Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
For over a decade, Michaela Watkins has been one of film and television’s most reliable comedy knockouts, making hay out even the smallest walk-on role. Her dedication to the craft—ensuring that every single syllable, every facial tic counts—stems from a foundation in sketch and improv, as well as years in the service industry, which Watkins used as fodder for her own well-observed character work at LA’s famed The Groundlings theater. In 2008, Watkins earned sketch comedy’s holy grail: A call from Saturday Night Live, making her—then 37—the oldest woman hired to the long-running show’s cast. Unfortunately, that time with SNL abruptly ended before production began on her second season, but she was eager to put it behind her: “I did not want to be somebody who had been ‘the girl who was fired from SNL after one season.’”
In 2021, Saturday Night Live looks like less of a one-off, and more like an early pit stop on her path to becoming a stalwart of modern comedy. With roles on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Enlightened, New Girl, Veep, Transparent, and Big Mouth—to name a few—Watkins has left her mark on the defining TV comedies of the early 21st century. And that’s to say nothing of her film career, which has grown to include beloved indies (In A World…, Brigsby Bear) and star-studded studio releases (Wanderlust, The Back-Up Plan), often injecting them with her own brand of restrained mania. She’s also proven herself a skilled dramatic actor—as seen in last year’s The Way Back opposite Ben Affleck—and her remarkable work on all four seasons of Hulu’s Casual, a dramedy that found her shifting between laughter and tears, sometimes in the same line of dialogue. She strikes a similar tone on CBS’ The Unicorn, a network sitcom with a huge heart, currently in its second season—which has filmed over the past few months with every COVID-19 safety regulation in place. Ahead of The Unicorn’s post-holiday return to CBS on January 21, The A.V. Club had the opportunity to speak with Watkins about her career, starting with her early days filming local TV spots for Portland car dealerships. Our conversation touched on everything from the allure of Walton Goggins, to the reason Julia Louis-Dreyfus was the first person she told about booking SNL, to her friend Lynn Shelton, the late filmmaker who directed Watkins in her final feature, Sword Of Trust. The full interview is below, as well as some video highlights from our Zoom call with the actor.
The Unicorn (2019-present)—“Delia”
The A.V. Club: You had a busy end to your 2020, back on set filming season two of The Unicorn—under strict COVD-19 safety guidelines, of course.
Michaela Watkins: I hadn’t noticed! [Laughs.] You know, it’s cool. It’s great to have a job, especially after I’d been, you know, eight months without being around people, so that’s just a really nice thing. But it’s strange. I’m very lucky because we are in our second season, so I already have a very great relationship with everybody. I can’t imagine shooting a pilot right now, or starting a new show, in these kind of conditions because you’re so whisked away and brought in only to work, you know? So it’d be [hard to capture] that sort of vibe with everybody—we have it, but we already had it. It’d be hard to meet everybody for the first time now
AVC: Right. With layers of Plexiglas and everything in between.
MW: Yeah! And also, you know, I forgot how to talk to people. But now I just get to say the words other people write for me, so! [Laughs.]
AVC: But, that aside, The Unicorn is an especially warm, friendly show, so that’s got to feel comforting to return to. Is that heart what drew you to it—and the role of Delia—in the first place?
MW: It was weird because I didn’t know what to do after my last show [Casual], and this was not the thing that I was going to do after my last show. I didn’t know Walton Goggins, but I was driving to the airport and somebody texted me and said, “Do you mind if Walton calls you? He wants to talk to you.” And I said, “Oh, I haven’t read this script yet, but I’m gonna!” So then I quickly read it and before I could say, “Yeah, go ahead, he can call me,” somehow he got my number from somebody else. He called me and I was like, “I feel like you’ve caught me before I did my homework.” [Laughs.] So then we were chatting and, by the time I got to the airport, went through everything, and onto the plane, I went from, “I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” to “Maybe I do this!”
Because [Goggins] is so infectious—like, just his enthusiasm, his earnestness. What he said was this is not going to be like—I hate to say—a typical network [sitcom]. He said, “That’s not what I want, that’s not what this is going to be. We’re bringing in a film director, and we’re completely changing it up!” And, you know, everybody has lost somebody, and I just felt like Casual was such a heavy show for a comedy, so I thought, “Maybe I do happy?”—even though it centers around a guy who lost his wife. But maybe I do happy, maybe I make jokes and just do that for a while. Maybe that’s a nice thing to do, especially after the last four years we’ve had.
AVC: I can’t imagine saying no to Walton Goggins.
MW: No, you don’t. He’s so enjoyable. I was like, “I think I’m really going to like getting to know this person.”And the other hook for me was Rob Corddry, who is a friend and a wonderful actor that I’ve played with many times. So I thought this was really great, like, I’ll never have a bad day at work.
