Alia Shawkat, Through the Looking Glass

What the Search Party actress has learned from her tabloid year.

Photo: Kelia Anne MacCluskey
Photo: Kelia Anne MacCluskey

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One morning last fall, happily stoned and painting alone in her art studio, Alia Shawkat realized her name was trending on Twitter. Photos of the actress walking out of a Los Angeles playhouse alongside Brad Pitt had just been published, and both the baser and ostensibly nobler segments of the internet were agog. “I was like, I don’t believe this,” says Shawkat in late May from her sunny Los Angeles kitchen, where she’s just woken up a little before 11:30 a.m., yanked on a bright-blue pullover, and FaceTimed me, looking glowy and a little sleepy. As she recounts the story, she alternates between smoking a cigarette and sipping a green smoothie, occasionally gesticulating with an oversize blue lighter. “All my friends were like ‘What’s going on?’ and sending me photos,” she says. “I just felt overwhelmed. It’s that feeling of being naked in school, like, Oh my God, everyone’s looking at me.

The blurry paparazzi snaps began in earnest after Shawkat, 31, and Pitt, 56, were spotted at that playhouse, at Mike Birbiglia’s one-man show, at a Thundercat concert, at In-N-Out burger, at one of Shawkat’s gallery shows, and at Kanye West’s opera. The photos would be utterly mundane — the two laugh and hug in matching fedoras and blazers or quietly ponder a fast-food menu — if not for the fact that Pitt’s dating life has long been dissected with the fervor of one billion unhinged scientists.

To get it out of the way: “We’re not dating. We’re just friends,” says Shawkat. (I believe her, if only because she is so honest about how horny she’s been during lockdown.) “I’ve gotten press, but not like that,” she adds, her level, scratchy baritone belying her irritation. “Not so uncontrollable.”

By early June, though, when Shawkat began trending on Twitter again, that frivolous sort of press seemed a preferable reality to her. In 2016, Shawkat appeared on a panel at South by Southwest; a clip from the interview popped back up in the news after a Twitter user found it and called out Shawkat for quoting a Drake lyric that included the N-word. Shawkat immediately apologized. “I am deeply sorry and I take full responsibility,” she wrote. “It was a careless moment, one I’m ashamed and embarrassed by, but vow to continue to learn from. I regret using a word that carries so much pain and history to black people, as it is never a word to be used by someone who is not black.”

A few days after the video resurfaced, Shawkat and I FaceTimed again. Getting called out, she tells me, was “humbling in an intense way,” a disturbing reflection of herself that she couldn’t square with her own self-image. Though the publicity resulting from the Pitt photos was annoying for Shawkat, the whole thing was ultimately positive from an image perspective, the sort of publicity many a celebrity has quite literally paid for. But the second round of public attention — a video of her with heavy stakes — was painful, especially for a queer woman of color (Shawkat is half-Iraqi) who has long thought of herself as a progressive ally, speaking openly about Palestine, attending Black Lives Matter protests, and, recently, calling for the defunding of the police. “I didn’t remember saying it,” she says. “I was like, ‘That’s impossible. What the fuck are they talking about?’”

Shawkat has been working as an actor since age 9 and lived in public since childhood, an experience she admits can result in a fracturing of the self. She’d always tried to separate her public image from her private one, but watching the SXSW video was the first time she felt a collision of the two spaces strong enough to shake her. “I was like, ‘Oh God, to the public I’m a racist who’s living with Brad Pitt,’” she says. “The last 48 hours have been me trying to reground myself spiritually. And being like, ‘What is this about? Who are you to yourself, to your people and your community?’”

For much of her early career, Shawkat was primarily known from her role as Maeby, the mischievous object of her cousin’s lust on the long-running series Arrested Development. In the years since, she’s bounced from indie dramedies to neo-Nazi-horror movies to her current starring role on the millennial-skewering noir-comedy Search Party, which began as a TBS series and moved over to HBO Max this June. Its third season centers on a particularly timely subject for Shawkat: the bewitching, filthier side of fame. She plays the protagonist, Dory, who over the seasons has grown into a self-aggrandizing, delusional femme fatale, seducing the press and the courts alike as she’s tried for the murder she committed in season one. Dory becomes enraptured by the attention she’s getting from “fans” and the paparazzi parked outside her apartment; she falls through the looking glass of her own public image and loses herself entirely, alienating her friends, ex-boyfriend, and family members in the process. “She’s just getting farther and farther away from [herself], dissociating,” says Shawkat. When I point out the obvious parallels to her own current tabloid situation, Shawkat laughs. “The thing is, Dory likes it a lot more.”

