Alia Shawkat Is Feeling Herself

NEW YORK ― Nima and Sergio, the protagonists of the indie romance “Duck Butter,” have known each other for under 24 hours. As a bonding exercise, they’re exchanging early memories of self-pleasure. “The first time I discovered masturbating was on a sheepskin rug,” Nima, played by actress Alia Shawkat, recalls. “I would, like, rub up on it while looking at myself in the mirror.”

Masturbating to her own reflection, young Nima embraces the idea of self-love two times over. By touching herself and watching herself, she makes it clear: Her desire is fueled by her own image; her sexuality springs from a seed of self-service. 

“It provides an insight into the way she relates to her own sexuality,” Shawkat explained to me over tea on a chilly April morning. Wearing a red, polka-dotted button-down with flashy 1980s-style earrings ― like a hipster Bettie Boop ― she was eager to talk about her fictional film, which she not only stars in, but co-wrote with director Miguel Arteta over the course of five years. 

The sheepskin rug anecdote wasn’t culled from the creators’ imaginations, though. “That’s actually how I did discover masturbating,” Shawkat divulged. The autobiographical tidbit is one of several that made its way into Shakwat and Arteta’s nontraditional script ― which was more of an extremely detailed outline that served as the basis for their improvised, nine-day shoot. The film’s entire second act was shot over just 27 hours, with only a few nap breaks in between. 

Nima, a character written for and by Shawkat, feels like an echo of the actress herself. This air of familiarity isn’t atypical; the 29-year-old often tackles projects relevant to her life. “I’m not making art that is separate from me,” Shawkat said. “I want to be making more things that are about the fact that I’m Middle Eastern, that I’m bisexual, that I am a woman who is sexual. It all feeds into my work.” 

Born to an Iraqi father and a mother of European descent, Shawkat grew up in Palm Springs, California. Her father has owned a strip club in Cathedral City since she was young, perhaps jump-starting Shawkat’s curiosity about performative sexuality. Her ensuing career has taken her from child actress to 20-something standout.

At 11 years old, she starred in the 2001 family dramedy “State of Grace,” about a Jewish and a Catholic girl who become best friends in the 1960s; her next breakout role, in 2003, was as wise-ass tween Maeby Funke in the cult comedy “Arrested Development.” Her recent turn as millennial gumshoe Dory Sief in the acclaimed TBS noir comedy “Search Party” put her back on TV for the foreseeable future. (The network renewed the series for a third season this week.) Now, her film “Duck Butter” is getting its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

“Duck Butter” follows two young women who fall for each other upon first meeting and decide to skip the bullshit rigamarole of dating by spending a full, uninterrupted day together, condensing a budding relationship into its most distilled form. The goal is true intimacy, the kind it takes some couples years to reach. Also, orgasms. The women pledge to make each other come every hour.

Shawkat and Arteta incorporated memories of their own loves and heartbreaks into the script outline. Specifically, those intense emotional encounters that are etched into their romantic timelines long after they didn’t work out. As Shawkat put it, “that one relationship where you know the person was so not right for you, but you can’t help but be obsessed with them and think they were the answer to your identity.”

For Nima, a struggling actress in Los Angeles with a tendency to overthink, that answer is Sergio. Played by Spanish actor Laia Costa, Sergio is a guileless yet erratic romantic who hurls herself into Nima’s life with the force of a hurricane. Initially, Shawkat and Arteta imagined a man in the role of Sergio. But Costa’s energy and openness ― “She’s like an athlete; she works from her gut,” Shawkat put it ― meshed perfectly with their idea of the character, someone who could drag Nima out of her own head through sheer physicality and verve. 

And thus, a rare breed of love story was born: one between two women that doesn’t mention coming out or being gay, or the potential hardships a same-sex couple might face, so often dramatized in Hollywood films. Its easy approach frames queerness as something that exists without explanation or consequence. “It’s really about two people,” Shawkat said. 

Although the crux of Nima and Sergio’s relationship is emotional rather than physical, sex plays a large role in the film. Their first time, Nima and Laia come while touching themselves, using their free hands to touch the other’s mouth and breasts. In matching white T-shirts, Nima and Sergio don’t perform over-the-top sexuality for one another, let alone their audience. 

“It was so important to me that the sex was not about the third person ― the audience ― watching,” Shawkat said. “It was about us. You’re either Sergio or Nima at some point in the film, lying there lazily and taking in the smell of the sheets.” 

This, Shawkat explained, is why the film features so many close-ups framing Nima and Sergio’s faces mid-orgasm. They aren’t the self-conscious expressions of women keeping tabs on their own appearances. Rather, they’re the scrunched up scowls and dumbstruck grins of people who’ve succumbed to their own pleasure, eyes rolling back for good measure. 

This separates “Duck Butter” from the countless sex scenes in which women pout and pant as if on cue, reassuring their partners while remaining physically desirable throughout. “As women, we’re taught to be aware of how we look when we have an orgasm and when we’re desiring pleasure,” Shawkat said. “There have been many sexual experiences I’ve had where I was not feeling it, but instead thinking about how I look to someone else.”

