard, but she’s been a consistent supporting player in movies. She’s never the one the audience is rooting for, so she needs an indelible role in a project with a wider reach than AD. Television success is like franchise success: It opens doors, sure, but audiences are often more attached to the character than the actor. And though in Shawkat’s case AD served as an education from one of the finest comedy institutions in the country, she has to overcome Maeby Funke and establish herself as a brand outside of AD. Cera made the leap in 2007 with the combination of Superbad and Juno, one a raunchy comedy and the other a more thoughtful character-driven piece. Shawkat has a similar combo coming up with The To Do List (a raunchy comedy) and Night Moves (a character showcase).
Did you know Shawkat is also an artist? She is, and unlike James Franco, it’s not annoying. Maybe it’s because she’s not yet so famous that her every move is reported, but it’s probably because she doesn’t posture all the time and bang on about being an Artiste. But she’s quite good—there’s a Matthew Barney vibe to her drawings —and she’s had gallery shows in the US and Paris. That’s not really just dabbling; at that point, that’s a viable second career. Not unlike Jeremy Renner and his contracting business, if you’ve got another revenue stream, it does take some of the pressure off your acting career choices. This is why she doesn’t have to rush into anything—she can afford a little patience and make movies to please herself, not just her bank account.
So to sum up, Shawkat is too talented and Arrested Development is too much a cultural moment for her to sink into oblivion, but she also has a lot going on. She’s nurturing an art career and she has a kind of slow-burn appeal. Sure, we know about her now, but like NPH her charms get better with age. She’s likely to be a That Girl for a while before really coming out of her shell and taking center stage. And along with her coterie of friends, including Ellen Page, she’s into writing and producing and directing—she’s part of this first post-Movie Star generation that needs the hyphenates to create job security. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see her find her spotlight with a project she created and developed for herself, a la Lena Dunham. And unlike Dunham, she already has a fan base that adores her, which ought to spare her from such a vicious backlash. Her future is bright. Very bright.