SXSW: Alia Shawkat talks Maeby Fünke and being a child actress

Katie Walsh

Alia Shawkat remembers walking out onto set after a long day of school work and getting taunted by George Clooney for her cranky attitude.

“George, please,” the then nine-year-old actress said, exasperated.

Shawkat spoke Tuesday afternoon at the Austin Convention Center about being a child actress, and the dichotomy of the two worlds she lived in — one as a young actress in Hollywood, the other as a high school student in Palm Springs, CA.

“At work, I was an adult professional, then I’d go back to school, and it was a very different idea — no one was being a professional, we are all just getting in trouble and trying to find a show or get stoned,” Shawkat said. “It felt like very split personalities.”

From a young age, Shawkat said she knew she wanted to act. When she was nine, she sent agencies her headshot in hopes of scoring a gig, but was told she “was a little too ethnic looking.”

That didn’t stop her. Shawkat went to a few cattle calls, eventually landing a role in “Three Kings” with George Clooney in 1999. From there, she starred and made appearances in several sitcoms before scoring “Arrested Development” at age 14.

The hit TV series aired for the next ten years, with Shawkat at its center as teenage con-artist Maeby Fünk.

“In a weird way, she was kind of like my alter ego — who I wanted to be,” Shawkat said. “[Maeby was] someone who didn’t give a shit and was confident and used boys, and at the time, that was the opposite of me in real life. It was almost like an escape, being able to show this kind of confidence, [to play] the kind of girl I wanted to be.”

At the time, Shawkat said no one watched “Arrested Development.”

“It was just this weird secret thing I did Monday through Friday,” Shawkat said.

The self-described “second wave” of Shawkat’s career started with her role in Drew Barrymore’s 2009 comedy, “Whip It.” Before “Whip It,” Shawkat said she temporarily lost her passion for acting and took a year off to work on visual art, go on tour with her boyfriend and even dabble in college at Sarah Lawrence College for all of two days.

Today, Shawkat is working on several projects. Her new series “Search Party” and feature movie “Pee-wee's Big Holiday”  will premiere this week at the South By Southwest Film Festival.

Shawkat said she has been lucky to be a part of so many strong female-led casts and intentionally veers from scripts with female characters who do nothing but chase after men.

“When [female characters] are so underwritten, which sadly happens a lot, there is kind of nothing you can do,” Shawkat said. “You’re just like ‘Well the whole crux of the story is some guys who are doing all of this just to get laid?’ They are putting pussy on a pedestal.”