In Animals, Alia Shawkat explores a different kind of arrested development as an elegantly wasted twentysomething who can’t quite let the party, or her closest friendship, end.
“I had never played a character like that before,” Shawkat explains. “In the past I’ve played characters who to some degree or another are a little more genuine or relatable. I was excited to play someone who was so fun, but so damaged.”
Shawkat’s Tyler is the sort of character you’ll find in any university town, still haunting the same bars and citing literary references from a second-year modernism course years after graduating or dropping out. There’s probably a Tyler at The Exeter right now.
“At first you’re like, ‘Is she a cartoon character? Does she think people are on board?’,” Shawkat says. “And they are sometimes, but she lives in her own world. When she was younger people were more charmed by her, but she never evolved. It almost rings a little false, comes off a little ‘ooh I don’t think she knows there’s something in her teeth’.
With wine glasses always in hand, Shawkat and her onscreen ride or die Holliday Grainger careen across Dublin bars, house parties and their own flat – an artful bombsite that evokes Florence Welch flatsharing with the cast of Trainspotting. But as the pair drift apart, Animals explores the kind of lived-in, co-dependent friendship that was once rarely seen on screen. “We talked about strong female friendships that we’d had in our lives and those relationships,” Shawkat says of early discussions with Grainger and the film’s Adelaide-based director Sophie Hyde. “Where you’re so close to someone at a certain age, like a sister, and you know everything about each other. You’re almost like lovers who don’t have sex.
“You are obsessed with each other, talk about how beautiful the other is, and give each other confidence and self-assurance,” she says. “[But] start to pull away and have independent lives and partners, and there’s a jealousy or weird friction when that starts to happen as you get older, and I think it’s very specific to friendships between women. So we really related to that, our own personal friendships, and broke those apart and how we’ve been wounded by them, how we still think about them and how they changed us. We were pulling from a personal place.”
“There’s a jealousy or weird friction when that starts to happen as you get older, and I think it’s very specific to friendships between women.”
Such stories have gained greater mainstream prominence in the past decade, from Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend to one of the defining pop culture friendships of the 2010s, the recently concluded Broad City (Shawkat herself made a brief appearance in the show’s second season as a doppelganger to co-creator Ilana Glazer). From her breakthrough role in cult sitcom Arrested Development to satirical murder mystery Search Party, Shawkat appreciates the rarity and value of finding such nuanced roles and forward-thinking writing.
“Michael Cera and I talk about it a lot, how lucky we were to be influenced at such a young age, both comedically and by reading scripts of such a high bar. Even if we didn’t understand some of the jokes then, to be exposed at an influential age to this very smart world… it was kind of like our school, of timing and jokes and humour and sensibility,” she says of Arrested Development’s initial run. “Looking back on it we were raised in an environment of ‘there are no rules creatively’. Just follow your instincts and do something that might not be the most popular thing. Don’t try to mimic what’s doing well at the time.
“Search Party was such a blessing and has become such a big part of my life,” she says of her current TV project, which just wrapped its third season. “She reminded me of myself when I was younger, who doesn’t really know who they are but chooses the tropes of being kind and a wallflower and quiet, and confuses that with being a happy person,” she says of her character Dory. “You know, ‘if I’m a nice person people will like me’, and by the end of the first season and certainly by the second she evolves into her true self, which is actually a lot more destructive and selfish.”
With projects like Search Party, Animals and the growing recognition of diverse perspectives and audiences, finding roles with depth and agency is becoming easier. “I think there’s more of an appetite for female stories in general, it’s such a big part of the growing up and becoming a woman. And not being defined in a heterosexual dynamic or couple. Since the beginning of filmmaking we’ve seen female characters that are just waiting in the wings to support a male lead’s journey; she’s graceful and maternal and kind and all these idealistic things, and the guy just has to figure his shit out in order get her in the end.
“As an actor who reads a lot of scripts I never really related to that,” she says. “I don’t see myself in any of this, and in order to be this kind of ingenue, I’d have to be playing a very one-dimensional kind of person who I didn’t find interesting.
“I was like, ‘well I got a lot of shit that I need to work out too!’”