Despite her decades-long career, most of the outlets posting photos of Shawkat and Pitt emphasized her outsiderness. It’s a little ironic, considering she met Pitt through old Hollywood ties. Shawkat landed her first film role in Three Kings alongside Spike Jonze at 9, after announcing to her mom that she wanted to become an actress; by age 12, she was the star of her own ABC Family series, the sweet YA drama State of Grace. When Shawkat reconnected with Jonze at a movie premiere a few years ago, the two struck up a friendship and he introduced her to Pitt. “We just became friends, and Brad introduced me to his group of friends, and it grew from there,” she says. In many tabloid stories, the explanation for Pitt and Shawkat’s hangouts was that she was “teaching Brad about art” and had “been a wonderful help for Brad during this major transition,” acting as Pitt’s nurse and neutered muse until he is healthy enough to resume his pursuit of the Jennifer Anistons of the world. The stories that did push the dating narrative seemed perplexed by the whole thing — the word quirky was used more than once to describe Shawkat. “To them it’s like, ‘We don’t get it! This girl is weird! She’s so different! Why are they hanging out?’ ” she says about the tabloids, laughing. “You get too close to the prom king, and all of a sudden, everyone’s like, ‘Well, who is this bitch?’”

It’s not a designation she’s unfamiliar with. Shawkat was often typecast as the “ethnic best friend” earlier on in her career, in large part due to her cultural background. “I’m just a harder, specific [person] to cast,” she says. “They’re like, ‘Well, if we cast you we’ve got to explain why,’” she says. “When I was younger, I felt a little more bitter about it because I’d be missing parts, and people would be going, ‘She gave the best read; she’s just not the right type.’ And then [I’d] be like, ‘I know I’m attractive.’” Later, in her 20s, sick of being typecast as the weirdo, she started writing and producing her own material. “There was a point where I was talking to my agents and I said, ‘I don’t want to be the ethnic best friend anymore. I’m not gonna keep that narrative going,’” she says.

In 2018, Shawkat co-wrote and starred in the experimental indie Duck Butter, as Naima, a woman who projects disaffected coolness but is terrified of being known. She spends the duration of the film getting close to, then pushing away, her female love interest, Sergio (Laia Costa), who’s desperate for real intimacy. It follows the two women for 24 hours, as they have sex once each hour in an attempt to accelerate the arc of their relationship. When I spoke to her around the film’s release, Shawkat admitted it was essentially her own story, tweaked to protect the innocent — an intimate piece about a woman who doesn’t know how to be close to others because she doesn’t know herself, who uses casual sex as a shield to avoid self-examination. “[Co-writer and director] Miguel [Arteta] taught me, “Make a movie about the shit you wanna work on,’” she said back then. “By acting it out, I was going through emotions that were still very fresh from things I had been through.”

Shawkat is referring to her late teens and 20s, which she spent partying, drinking, and living somewhat recklessly in an attempt to be a sort of super-chill Everywoman who was down for anything. Part of it had to do with living in the public eye since childhood, how that made her unable to see herself clearly outside others’ expectations. “People have an idea of, when they hang out with you, what they get. They expect a certain energy,” she says. “Part of that narrative [for me] was being cool: ‘Oh, she kind of fits in wherever, she can talk to anybody.’ It’s not that all those things aren’t true, but it was starting to get to a point where I was dissociative from my real self.

“I totally had a full-on costume I was really comfortable putting on, that felt like an invisibility cloak,” Shawkat adds. “Situations where I was just seeing how far I would go for the story, like, Let’s see what fucking happens, maybe I’ll write about it.” That purposeful detachment bled into the kind of sex she was having. “I’ve never been sexually abused or raped, but there’s a whole other scale that’s not really talked about,” she says. “Situations where you show up and it’s like, Well, I already came to the room and he bought me a beer. And I think for the story’s sake, it was always a way of protecting myself, to be like, ‘I’m a spy. I’m going in and I’m going to talk about the dynamics of men and women!’ ” Back in 2016, Shawkat told one such story to Vice about an unnamed A-list actor who insisted on shaving her pubic hair before having sex with her during his own party. In the video, Shawkat is wry and casual as she tells the story, weaving it into a witty yarn. “I remember leaving [the party] thinking, That was great! That was a fun night,” she says. “Now that I’m in my 30s, I’m realizing that I was dissociating. I wasn’t fully present in those moments. I was like, Was it really consensual? Was I fully present in that? That was fucked up.

