sundance 2019

Alia Shawkat’s Quiet Rebellion

Photo: Ryan Pfluger for Vulture

Alia Shawkat’s career could be described as a study of women’s intimate relationships with each other. One of her earliest starring roles, 2001’s State of Grace, was a sweet portrait of a friendship between a young Jewish girl and her Catholic best friend; as an adult, the majority of her projects (Wild Canaries, The Intervention, Paint It Black, Transparent, Search Party, Duck Butter, among others) focus thoughtfully on the intricate dynamic — romantic or otherwise — between Shawkat’s character and another woman. It’s something of a radical act in an industry where films centering on even one woman are often considered unsellable. Shawkat’s latest project, Animals, which premiered this week at Sundance, is no exception — and it grapples directly with the notion that women’s lives and stories don’t really get started until they find a man to share them with.

In Animals, directed by Sophie Hyde and based on Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel, Shawkat plays Tyler, a free-spirited, wild-partying young woman who spends her nights — and days — being generally debaucherous in the streets of Dublin with her best friend, Laura (Holliday Grainger). The two inhabit their own chaotic, tenuous bohemian paradise: Draped in furry coats and spangled jumpsuits inside Tyler’s ramshackle-glam apartment, Laura works on her long-gestating novel while Tyler mixes cocktails and dips her fingers into a gigantic mason jar full of cocaine. But when Laura meets a man she wants to settle down with, Tyler is clearly threatened and terrified to lose her best friend. As Laura’s life veers toward the mundane, Tyler’s becomes messier, and the bonds of their friendship are stretched and tested. The film is funny and surprising and moving, avoiding Trainwreck-style cliches about women cleaning up and settling down, while asking genuine questions about the choices they’re expected to make. I sat down with Shawkat at a cozy restaurant in Park City to talk about her own hard-partying phase, how she found balance and self-love, the pilot she’s writing — and why she shaved off all of her hair.

What number Sundance is this for you?
My fifth!

You’re an old pro now.
Oh, yeah. I’ve got it down pat.

You have a tendency to star in projects that deal with an intimate relationship between two women. Is that something you look for consciously?
Yeah, that’s true. I think that women’s relationships, romantic or friendships or familial, are really fascinating. And also a lot of the people I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with — in this case with Sophie, Emma, and Holliday — we just really connected in wanting to make projects for the right reasons. So it’s just where my interest lies right now. I relate to it, I get it, I don’t think there are enough of them.

What are your own friendship and relationship dynamics with women in your life like, and how do you bring them into the films you make?
For sure. Not to belittle myself as an actor, but I’m not the kind of actor where I completely transform into a role. It’s very much myself that I bring into it, usually different stages of my life, or focusing on one insecurity and examining it, just kind of fleshing that part out. There’s lots of pieces of me. Duck Butter was very personal because I wrote it, and it was about a time in my life where I related to Naima in many ways. In this one, Tyler — I like to go out, socialize and drink. I don’t do it as consistently as she does, but I just kind of focused on that bad part of me that is a real social butterfly and likes to party as if there is no tomorrow. [Laughs.] But I just know I have to be healthy and go to work so I usually stop for a little while.

It was kind of fun, and also — not necessarily hard but interesting, to see that balance. When you push yourself too far, getting too fucked up, using up all your energy just for that, it gets a little draining. I was sitting in that space a lot. And we were also in Ireland, so I was doing a lot of method acting. [Laughs.]

A lot of beer drinking?
A lot of Guinness. A lot.

Did you ever have a Tyler-esque phase?
For sure, yeah. It wasn’t as big on the drugs scene — I’d smoke pot. I never did, like — I grew up in the desert. There’s nothing going on there. We’d try to find drugs all the time, and it wouldn’t necessarily be real drugs, and we’d be waiting for it to kick in. Just lots of wanting to get so fucked up, as fucked up as possible.

The thing with Tyler that’s interesting is that she’s frozen in it. She’s almost 30 and she’s acting like this carefree 19-year-old who’s like, “Fuck it! I can wake up the next day …” and it’s just starting not to look so good on her. And I think she’s unaware. It’s funny for me to watch. When I was making it, I was like, “She’s such a fun girl, she’s so relatable, she’s having such a good time!” And then when I watched it, I was like, “She’s kind of a sad character.” She has these one-liners, it’s a little cheesy. She’s a sad person who’s not self-aware or knows what’s happening.

She reminded me a little bit of a young Miss Havisham.
Oh, I don’t know that!

