On FOX's critically acclaimed but sadly departed "Arrested Development," Alia Shawkat enchanted fans and critics alike with her smart, funny performance as Maeby Funke, a scarily precocious teenager who often was the most level-headed member of the dysfunctional extended Bluth family.
The 17-year-old actress is dealing with magic of another kind, however, in "Not Like Everyone Else," a fact-based Lifetime movie premiering Monday, July 10, in which Shawkat stars as an Oklahoma high-school student who is expelled on charges of witchcraft.
Set in the days following the Columbine massacre, when high schools around the country tightened security, the film portrays Brandi Blackbear (Shawkat) as an introverted loner who is quickly branded a weirdo by the more popular girls at her school. Some of the more impressionable girls begin to actually fear Brandi, and after a teacher appears to fall ill from an unknown malady, rumors spread like wildfire through the school that Brandi has cast a spell on him, eventually forcing Brandi's parents (Illeana Douglas, Eric Schweig) to pursue legal retaliation.
Apart from the witchcraft angle, "Not Like Everyone Else" pretty much follows the same "Mean Girls" TV movie formula as the 2005 Lifetime movie "Odd Girl Out," which precedes Shawkat's movie on the cable channel's Monday schedule.
Shawkat's performance, however, is definitely worthy of note, especially to those who know her only from her "Arrested" comedy work.
"The movie is based on a real incident, although I found it hard to believe a teenager could actually be accused of witchcraft in this day and age," Shawkat says. "Nothing like that has ever happened to me, certainly, but I know what it's like to feel like an outsider at school. Because of my work, I've spent a lot of time in home schooling, so when I have actually gone to school, I've never been a part of any of those cliques of popular kids. I definitely know what it's like to eat lunch alone. High school can be a brutal place, and the girls can be even worse than the boys."
Born in Riverside, Calif., and the granddaughter of actor Paul Burke ("Naked City"), Shawkat says she can't remember a time when she didn't want to be an actress, although it took awhile to get her mother on board with the idea. After appearing in a Calvin Klein catalog, the budding actress quickly attracted the attention of agents and casting agents.
"My very first thing I did was a GAP commercial that didn't air, then I did a Barbie commercial, and a few weeks later, I got 'Three Kings,' which was my first actual film work," Shawkat says of her first gigs. "I was very young and green on [that film], which was a great experience. David O. Russell, the director, made me feel very comfortable, and it wasn't about even having lines; it was just about being there and pretending to be this young Iraqi girl."
A guest appearance on "JAG," playing series star Catherine Bell's character as a child in a flashback, and a TV movie followed, then Shawkat made her TV series debut at age 11 in the ABC Family series "State of Grace,' in which she starred as Hannah Rayburn, a Jewish girl who becomes close friends with Grace (Mae Whitman), a Catholic, after Hannah's family moves from Illinois to North Carolina in 1965.
Despite warm reviews, the series only ran for two seasons, although that was enough to get Shawkat noticed.
"I remember that I was very much like Hannah at the time," Shawkat says of the series. "I was very shy and introverted, and I met my best friend, Mae Whitman, on that show.
"When I think of my childhood, I think of 'State of Grace' as just a very happy young experience. The writing was wonderful, and it didn't get picked up because it wasn't well-known and not that many people were watching, but once it had been canceled, young girls started coming up to me and recognizing me. It was a great connection for mothers and daughters, a great show for them to watch together."
Her next TV series, "Arrested Development," was another bittersweet experience, garnering some of the most universal praise in recent TV history yet never finding a mainstream audience.
"I remember when I got the script, there was a cover sheet saying that said this was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants show that would be using hand-held cameras, and the dialogue was a very different style," Shawkat recalls. "I was a big fan of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm,' and this seemed like it was very similar to that, so I thought, 'Wow, this is what I've been waiting for!' It was hysterical, but I thought, 'Is the public going to respond to this? Will they understand it?' But the casting was perfect -- everyone actually was very much like their roles, and when I saw the cast together I wanted the show to be picked up just so I could work with them."
FOX canceled "Development" after three low-rated but award-winning seasons, and subsequent talks to move the show to cable broke down after series creator Mitch Hurwitz announced he was moving on to other projects.
"Every single season when we had our wrap party, we left not knowing whether we would be back in the fall," Shawkat says, "and that's what it was like when we finished that last season. But none of us would have seriously considered trying to continue without Mitch. And almost all of us got together recently to record commentary for the season three DVD set, so we all loved having that time together."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times