For One Last Season, Alia Shawkat Is the Life of ‘Search Party’

In the time that Alia Shawkat has played Dory Sief, the perpetually imperiled protagonist of “Search Party,” the actress has been repeatedly put to the test. Over the first four seasons of this dark comedy series, Dory obsessively chased a woman she wrongly believed was missing; she was blackmailed; she committed murder; she was put on trial; she was abducted, only to escape and return to her kidnapper.

Now, as “Search Party” begins its fifth season, Shawkat is embarking on a new challenge: saying goodbye.

“Search Party,” whose final episodes will be released Friday on HBO Max, evolved from a low-fi if knowing satire of youthful narcissism into an unexpectedly intricate and baroque series, free to follow its muse down some very dark corridors.

Along the way, Shawkat grew, too: from a supporting player on innovative comedies like “Arrested Development” and “Transparent” into an actress who could be the center of her own series. As she said recently: “I’ve been on other shows which were great but you’re hitting the same thing every year. It’s so rare to do a show where you’re taking such a huge step every time.”

Looking back on her experience on the unpredictable “Search Party,” Shawkat sees a grander vision at work. She also recognizes some lessons for herself in Dory’s ordeals, which she described as narrative about “how desperate and how far you’ll go — all the different versions of yourself you will try to find out which one sticks.”

Shawkat with Meredith Hagner in a scene from the final season of “Search Party,” debuting January on HBO Max. The show has been a cult favorite since it debuted in 2016 on TBS.Credit…Jon Pack/HBO Max

And, to the extent that “Search Party” will allow it, Shawkat, 32, is sentimental about bidding farewell to the show, its cast of outrageous characters and its depiction of what she called a dysfunctional “millennial dynamic”: feeling loyal to “your friends from college that you hate and yet you see them every week” while being locked into “old friendships and old versions of yourself. Will anyone like me if I show them who I really am?”

Speaking from Dory’s perspective, at least, Shawkat said it was OK to want to move beyond one’s close-knit gang of companions and OK to feel bonded to them, too.

“These people, maybe they’re not good for me, but they have to be my friends,” she said. “There’s shared trauma. They’ve killed people together. They’re in this for the long haul.”

On a visit to New York last month before the Omicron surge, Shawkat arrived for lunch at a NoHo café with a spacious wool hat to contain her curly locks and an affectionate supply of stories about the scrappy origins of “Search Party.”

Recalling the making of its pilot episode nearly seven years ago, she said: “We shot it like an indie movie, stealing shots on subways and wearing some of our own clothes. I was like, this is good but it’s never going to get made.”

The writer-directors Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss (“Fort Tilden”), who created “Search Party” with Michael Showalter (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”), said that when they were casting Dory, Shawkat stood out as someone who brought credibility and cachet with her TV résumé, including her seasons on “Arrested Development” and a one-episode stint as Ilana Glazer’s doppelgänger on “Broad City.”

“Alia outperformed our expectations,” Bliss said. “The comedy was on the page, but when I had imagined the character, she was a little bit less self-possessed. What Alia brought was intelligence and maturity — she made her grounded and real.”

“I always feel like I’m on shows that aren’t appreciated till they’re already off the air,” Shawkat said, nodding partly to her role on “Arrested Development.” “I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder.”Credit…Josefina Santos for The New York Times

Shawkat said she had arrived at a preliminary meeting with the creators and her co-stars (including John Early, Meredith Hagner and John Reynolds, who play Dory’s loyal trio of self-obsessed friends) feeling very serious and having lots of script notes.

As production proceeded, Shawkat felt a growing sense of connection to her collaborators. “They just specified it to our voices so much,” she said. “We were slightly surprised and really happy with how that first season turned out. We felt like we had found a new tone.”

When the first season debuted on TBS in 2016, “Search Party” drew some critical praise but not much more than a cult-size viewership; at the same time, Shawkat felt the show was crowded out by a glut of other post-“Girls” comedies that also poked fun at the habits of New York hipsters.

“I was like, but nobody knows about ‘Search Party,’” Shawkat said. Dating back to her time on “Arrested Development,” she said it has been difficult to shake off an underdog mentality about her work: “I always feel like I’m on shows that aren’t appreciated till they’re already off the air. I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder.”

Seasons 2 and 3 of “Search Party” were separated by a gap of nearly three years as the show moved off TBS and onto HBO Max. Still, the series never wavered in its efforts to blend comedy and noirish horror — a confidence its creators say stemmed from their faith in its star.