AVC: Given your history working with Rob, I always wondered who was brought on first! It’s such great casting to have you two play a married couple.
MW: Oh, we were lied to! We were both lied to, and they dangled the other person—he was told I was doing it, and I was told he was doing it, and neither of us had committed yet. [Laughs]. They worked us, and they won! But, especially given this past year we’ve had, I’m so happy to have this work and to be doing this with these people.
AVC: Last year, you popped up in season three of Search Party—
MW: Oh, that’s my favorite show.
AVC: It’s fantastic! It’s such a specific tone, a specific world, and yet they bring in all these gifted comedic performers—yourself, Louie Anderson, Shalita Grant—and everyone seems to fit perfectly into it.
MW: I know! Because it’s Charles [Rogers] and Sarah-V[iolet Bliss], and they are such visionaries. And hats off to Michael Showalter for getting that when they came up to him in class and handed him their script. But it’s crazy—their sensibility is so profoundly strong and sharp and unique, and they just are pioneers. I mean, to create a whole world, and to create a whole—what’s accepted and not accepted in that world… Especially the world that they created, I think everything’s a little accepted in that world. [Laughs.] But then, that you’re still scared, and you’re still nervous, and you’re still worried and rooting for these people—it’s not just bizarro town! That is something and a half. I mean, even people who come in and have one line! When I was watching this season, I fell off the couch.
AVC: To put it broadly, Search Party is a millennial satire, and I loved what your character Polly brought to the third season, because, well, she’s got a lot of disdain for that generation.
MW: Such contempt! [Laughs.] Oh my god, I mean, they nail it. They nail it when they said [Polly’s] “the kind of feminist that thinks you had to act like a man to get ahead.” And, honestly, I get that! I am Polly’s age, and that was a thing! We all tried to, like, fit within these little [guidelines]—I had to laugh at so many dick jokes my whole life, so that the guys I was working with knew I was “down,” and so they didn’t treat me as “other,” you know what I mean? Just so I could have the same access to everything that they had! And it’s so true. Their commentary is so clever and bright.
And I also love that they can laugh at themselves, too, because, you know, [Rogers and Bliss] are always the first ones to make fun of of themselves, and their own generation. I think everybody wants to put everybody in a category all the time—that’s what media does. We all do it! It’s so our brains can understand what we’re dealing with. But, you know, I don’t think it helps society, even though I see why we do it. And it starts very early, right? You have a dad [talking to his kids] that’s like, “You’re the one that’s good at math, and you’re the one that’s good at swimming.” And then you just grow up going, “I’m the one that’s good at math!” So you have all these all these prefixed ideas of your own limitations—because you’re the one who’s not good at swimming, or whatever it is—it’s a fixed mindset. But I just feel like millennials don’t have that and, god bless them. [Laughs.]
AVC: Right, and I don’t know what that says about us, but—
MW: I mean, I think it’s great! You guys were supposed to save the world and you’re failing. [Laughs.]
AVC: Right, [Laughs.], sorry about that! I think we thought that, too, but then we saw this younger generation coming up behind us and just gave up.
MW: Well, all we did was rebel against [the system] by being like, “Grown-ups are so stupid!” But we still secretly aspired to have that, you know? We were raised on Working Girl! So, what was the cherry on top? [Laughs]. You could have a little confined box office in a skyscraper, and that’s winning! And then, right, later millennials came up, and you guys were like, “Ping-Pong for everyone!” But I’m not saying anything new in this category. [Laughs.]
AVC: IMDB lists this as your first on-screen credit—does that sound right?
MW: Oh my god! So, I was in an improv group in Portland, I was doing theater. I got my Equity card there, so I was doing a lot of Equity theater and feeling like, “Oh, this could really be my profession!” Then I started doing commercials there, got my SAG card, and then I auditioned for this movie that they were shooting there. You know, I was fresh out of college, pretty much. I had lived a very ridiculous year in New York where I was basically starving to death, and then I went to Portland, and it’s true what they say on [Portlandia]: It’s where, twentysomethings go to retire. [Laughs.]
But it was such a great choice I made [to move to Portland]. And I kind of wanted to tell every single actor: Don’t feel like you have to go to New York or Los Angeles out of the gate! Like go get good somewhere else, and then come to New York or LA. Otherwise, you’re just going to hate yourself or this career, you know? The one drawback is—the thing that I felt a lot—by the time I got my feet on the ground in LA, I was older. So there was that. Because I was in Portland going, “I don’t want to do theater anymore. I want to be on a sitcom!”
I always have this joke that I’m doing everything five years later than I should have. Like, I was on SNL five years later than I should have been, you know? I met my husband like five years later than I should have. But it was such a smart thing in terms getting to know my own voice, what I find funny, what I find interesting, and how I work! By the time I came here, I had this weird—dare I say—confidence. I don’t think anybody who knows me would describe me as being overloaded with confidence, but it was a sort of quiet, inner notion that I wasn’t bad at what I did. And that took a while to get there!
