a long talk

Michaela Watkins’s Unrequited-Love Year at SNL

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Michaela Watkins’s formative years in acting might be described as yeoman’s work, or whatever the equivalent is in the acting community. Forged in community theater, then the Los Angeles improv scene, Watkins graduated to sitcoms and guest spots on television before landing a gig at Saturday Night Live in 2008 during one of the show’s most fascinating and important periods. But her single season at Studio 8H was not a career capstone in itself, as it can be for other one-and-done cast members; instead, she leveraged her increased profile into recurring guest spots on New Girl and Enlightened before co-creating the short-lived 2014 USA Network comedy series Benched and starring in Casual, which aired for four seasons on Hulu. Since then, she has continued to get roles in television and film, becoming one of Hollywood’s most prolific character actresses and appearing in movies like Sword of Trust and Wanderlust.

Beginning with the likes of Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in Trading Places, film comedies have sought to put SNL cast members from different eras together in the hope of creating kinetic onscreen chemistry. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the most fruitful examples has been Watkins’s lengthy collaboration with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who was an SNL cast member during Dick Ebersol’s run as producer in the early ’80s before Lorne Michaels returned in 1985. The actresses’ new movie, You Hurt My Feelings, their latest team-up across 15 years of working together, is a sort of modern, NYC-themed take on Abbott and Costello via director Nicole Holofcener’s iconoclastic style. At SNL, the two underdogs were forced to sink or swim but ultimately defined their Hollywood legacies without the show’s brand. Watkins recently discussed her time at SNL, her burgeoning friendship with Louis-Dreyfus, and what she learned from working with Jeannie Berlin.

Watching You Hurt My Feelings, I was thinking about its influences and wondered about classic Woody Allen, given Julia Louis-Dreyfus is an alum and Nicole Holofcener’s parents were longtime collaborators of his. Her mother was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Art Direction working on two of his films, and her stepfather produced many of them, including Annie Hall.
That was my upbringing, watching those movies. That’s what made me fall in love with cinema. Seeing a Jewish filmmaker who had the idiosyncrasies of Jewish humor be so universally liked by everybody and everybody thinking it was funny was so meaningful for me as a Jewish kid growing up. Okay, maybe in some ways, it could be a little detrimental because there’s a self-loathing Jewish quality to some of the films, and maybe that embedded something in my psyche that perhaps I had to overcome. It doesn’t necessarily celebrate all of our idiosyncrasies.

Speaking of your movie’s comic lineage, how was it working alongside Jeannie Berlin?
I hope I’m working as hard and ubiquitous when I’m Jeannie’s age. I think she is amazing. You want to know something pathetic? I did not know Elaine May was her mom. I wrote Julia a text after we were done shooting: “How did I not know this?” Julia wrote back, “What the fuck is the matter with you?” How did I miss that? Jeannie kept referring to her mom in these various stories she was telling, and I just wanted to reroute my brain and start all over again. She’d been living with her mom and close with her, obviously. And I didn’t totally absorb everything she said. Had I known that — I mean, Elaine May is the original.

You appear in “East Wing,” one of my favorite Veep episodes.
That show was built on the backs of incredible writers who were using the most incredible improvisers. I didn’t bank that it would be that much improv. We got together at a hotel just to work through some scenarios with everybody. I’m a pretty good improviser — I’m not the greatest, but I’m not bad. I thought we were going in to read their scripts and pump them up. I didn’t realize there were no scripts; they were just scenarios — which is, by the way, my favorite thing to do, the most fun way to act. So I step in there and I’m with the crème de la crème: Matt Walsh, Timothy Simons. I couldn’t think of the name of one world leader. I was like, “Well, the Russian … is it prime minister? The president? Chancellor? Czar?” I couldn’t think, I shit the bed so hard that day. I went home and beat myself up. Thank God, they didn’t fire me on the spot.

Your collaborations with Julia go back to The New Adventures of Old Christine. How did that start?
There have been a few things in my career that just instantly made sense to me. When I was a kid, I saw SNL and thought, That makes sense to me. I understand it. When I saw the Groundlings — where I studied improv and sketch — at my first show, I thought, That makes sense to me. I will do that. Then when I read the audition piece for The New Adventures of Old Christine, I was like, I’ll do that. It makes sense to my brain. I’m not positive or optimistic enough to think I will get any of these things ever, but I know if you put me in the game, I can show up.

When I got New Adventures — it was my first recurring role and my first sitcom — I saw the mechanics of that show and how Julia works and how the creator, Kari Lizer, works. Having a female showrunner was sort of an anomaly at that time. I was just like, I like that. I’ll do that. It’s not confidence, just such a “duh” moment. I was so lucky New Christine was my introduction because it was such a functional workplace and Julia’s such a generous person. She’s not a selfish actor in any way, shape, or form. She wants everyone to be their best, to glow and shine. I just thought, If I ever have a show, I am going to conduct myself like these women. 

