Alia Shawkat swears the baby grand piano in her living room isn't for show, just as the paint splatters on her orange corduroy jeans aren't a fashion statement. She's a classically trained pianist who's learning to play jazz and a self-taught artist who shows her work at small galleries in Los Angeles and New York.
"They're not props, but I understand why people might think they are," she says and laughs. "I was a child actor. I'm on a 1/8sitcom3/8. We're in Hollywood. It all must be for effect."
Normally, yes. But Shawkat, 28, who got her start as Maeby Funke on the beloved Fox show "Arrested Development" and is now the star of TBS' sleeper hit "Search Party," didn't forge her career by acting like, well, an actor.
Shawkat and her "Search Party" character, Dory, often appear reticent to draw attention to themselves, even if both stand out with their dramatic black, curly hair, intense gaze and smattering of freckles. Neither fit the traditional mold for a showstopping star or character.
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But that's Shawkat's charm – turning the awkward and understated into memorable characters that rise above the fray.
"There's always a new wave of starlets or a new type of 'It' girl they want to represent, and I wasn't either of those," Shawkat says of her early introduction to acting with a role on "Arrested Development" at age 14. "I was cute, but not that typical pretty, straight hair, skinny thing. I was a little different. Now, that's all the rage. It's almost commoditized: 'You're different. We love that!'"
Thanks to TV's embrace of weird, "Search Party" has found its niche as a slow-growing mystery-comedy for disaffected millennials and jaded Nancy Drew fans. Now in its second season, the half-hour series certainly would have been an outlier if it hadn't debuted in 2015 when a furious expansion of programming meant more unconventional concepts were greenlighted.
The show, with a cast of relative unknowns and created by filmmakers Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter, follows four self-centered friends through New York City and up the East Coast as they try to solve the mystery of a missing woman.
Dory leads the charge, which we learn is entirely uncharacteristic for the recent college grad whose aimlessness is topped only by her ability to remain practically invisible in plain sight. No wonder she's bent on finding a woman no one else seems to remember even existed at their old college.
She's flanked by her pragmatically boring boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), and her narcissistic friends Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner). The crew, who are all more familiar with martinis than magnifying glasses, each add a level of dysfunctional hilarity to the mix.
"The show is making fun of millennials in a very specific way," says Shawkat, sitting in the living room of her Hollywood Hills home, smoking a cigarette and playing with a loose thread on her vintage gold blazer. On the far wall hangs an oil painting of the "Search Party" four, done in the style of an old Nancy Drew book cover. "The characters are unlikable, but you end up caring about them because you begin to see why they are who they are. There is more to them than what you first see, or don't see."
A role like Dory wasn't easy to find, says Shawkat, who was disillusioned by the parts available to her after "Arrested Development" was canceled by Fox in 2006 when she was 18. She struggled to make the transition from child actor to an adult with nuanced roles.
"I kept getting sent out for TV shows as the snarky, too-smart-for-herself kind of girl, but they weren't well written," Shawkat says. "My agents got feedback like, 'They said you seemed like you didn't want to be there.' And it was like, yeah, because I didn't. I was so bitter."
Shawkat grew up in Palm Springs with her father, an Iraqi immigrant, and mother, the Anglo-American daughter of television actor Paul Burke. Her parents, she says, did not encourage her to act. It was something she gravitated toward at an early age, and her mother acquiesced by helping her find an agent and driving her the two-plus hours to Hollywood for casting calls.
"I used to come out of those 1/8casting calls3/8 and see other moms grilling their kids, 'How did it go? What happened?' With my parents, it was like, 'Where should we go to dinner?' I never felt that pressure."
It wasn't a coincidence that Shawkat, whose father is originally from Baghdad, landed one of her first roles as an Iraqi war victim in the 1999 film "Three Kings." They were looking for actors who could pass as Arabs and her dad eventually helped with dialogue and had a small part in the film.
After "Arrested Development" and a brief stint at Sarah Lawrence College, she struggled to find satisfying roles while she watched her former costar Michael Cera star in "Superbad."
Her determination to turn down roles she felt would pigeonhole her eventually paid off.
Her career kicked into gear when she costarred in the immigrant tale "Amreeka," then with Ellen Page in "Whip It" and more indie films and critically acclaimed projects before "Search Party" came along.
She was a bit surprised when the show, which she says was shot like an independent film, got picked up.
"I had low expectations, because everything I think is good doesn't get the right attention," Shawkat says. "The pilot was so great, I was worried. But it's grown really naturally."
Shawkat's now putting the finishing touches on her own independent film, "Duck Butter," and is poised to return to "Arrested Development" for a continuation of the Netflix reboot of the show.
"It's so funny because the show wasn't all that popular when it was on the air, but now there's a really devoted following. A lot of those people don't know that I've done anything else since then," she says, then laughs.
"That's OK. I've only been working for, like, 10 years in between."