September 17, 2019

Michaela Watkins: A supporting player takes the lead

If you’re one of those people who pays attention to supporting characters and comedy, you probably already know who Michaela Watkins is. She has been in the cast of “Saturday Night Live” (2008-09), as well as TV’s “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” “Enlightened” and “Trophy Wife”— and in memorable supporting roles in the films “In a World” and “Afternoon Delight.” She also wrote and directed the USA Network show “Benched.” And this fall, she’s starring in “Casual,” director Jason Reitman’s upcoming show for Hulu.

“This is the first time I’m entrusted with the lead of a show,” Watkins said over tea and a chewy sesame roll at Bricks & Scones in Larchmont Village. “It’s a beautiful experience to get to know your character, as the membrane that connects all the scenes together.” When you’re a supporting actor, Watkins explained, “unless you’re adding info to the scene, you’re not featured in it. When it’s your narrative, you get to see the minutiae of a person’s life. I’ve never felt more connected to and protective of a show.” 

The show opens with Valerie (Watkins) living in her brother Alex’s (Tommy Dewey) house with her teenage daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr), and trying to get through a difficult divorce with her ex (Zak Orth). In the process, she tries to date and picks up Leon (Nyasha Hatendi) for a one-night stand, but he’s as awkward and clueless about the world of casual dating as she is. 

“Casual” feels more like an independent film, Watkins said, in that it has “that kind of pace and exploration of character. It’s a beautiful little show, and I hope people find it.” She called the casting “perfect,” Reitman “extraordinary” and the writing “so good,” calling out the ninth script as particularly impactful. “I had to put it down and cool off with a walk in the neighborhood because it just shattered me,” Watkins said. 

Although the show is a comedy, “I don’t remember a funny thing happening to my character,” she said. “She’s not a happy person. She is in the mourning process of a divorce and coming to terms with an effed-up childhood. She starts out at a low point and is learning how to walk again.” 

With this interview scheduled for the week before the release of the “Wet Hot American Summer” prequel episodes, in which Watkins plays Rhonda, a visiting choreographer, Watkins shared some camp memories of her own. “I went to music camp and played flute and piano. I saw myself as a bit of a chanteuse … I had a concerto in the morning, making out in the evening, and sailing, swimming and archery in the middle. In my real life, I was a bit of an oddball, but at music camp I was considered cute.” 

Her parents separated when she was 8; as the youngest, she saw her role as being “the one to keep everyone laughing, keep it light, bring some levity,” she said. “It was my way to be seen by my family and then the opposite sex. My way of flirting was, ‘Watch me shove a whole hamburger in my mouth.’ ”

Now connected to some of the most creative names in comedy — she recently booked a role working with Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell in “The House,” currently filming — Watkins has an explanation for her luck in terms of the projects she’s been offered. 

“I made a pact with myself when I was 12 that I would only work with people who make me happy. I choose happy. At one point, I felt I needed to choose pain and depth, because that is the reality of being an adult person. And while that is true, it doesn’t mean that you have to forgo happiness. You’re going to have moments of utter devastation, but for me, I keep striving to do what I want, and I’m a people person. I say yes to everything if I like the overall thing that’s being put out there. I’ll do anything with David Wain,” she said of the actor-writer-director with whom she has worked on “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp,” “Children’s Hospital,” “They Came Together” and “Wanderlust.” 

Watkins is also excited by the opportunities available to women in Hollywood today, noting special admiration for actor-writer-director Lake Bell (“In a World”), writer-director Jill Soloway (“Afternoon Delight”  and “Transparent”) and “The New Adventures of Old Christine” executive producer Kari Lizer. “I feel like it’s a new time, a renaissance. The way they comport themselves is kind, respectful, loving, decent, and they get the job done their way. How Jill talks to background actors is more respectful than I’ve seen anyone do it.”

Watkins and Soloway have developed a close friendship and a working partnership as well. Watkins remembers their first meeting in 2007, and that Soloway made an immediate impression. 

“She said, ‘Here’s what I want’ — she made her demands,” Watkins said. “This woman came from a place of power and not of need and begging; she just completely owned her worth and value in this conversation.

“I was blown away. [Soloway] looked at me and said, ‘Are you Jewish?’ I replied, ‘-ish.’ ‘Are you funny?’ ‘Who knows?’ I said. ‘You’re funny, I can tell,’ Jill said. ‘I think you’re my muse.’ She was not wrong,” Watkins said. 

Over the course of a few years, the two became consistent collaborators, working together on a short film, “Una Hora Por Favora,” followed by “Afternoon Delight” and “Transparent,” all of which brought Soloway critical acclaim, a powerful reputation in the industry and — with “Transparent,” particularly — wild popularity. “We are going to keep that party going, I hope,” Watkins said, noting enigmatically that she would return for the second season of “Transparent,” “but not in the way you think.”

Meeting Soloway also had an impact on Watkins’ Jewish identity. In 2008, Soloway nominated Watkins for the Reboot Summit, an annual three-day conference of sorts, in which participants — many of them power players from various industries, including Hollywood, who were not particularly connected to Jewish life or practice — exchange personal experiences about Jewish identity. 

“Reboot was the biggest turning point for me,” Watkins said. Beforehand, “I barely identified as Jewish,” she said. “ ‘You’re the perfect candidate,’ Jill said. I looked around at the people who were brought up similar to me, realizing who we are, starting to feel connections to other Jews. They never make you feel that there’s any kind of agenda. It’s you realizing that this is not so bad.”

Two years later, Watkins was introduced to actor Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”), on what she calls a “friend-date” — a brunch at Radnor’s place. There, she met entrepreneur Fred Kramer. “He had sweet eyes,” she said, noting that in an unfamiliar place, as a self-identified “extroverted shut-in, you look to the nicest person in the room to direct your conversation to. I didn’t want to date him; I just wanted to talk at his sweet face.” 

Once she and Kramer started dating, Watkins realized that he presented a challenge. “He was really the first Jew I ever dated seriously. When he told me he went to temple with some regularity, I had to figure out how to date him.” When Kramer —  the former board chairmam of IKAR who was very involved with the L.A. spiritual community — asked her to go to services with him, Watkins said that she regressed to the 8-year-old version of herself. “‘Ugggh, do we have to go?’ I got bitchy like a teenager. But when I heard [Rabbi] Sharon Brous speak — and I don’t even remember what she was talking about  — I was totally crying in temple. Kids were running around happy. You never saw that in temple. People were playing percussive instruments, and it was such a happy, connected, spiritual experience that I was forever changed.” 

Brous presided at the marriage of Kramer and Watkins in July 2013. Watkins admitted she still doesn’t attend synagogue with any regularity, but she said she has a real appreciation for IKAR.

“In the places I grew up with, people didn’t have the vocabulary about making it resonate, making it relevant on a spiritual level. I had completely separated from it, because there wasn’t anything connecting me in the first place. But here, the kids are so empowered with feeling … they’re connected to the community and the world at large, making the world a better place. That certainly wasn’t the way it was for us.” 

“Casual” premieres on Hulu Oct. 7.