Oh, from Great Expectations.
Oh, yeah, yeah. [Laughs.] She has some kind of grandioseness about her. She just wants to be taken care of, and if there’s not an audience, it’s a little sad.

Do you buy into the idea that women have to “grow up”? And have you?
Yeah. I wouldn’t call it growing up, but yeah. You have to have a routine. You have to be healthy. I don’t believe that a tortured artist makes the best work. It works for some people, but it wouldn’t last. I’ve been getting in a routine, starting to write again. I have to go to sleep at a certain hour. I have to work out. Eat healthy. It just creates positive work and more energy. And you have all these experiences that might be somewhat debaucherous, or traveling, meeting new people, putting yourself in new environments. But you come back and cleanse yourself and put out what you just saw. It’s the mix of both. You have to have the time to get something out, an idea.

It’s so hard for artists, especially with a certain lifestyle — you could just bounce from one things to the next. And a lot of that is these party environments — “But we’re getting to know each other on this deep level!” And it’s like, “Yeah, but if I don’t have an hour or two to myself today, I’m not gonna be able to communicate with anybody.” I’m gonna be drained forever.

Are you an introvert?
I think I’m both. I’m very sociable and know lots of people, and then I’ll sort of cut off and be like, “Oh, I’m not gonna talk to anyone for two days. I gotta go on a walk and cook myself a long slow breakfast and not talk to anybody and do the crossword.” Then I’m ready to socialize again.

Are you in L.A. or New York?
I’m in L.A. now.

So it’s probably easier for you to retreat there.
It is. I have a home base that’s really set up and spread out. I have a beautiful house and my family lives next door. It’s really nice.

Animals also reckons with the way that women are expected to “behave” and look and act in public. Is this something you think about as a public person?
Definitely. I’ve always been frustrated by it, since I was younger. Now that I’m older, I’m starting to be more comfortable being myself, whatever version that is, and trusting it. I used to have a lot of questions about what it meant to be desirable, to be feminine, to be smart, to be successful. All of those things where women have, more so than men, a cheat sheet: “Well, this is what works for most people.” And you’re like, “Okay, but I don’t fit in this one. This didn’t work out for me.”

Even just realizing I was bisexual was a huge thing for me. I was like, “Wait, I don’t have to dress any certain way to attract a certain type of person.” I just have to be the way that I’m comfortable, and you end up drawing the right soul. It’s an endless amount of rules that just keep going. The state is still trying to control our bodies. It gets really frustrating. But I feel lucky that I get to be one artist of many who’s trying to talk about these kinds of things. Because it influences all my work. It’s all I want to do. I still get so frustrated — even my dad, who I love and we’re so close, if he says something and I feel like he doesn’t understand me, I’m like, [faux-screams] “YOU DON’T GET IT!!!” [Laughs.] I lose it. I’m like, “Well, you may think this is what I’m supposed to do, but!”

We’re all trying to find our own ways of rebellion. And then also a calm understanding, a way to communicate. That’s what I’m trying to figure out: How do calmly communicate exactly what’s going on, because the patriarchy has nonstop emotionalized everything we do, then made us feel insecure about our emotions. It’s a double attack. Now that I’ve gotten older, with therapy and intellectualizing, I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t really feel bad about that, actually. They just made me think I had to feel bad about that.”

Right, we can’t win.
Right. I’m like, “So I’m not in a monogamous relationship, but I am having fun and made to feel satisfied.”  But I’m made to feel like something’s wrong with me. We have to really unteach ourselves these things. All of our mothers, too — there’s great ones and bad ones. I’m lucky with my mom, but there’s still lots of rules she was taught with her mom, where I’m like, “That’s not the case with me anymore. I’m not carrying it on.” And you have to set these rules and really practice them for them to feel real again.

Totally. As a queer woman, it’s even harder.
Everybody’s used to the normal, so everything else seems abnormal. Eventually hopefully we’ll get to that point.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about your clothing and its relationship to your sexuality — I think about that a lot, the way fashion can act as a queer indicator.
Totally. I love clothes and expressing myself. It means a lot to my identity. It’s how I feel comfortable and express myself. But it’s evolved so much. It used to feel a lot more like role-play. You put on the clothes for the person you want to be that night. I used to feel a lot more like I’d dress really femme for certain environments, then a teenage boy in others. I didn’t feel bad about it, but I was like, “There is some disconnection here, in sexualizing myself.” And feeling like I had to keep that in a very specific folder. And now I feel sexy and comfortable and a lot more connected. If I want to dress a certain way, it’s because it’s how I feel — not like, “I should dress this way for this group, because then I’ll fit in.”

