Best known for her role as Maeby Fünke in Arrested Development, Alia Shawkat, the star of new SBS dramedy Search Party, has built up a formidable body of work considering she's only 28. Having cut her teeth as one of the leads in State of Grace (2001-02), a 1960s-set coming-of-age series frequently compared to The Wonder Years, Shawkat landed the role of cousin Maeby in the brilliant comedy Arrested Development, which debuted in 2003.
The story of the dysfunctional Bluth family, the show featured a stellar cast, including Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, a voice-over from Ron Howard and an anarchic sense of humour. Maeby is the daughter of self-involved Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and part-time Blue Man Group member Tobias Fünke (David Cross). She is also the object of awkward affection from her cousin, George Michael Jr (Michael Cera), which leads to some delightfully cringeworthy scenes.
Since spreading her wings and leaving the safety of the Bluth model home in 2006, when the series ended its initial run, Shawkat has shown off her comedy chops in cult TV shows like Portlandia and Broad City, and made a string of brilliant appearances in high-ish profile “best mate” movie roles.
In 2009, when Drew Barrymore decided she wanted to direct, she called up Shawkat to join the cast of her roller derby comedy, Whip It, alongside Ellen Page, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis and Barrymore herself. Shawkat was one of the few cast members who didn’t get her skates on, playing Pash, the best friend of Ellen Page’s Bliss.
Shawkat also took roles in Miguel Artet’s Cedar Rapids (2011), Whit Stillman’s Damsels In Distress (2012) and quirky fantasy Ruby Sparks (2012), the follow-up to directing double act Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s delightful road movie debut, Little Miss Sunshine.
In two films, the actress picked up the guitar. In The Runaways (2010), the biopic about 1970s teenage all-girl rock band which focused more on lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), Shawkat played the band's fictionalised bass player, Robin.
The second rock 'n’ roller was a very different film. In Jeremy Saulnier’s brutal and terrifying Green Room (2015), she played the bass player of a punk band who end up performing in a club full of neo-Nazi skinheads. After the tense and adrenaline-charged gig – made even more visceral by the fact the actors played their own instruments and performed a cover of The Dead Kennedys’s “Nazi Scum F*** Off” – the band hit the green room only to witness a murder. It’s a brilliant conceit, greatly aided by the entire ensemble, especially a venomous Patrick Stewart and the sadly passed Anton Yelchin. And Shawkat rocks it on stage.
The actress added a splash of va va voom for the role of Bella in the triumphant return of Paul Reubens' man child in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016). Reubens is a huge fan of the Russ Meyer exploitation classic, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). As he told The Village Voice, “I think Faster, Pussycat! is one of the most underrated American films ever made. Almost every single shot of that movie is framed on the same level as the European filmmakers who were getting such incredible attention.”
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday features a brilliant pastiche of the go-go dancing trio from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, with Shawkat's Bella filling the role originally taken by Rosie (portrayed by Meyer regular Haji). Along with Freckles (Stephanie Beatriz) and Pepper (Jessica Pohly), Bella steals Pee-wee’s car during a bank robbery and ruins our hero's holiday to New York. Look out, Mr Potato Head!
Her latest big screen appearance is in Beginners director Mike Mills’ comedy drama, 20th Century Women, which is released in Australia in June. Joining a fabulous ensemble cast, including Annette Bening (who was nominated for a Golden Globe), Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup, Shawkat plays Trish, the punk friend of Greta Gerwig’s character, Abbie.
Which brings us to Gen Y mystery Search Party. Shawkat plays Dory Sief, a New Yorker who is stuck in a dead-end job as the personal assistant to a rich housewife. She is also desperately unhappy and unfulfilled in a relationship that has gone stale. So when she chances upon a missing persons ad showing college acquaintance Chantal (Clare McNulty), she leaps at the chance for fulfilment, making it her life mission to find her.
Shawkat is wonderful in the role, despite Dory often playing second fiddle to second-rate actor Portia (Meredith Hagner) and self-involved Elliot (John Early), who both help on her crusade. The show fuses acerbic humour with brilliant jibes at the ever expectant Generation Y and proves, if we ever needed proof, that Shawkat is more than ready to take the lead in her own show.
Season 1 of Search Party is streaming now via SBS On Demand.
Watch the first episode right here: