Michaela Watkins and the Beauty of ‘Sad-Coms’

Michaela Watkins is an actress that appeared in that thing you like. That is a virtual certainty for anyone that’s watched TV in the last 10 years or so, in which time Watkins has appeared in 47 different television shows including Veep, Transparent, Enlightened, The New Adventures of Old Christine, Malcolm in the Middle, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, and Saturday Night Live. She’s been a guest star nearly everywhere, but now Watkins is taking center stage on the new show Casual, about a recently divorced woman who lives with her sleazy brother (Tommy Dewey) and teenage daughter (Tara Lynne Barr) and their unique takes on how to survive in the dating world.

Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) also serves as executive producer and director on the show, which is currently airing its first season on Hulu.

On the show Casual your character’s brother Alex (Dewey), runs an online dating app sort of like Tinder, and then sets you up on dates through the website. You’re married but did you open an account and get a feel for what that was like to prepare for the role?

I didn’t. I am just scared to death of online dating. I didn’t have a lot of faith that I’d be good at it because I’m not good at small talk or being casual. If that’s okay to say. I like one-on-one conversation but it’s much better when it happens organically.

Did you find a lot of personal comedy through your own dating life since it can be funny, weird, and awkward?

Oh yeah, it’s just the worst. Even when I met my husband and we were getting together – I spent a lot of my life in long relationships, maybe because of my fear of dating. A great time in my life was being totally single and actively not dating. Just saying “I’m gonna not be in a relationship. I’m gonna not date.” That was a super fun, awesome time. Another super fun, awesome time is getting past the point where you’re like “Is this- Are we- Is he gonna call- Should I?” you know, that kind of thing. Because as much as it’s sort of fun to date, and court, and the getting to know each other period, it’s also torture. Total torture. There is a real comfort in knowing that for the time being, as long as my husband stays alive, that I can avoid the dating.

There’s also a lot of comfort within your family on the show. Like walking in on your daughter about to have sex and her not freaking out at all. I couldn’t imagine being that comfortable with anyone in my family.

Oh, you and me both. That’s one of the things that drew me to the script because I was fascinated by these people – and I do know people like that. Families that grew up without any boundaries. My family is the opposite of that. So I was kind of just fascinated by that dynamic and I really wanted to get to know that a little bit.

There seem to be a lot more “serious” comedies today than there ever have been before. What is the essence of the show to you, in that respect?

It’s a comedic experience. That’s the way I would describe it. I love comedies, both broad and subtle. This is the type of comedy where I don’t think you can turn your brain off necessarily. This is a show that suggests the audience is intelligent and savvy enough to wait it out and anything that they don’t understand, there will be a mutual trust between the show and the viewer. All will be revealed. There’s patience. It’s slower than some narratives but what you get in return are just richer, fuller characters. I could talk about it and say “this is a show about a family and also about relationships and sex.” That’s the short answer but I think it’s a show where it’s a comedy borne out of what the characters do as opposed to jokes. If you’re interested in the characters, then you’re getting the experience of what they’re doing. Sometimes it’ll be creepy, sometimes it’ll be cringe. It’s all through the point of view of these three people but it’s not a joke factory.

A lot of shows and comedies especially these days depict women in their thirties and forties out there navigating the dating world: Transparent, Enlightened, Catastrophe, Togetherness and now Casual. Is that something you notice happening more and more often in the real world?

Yeah and I’ve only been married a couple of years. By the way, you mentioned all my favorite shows. Not to be a creep because I was in Transparent and Enlightened, but if I wasn’t they’d still be my favorites. I like them in spite of the fact that I was in them. They are my favorite kind of shows. It’s something I really like because I like to see real characters in really natural situations that aren’t totally done up and looking to be pretty all the time. They’re just dealing with relatable stuff: Love loss, “I’m fucked up, how did I get this way?” Dating is weird, sex is weird with strangers, also weird with people you’ve been with forever. Those sort of things are what make humans so funny and interesting to me. I like scratching below the surface of it. Not to dismiss broad comedies, I really love them, there’s nothing better to me than Wet Hot American Summer – because to me that’s just the funniest thing ever – but this sort of show, because of this digital platform where they don’t have to fall into a category of strictly comedy or strictly drama…

I heard somebody call them “Sad-Coms” which I thought was funny. And I dig it. I like sometimes to just get into a show and attach to the characters and ride that wave with them. Shows like Catastrophe and Togetherness and Transparent and Orange, I feel like I get to do that. Because they feel like people you would know.

