The Cast of Search Party on That Awkward Sex Scene, Improv on Set, and the Role of Art Post-Election

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L-R: John Reynolds, Alia Shawkat, John Early. Photo: JESSICA MIGLIO/TBS

TBS’s new mystery-comedy show Search Party stars Alia Shawkat as a girl named Dory, who discovers an acquaintance from college, Chantal, has gone missing and becomes obsessed with finding her, roping in her group of friends in the process. The series, produced by Michael Showalter, Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers (Fort Tilden), is both absurd and naturalistic, silly and suspenseful, and its ten-episode first season — currently streaming on TBS.com — has already delighted the hell out of Vulture. Shawkat, along with co-stars John Reynolds and John Early, recently swung by the Vulture TV Podcast to talk about how they got involved with the show, filming awkward sex scenes, skewering millennial culture, and the role of art in a post-Trump world. Listen to our conversation, and read an edited transcript below.

Gazelle Emami: Alia's wearing a beautiful, purple ... blouse?
Alia Shawkat
: Lilac.

John Early: I'm wearing Uniqlo cashmere that's no longer on the market. 

John Reynolds: I'm wearing a white shirt from J.Crew that's very wrinkly. 

GE: John, you played Officer Callahan on Stranger Things, is that right? I noticed there was a little Reddit following for that character.
JR
: Oh, was there?

AS: John, don't pretend you didn't start it.

JR: The best thing is, I'll get random people on Instagram that'll hit me up with their costumes and they're like “the underappreciated character ...”

GE: Do you play a bigger role in season two?
JR
: I'm not allowed to say. But, no. But yeah, I'm not sure what the roles are.

GE: Search Party is such an interesting breed of tones — it mixes mystery, absurdism, satire, naturalism. I'm curious what it was about the script or what was it that drew you to this show?
AS
: I had seen Fort Tilden, which was the film that Sarah Violet-Bliss and Charles Rogers made together. I really loved the sensibility of the commentary on it. It was obviously about a hipster culture and young people who are kind of ... not focused, but without repetitive tropes. And I found it genuinely funny. The actors, I thought their performances were amazing. And then I've been a big fan of Michael Showalter's since Stella, you know, since dildos on a pizza. After that I was like, Oh, I'm very excited about this. We kind of shot it like an independent film — the pilot — so it was like, the idea of committing to a show possibly, but it was really shot like this fun short film. It was like, let's make this cool little thing the way we want and then see what happens.

GE: John Early, you play Dory’s narcissistic friend Elliott, who very much feels based on the character you created for Netflix's The Characters. Was Elliott written with that in mind?
JE
: I did Fort Tilden, and then they asked me to do this. They definitely had my sense of humor in mind so there's definitely some overlap in that with the characters. But I know Elliott is based on someone they know who's a multi-hyphenate who, like, you never quite know what his job is cause it's always in that very vague bubble that is the PR world. So yeah, that was a very easy fit. Because I love to play people who are putting on a front. 

GE: And John Reynolds, can you tell us how you got involved and what you liked?
JR
: How I got involved? Just like, a need for a job. I was pretty late to the cast. But I was lucky to be on something that's so cool and there are people on it that I admire so much. And buddies as well. I just entirely lucked out on being on a good project. So, I'm super grateful for that.

JE: Well also, John is a rising star in the comedy scene. He's a comedy boy.

AS: He loves playing your Dad. Even though he's not one yet.

JR: Yeah, I think I'll peak around 50 or something like that. Whenever they send me scripts, I always respond, "I wish I could play the Dad." That's not going to happen for a little while.

GE: You and Alia play boyfriend and girlfriend on the show: Dory and Drew. We're kind of thrown into their relationship at a strange time in it. It seems like they're having some issues.
AS
: It's because they don't have a good sex life. Someone today called [the sex scene in the pilot] one of the saddest sex scenes they've ever seen. And I was like, "Well, you obviously haven't been in a lot of relationships."

JR: It's so sad, but it's so sweet. 

