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Michaela Watkins on Sword of Trust, Improv, and Civil War Conspiracy Theories

Michaela Watkins. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for SXSW

In Sword of Trust, the latest film from indie director Lynn Shelton, Michaela Watkins plays Mary, the partner of Cynthia (Jillian Bell), who is expecting to inherit her late grandfather’s house. She doesn’t get the house, but she does get a sword that, according to a bizarre letter written by her dead, dotty, and apparently racist grandfather, is a relic that proves the South actually won the Civil War.

In an attempt to at least get some inheritance money, Mary and Cynthia take the sword to a pawn shop where Mel (Marc Maron), the owner, and his employee (Jon Bass) soon realize that the sword is worth a lot of money to right-wing conspiracy nuts. Pretty soon the four are teaming up to sell the sword to a group of questionable men who truly believe it’s authentic.

The role provided Watkins with the opportunity to reteam with Shelton, who directed her in a few episodes of the Hulu series Casual, and to work in an entirely improvisational environment, something the Groundling and Saturday Night Live veteran has plenty of experience doing. The film also raises interesting ethical questions, which Watkins was game to discuss during a recent phone conversation.

Was it an adjustment to go from Casual, which you had just wrapped when you started filming Sword of Trust, to this? Or because you had previously worked with Lynn, who directed some episodes of Casual, was it an easy transition?
Lynn had directed a few Casuals so we were all in the same headspace. Marc and I had done Joe Swanberg’s show Easy, where we did a lot of improv. That was Lynn’s dream to put us together, and then she mentioned it to Marc, and Marc’s like, “Yeah, that’s a great idea.” So when Joe said, “Who do you want to do Easy with?” he said, “Michaela would be fun.” Lynn was like, “What?”

Then she was like, “I’m going to have you do something completely different anyway.” Which this was. We were in a completely different dynamic. I played his ex-wife in one [Easy], and the counterpart to my lesbian girlfriend in another [Sword of Trust]. In both of them my character was very angry at him. But one was suspicious without reason, and the other was suspicious with reason.

Casual is so well-written and Jason Reitman was like, “We’re not straying from the script. I know you do improv; we’re not doing improv in this. We’re trusting [creator] Zander [Lehmann]’s words.” And you do, you trust them implicitly. So this was kind of fun to turn my brain over and try to cook the other side and just be totally free to improvise, which I hadn’t done in a while.

When you say it was improv, how much was on the page and how much were you figuring out as you did each scene?
Normally a screenplay is anywhere between 95 and 130 pages. This was a 26-page document, or maybe a 30-page document, of beats, basically. “They go to the house and find that they inherited a sword. They thought they were getting the house. They got the sword.” That’s all it would say for that scene, you know? “The Realtor gives them the sword because that’s all they demanded.” [Shelton] had written out what was in that letter [from the grandfather]. Which was just so crazy. Jillian and I sat in our hotel room trying to make heads or tails of it for so long. We thought we were dumb. And then we realized that was on purpose.

It would have saved some time if they had just told you the letter didn’t make sense beforehand.
Yeah. [Laughing.]

Lynn helped us navigate those beats a little bit because she was like, “Let’s make sure we hit these two things.” Lynn’s really — her antenna is so tuned to some kind of station that only she can hear. It’s a very slapstick — almost — movie, which is not her general vibe, usually. It had moments of that but then other moments where she wanted to completely ground it. If we started down a jag that was entertaining the hell out of us, where we were crossing our legs trying not to wet our pants laughing, she would bring it down to earth in this way. You’d think, Let’s keep this going. Why would she interrupt this? But she always knew what kind of oddball thing she was going to make. She’s the fastest director in town. She gets it all. She gets all the coverage. I’ve worked with her on scripted and then somewhat sort of loose scripted — she just knows. She’ll say, “Michaela, stop.” And I’m like, “What? What?” She’s like, “Stop. Wrong road.” Then you get back in and readjust and you start improvising again, and a new path emerges and you go down that road.

How much of the story of Mary and Cynthia — how they met and what their dynamic was — was laid out in the script, and how much was you and Jillian finding it together?
The night before we started shooting, Jillian and I met in our hotel rooms and we were like, “Okay, can we just talk about some of our stuff? Just get on the same page?” I think all those things are helpful. They give you a little confidence going in that the other person is as scared and excited as you are to figure it all out on the day.

