This isn’t Alia Shawkat’s first rodeo. Best known for her role as Maeby Fünke on Fox’s Emmy award winning "Arrested Development," Shawkat has been acting in both television and film since she was in her pre-teens. More recently, Shawkat starred in the indie comedy "Cedar Rapids" opposite Ed Helms and John C. Reilly, and Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut "Whip It" alongside Ellen Page and Kristen Wiig.
Although from the outset, Shawkat’s roles in these films couldn’t be more different (in "Rapids" she plays a hooker and in "Whip It" she’s a high school senior headed to Columbia University after graduation), one thing always seems to remain the same: Shawkat’s characters have big opinions and big mouths. This being the case, why should her part in "The Oranges" be any different?
"The Oranges," in select theaters October 5, is a romantic comedy about keeping it in the family – or, in this case, within two families, as the married man of one house, David (Hugh Laurie), falls for the wild child of another, Nina (Leighton Meester). This, of course, leaves all family members (Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Adam Brody) to clean up the mess the two have created; maybe none more so than Shawkat’s character, Vanessa, who plays Laurie’s sarcastic daughter and Meester’s irritated ex-best friend. There is temptation. There is betrayal. There is loss. But above all, there is love and there are laughs.
Indiewire sat down with the young actress to discuss her role in the film, working with director Julian Farino, and the many perks and challenges she encountered on a set with such great talent.
What attracted you to the role of Vanessa?
I was mainly drawn to the fact that she’s kind of a weird choice to be the narrator: normally it’s someone who has a calm perspective, or an omniscient view on the situation taking place in the film, and because of that I thought it was really cool that she’s the one who’s getting to tell this weird story. She isn’t your typical narrator. In a way, Vanessa is kind of misplaced in this whole world — she’s stuck at home; she shouldn’t be there, but she is. I also thought she was really fun. She’s really quick; she has a lot of whip-smart lines… And then when all the cast came together, I was like, this is the coolest thing ever.
As a prejudiced narrator — how did that affect the tone of the film?
I think it gives you more of a choice when you’re deciding who to root for and where your loyalties lie. As a member of the audience, you could be on my side; you could decide to be on Leighton [Meester]’s side for a second; you could also see things from [Catherine] Keener’s perspective; you can decide where you want to go because I’m sort of a biased narrator. If the narrator were a wise old man – like Anthony Hopkins – you’d say ‘oh, he’s already telling us how we should feel about this,’ and ‘he makes sense.’ But because it’s my character recounting the situation, I think it gives the audience more of an opportunity to be objective and take it in as a story, to figure out how they feel about it afterward.
What was it like working with Julian [Farino]?
It was great. He’s one of the sweetest guys and he’s so passionate about this project. That’s so important. Sometimes you work with directors that kind of don’t give a shit, or they do but they’re not focused on the right things — they’re busy worrying about wrapping up for the day and you’re like, ‘well I need a moment with you to really feel like I’m connecting on this scene.’ Julian always gave us all the time in the world and made us feel like each moment was so important. His heart was so in it, and still is. If anything, I’m the most proud of this movie for him. Tonight, I’m so happy for him. I just want it to do well — for him.
I heard there was a little bit of competition between you and Ellen Page when you first saw the script.
Oh shit – yeah, there was. It was kind of funny because she’s one of my best friends. I sat down with Julian and he said, "You know, we’re thinking about Ellen Page for Vanessa" and I was like "Hmmmm." She’s a great actress, a name in the biz — I think she knew that, too. She’s very smart with the films she chooses. She only chooses parts that she’s really right for — I remember her telling me, "I’m not really right for that part, you should do it." And I was like, "Well hopefully I get it!" And then I did.
The film's superb cast includes Hugh Laurie, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Leighton Meester and Adam Brody. How did everyone function together on set?
They’re such amazing actors and on top of it, they’re such awesome people. Everyone has a very specific personality and they all got along so well – which doesn’t happen a lot, especially when you have a lot of experienced actors. I remember one of the first scenes we shot was at the dinner table, when we call Nina on her birthday. I looked around and I was like, "I am in amazing company right now."
In the role of Maeby on "Arrested Development," you deal with a similarly chaotic family environment. How do you prepare to play a character amidst so much conflict: do you draw from life experiences?
I think we all think we have dysfunctional families; in comparison, my family is very sane and sweet, though there’s definitely some natural dysfunction in there. I guess I’ve always been drawn to roles that have smart characters commenting on what’s happening around them. When it’s written well, it makes the sarcasm more truthful, and funny — I like to do comedies. I’ve been lucky, though, that the certain projects I’ve gotten to do are really well written.
As an actor who has been working since a young age, can you relate to Vanessa’s feeling of being ‘stuck’?
As an actress, you never know when you’re going to work again – and there’s so much dependency on working. I’ve found work always comes the minute you say, "It’s just work." When you focus on life, on enjoying and connecting with other people, that’s when work comes. When you focus on work, you can never work. I’m always going through waves of that.
Was there a big obstacle for you as an actor during the production, a mountain you had to climb?
Well — maybe a small hill. We had our two great writers, Jay and Ian, on set with us all the time, and everyone was much more involved; in that way, it was much more like a TV production. In TV shows, the writers have almost just as much say as the directors, whereas in movies, the director can have tunnel vision and be like, "This is exactly what I want, and no one else has a say"; and then you’re left saying, "Well alright, fuck." While that was good that everyone was so involved, it was also challenging because scenes would change constantly, even the ending, and it would become something very different.
A part of me — especially working on something like "Arrested Development," where they do write a lot of stuff last minute – is used to that style. But with "Arrested Development," since it’s such purely crazy comedy, it’s easier to plug it in because the rhythm of the show is unique and different. But with this, I needed it to be based in reality. Even though it’s a comedy, the comedy is coming out of the realism. The biggest challenged I’d face were when shit would change last minute and I’d be like "I’d been preparing to come at it from this angle, I need to know what’s happening!" But Julian was always able to bring it back around to make sure I felt good about it.
You’ve done a lot of independent films: is there something special about the independent film community for you?
Definitely. First of all, a lot of the better scripts I read are independent films, cause they’re much riskier, unafraid. Because I’m not a big box office hitter yet, I have a lot of opportunity to read these types of scripts. I’ve worked a lot with new directors, and some have turned out to be the greatest experiences I’ve ever had and some have turned out to be some of the worst. It’s very tricky. With independent film, as an actor, you have more involvement — it’s very much more connected. It’s not just like I’m showing up and there’s another actor on the call sheet; you’re very attached to it.
As an actor, you just want to find stories that haven’t been told yet – or stories that are weird and cool that you actually want to tell – and that definitely comes out a lot more in independent films. There’s no big studio showing up on set that’s gonna be like, "She can’t say that word," or, "That part’s too strange, you gotta clean it up." It’s completely "What do you think?"…"What do you want to do?" — which is what it should be.
This film was especially great because it was able to bring in high caliber professionals without losing its indie roots: the script and art and the performances came first in every way. They weren’t trying to soften the edges just to make it palatable.
Nina asked David in the film, "If there were no rules, would you…" and I was wondering: if there were no rules, what would you do?
Oh, gosh. No rules. That’s a good question. You like to think you live your life with no rules, and this seems like a lame answer, but because I’m an actor, when I’m working… I can’t cut my hair. I have to have a certain look, and sometimes I wonder — what if I was a musician, you know, what would I look like?
What would you look like?
I don’t know, maybe I’d have a shaved head. Who knows? Maybe I’d be living in fucking India. I don’t know if I’d live in Hollywood and I don’t know if I’d look like this, so – maybe this will all change some day.