AS: Yeah, I think their dynamic is, whatever the timeline is, that three-year itch, or five-year, whatever, it is for you. Twenty-seven-year itch. I've heard about that. But, the idea of being with someone and you get into such a comfortable routine that you don't excite each other anymore and you don't really challenge each other to do new things. It’s the place they're at. And it's also part of the impetus that gets Dory to get curious in something so outside of herself. Something really foreign to herself. ’Cause she doesn't really feel like she's finding anything at home. She feels like she's on the same page and not being appreciated, but she's also not bringing a lot of stuff to the relationship anymore and no one gets turned on when you're in that kind of state.

JR: I feel like they love each other and that's clear. But they're not really in love with each other. For whatever reason ...

E. Alex Jung: Do you think they ever were?
AS
: I think they were! I'm offended, I'm like, John, you don't think we ever were?

JR: I think they think they were. Drew probably comes from like, you know, his family's so quote-unquote normal, you get a girlfriend ... you go to college, you get a girlfriend, you get married ... that type of thing. So I'm not sure, from my perspective, if he really knows what it is to be in love. And I'm not sure that he'll find it. Or if he's even actively looking. Or what makes a good relationship. I think he's doing what he thinks he has to do. 

EAJ: So about that sex scene. I love how awkward it was. And also that you're meeting him in a way that he feels comfortable. What was it like shooting that? Because I assume that was one of the first scenes you were doing together and it's a very intimate one.
A
S: I think it was really written that way. So there wasn't a lot of "Okay, let's figure this out!" It was like, we knew what we were doing and we understood the point of the scene and it was funny in itself. We both really tried to make it as realistic as possible. Which made it more awkward. There was no me rolling my eyes, there was no “ugh! God, bad sex, am I right?" It was just, like, what really happens. And we're both ... amazing actors. So I think that's just what happened.

JR: She's so comforting to him. Like, a kiss and a rub. ..

AS: Yeah, and the little tickling your back ... the foot cramping. You made that up. I love that. He's like, "Oh, my foot's cramping ..." I was like, Oh, god.

GE: How much improv happens on the show?
AS
: These two guys improv a lot. 

JE: Yeah, my character's really set up to improvise. As is Meredith's. I think people would be shocked to know how truly silly John [Reynolds] is as a performer and as a person. If they only knew him from this series, but when watching the whole series, I'm so impressed with the way you managed to inject your silliness without it feeling distracting.

GE: There's a moment where Drew goes to confront Julian and after you throw the milkshake, you run away, and you yell this little "Aaah" noise that is a small thing, but that's what made me laugh the most.
JR
: They cut me off, too, but I hand my milkshake to some stranger. To try to pawn it off on him like he did it. You know? It was fun. They just gave you so much freedom to do what you want with the script to make it your own.

JR: And Alia was so good at it, too, where it's like, if we had scenes or lines that didn't feel comfortable to her or didn't feel true to her character, she would switch them up. We would always run the scenes beforehand and then find little nuances that felt more comfortable for us.

JE: Alia's a goddamn pro. But it's true though. I think we were all resigned to say, whatever. We would all memorize lines and be like, sure, and Alia was really like, No, no, let's make sense of this. And let's figure out how to make this the best possible scene. You really changed the game.

AS: It was one of the most collaborative working environments I'd been in. 

JR: I love how like, 'cause there's a couple of real painful or intense scenes with Alia and my character throughout, they were always shot first thing in the morning and it was hell. It's like 5 a.m. ... and I'm expected to snap into this right away.

AS: And then you remember how much you're getting paid and you can get emotional. 

JR: In those scenes, or in those moments, Alia really helped me wake up.

GE: Alia, your character's much more serious than everyone else's. And I really liked your little mannerisms. I don't know if this was conscious, but you do this thing where you inhale kind of sharply, it feels like there's a lot weighing on you.
AS
: [sarcastically] No, yes. That was a choice. Yeah, I think in the sense of, anytime you're playing a character, it's like, I'm definitely not the actor who's like "walk a certain way and talk ..." It's a lot of essences of me. 