It’s perhaps not a coincidence the video in which Shawkat says the N-word and the Vice video were filmed around the same time and that both caused a cognitive dissonance in her when she watched them years later. Shawkat reiterates that she can’t remember saying the word during the SXSW panel and that it wasn’t something that entered into her vocabulary regularly. In the weeks since the clip resurfaced, she’s been examining just that — the banality of it, the way it slipped from her mouth without her even noticing. “That’s what’s upsetting about it,” she says during one of our later conversations, which takes place over her kitchen table after she’s woken up late, a flower tucked into the side of her hair. She’s more restless this time around, moving to her bed at one point, then getting up to stand in front of her sunny kitchen window. “In my mind, I wasn’t like, What the fuck did I just say? Take that back, I’m sorry, never should have said that. Instead, I just carried it on like a joke and didn’t think about it afterward. That was more upsetting, in a way, than saying the word.”

She’s spent the last few weeks trying to understand why. “Was I using this because the idea of Black culture seems cool?” she wonders. “And I was just like, ‘Well, that’s just part of it!’ It’s not intellectually understanding that the words you use are really powerful. I think that’s a lot of what this reckoning is for all of us who are not Black.” She’s since spent some time wrestling with her own racial identity. Shawkat was raised in Palm Springs by an Iraqi father and white mother who ran a local strip club. She’s interrogating “what it means to be mixed race and what kinds of circles of privilege I’ve had access to because of that,” she says. “I think I’ve learned more about it in these last two weeks than I have in my whole life.”

Shawkat has stayed away from social media since posting her apology, but she’s aware that some found it lacking. She stands by what she wrote, but the shame, she says, has been useful. “I’m learning how to accept my shame from it and be better because of it,” she says. “It would be terrible if this one thing stopped me from actually doing anything to help.” She’s trying to grow from the experience. “I realize there was a part of me that was like, ‘I’m cool! Everyone likes me! I’m cool!’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, people don’t like me right now! People don’t like me! Fuck!’” she says. “That was hard. But now I’m like, ‘That’s okay. I don’t need to be liked by everybody.’”

When Shawkat was cast on Search Party in 2016, she was also brought on to consult on the show’s direction as co-producer. She took the opportunity to, as she puts it, “clean up shop.” “I was seen as a creative person who wasn’t just, like, an add-on,” she says. “I was really being seen as a professional, and I was like, ‘Okay. I like this feeling and I don’t want to go back, so it’s gonna be a lot more work and a lot more responsibility.’” She stopped drinking and partying as frequently. She got rid of a series of what she calls “toxic friends.” “You start to be like, ‘Oh, when I hung out with that person before, I was pretty drunk every time!’ There were several people who I was close to at the time that I don’t speak to at all anymore,” she says. She started going to therapy. She started dating as many women as she did men, coming out as bisexual (she now identifies as pansexual) in her late 20s.

Shawkat is currently working on a script for a TV show loosely based on all of these experiences, playing a fictionalized “slightly younger version of herself,” a character who “comes off too cool and realizes she’s built this cage around her trying to remain desirable and interesting, and the truth is that there is something a lot darker going on inside.” She’s been doing pitch meetings over Zoom during lockdown and shares that Natasha Lyonne is involved in some capacity. “I don’t know the rules of talking about that, but it’s going very well,” she says, smiling. “I’m making it sound like I got Spielberg involved. But it’s going on to the next steps of becoming a reality. It’s the deepest psychological dig of any project I’ve ever done.”

She’s learning to let go of the expectations placed on her by people she’ll never meet or who only care about her insofar as she relates to “an older white dude.” When I mention that the most recent tabloid rumor has her living in Pitt’s house, she smiles and pretends to summon him: “Brad?” she yells, laughing, into her empty house.

*A version of this article appears in the July 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Alia Shawkat, Through the Looking Glass