Michaela Watkins on the Interesting Women She’s Played, From Sarah Koenig to Casual

Photo: JB Lacroix/WireImage

If it seems like Michaela Watkins is everywhere you turn, you’re not wrong. The former Saturday Night Live actress has been playing some of the most difficult and demented women on film and TV in recent years. “I gravitate toward them,” Watkins told Vulture during a phone interview. “As much as I love the cutesy, comedic thing, either I have outgrown it or I accept that I don’t get cast in that. But I find that as you grow and you evolve and you live your life, complexity is much more interesting. Also, I have a specific look. As much as I would have loved to look like Jennifer Aniston in Friends, that didn’t happen. And I really tried! I hit that gym! I got a flatiron. But it didn’t happen. So I found a little niche.”

As the star of Jason Reitman’s Casual, which premiered Wednesday on Hulu, Watkins is finally playing a woman she actually likes: Valerie, a recently separated mother who is out in the dating world for the first time in 17 years and has moved in with her bachelor brother (Tommy Dewey). Watkins spoke with Vulture about playing Valerie, and four of her favorite roles over the years. 

Valerie, Casual
Out of everybody I’ve ever played, she’s the only woman I would be friends with. Everyone else is a nutjob, and that would be a tough, tough friendship. But I like Valerie. She’s really restrained, she thinks before she speaks, and she’s got this cool daughter, so she obviously did something right. There’s a lot of cringe-y stuff that happens in the series where you’re like, Oh, man! Oh, don’t! I’ve been there. Oh, God! Like when she folds her one-night stand’s clothes just because she thinks that’s the nice thing to do. It’s like, lady, no! You’re twice his age! Get out of there! I can relate to that moment where life as you knew it is not going to be that, and you’ve lost control. I am married for the first time, and it’s wonderful, but I have been in relationships that have gone away prematurely. I have been horribly heartbroken. I have felt like the landscape of my life has completely altered overnight, and that I no longer knew who I was in the world. How do you date? For someone who’s been in a long relationship, that’s the scariest. I thought my two choices were I’m either not going to survive this, or I’m going to be unhappy for the rest of my life. And of course that’s not the case. Anybody who goes through a major transition realizes that’s not the case — you get your shit together. But there is that moment where you don’t know how to survive this. And I think that’s where Valerie is. Of everybody I’ve ever played, she’s the closest to my heart.

Rhonda, Wet Hot American Summer
Isn’t that the funniest show in the whole world? When David Wain said he was doing a series, I was like, “Do you need me to bring you coffee or anything?” I just wanted to be near it. And then out of the blue he offered me this crazy choreographer. I didn’t care if I played an ashtray. I just wanted to be near the show. But the idea of Rhonda, the tough New Yorker who comes in as the choreographer — I have very clear memories of my idea of what a New York choreographer was when I was 13 years old in summer camp. If somebody showed up and had an attitude, I was like, Wow! It’s a time when people were playing the archetypes of who they wanted to be — that’s what the '80s were.  And that Flashdance sweatshirt just put it over the edge for me. I don’t even have to say anything. There it is. This should be Michaela Watkins playing a sweatshirt.

Janice, Enlightened
Man, that was such a beautiful show. Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Luke Wilson, Mike White, Timm Sharp, they’re all exquisite. They’re just so specific. That was another show I felt really lucky that I got to be a tiny part of. These shows are like having a super-hot girlfriend — yeah, she’s with me! Janice was a horrible bitch. She was awful! That’s an example of somebody where if that was my best friend, I’d jump off a bridge. Whereas Valerie in Casual, if she was my best friend, we’d hang out and watch movies all day. Janice was somebody who derived pleasure from other people’s pain. She was so insecure that as long as someone was worse off than she was, she could feel better about herself.

Jackie, Trophy Wife
I loved Jackie. I loved being Jackie. I loved that show. I loved my son, Albert Tsai, on my show so much. He was a guest at my Passover table last year. He’s amazing, and he knew more about the history of the plight of the Jews than we did. I miss everybody on that show [so] much. It went too soon. They’re so dumb. Jackie was like a pioneer. If something didn’t work, she’d find a way. Even if it was illegal or even if it was dangerous, she was her own animal. She had a lot of heart.

Sarah Koenig, Funny or Die’s "The Final Episode of Serial"
They’re making a TV show! Is she going to be in it, or is she just producing it? Because if she’s in it and nobody calls me to play her, I’m gonna be a little hurt. I just liked to imitate her in the shower, and then out of the blue, it happened. I would do “I’m Sarah Koenig” monologues in the shower where I would pretend to talk to Adnan. At this point in the scenario, they’d run out of clues to talk about, so they just started talking about really mundane things. Like, she had $5 in her purse and she couldn’t find it anymore, and did Adnan know where it might be? It was there the last time she visited him. One day someone from Funny or Die reached out to ask if I would do her, and I was like, “YESSSSSS! It’s like you were in my shower with me.”