Shawkat objected to the way women are taught to look sexy instead of feel sexy, practicing “sexiness” in front of the mirror instead of between the sheets. “It’s so hard to break the pattern of wanting to control how you come across and believing that’s real,” Shawkat said. 

Of course, so much of acting seems to include ― from my non-actor perspective, at least ― worrying about how you come across. For Shawkat, raised in California, this isn’t the case. For her, acting is as much about breaking free of those fears as sex is. “Practicing in front of the mirror how it looks to be shocked is not a great acting exercise,” she said. ”In my opinion, it’s more important to feel it than to be aware of how it looks. If I’m feeling something, it will come across honestly on my face.”

The actor’s challenge, to feel something authentically in the moment, is one many women struggle with in their daily lives. “As women, we’ve all had to play so many roles,” Shawkat said.

Beyond “Duck Butter,” Shawkat’s TV roles ― aimless-millennial-turned-amateur-sleuth Dory on “Search Party,” elementary school teacher/sex addict Lila on “Transparent,” Ilana’s doppelganger-turned-short-lived-fling on “Broad City” ― exude a casual sexuality.

As a result, Shawkat is in many ways becoming a new version of a sex symbol. While many sex paragons past achieved the surreal status by appealing to the male gaze, Shawkat caters to her own needs before those of someone else. We feel her characters because they feel themselves.

“I have to learn how to come first before I start worrying about who I’m going to marry,” she told Salon in 2016.

Shawkat’s penchant for self-pleasure as both subject matter and style isn’t so much radical as it is overdue. As the Me Too reckoning continues to sweep Hollywood, an entire industry’s history of imbalanced gender dynamics is laid bare ― behind and in front of the camera. For decades, women’s sexuality has been a crutch trope with a major caveat: only if it’s sanitized and sanctioned by men. Shawkat breaks the mold as a bonafide sex symbol who aims to satisfy and titillate, first and foremost, herself. 

This realization is most clearly manifested in the Season 2 episode of “Broad City,” in which Shawkat plays Adele, a temporary love interest for Ilana Glazer, Shawkat’s real-life doppelganger. (Abbi Jacobson famously mistook Glazer for Shawkat when they first met in an improv class, for weeks.)

When Ilana and Adele meet, it’s lust at first sight, a glorious riff on the idea of radical self-love. As they eventually hook up, Ilana freaks out, imagining her own face peeking out from between her legs. Once she breaks the news to Adele that they look exactly the same, Adele believes that to be the motivation behind the encounter. Moments later, Ilana comes to terms with the fact that she just wants to jump her own bones.

“Of course I’m drawn to myself, I masturbate in the mirror!” Ilana says. 

“Me too,” echoes Adele. “That’s what’s so hot about it, it’s like hooking up with yourself.”   

In the fourth season of “Transparent,” Shawkat again plays a character who centers her own desire as Lila, an elementary school teacher who identifies as a “polyhearted bisexual human woman.” After meeting Sarah Pfefferman, played by Amy Landecker, at a gathering for people struggling with sex addiction, Lila and Sarah begin a sexual relationship with Sarah’s ex-husband Len. When Len asks Lila if she considers Sarah to be a sex addict, Lila calls out his judgmental tone.

“I think that men have a hard time with female sexuality, like, by itself,” Lila says. “They understand it when it’s in relation to them, but female desire, by itself, is terrifying to people.”

Even Shawkat’s role in “Search Party” engages in what could arguably be described as mental masturbation. Dory plays with herself, her fantasies and urges, spinning conspiracy theories about the whereabouts of a college frenemy gone missing and following her intuition far beyond reasonable doubt.

If “Search Party” explored the limits of stimulating oneself for personal amusement, “Duck Butter” tinkers with the ways self-love can manifest as comfort, too. Shawkat made sure the film included shots of her desexualized naked body, perched on the toilet or raiding the fridge for a beer. When she’s dressed, Shawkat wears mostly her own clothes ― T-shirts and sweatpants predominantly. Her pared-down makeup is often limited to ChapStick. 

“I love the way I look,” Shawkat said. “I felt sexiest in that state. In a lot of movies, when women are the objects of desire, they’re all dressed up, all made up. I’m in a T-shirt and sports bra and I’ve never felt hotter.”

At the end of “Duck Butter,” Nima and Sergio’s relationship experiment implodes and the two go their separate ways. The final scene shows Nima in bed, staring at the ceiling and replaying the past 24 hours in her mind. Her hands, formerly clasped into tight fists, loosen and extend, a signifier of Nima’s newfound vulnerability. She then pets her chest, her fingers grazing her shirt before grabbing at the fabric and twisting it closer. She self-soothes, using her hands not only for pleasure but a more complicated kind of pain-killing. She closes her eyes and drifts off to sleep, cradled by herself. 

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