AVC: Right, you already had this valuable time on set.
MW: Yeah, I shot enough local commercials that I was ready for the big time. [Laughs].
AVC: What’s your favorite commercial you did from that era?
MW: It was this car ad for a local car dealership, and I got to do donuts on someone’s front lawn screaming at my ex-boyfriend. I was like a woman losing her mind in a car, doing donuts. And it was so fun.
And then, right before I moved away, I went to an audition for a commercial and they said, “We kind of want the vibe of the woman who was in the car doing the donuts.” And I was like, “That’s me!” And I didn’t get that commercial. [Laughs.]
The New Adventures Of Old Christine
MW: When I got to LA, it was a lot of commercials, and that was when I was coming up through The Groundlings. So, the more I got to perform at The Groundlings, the more fun I had. I was taking an audition class, too, and a stand-up class, and I would go and do open mics and stuff. So I sort of was very busy doing what I love to do. And then waiting tables, which I weirdly also loved waiting tables. I don’t want to go back to it ever again, but I was really good at it—I was very invested in everybody enjoying their time with me. [Laughs.] I was also a bartender, and I got to develop so many characters there because I saw so many characters. Then I got to go do them on The Groundlings stage, so I was having way too much fun.
By the time I did Old Christine, it just felt like I was doing exactly what I love, love, love. And seeing Julia Louis-Dreyfus do her thing was so important for me because I was like, “What she’s doing—that’s the goal.” And I love her. I mean, she brings everybody together, makes everybody feel good, and she laughs her face off at everything—she’s so supportive of you! Everybody’s so tricked into this cutthroat idea of Hollywood, and I just somehow avoided shitheads the whole time. I mean, I’ve bypassed a few, but nothing that sent me reeling in any way, you know? I never had the dramas like that. I always said to myself, “If I ever get my own show, I’m going to comport myself and be like Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She’s just a wonder! So, I mean, she’s just a wonder. And Kari Lizer who created it.
Saturday Night Live (2008-09)—Cast member
AVC: And you were recurring on The New Adventures Of Old Christine at the same time you made your SNL debut—how did that timeline work out?
MW: They intersected! Literally. So, it was right before—Obama had just been elected, like, minutes earlier. Everybody was feeling very plucky and happy anyway, and I had gotten this call from my manager saying that SNL wanted me to come test again. I had tested the year before, and I kind of used up everything! I gave him all my characters. [Laughs.] I was like, “I just gave you five years of characters in my last audition!” So this was a year later, and it was crazy because it was a, “we want to fly you out tomorrow” kind of thing.
So anyway, long story short, I go to New York. I don’t hear anything for like a month and a half, and I’m shooting for Old Christine. I get a call from the NBC switchboard. [Old Christine] had a big cast that day, so I had to be shuffled all the way over to the other side of the lot at Warner Bros. to go to my dressing room. Now, you know, we’re doing a show for an audience, so I couldn’t be away from it. My phone kept dying! Every time I called back to the switchboard, I realized I was calling Lorne [Michaels]. And, every time, someone would say, “He isn’t available. Can he call you back?” And then they’d say, “Michaela, we need you on set!,” and so I’d have to go. [Laughs.] As you can see, these two things were converging! Right before curtain call, I finally connect with Lorne, and he says, “We’d love you to come do the show!” I haven’t told anybody. I walk on the stage for the curtain call, and I’m shocked. I have to fly and move to New York in five hours, and I have two cats! I’m shocked. It’s 9 o’clock at night—what? So I’m standing there and we’re bowing, and I turn to Julia and I go, “I just got SNL!” And she goes, “What?” She grabs me, pulls me into a big bear hug, and then she says, “We’re going to get drinks.” And I was like, “But my cats!” So then the cast went out, and we had a little cheers, and then I went home and started packing. I hadn’t even told anybody—she was the first one.
AVC: And, given her experience with SNL, did she have any advice for you?
MW: You know, it was tough when she was there. So she just kind of gave me a very encouraging pep talk. You know, not to fall into some of the traps—because it was a challenging time. And we were on opposite sides of the spectrum: She was 22 when she was shooting, and I was turning 37 when I went. So, like I said, the five year thing! Like, if I were 32 that would have been nice. [Laughs.]
I mean, [Julia’s] a doll, and it also meant I had to say goodbye to that gig, and and I loved that gig. So I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had stayed—that would have been another path if I got to stay on that show for a while. My Sliding Doors moment. But they were both cool—no complaints.
AVC: In an interview with The Daily Beast earlier this year, you said that being fired from SNL made you “sit with a lot of uncomfortable feelings and sadness,” and sort of re-calibrate your career. How did that shift things for you, as far as your career goals?
