While in New Orleans filming the horror-comedy The Final Girls, Alia Shawkat stumbled into a band she later would join onstage.
"I was sitting in bed, then I was like, 'No, I'm gonna keep going out,'" she says. "I got dressed and went out by myself to Frenchmen Street."
After meeting drummer Josh Marotta at d.b.a., Shawkat met the rest of the Swamp Donkeys — Frenchmen Street staples who perform a traditional New Orleans jazz repertoire — at Buffa's. Shawkat mentioned she could sing, and the band asked her to join.
"They were like, 'If you can sing, sing!'" she says. "They asked me to go on tour with them, we recorded a record, and then we were like, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could perform at Jazz Fest?'"
The band released a five-song EP, A Fine Romance, highlighting the breezy, natural chemistry between Shawkat and vocalist and trumpeter James Williams, summoning Louis Armstrong with a tender, full-throated voice.
"We have a good repartee — zingers, if you will," she says. "His voice is so strong, obviously. He's so confident. My style and my voice just work nicely with it. ... I've learned so much from playing with them that it feels like a conversation more than singing, which is the best sort of duo. You feel like they're really talking. He's really funny, too, so our jokes and the way we talk back and forth through songs becomes a bit. They're like characters, and we play different characters onstage — which I'm more comfortable with as an actor. It kind of helps to feel like I'm slipping into it — slip into the dress, have a whiskey, and I'm ready."
Shawkat stars as Maeby Funke in Arrested Development and Dory Sief in the acclaimed dark comedy series Search Party, which begin filming new seasons this year. This summer, Shawkat stars in Amber Tamblyn's film Paint it Black. Her interest in jazz started with her grandfather, the New Orleans-born actor Paul Burke, who shared with Shawkat his music collection and stories about Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Stan Getz. Shawkat's great grandfather — the prize-fighting boxer Martin Burke, who frequently sparred with Jack Dempsey — owned a gym and a nightclub in the French Quarter.
"I had this family history that really called back to me when I got here," Shawkat says. "At a young age I understood the concept of the handful of (music) standards, and everyone has their own versions of them. Then start breaking it down — it's always the same thing, just with a different rhythm or different interpretation. It's not that tricky once you know it."
Shawkat joins the band — Williams, Marotta, Joseph Faison, Jonathan Gross, Miles Lyons and Ricardo Pascal — for one of its biggest gigs yet at this year's Jazz Fest. "We're technically rehearsing right now," she says. "We got mimosas and we're sitting on a porch, but we're rehearsing."