Michaela Watkins had a helluva 2015, and she has streaming networks to thank for it. Well, that’s only partially true. She has herself to thank, really, as the talented actress earned her roles in such critically-adored hits as “Veep,” “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” “Transparent” and, of course, “Casual” — all in 2015 alone. But she’s not the kind of person who would take credit for her impressive string of performances on distinct programs. Instead, she credits her directors (like Jason Reitman), co-stars (Tommy Dewey, in particular) and, yes, streaming networks.
“God bless streaming networks. My God,” Watkins said. “I just feel like it has been the best thing to happen to creativity and television.”
In a recent discussion with Indiewire, Watkins explored her recent career boom, considering how things could have gone differently for a show like “Trophy Wife” had it come out a bit later, and what she looks for in a character following her recent “Casual” love affair.
I was looking over just how many really good, diverse projects you were involved in throughout 2015, from this to “Transparent” to “Wet Hot American Summer.” I guess I’m curious if that was any kind of result from your success, or at least the critical adoration and respect for “Trophy Wife.” A lot of people latched onto that show. It got a huge critical backing that hopefully almost saved it, we like to believe.
That was a great character for you.
If it was on a streaming channel, that might’ve saved it. I don’t understand.
See, that’s what I was curious about. So much of the great work that you turned around and did has been on streaming networks.
God bless streaming networks. My God. I just feel like it has been the best thing to happen to creativity and television. I mean, who knows what their numbers are — and I love that we don’t. And I’ll never understand network mentality. I mean, I guess I will: It’s all about money. It’s always all about money. I’m sure it is for streaming networks, as well, but I just feel like “Trophy Wife” was this beautiful, special little thing. I mean, come on! It was Malin [Ackerman] and Bradley [Whitford] and Marcia [Gay Harden] and then Albert Tsai, Bailee Madison and Ryan [Lee]. I don’t know if a network is going to get all those people together again on a show. I mean, it was a really special, beautiful thing that hit right before streaming kind of went insane. Critics were so kind and loving and sweet to that show and the network, that wasn’t the win for them. Having a show that was high quality didn’t seem to be the leading thing that would get them excited. You know what I’m saying? [laughs]
Yeah, absolutely. Their priorities are just a little bit askew.
Their priorities are very different, and I don’t understand that because I’m just not made up that way. So it’s like having some weird chain-smoking uncle. “I don’t understand your choices, but we had a great time at Disneyland.” I don’t know. That’s a weird metaphor.
No, I get it. It makes sense to me. Maybe I just have some weird uncles.
[laughs] I don’t have a weird uncle, but I just mean, you gotta love ‘em. But “Trophy Wife” was — up until 2014 and 2015 — it was my favorite job. And then they canceled it and killed that family, but I don’t know. I feel like I was rewarded with a few more really amazing families like the Pfeffermans and God, if you knew what a fan I was of the movie “Wet Hot American Summer,” [laughs] you would know that next to Lorne Michaels calling in 2008, the “Wet Hot American Summer” phone call was the best phone call I could’ve gotten.
Oh, that’s great.
And then “Casual” was this weird thing where I was like, “What is it going to be? Who knows? It could be… Wow!” But it just felt like exactly, exactly on point with what I felt like I wanted to do next the most, which was really, really get my hands dirty in a character that is sexual and tormented and funny. Like, I think Valerie has a really good sense of humor, you know? And with streaming channels, things don’t have be either/or. They can ride this — what do they call it? — like, dramedy? Whatever. That’s just how I like my entertainment. I wanna feel something, and I wanna laugh. I want it all. And I think it’s just exactly the sweet spot for me. It’s the kind of show I’d wanna watch, and to be able to work on it… It’s all just dreamy.
What was the first thing that attracted you to Valerie as a character?
I think the first thing that attracted me was hearing that Jason Reitman was doing a series. And then the second thing was that it felt like it was an indie film come to life on television. It just felt like a tempo of which I had never seen on TV before. The characters know they’re making a joke in a way that you and I would try to make each other laugh, but not because they think they’re playing to a bigger audience. It just felt [laughs] like a marrying of my two favorite mediums — that you can have an ongoing story, but in an indie film form.
And then the character is a woman roughly my age who is at a very interesting point in her life. She’s a depressed therapist and her journey is not defined by the fact that she’s somebody’s wife or somebody’s mother.
When you were working with Jason Reitman as a director, was there anything that you picked up on from him that you carried on throughout for the rest of the show?
Yeah! Another great question. It just made me think of something still very early on. He called me and said, “I know that you’ve come from a lot of improv. I know that you use that a lot. I know that’s why a lot of people probably maybe even hired you.” He said, “I’ve seen you do it. Great. For this, I want you to completely, 100 percent, trust what’s on the page and trust that it’s all there. And use just those words.” And, you know, there are times when you’re working and improv plays in because you’re just in an emotional place and that’s what starts to come out of your mouth. But just really, really trusting the simplicity, the sparseness of the dialogue of the show, really allowed this sort of vessel to fill with all the ways in which my character is not expressing herself — to live simultaneously in every conversation. And it just makes for such a richer experience and so I just learned that less is so much more throughout this process.
Was that tough for you to kinda reign that improv side of you back in?
When you see opportunities for something funny to happen, you always want to jump. And so you kinda take an adverse reaction. You know where the joke is, but you can’t hit it the way that you would if it was something else. It makes you flex other muscles instead. And it’s just a reminder that the point of this show is not, it’s not a “joke, joke, joke” kind of show. This is a character-driven show. And so it’s just more the game of really staying true to the character and that’s to try to make people laugh and in committing to the character.
There’s this game — I used to teach improv and there’s this game, exercise — I used to teach students where you have them do a scene where they’re not allowed to be funny at all. They have to play it completely straight. And you do it with beginning students, so there’s no pressure to be funny or anything like that. And they always end up being the most hysterical scenes because everybody is so committed to what they’re doing that the tragedies that are unfolding in it are hilarious because it’s just so honest. I feel like like with this show, people have ridiculous circumstances, but the family is so committed to who they are, that it’s up to the audience to find them humorous — not so much us.
“Casual” Season 2 premieres Tuesday, June 7.
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