JE: But Dory ... has a hunchback, right?

AS: She does. [Laughs.] They edited it on. It cost a lot of money for production. But it was more of like, she was always thinking [of] something else than what was happening in the present moment. And then when she was actually just in the mystery stuff was the time that she was most present. So that was the main thing I tried to be aware of. Even when I'm with my friends, even if the whole time they're talking, even if we're talking about Chantal or the stuff I'm interested in, I'm still like wanting to be like, "Shut up, shut up, shut up ... anyways, this is what I'm going to do." She gets to the point where she becomes this kind of narcissistic person — it's only about what she is thinking. And she becomes delusional in it. Or does she, I don't know. So whatever comes out of that, yeah, probably like weird breathing. Twitches would come out of it too.

GE: And I feel like it could've been so easy for your character, John, to be the annoying boyfriend, but there's so much pathos to him. How did you navigate that — was it all written?
JR
: I don't know. When we did it, it was just the pilot. And then I think maybe in the pilot I added some sort of levity to it that carried out throughout the rest of the season. But when you're playing it, you never want it to come off as purely annoying, because it won't be fun to watch. So possibly I added something ...?

JE: You definitely did.

AS: I was watching with my family, and they were talking to me like I was a soap-opera actress. Like, why would you do that to Drew? And I'm like C'mon, guys. But I think Drew's kind of the most unscathed character at the end, who came along for the ride because he really cared. And maybe his follies were that he was too soft before or something. But at the end, he's kind of the bravest cool one who didn't do anything really wrong. And it's kind of fucked up. 

JR: And I think it's easy to be like, Oh, poor Drew. He's aware of what's going on. And he does some extremely selfish things as well. So I mean, like, he definitely has his moments where he's being a very bad boyfriend. 

EAJ: The show sort of skewers this kind of millennial-Brooklyn culture in a lot of ways. Especially your character, John Early ...
JE
: Thank you.

EAJ: But at the same time, there's a certain calibration that needs to happen where everyone feels lovable, even though they're kind of despicable at the same time. How do you calibrate that?
JE
: It's all a well-tread topic, that people in the past ten years love: They love and hate unlikable characters. It's something that's always written about for some reason, even though there are so many examples prior to this past ten years of, like, iconic unlikable characters that no one seemed to care about. Like Archie Bunker or like Jennifer Saunders's Ab Fab. They're so mean that you just love them. So it is interesting when people get really hooked on that, because, yeah, if a living, breathing person is playing one of those characters, then hopefully the humanity comes through. In my case, I do a lot of overtly bad things. My character has some major lies, ways in which he manipulates his boyfriend ...

To me, where I found out it was easiest to show Elliot was human was when he is in the foursome. When he's out on his own, he's a shark and he's an opportunist. But when he was with the four, wherever we are, and this is just because I was lazy and we were having so much fun together, it was actually really easy to relax into it and show that he needs friends. And he's enjoying their company. And even if he's not showing it on his face, he clearly feels cozy. And he does have a certain wisdom to him that's very much written in. I love his line later in the season: “When are you guys going to realize that lying is a tool?” He has a very firm philosophy that you can't be pure. There's no such thing. You have to play dirty in order to get anywhere in the world. And I think that's a pretty evolved idea. He’s not, like Dory, believing he can have some kind of pure journey towards some kind of authentic life. He's like, fuck that. So he has a world-weary humor and wisdom that comes through. Anyway, I've had a full drink so I'm not answering your question.

GE: This is a little off topic, but I was watching you on Late Night With Seth Meyers, Alia, and you were talking about the election a little bit ...
AS: The what?

