Alia Shawkat on #MeToo and Her Radically Honest, Gloriously Queer Romance
The ‘Search Party’ and ‘Arrested Development’ star talks her stellar screenwriting debut in ‘Duck Butter,’ and why male actors were too ‘freaked out’ to take on the part.
Duck Butter is a film about two people who decide to fast-track their relationship, spending a sleepless day and night together and vowing to have sex every hour. It’s also named for “a creamy substance brewed in the spot between a female’s vagina and asshole produced by vaginal secretions and ass sweat mixing together” (Urban Dictionary’s words, not mine). In person, Alia Shawkat, of Arrested Development and Search Party fame, is as fearless as her screenwriting debut suggests. Five years ago, Shawkat and co-writer and director Miguel Arteta decided to work together on a movie about relationships that aren’t meant to work out. The final product, Duck Butter, is that and so much more—a vulnerable, funny, and heartbreaking film about trying and failing to hide your shit while falling in love.
In Duck Butter, Shawkat’s Naima and Laia Costa’s Sergio aren’t defined by their sexuality—their love isn’t fraught or forbidden, at least at the beginning, and they both know, unapologetically, that they want each other. It’s what happens afterward that gets complicated, in a mundane way that queer love stories are so rarely allowed to be. Naima is defensive and wary of intimacy; she stews in silence and then runs away rather than confronting what’s really bothering her. Sergio is impulsive and passionate but often takes things too far.
Sergio keeps asking for more, making Naima realize that she wants less, and the too much of it all, the push for constant intimacy and skin-on-skin contact, culminates in Sergio shoving her own poop in Naima’s face just to get a reaction.
In a downtown New York office Shawkat, who just premiered Duck Butter at the Tribeca Film Festival, told me that she didn’t set out to write a “gay film,” and she hasn’t. Instead, Duck Butter is gloriously queer. It’s about women who have sex with women, but it stays well clear of the tropes of the genre, like emotional coming out monologues and well-lit, sensual sex scenes that quickly fade to black. “This is not a story about when [Sergio and Naima] realized they were gay, how many men they had slept with before, what happened, or how their parents reacted to them being gay,” Shawkat explained, “Which is obviously an important time in somebody’s life, but that’s not what this was about. This was about two people who are in that stage where they’re like, I know myself well enough to be super intimate right away, but I don’t know myself enough to consistently be honest with that.”
Depicting a queer relationship without veering into Serious Gay Film territory was “super important” to Shawkat. Throughout our interview, it becomes clear that these are issues she’s thought a lot about. As someone who’s been acting for almost two decades, she’s incredibly knowledgeable about what has and has not been adequately represented onscreen. For example, penises (tons of representation) versus realistic, non-exploitative lesbian sex scenes (practically non-existent). While Duck Butter was initially written for a male and female lead, Shawkat and Arteta struggled to cast a male actor who felt comfortable performing the level of intimacy the part demanded. In Shawkat’s words, “they were freaked out by it.”
While she swears that the decision to cast Laia Costa was more about Costa herself than deliberately swapping genders, centering the film around two women immediately eliminated “all the problems” they had been struggling with. Problems like, “Honestly, thinking about how many times a man can actually cum?” Shawkat recalled. “And having a penis onscreen, because I didn’t really want that. And also I didn’t want the film to be about like, ‘men versus women, they can never figure each other out!’ It was always about just two people. So the minute that we decided and offered Laia the part of Sergio and she was like fuck yeah, it just all of a sudden made sense.”
Shawkat didn’t explicitly focus on her characters’ sexuality because doing so wouldn’t have reflected her reality. “In our generation, what I wanted to see represented too is that a story between two women is much more common.” She continued, “In our lives, like my girl friends who are gay, my guy friends who are gay, it’s like, we’re all talking about relationships. I’m not like, ‘but you’re gay, so, is that different for you?’ We’re just talking about the person who they want to love or not knowing how to love them.” Of course, the millennial, queerer-than-ever world that Shawkat is describing still feels radical onscreen. Watching Duck Butter’s many, many sex scenes, my first thought was of all the other films that have managed to get this so wrong.
Shawkat credits the film’s refreshing verisimilitude to the absence of the male gaze, something that was very important to her. It’s why the sex in Duck Butter doesn’t look like a mainstream porn scene, a greatest hits reel or even, really, a performance. She referenced Blue Is the Warmest Color—a “beautiful” film that she really loved, by the way—as an example of what not to do. “The sex scene is the weirdest part about that movie! And especially as someone who sleeps with women, I was like, ‘That is so not how it goes!’ It was sexy, but it felt porn-y. It felt like, oh, I shouldn’t be watching this. It felt like they weren’t involved, like someone was making them do it.”
Shawkat continued, “I’ve been lucky that all the sex scenes and nudity things that I’ve done have always been positive experiences, but from what I’ve heard and usually seen in a lot of work is that you can tell this woman is being looked at as this object of desire. And it’s not just the audience of people who’s watching it, it’s the director’s eyes and the crew who are all there too being like, ‘Alright, this is the scene where you take your top off!’ And it’s like this whole seductress kind of thing.”
“I was like, there has to be a shot of me getting a beer out of the fridge with my top off,” she says. “We have to desexualize nudity.”