But also Jillian and I had just worked on another film [the forthcoming Brittany Runs a Marathon], so when [the Cynthia] part became available and Lynn was casting it, I wholeheartedly said, “What about Jillian Bell? She’s so wonderful.” And she said, “I really love that idea. “

When you’re doing improv like this, it must help to work with an actor you’ve already worked with so you have that familiarity.
Yeah, and Jillian and I are also from the Groundlings. We overlapped a tiny bit. When she got into the company, I had left to go to SNL, and then when I came back from SNL a year later, she had gone to SNL to go write. Then when she came back from SNL, I was just about to become an alum, so we overlapped just, like, a smidge. But we come from the same background. We speak that same language. Groundlings is so character-based, so it was really important not just to have clever things to say.

I want to talk about the sword, which acts as a gateway into these racist fringe groups and conspiracy theories. How much time, if any, did you spend researching what those groups were?
Sadly, you just open Twitter and you can find out who these groups are.[Laughs.]

I try not to do too much of a deep dive because my brain doesn’t know the difference between thinking that this is just a fringe group and that it’s not the majority. Because people have voice power on the platforms now. So it’s really easy to think, Oh my gosh, this is a real thing that’s happening. So while I’m completely aware of the conspiracy theories, I don’t deep dive into them.

I’m wondering if you, Lynn, and Jillian had a conversation about whether Cynthia and Mary would really want to sell the sword. When they first realize what it’s associated with, their response is, “I want nothing to do with this.” Then there’s a sense of, “Let’s get the money.”
Well, I think like most things, right, your first reaction is probably the most real reaction. So your first reaction is, “No way. This is wrong. Yuck.” And then you start to say, “Well, if the people who believe it are dumb enough to buy it, why should we stop them? We need the money.” And these are people who are in financial straits. They thought they were inheriting a house. They anticipated all this and [the sword sale] would solve a few problems. I’m sure there’s a way to rationalize. We do it all the time. We just go, Okay, maybe these aren’t pasture-fresh eggs where the chickens are running around a beautiful Iowa cornfield. Maybe it’s okay to eat these chicken McNuggets even though there are child-labor infringements. We do it all the time, and I think there’s a line between where your desperation and your self-righteousness intersect. And that’s the choice they’ve made.

Is it the choice I would necessarily make? Probably not. But maybe. I could see rationalizing [that] if somebody’s dumb enough to believe this, maybe they should be dumb enough to buy it. As long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. I think you get down to, How much is this going to hurt anybody?

Whether it’s hurting anybody — I think that’s a relevant question. If they are just collectors, then maybe not. But if it’s helping to fuel people’s beliefs and that’s spilling over into the mainstream, which frankly we’re seeing happen—
Exactly. That’s what I mean.

Like the anti-vaxx stuff. People learn information that may not be true. But when they take action based on that information, what are the ramifications of that? This movie kind of touches on that. I don’t know if Lynn intended to do that when she wrote it.
I think she wanted to highlight it. But what I like about the movie is, she really didn’t want Michaela’s wants and what she would do to get in the way of what Mary and Cynthia would do. Mary and Cynthia are not Michaela and Jillian, and while I have all my feelings about it, I had to be somebody who was like, we barely have our basic needs met right now. Or we really want to have a child. Who’s this gonna hurt? They’re not there, like I would be, to really talk about what is the right thing to do. That’s not how they’re made, but I like how Lynn soft-pedals it out there.

Did you guys talk at all about what the sword might actually be and where it might have really come from?
I think all we learn in that moment is your beloved grandfather was a racist old coot. I think that’s also happening in households all over the country. My mother just said — she was online on her Facebook page and somebody was writing terrible things and she was saying, “How can we be from the same family? How can we have such opposing values and different views?” That is being illuminated in households everywhere, where all of a sudden, people are afraid to go home. Because they’re like, “I don’t know how to talk to my caregivers right now.”

Do you anticipate working with Lynn or some of these other folks again on a project like this, that’s so improvisational?
Oh God, I hope so. I hope it. I hope it. I hope it. I would do anything with Lynn forever, always, to the end of time. We actually sold a script to Hulu — they’re not making it, but she was attached to that. I just want to go wherever she goes and whatever she does, anytime.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Michaela Watkins on Sword of Trust and Conspiracy Theories