Especially as an actor, there are these red-carpet events. And nobody means it badly, but everyone’s pushing a certain idea of what they want you to look like. I’m just like, “If I don’t feel comfortable and it doesn’t feel like me, I’m not wearing it.”

Do you have to push back a lot?
The people I work with are supercool and understand it. I’m not one of those actors putting a style together.

What’s the vibe today?
Today is “Ice Warrior.” [Points to her black Issey Miyake dress, black turtleneck, and combat boots.] When I shaved my head, I was like, “I need to get something that makes me feel like a warrior.” I wanted heavy boots and futuristic-looking kinda stuff.

Can we talk about the clothes in this movie? Because they’re amazing. That one coat you wear especially. Where are they from?
The wardrobe designer, Renate Henschke, she’s Australian but also lived in Dublin for years. She’s so fucking talented, she’s so creative. There’s a part, very short, where there are these kids running around with animal heads — and she made the animal heads. She has the best style ever and she’s so intuitive; the wardrobe fittings were such a blast. At the end, they had a big sale, and there were just racks of these clothes. It was a mix of vintage, some rentals. My silver boots, which I loved, were rentals.

Did you take the coat?
I didn’t take the coat, because I was like, “I’m not gonna wear this as much as I thought I would.” But every day, in my trailer, the little room we got, I’d get dressed up and take photos and really pose, which I never do. But Tyler had these outfits. So I’d have a cigarette rolled and try on these outfits before I went to set. It got me in this flamboyant mood, like, I am killing it right now! [Laughs.] Normally I don’t even look in the mirror before I leave the house. I’m like, Yep, that’ll do it! And just run out. It was fun to feel fabulous in that way.

Are you writing anything right now?
I am. I’m writing a pilot for a show about me and my family. It’s going really well. It’s something I’ve been wanting to write in a weird way my whole life. But I finally got to a place where I was outside of it enough, met an amazing collaborator, we’ve been working. It’s been nice a Sundance, I’ve seen two autobiographical fictional films based off of people’s lives. Honey Boy and The Souvenir. And The Souvenir is about a young artist, too, finding her way through sex and family and privilege. It’s really encouraging. Sometimes you write something personal and you’re like, “Who gives a shit? I just think it’s fascinating because it’s my story.” But when you watch it and it works — like, watching Honey Boy, it hit me. I really was affected. When something is honest enough, it hits everybody. It was a good boost, like, “Right, it is good to tell your own story.” Not all of us are the Coen brothers, where it’s like, “All right, we’re in outer space, holy shit!”

So it’s not set in space?
It’s set in the desert. Kind of like space. It takes place where I grew up, in Palm Springs.

When can we expect it?
Ideally we do one more season of Search Party, and then I’ll hop on to the next thing. I’m getting it ready so we can start it as soon as possible.

You told me earlier you shaved your head for Search Party. But you can’t tell me why.
No, it would be a spoiler. My head is already a spoiler!

How long did you have to have it shaved for?
We did it the last day. And then shot the scenes that needed it. It was an interesting process. My hair was a very specific look for me, too, and part of my identity. We have a lot of attachment to hair. It felt really freeing to let it go. I was really nervous in the days leading up to it.

Will you keep it?
Yeah, I’m in no rush. I love it. It’s so easy.

Whenever women shave their heads in pop culture, it’s always supposed to mark some radical change. Did you get that sort of reaction?
Yeah, people thought I lost something. People were like, “Did you lose something in your life?” Everyone has projections and a lot more for women. I see guy actors all the time who shave their head, and everybody is like, “Nice cut!” Nobody is like, “What made you DO that?!” There was, when I was in Palm Springs walking my parents’ dog, this woman who is very sweet but very square. She was like, “Oh my god! What happened?” I was like, “Oh, I did it for a role.” She was like, “Oh, otherwise I just thought you were insane!” I was like, “… Well! Good thing you don’t have any daughters.” It’s fucking great. I’m always in a steadier space and it takes me no time to get ready. I just put argan oil on it. I think more women should do it.

At one point in the movie, the question “What kind of person are you?” is asked. How would you answer that?
When I’m asking Laura? That’s such a big question. I weirdly know for myself in ways that I can’t express, more than I ever have. Everything I say is going to sound cheesy. I’m a person who’s getting better at trusting my instincts. Sometimes I go against them, but I have a strong voice that’s like, “Trust this.” Whether it’s work or who to hang out with or where to go, time to leave, time to go. I’ve just been trusting and following my gut a lot more than I ever have.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Alia Shawkat’s Quiet Rebellion