Why have your careers kept intersecting? There are so many recurring actors who might want to build a relationship with a sitcom’s star. How did you and Julia continue to collaborate?
If my career had to emulate anybody’s, it would be hers. And interestingly, it has — slowly and not to her degree–ish. We have similar tastes, for sure, and maybe a similar sensibility. Whether we like the same things or the things she does become the things I like, it’s like a chicken-or-egg situation. Would Veep be Veep if it was anyone else that show was centered on? I don’t know, but boy did she make that a show I was dying to do. I remember Julia was in that audition and she had such an infectious laugh. She was sitting up in the front row with such a joyous smile on her face. If it didn’t go a day beyond that, that day would have been enough.

I think Julia mentioned me to play the best friend in You Hurt My Feelings. But I saw Nicole at a premiere, and we started chatting. She says, “Guess what? I’m making my movie! I’m going to New York! I’m doing it with Julia!” “Oh, what a dream team!” Then I just said, “Does she have a sister?” Luckily, because I have no filter, I said it out loud — which was very audacious — and she said, “She has a best friend!” I was like, “Could I be Julia’s best friend? Probably not. I don’t know, they could get somebody like Marisa Tomei.” But she made us sisters! Which I think plays so strongly. I guess Marisa Tomei could’ve been her sister — I am so glad Nicole didn’t have that idea until I said it. This is why we have to advocate for our dreams.

I also want to note you’d had some experience channeling Julia already, having impersonated her in the “Two First Names” sketch in 2009 when you were on SNL with Neil Patrick Harris hosting. This must’ve been right after you worked on New Christine, right?
I think she was fresh in my mind! I didn’t ask to do that. One of the writers cast me. After the fact, I let her know I was a huge fan. I was not making fun of her; I wanted to make sure she understood. And she said, “No, I was just grateful you didn’t do the Seinfeld hair!” She made a self-deprecating hair joke: “New Christine hair, instead of Seinfeld hair.”

How do you go from being a one-and-done SNL cast member, which can be perilous, to carving such a good career for yourself and working with so many well-regarded people?
This was a crapshoot. It really could have gone either way. A couple of things had to happen. I had to really humble myself. If I defined myself by having been on SNL, I would have been defined as just the girl who was once on SNL. I never thought SNL was going to necessarily happen, so when it did happen, it was such a shock. If I thwarted all the other things I wanted to do because I was the girl who was fired from SNL, that would’ve been a bummer.

I went back to L.A., and I was back to buying costumes at Goodwill and doing shows at Groundlings. The only thing I didn’t do was go back to waiting tables, as I think that would’ve been too depressing. But I didn’t have any money, either. I got together with a fellow Groundling, Damon Jones, who was going through a breakup, so he was sad and I was sad. I felt super-dejected and embarrassed. I thought I’d had a good year — then I thought, I think I got fired because I’m old. How does that not depress you? I was also going through a breakup. Oh God, and my best friend since I was 4 years old had died of cancer also at this time. This was between ’08 and winter of ’09. The best thing was: I got SNL and Obama became president.

I didn’t get asked back. But we said, “We’ve written 5,000 sketches — maybe we can write a show.” That was the self-starting engine that ignited and pushed me out of what could have been. I don’t know what would’ve happened. Thank God for Damon for saying we should write something. I like to think I would’ve gone on auditions and been on some nice things. And that did happen, but the writing aspect was taking power back. I think that changed my vibration a bit to a much lighter person to hang out with than someone who feels like a super-loser.

And by the way, I learned things along the way: Our careers cannot define us in terms of winner or loser. That’s all bullshit. But you have to remember this was still the infancy of my career even though I was in my late 30s. I didn’t understand that yet. I was a late bloomer.

You joined SNL during such a fascinating, high-profile period. In your first episode, you were immediately in a sketch with Beyoncé, Paul Rudd, and Justin Timberlake.
Oh yeah. That was right off the airplane. I showed up during the table read at 30 Rock in the middle of the production week. Amy Poehler went to go have a baby, so they hired someone a week after the election. I got hired with Abby Elliott. Kristen Wiig and Casey Wilson were there. Two women were there; there were like 250 men, then Abby and me. That’s the other thing — what is that? Why were there four women and 12, 14 men? Just so weird. But I was used to that ratio — that’s classical theater, that’s every Shakespeare production I was sitting in. Every time I was sitting backstage looking around, realizing how inequitable it was, I was like, Why do I do this? I should be on a sitcom. And that’s why I moved to L.A., but that’s another story.

