I’m walking down a muddy path with Alia Shawkat—best known as Maeby Fünke from cult comedy series Arrested Development and unwitting slacker sleuth Dory on Search Party, whose second season premieres this weekend on TBS—surrounded by cornstalks at least eight feet high. We’ve been pretty much flummoxed since we entered this leafy four-acre labyrinth at Forneris Farms in Mission Hills, CA, and it didn’t take me long to realize that a corn maze isn’t the ideal venue for an interview. But Alia’s a good sport. And I feel like the setting, coupled with copious doses of weed oil, has allowed her thoughts to wander, like we’ve been doing for over an hour. I’ve actually managed to learn quite a bit.
Alia was born and raised in Palm Springs, in the California desert. She started acting at nine, first appearing in David O. Russell’s schizophrenic Gulf War heist film Three Kings, and has been working in Hollywood consistently since. She frequently attends poker and game nights at her buddy Aubrey Plaza’s house.
Alia wears jeans, a fitted white top and a floppy camouflage boonie hat to shade her from an unseasonably brutal late-October sun. One can’t help but notice that her skin is covered with freckles and an assortment of peculiar tattoos. “Mister Baby,” a reference to Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, was her first. She got it when she was 18 and shooting Whip It in Detroit. She has a cartoon face on her forearm, the word “MUTANT” across her shoulder, and five or six others. None of them has “a divine importance,” except the one on her arm that says “Lurker,” which she got in remembrance of a friend who passed away.
“I’ve never snowboarded without being brought down by an emergency vehicle. Happened twice in one trip.”
Due to the narrowness of the pathways, I’m forced to trail behind Alia, holding my iPhone out in front of me, hoping for a decent recording of whatever she says. She keeps a brisk pace. When I ask what’s been on her mind lately, she stops for a moment and takes a deep breath. “It’s been a weird year since the election, I guess. I’m starting to feel like the emperor was wearing no clothes with a lot of things. And I don’t even wanna act like everything’s okay, ’cause it’s not.”
I sense the weed oil really kicking in for her when she offers up a recent dream:
“I was with my friend and we were driving. She was driving. And we were getting onto a freeway, and there was a bunch of cars going the same direction we were, and then, on the other end, a bunch of cars coming at us. It’s like somebody had switched the lanes without telling them. Like a bunch of cars going, gzzzzzz, like straight into each other. And my friend quickly pulls over to the left, and we just miss it. And all these cars go ba-ba-ba-ba and, like, pile up like cz-cz-cz-cz—like the craziest, biggest car crash ever.” (Describing this dream, Alia’s more animated than she’s been all day. My attempts to spell-out her emphatic sound effects don’t do them justice.) “And, like, the crunching of the bod… The noises. And I just remember sitting there with my hands over my ears, being like, Oh my god, the noise.”
Alia has vivid dreams often and is in the habit of getting them down every morning as soon as she wakes up. Last night she had a dream about being trapped on a spaceship, deep underground. Maybe that one helps illuminate why skipping town is what she loves doing more than anything else. “I like to go to Marfa. I feel very encouraged creatively there.” But beyond her sincere affection for the place, it’s the sense of variety that she responds to most. "For me to grow as an individual, I like to be in environments by myself. New environments. I can never really be too settled with one thing for too long. I crave something different all the time.”
She tells me the greatest experience of her life was the two weeks she spent traveling solo around India by rail, which I can assure you, as someone who’s done the same, is no joke. A trip like that takes gusto, grit and a genuine passion for adventure—qualities Alia possesses in spades.
She’s back in L.A. for the foreseeable future, working on the new season of Arrested Development—"The never-ending show.” She talks about the adjustment of going back to being only an actor after becoming so involved in the production of Search Party, serving as a producer and collaborating in the writer’s room in addition to playing Dory. Returning to Arrested is taking a step back, in more ways than one. “We’re on sets I was on when I was 14 years old—like, the exact same sets. Playing the same character as I did so long ago is really odd. I was so young, I kind of didn’t understand what it was. I didn’t even think about acting that much; I was like, Ah, just say the lines.”
Alia truly appreciates the opportunities she’s had to expand her role behind-the-scenes on Search Party, and sees much more of that in her future. She describes the second season of this darkly comic series—about a group of self-absorbed New York millennials investigating the disappearance of a friend—as less Nancy Drew, more Hitchcock. With the original mystery solved, a new, much more serious event has taken place and brought with it greater emphasis on Dory’s increasing paranoia over what’s really real and who she can trust.
The other project Alia’s most jazzed about at the moment is a feature called Duck Butter, which she co-wrote with director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt, The Good Girl, Beatriz at Dinner) and co-produced with Artera and the Duplass Brothers. She was deeply involved in every aspect of the low-budget film, the second act of which takes place in the course of 24 hours and was shot in real-time, mainly at her house. "It was the most thrilling thing to make. It was all I thought about all day, every day for six months.” She hesitates for a beat at a fork in the corn, then leads left.
Aside from all the acting, writing, producing and travelling, Alia likes to spend as much time as possible drawing and painting in her studio downtown. "It kind of makes me feel the best. It’s the most instantly gratifying. Acting is too, but you don’t get the gratification of the product until a year later, or more. But with drawing, even if it’s not finished, there’s something really satisfying about doing it with your hand, right there, you know? Makes me feel like I worked all day.” She refers to her artworks—which come with titles like dick snatcher, duck girl, swords and regret—as “graphic cartoons,” and lists influences such as Ralph Steadman, George Grosz and R.J. Kitaj.
“You think anyone gets stuck in here when the sun goes down?” she says. At this point we’ve been in the maze for almost two hours.
“I didn’t mention this earlier,” I say. “But I’ve never not gotten completely lost in a corn maze, to the point of needing to be saved.” Talk about search party.
She laughs, unfazed. “I’ve never snowboarded without being brought down by an emergency vehicle. Happened twice in one trip.” She looks around. “Are we backtracking?”
Even if we are, Alia’s a bona fide expert at finding her way—from child actor to TV star, accomplished visual artist, writer, producer—and making it all appear effortless. We round a corner and come up against another infuriatingly identical crossroads of stalks. She chooses a path, and I follow.