“We would not have taken Dory to all the places we took her if Alia wasn’t able to fill her up with so many layers and frequencies,” Rogers said.

He recalled a day from Season 4 when Shawkat filmed a scene in which Dory has the opportunity to flee from the trunk of a car where her captor (Cole Escola) has imprisoned her, but she chooses instead to return to it.

Shawkat with Michael Cera in a scene from “Arrested Development,” which struggled to find ratings but found a giant audience later through DVD and streaming.Credit…Sam Urdank/FOX

“It was freezing,” Rogers said. “We were at some gas station, and in one take, she gets out — crying, shaking, raw, primal — and gets back in. It was like: right. We take it for granted that we have this insanely dynamic actor.”

Shawkat said that the trajectory of that season did not seem especially harrowing when Rogers and Bliss originally described it to her. “Of course, when they first tell me, I’m at home in sunny L.A.,” she said. “I’m like, sounds great.”

After completing those episodes, though, “My body was definitely going through some weird trauma,” Shawkat said. “I know it’s fake — I’m not a Method actor — but at the same time, that year was rough.”

But Shawkat said she nonetheless felt an obligation to commit fully to the character and provide “Search Party” with some baseline of realism, to contrast with the even more absurd, less cataclysmic misadventures of its supporting characters: “Dory has to be the most grounded — sometimes I feel like I have to sell this so that the comedy can fly.”

Early, who plays Dory’s sharp-witted friend Elliott, said that Shawkat was “majorly responsible for the emotional coherence that pulls you through the show.”

“Basically I show up and scream,” Early said. “Alia has to make the leaps that the show takes emotionally. She has to make them make sense on her face.”

(The coming fifth season of the show, both actors vowed, was not quite as brutal as past years. “It’s like an acid trip — it gets pretty wild,” Shawkat said. “It’s the funniest and most free that I’ve ever seen her,” Early said of her performance.)

Shawkat is beginning to find other substantive and high-profile roles outside of “Search Party.” She plays the “I Love Lucy” screenwriter Madelyn Pugh in “Being the Ricardos,” the Amazon biopic about Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem).

The film’s rapid-fire repartee would seem to make Shawkat a natural fit for the role, but she recalled the project as being intense in ways unlike her TV gig. “Javier Bardem walks on set and I’m just like, be cool, don’t say the line wrong,” Shawkat said. “I was so scared about getting a word wrong. I mean it was fun, but it was just a very different experience.”

To her co-stars, however, Shawkat projected an aura of authority. Kidman said of her: “She’s so confident and has this intrinsic sense of knowledge about comedy. I was going, great — I’m going to hold on tight to you, because you know what you’re doing.”

Ask Shawkat what she plans to do after all of this, and she may reflexively respond, “I don’t know if I’ll ever work again, honestly.”

Shawkat was excited about her high-profile role in “Being the Ricardos,” with Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem, but also nervous. Her co-stars couldn’t tell. “She’s so confident,” Kidman said.Credit…Josefina Santos for The New York Times

But — oh yes — she is also planning to start pitching a semi-autobiographical TV series she is calling “Desert People,” centered on a young woman who grows up, in a manner similar to Shawkat, in “a Middle-Eastern American family that runs a strip club in Palm Springs.”

“It’s about a daughter navigating that, coming to terms with her sexuality,” she explained, “but in a funny, relatable, quirky way.”.

Shawkat, who has been acting since she was a child, said she tends to vacillate about the creative process. Sometimes she is invigorated by the possibility of telling the stories she has always wanted to see told. “Me and my friends get really turned on talking about it,” she said. “I’m like, the time’s now — we do it now.”

At other times the sheer number of people involved in similar endeavors can be intimidating. “It’s like content overload, you know?” she said. “Everyone’s like, ‘I’m making a show.’ ‘Yeah? I’m making a show.’ Sometimes I’m like, maybe I should just do a theater play in my basement.”

Whatever follows, Shawkat has her treasured memories of her conclusion at “Search Party,” which felt emblematic of her time on the series.

The ensemble cast’s last day of principal photography took place this past summer in New York, as a looming rainstorm threatened the city.

On that day, Shawkat said: “We all cried and walked around together. It hit us all really hard at that moment. Then the rest of the day, we just worked. We’re like, all right, we have a 12-hour day to get through. And then the storm came.”

In the remaining time that Shawkat and her colleagues could grab, they drank Champagne in her trailer, which seemed like a sufficient gesture. “You always expect that things are going to end in this poetic way and they just never do,” she said. “But it’s kind of better that they don’t.”

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