It’s interesting to try and define what is a comedy show is these days, because Transparent might win “Best Comedy” awards but while I think that show is great, it didn’t make me laugh a ton. As opposed to a straight-up joke-a-second show like The Office. Do you expect Casual to fall into the former or the latter?

I think there’s laughs throughout, it’s just not going for laughs. Even when we were shooting it, if it were a network comedy, I would know where the jokes were, I would know where the laughs were and know how to play to that, but shooting this it was almost like you were trying to do the opposite because you don’t want to take people out of the experience. That’s just the style that it is. Not to say that other styles aren’t just as valuable, it’s just that was Jason was doing. For me, that kind of acting style that one needs to pull out of themselves to do that sort of work is just more interesting to me right now because I’ve never done it for this duration. I’ve done it for movies, but not for an entire series.

You come from The Groundlings, you’ve done a lot of improv and have been hired many times for your improv skills. Was there much improv on Casual?

There’s a tiny bit but in general I would say not really. Jason even said to me before we started shooting, “I know that improv is in your background, and I know it’s your jam and you like it and that’s great, but I’m gonna ask that you not do that and trust the words.” So that was a fun exercise too because there were so many times where I know I would sort of go off. And I had to say “I’m not gonna. I’m gonna stick to the lines and trust them.” I realized that every part of the show was thoroughly thought through.

I don’t like to improvise on anybody’s show anyway because I don’t ever wanna suggest that my stupid improv is more interesting or funny than what they wrote in their scripts. So I usually wait and feel it out until I see other people doing it, or I try it and it gets a good response maybe I’ll do a little more.

What was it like to work on Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp as one of the “new people” that was joining this cast that had made this cult classic comedy 14 years ago?

I was just so thrilled to even be asked to that. Were you a fan of that movie? I was such a huge, colossal fan of that movie. I must have watched it a million times when it came out on video cassette. When somebody showed it to me I was like “What is this? How is this so wonderful?” We would just watch it all the time. Then when David Wain asked me to join the show I thought – I didn’t know how that was going to work because the movie was so perfect, they don’t need anybody else. I’ll just fetch bottled waters for everybody if that’s what they want. So when I read the script, I was laughing so hard. At everything. There was so many jokes on every page that I was crying laughing. I was also nervous. I was losing my mind because you walk in and Amy Poehler is in her same getup from the movie, it’s a fucking trip. It was just hilarious, like being in some weird dream.

That must have been pretty surreal. Like walking into the movie.

Yeah, a hundred percent what you just said. Nailed it. And I’ve worked with everybody a bunch before shooting this, so it wasn’t like I was walking into a room full of strangers but it was definitely that crazy weird feeling that I had walked into the movie.

You’ve worked on a lot of television shows and a lot of movies. Which do you prefer working on now or which do you think is ahead of the game right now?

I think that line has gotten obliterated a little bit. I remember I was doing commercials and I was thinking, “Please God, let me do TV.” And then I when was doing TV, I started doing independent films and I thought, “Oh my God, independent films is so liberating. It’s so gratifying and wonderful.” Then all of a sudden TV sort of became gratifying and wonderful, because you got to do what you did in film, but you got to do it for even longer. Instead of an hour and a half movie, it’s like a five-hour movie. Which is how I would describe Casual, as like a five-hour independent film. This is an interesting question because I’ve never really said this outloud before, it might be a little weird. Just go with me on this.

Then suddenly TV got like independent film, but I’m also shooting a film right now with Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, and it’s like a hilarious, big budget comedy where there’s a ton of improv and I’m like “This is so much fun! Because this is just total play.” Because we are improvising our faces off, being idiots. I will say that that is really fun, but I won’t say that TV or film one is better than the other.

Michaela Watkins and the Beauty of ‘Sad-Coms’