I get off the plane and go to the table read. I am up all night because they’re fitting you for all these things. I’m called at 7 a.m. or 6 a.m., and we’re rehearsing this Beyoncé thing and Justin Timberlake is there. I thought I was having a fever dream. I didn’t find out about this during a summer break; I didn’t get to go to New York, suss out an apartment, and figure out my favorite coffee shop. I was shooting New Adventures of Old Christine the night before at 9 p.m. L.A. time, which is midnight New York time, and I was on a flight at 5 a.m. I had two cats! I had to give them to somebody, like, “I am so sorry, I have to drop my cats off!” Then by the time I got to the airport, they were in the middle of a table read. It was a Wednesday. I slotted into an empty chair between Andy Samberg and Will Forte. What I didn’t know is that was always going to be my chair. Like everybody sits in the same chair and that’s, like, a “thing.” There were a lot of “things.”

Your season was such a monumental one in the show’s history. It’s as if it has been chasing that high ever since, from all the kudos arising from Sarah Palin and the cameos and the election. Which moments stand out most to you?
It was the first time women drove that show. The favorite to me was one moment in rehearsal, the week after my first or second week. John Malkovich was the host. The first day, you go in and pitch ideas you may or may not ever write. Seth Meyers said, “I’m thinking that we do a Dangerous Liaisons but set in a hot tub and it’s called J’accuzzi.” Everybody laughed really hard at that. I’m sorry, that’s clever as hell. He had no intention of ever actually writing it. Then he did! So I am playing the Glenn Close part of this and saying these words in a hot tub in a waterproof Renaissance gown. John Malkovich is in there bellowing at my face. Kristen Wiig puts her hands on my shoulders and goes, “Can you believe your job right now?” It was the most glorious moment. I will never forget that feeling. I was weak in the knees with gratitude.

I stayed very grateful all year long. That’s what was weird: I liked being there. It felt like a match to me, and it was weird they didn’t want me there any longer. It feels like unrequited love, in a way — not just the rejection, but I thought it was going well.

You had your popular Bitch Pleeze blogger on “Update.”
Yes, there was that. My favorite thing was with Kristen doing Kathie and Hoda.

Had you done Hoda or Barbara Walters at all at Groundlings beforehand?
No, I didn’t even know what a Hoda Kotb was when I got there. That was the thing — I didn’t know any pop culture, really. I’m a bit of a political junkie, or a blooming one at least. I would drive around L.A. listening to NPR and getting angry at the world. That was starting to really blossom in me at that time. Bush was going out, and Barack Obama was coming in. It was a very exciting election period.

So when someone said, “Can you play Hoda Kotb?” the answer was “Yes! I can’t wait to play … Hoda … Kotb!” Then I go to my computer, like, I don’t know a word they said. Abby Elliott and I shared an office, and I was like, “Abby, what is … is that a person? A man or woman? I don’t know.” I’m just looking at these excerpts on YouTube of the fourth hour of the Today show. And I’m like, Oh, I think I get it! This one’s a lunatic — pointing to Kathie — and this one is just trying to keep the train on the tracks. And she uses her mouth to express herself a lot. I’m just going to focus on my mouth and make sure Kathie doesn’t go off the deep end, and that will be our dynamic.

Your last time on the snow was the final sketch of the season, “Goodnight Saigon,” which has since become iconic. Do you have any memories of preparing for that?
I’ve never seen that many celebs in one place before. I really hadn’t been going to Hollywood parties by that point. I remember Jerry Seinfeld shook my hand and — he probably had no idea who I was — acted like it was a big honor to meet me in some way. Tom Hanks, Will Ferrell, of course. I also love Billy Joel, and that is an anthem if you ever heard one. I definitely sang it dancing around my living room when I was a kid, and here I was doing it onstage playing a fake violin. I’m such a geek, I was like, I better learn and look like I know how to play a violin.

I went out on that show not knowing I wasn’t coming back. I got to really enjoy it — go out with flair. Then I was heading back to L.A. to shoot a movie with J.Lo where I was playing her best friend. I was like, Wow! Things are really turned around. I remember sitting in my apartment thinking, When I come back next year, I’m not going to be the new person anymore, and that’s going to be so fun! And I never got to experience that.

The people I got to work with … Steve Martin is my kind of comedian. I was a newbie, and he came to my office. I’d written a sketch for him that he really loved. It was very physical and farcical. He kept trying to rehearse it. I’m like, This guy doesn’t know me, and he’s fighting for my script? He was sitting in my office while he’s like, “So wait a minute, what if I tripped over this or that, then you come in?” Like, Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m working out bits. He told me later, “I fought for it really hard. I’m sorry it didn’t get picked.”

Michaela Watkins’s Unrequited-Love Year at SNL