GE: That thing that happened. And you were talking about having a Muslim grandmother, which I do as well, so that really resonated with me. But you also talked about how the show taps into this feeling that is in the country right now. Which is that Dory has this lostness about her. And I'm curious, how you guys think about how art can play a role in times like these?
AS
: Definitely. I remember when it happened. It was obviously a very disturbing moment. And I was like, how am I going to go [on Seth Meyers to] talk about a show? I'm so proud of the show, but how am I going to just pontificate about being like "the funniest thing happened the other day ..." It was just, all of a sudden, when you're hit with the reality of your own life, your priorities start to go into question. Which is something that's healthy for everybody, to realize what our real priorities are and how we connect to things. I think there's such a focus on curating yourself now. That even if we're trying to show that we're not trying to have attention or even if we think we're making a joke about ourselves. Nobody's actually very humble. Because it's still a good photo of you, it's still you doing something cool. And you're like "Oh, eating whatever ..."

JE: Another pizza. A whole pizza again

AS: Is that like Zach Braff in the background? What're you trying to say? Everything is this packaged ideal of this perfect life. Even if your life is ever that perfect, because no one's life is. And nothing can be captured that way in a photo or a comment. So I think with this energy, that's so focused in to this inner side of ourselves, we become obsessed with it, and it takes you back from what's happening to other people. I mean, this has been going on for a long time. Shootings have been happening all the time. All these things that we're kind of like, fuck, that sucks. And then we just go back to our life. This one might implicate us. And affect us. It already has. And it's so much more disturbing because of that. We're like, oh, it's actually tapping into my bubble now.

And to bring it back to Search Party on TBS [laughs] is that, a lot of their struggles, especially Dory's, is that feeling. You get numb when you are so detached from things outside of yourself. And why do we feel better when we're in nature? Why do we feel better when we're helping people? It's a natural, human urge to want to do that. Not just to be building this idea of ourselves, because it feels fake. And then you don't actually enjoy your bliss life. I'm like, I'm so privileged and a lot of us were so shocked. And I can't feel guilty forever, but I was like, fuck, I've been going on like this is it. And not appreciating my life. And now the least thing I could do is appreciate yourself. Appreciate your life. Appreciate the love you have. Be nice to the people around you. And then slowly work from there. Because you can't otherwise, if you don't love yourself. And I think a lot of this generation has a hard time accepting themselves because it never feels like enough.

JE: That was gorgeous. I do think, also, just thematically, obviously this was written and made entirely, and edited entirely, before this election, but I do think there's something happening in this week where a lot of people our age, who have been criticized for being apathetic forever, and certainly these characters can be seen as apathetic, but I think it's about them snapping into some sense of purpose through finding this missing girl and seeing them in high-stakes situations where they have to drop the way they present themselves to the world. And so maybe people will find an overlap there that's interesting with the way that this election is making people our age literally take to the streets and fight every day on social media and in person too. And I also think, for young people, the people who don't get to live in beautiful cities like New York or Los Angeles, for the people in the middle of the country who are queer or Muslim or trans or just non-white, who are terrified ... I just know I was when I was living in Tennessee, I needed art like this. I needed art about people who are young and living in cities and had friends. And I'm not talking about Friends

AS: But you are talking about Sex and the City.

JE: But I am talking about Sex and the City. Things get made about people in cities because that's where you shoot things, literally in Los Angeles and New York, but that is so helpful. Because you see these places where you can be yourself and you can have a diverse friend group and you can be among artists. So I do think it's important for those people who are literally trapped in scarier places.

JR: Overall, I think art, and humor, especially, is an escape for me. I've never been much for political humor, like, yeah I get it, but normally, I gear more towards absurdist-surreal stuff. Some people think that political humor is the highest form of our art, but it's like, it didn't do much here. We still got the same outcome. I think it's important, but specifically for this show, and all shows, to show diversity. And if you're going to normalize something, normalize the fact that there are so many different people that are in this world that need to be represented. And to not further the same old stereotypes. Stereotypes obviously resonate with people because they're ingrained in us, and can be funny, but it'll take me out if it's the same old thing being put out in the world to us. Have a new take on it if you're going to have a take on it. And words matter and the images you show matter. If anything, if we have a responsibility, it’s to show new, different types of diversity in the medium.

AS: And how exciting to have new stories. It truly is terrifying, but amazing things come out of these types of things.