To ensure that “the male gaze is not present in this movie at all,” Arteta, the director, wasn’t even in the room while Shawkat and Costa were shooting sex scenes. “He would literally just peep his head in the door and go, ‘It’s so beautiful! I’m crying it’s so beautiful!’ and then close it,” Shawkat laughed. “It was really freeing.”
In addition to wonderfully believable queer sex scenes, the female gaze frees Duck Butter from the tropes that feel intrinsic to so many heterosexual love stories. Sergio, who might be a manic pixie dream girl if envisioned and brought to life by anyone else, is allowed context and backstory. We believe that she exists as more than just a fascinating, unattainable learning experience for her love interest. One scene in particular illustrates the deftness with which Duck Butter gives its characters specificity while representing something far more universal.
As one of the unstated steps in their sped-up relationship, Sergio and Naima each dredge up an unsettling relationship that they’ve had with a man. Their two experiences are vastly different; Naima, an actress, jokingly tells the story of having bad sex with a guy she respected in the industry, and Sergio matter-of-factly discloses that she made a deal with someone to produce her record in exchange for a relationship. Shawkat categorized these two stories under “unjust sex”: “where you’re having sex with somebody and you’re not saying no, but you are not conscious enough or connected with yourself enough to say, hey, I don’t want to do this.” She said that the Duck Butter anecdotes are both real to some degree, with some details changed. “They’re both unhealthy ways of having sex obviously, and they’re both damaging.”
While Shawkat wrote the scene before “all of this shit”—a shorthand for Weinstein, Me Too, and Time’s Up—she sees connections between Naima and Sergio’s confessions and recent efforts to revisit past traumatic experiences and finally grapple with their aftermath. “After all this stuff has come up, it’s made me look back on my personal sexual experiences and go, huh, I have told that as a funny story my entire life, I’ve been like oh yeah, that one time with that guy, that was crazy! And then when all these stories started to come out… I’m very lucky I haven’t been raped and had any sexual violence, but I’ve definitely had a lot of experiences that weren’t the best. Where I detached from my body and was like, I guess I already said I’d have a drink with him,” Shawkat trailed off. Like Naima, who seems to realize mid-story that the experience she’s sharing is more of an unresolved, painful memory than a hilarious anecdote, Shawkat knows what it’s like to repackage something dark and add a punchline.
“There’s something that happened to me and I was telling it to one of my best friends, who’s older than me, and I had always told it as this joke,” she says, “and she looked at me, and she wasn’t thinking it was funny. She was like, ‘You were how old when this happened?’ And all of a sudden I was like oh shit, this was something that happened! This has affected my romantic relationships!
“Once you look at it for the truth of it, then you’re actually able to process it,” Shawkat says. “Be like yeah, maybe that wasn’t a pleasant thing and I need to learn from that, instead of just being like, ‘I wasn’t taken advantage of! I’m a strong woman!’ Actually, you’re stronger by realizing that somebody may have taken advantage of you.”
Duck Butter’s Me Too scene shows another side of the conversation—the moments that we share privately, with our friends and girlfriends. Reprocessing old pain sometimes leads to new intimacy, and can look like laughing when it isn’t really funny, or as we finally break down and admit that something wasn’t OK. Shawkat is quick to point out that women have always had to navigate and process “all of this shit,” and that, now that issues of sexual abuse and misconduct are at the forefront of a national conversation, women should be given center stage.
“There’s so many men who are still talking about how this affects them,” she remarked, seemingly exasperated. “Talented people! Smart comedians, and people whose voices are very important, and they’re like, ‘Blah, blah, blah, I’ve got all these fucking opinions’ and I’m like, you haven’t been sexualized since you were 13! So you’ll never know what it means! And I love when they’re like, ‘I’ve got a wife and daughter.’ I bet you do! Even good friends of mine who are men, they’re still trying to process how it relates to them, and that’s the whole point. This is the one thing that doesn’t pertain to you—how we move on from this, how we heal from it.”
Shawkat, who was just 13 when she was cast on Arrested Development, is quick to point out the strangeness of this new development in the entertainment industry: being asked about sexual misconduct and gendered power imbalances during an interview. It’s an odd reality she’s found herself in: “I’m promoting the film, but we’re also talking about sexual abuse. It’s a big thing that shouldn’t be belittled by celebrity culture, but at the same time, any way to start the conversation is good.” In general, she’s tried not to succumb to news-induced terror (“I’m someone who’s more like, I understand the world’s ending, but let’s have a drink”) and to embrace her celebrity platform. “Just being more comfortable with sharing how I feel about certain things that are political. But again, wanting to make sure I know my place, there’s still so much I have to learn.
“I’m just choosing to get to know about more. Like yeah, I am going to study and get to know more about Palestinian issues, and I do want to know what’s happening with abortion rights in different places, and if I can talk about that then I will, but from where I’m coming from, I can’t speak more than that.”
Now that Shawkat’s screenwriting debut is finally out there (and winning awards), it begs the question of what the writer, actor, painter, and jazz singer wants to do next. “There’s two big ideas in my mind that I want to write and direct in the next coming years,” she told me at the end of our interview, although she’d only give one hint: clowns.
“Not clowns with face paint! More of like clowning, like Buster Keaton-y, no face paint but silent performance. I’m obsessed with clowning!” Shawkat laughed, before insisting, “It’s not going to be like It at all! The title of this article is going to be like ‘Alia Shawkat Moves On to Clowns.’”