On ABC’s wonderful Trophy Wife, Michaela Watkins plays Bradley Whitford’s second of three wives — the one who brought out his hippy-dippy side. The ease with which Watkins embodies the spirit of Jackie speaks to her ease with playing odd, goofy, slightly unhinged people, and her comfort is in high demand. She’s appeared in Wanderlust, Enlightened, and as part of the comedy multiverse that encapsulates friendly shows like Childrens’ Hospital and Kroll Show. We spoke to Watkins about the modern state of divorce and what her brief stint on Saturday Night Live taught her about doubling down with work.
I don’t know how else to put this, but a lot of the characters you play, like Jackie on Trophy Wife, are on the verge of having a nervous breakdown …
It’s so funny that you bring that up because just today I was talking to single friends of mine who are dating, and I have to keep telling them not to show all their crazy too early. I realize I love crazy ladies. Of course I don’t like to think of myself as one, but maybe I am too. I dunno. I’m always drawn to them; I think it’s because I’m attracted to people who aren’t in the business of people-pleasing, saying what they really think, not passive-aggressive at all. Maybe women get to a certain age and they no longer have a filter, they’re considered crazy people or something.
It certainly feels more real. Nobody can be well-composed all the time.
I find those characters more interesting people. If you’re going to spend 20 minutes watching these people, you want to watch sensitive people trying to navigate life in that way. I don’t mean for this to sound so serious — all I like to do is make people laugh — but comedy has to come from a real place.
One of the things I admire about Trophy Wife is that it’s a funny show about people who like each other, but it’s also about divorce and other not-great things. How do you keep Jackie likable even though there are negative things surrounding all the action?
If the show happened eight months earlier, it’d be a drama. This is why I like Jackie: My character is always trying to evolve herself in one shape or form. But she thinks evolving is including Kate [Malin Akerman's character, who marries Jackie's ex-husband], not cutting her off. Even if she has to fake it until she makes it, she looks for things in Kate that are lovable and endearing. Jackie is a little egocentric, so she looks for things in Kate that would also benefit her. If she needs a friend, a plus one, any help with anything, it only benefits Jackie. As for Diane [Marcia Gay Harden's character, the first wife], you know how you kind of love in people what you wish you had for yourself? I think that’s the thing, the two run the gamut so much. If I was married to somebody, I’d like to think I’d get to the point where I’d get that comfortable.
Not to sound like the American Family Association or anything, you know that group who thinks society’s going to hell because television is corrupting our soul or whatever—
That’s basically just Mississippi.
Ha, yeah. What do you think about the trend in TV shows nowadays of showing families that are very atypical? It’s been a while since a boring nuclear family was the center of a sitcom.
I don’t think our show glorifies divorce or anything. I do think that it’s a really good road map for people who are divorced. When my parents were divorced in the late '70s, early '80s, the climate was that you should screw over your ex as much as possible — get the worst lawyer in the world, all that. That’s not what people are out to do anymore. It feels cruddy to try and destroy each other just because you’re breaking up. I wish more people could do it like this to be honest.
You have a long and impressive résumé. What’s the practical reality of someone who pops up in a bunch of fun comedy things? And what’s it like to have a steady gig now?
I couldn’t believe how much I loved it. It’s probably how military brats feel when they grow up and get married and live in a house for more than four years at a time. When I got Trophy Wife, the first fear is this could go away; the second is it’s here and I love it, I hope it gets a second season. You’re always thinking this has to be finite, so I wonder when that end is going to come. I love working so much. For me, working equals happiness.
But as far as other roles, as you pointed out, I play a lot of unhinged women, so these are women whose skin I don’t want to be in for a long time, usually. Even with Jackie, I have to go home and take her off sometimes. As far as celebrity, people don’t stop me on the street and know who I am. It’s more like, “Doesn’t she remind you of so-and-so’s ex-girlfriend?” It’s always somebody’s ex-girlfriend. Somebody ex-girlfriend who’s “crazy.”
One of the strange things about the internet nowadays is that people have a long memory, and in a lot of interviews they ask about your brief stint on Saturday Night Live. Looking back now, what was it like just after you left the show and returned to Los Angeles?
It was weird that most people knew me as someone let go from SNL. I had the best time there, and in retrospect it was the perfect amount of time. The only thing that matters is what you do with yourself in that moment after. If you decide, "I’m the girl who was fired from SNL," you’re just that. You know what I did? I got together with my writing partner and we wrote scripts. And now I’m on the way to the set where it’s put to series. [Benched, starring Eliza Coupe.] If I hadn’t had the time to come back and gather my ducks, I wouldn’t have written my first sitcom. I may never know why I was let go, but if I had to guess it was they found out I’m a little older than they thought when they hired me .[Laughs.] I’m laughing because I think it’s a funny thing that could only happen before IMDb started printing everyone’s ages.
What’s the new show about?
It’s about a lawyer who [laughs] has a mini-breakdown. [Laughs more.] Oh my God, that’s so funny.
Are you okay? Do you need me to call anybody?
Wow, this is like therapy.