MW: Yeah, I mean, I think I wanted to come back to LA. Groundlings was my comedic home, so I immediately [had my] tail between my legs having just been booted from SNL after one season which was sort of—I mean, I know it has happened, but I don’t think it had happened. And then it happened a lot afterwards, but I don’t think it had happened much before [me]. It just felt like such a public rejection, you know what I mean? But I did not want to be somebody who was, “the girl who was fired from SNL after one season.” I wanted to make SNL part of my becoming, you know? And that wasn’t immediate.
I mean, I was on unemployment. Going back and bartending felt very depressing to me, so I started writing, and that’s when my friend from the Groundlings, Damon Jones, and I wrote a pilot, and that became a series called Benched for USA. But that was really just a place to sort of feel like I had some agency in my life after kind of being moved around the country and then being moved back. It just felt like the only thing I had control over was the script that, for all I knew, nobody was going to read.
But then [at Groundlings], all the women relationships I had—and had been cultivating because they’re awesome people—were all starting to really find their footing and do their own work, too. And I got kind of shepherded in by being a guinea pig, willing to do anything for free. [Laughs.] And that really paid off because they’re very talented people, like Joey Soloway and Lake Bell.
Brittany Runs A Marathon (2019)—“Catherine”
AVC: And, speaking of your Groundlings cohorts, you’ve done a number of projects with Jillian Bell in the past few years.
MW: Right! So, you know, Jillian and I were at Groundlings—well, she came and it’s interesting because we were kind of just missing each other like two ships. She came into The Groundlings right when I got SNL, and then I came back from SNL right when she was hired there as writer. And then she came back from SNL right when I left Groundlings [again] to go do other things. So it’s funny that we were kind of missing each other, but huge fans of one another—we have all the same friends, so we knew each other very well, socially. And we also did a lot of improv shows together and things like that, just being in The Groundlings arena. So, we adore each other.
When Brittany Runs A Marathon was happening, she asked if I would come do it. Well, the director asked her to ask me to come do it [Laughs.] because I know her and it would make it that much more enticing. Which it was! Once I knew the role that she was doing, I felt like I wanted to be there no matter what, to see her do that and to support her in any way. And I’m so grateful for her, and that whole opportunity. It was really a lovely thing to work on.
Sword Of Trust
MW: And then, we had so much fun working in New York together, that when Lynn Shelton [was working on] her—sadly, tragically, and beyond words devastating—last film, she said, “Who do you think would be great for Cynthia?” And I was like, “I think Jillian could really do something with it. And I think we’d have so much fun playing this totally different type of relationship.” So they talked on the phone and they just fell hard for each other so quickly as well. So then we all went to Alabama [to film], and that was—you know, I’ve got to say, if you’ve got to go on location, get yourself a Jillian Bell! She is so fun to be on location with.
AVC: So, the whole cast was shacked up in Alabama together?
MW: Yeah, we were staying at this hotel, and it’s like all these personalities— Jon Bass and Marc Maron and, of course, Lynn, handling this whole thing as she does where she is like a camp counselor. She’s doing so many things, but also makes it so fun for everyone. We had so much fun even though it was so hot and so miserable, physically. We laughed our faces off for about three weeks—four weeks!
[Laughs.] And Toby Huss! I just hope there’s footage somewhere that we can unearth of the outtakes that you didn’t get to see, because we were peeing ourselves. And maybe it didn’t go, tonally, or maybe the movie couldn’t be 20 hours long. But that guy can riff like nobody—he’s amazing.
AVC: As you mentioned, Sword Of Trust is, tragically, Lynn Shelton’s last film—what do you think that film says about Lynn and her career, both as a friend and a collaborator?
MW: I think it’s so personal, you know? I think, like, as much as she wants to be asked to the prom and to probably direct all these big Marvel movies and things like that—which she was certainly on that trajectory—her happy place was telling her own stories, doing them her way, and for very little money with very tiny crews. And the intimacy was her name of the game. She stayed in Seattle, you know? She was just so grounded. She stayed tethered to knowing where she’d come from and where she’s rooted, and then she was also so expansive. But not expansive like LA—expansive like divine-expansive! I think that just everything was possible to her, and the limitations made her laugh.
I mean, whatever she was wrestling with, or tormented by, internally, found its way into her movies. And as she processes them, I think, by making the movie, she was able to really move on and then do the next thing. And it makes me laugh that, when she died, she was incredibly in love, and incredibly in love with her son and and her life, you know? As well as this new relationship that she was in. And that her last movie was this comedy [Laughs.] with [Marc Maron], and surrounded by her people? Like, everybody she’s always worked with, you know? We were all there! Like, I don’t see her in this movie, and I don’t see anything that she was wrestling with—this just felt like folly for her, you know? And, in a weird way, it’s just interesting that that ended up being her last film.
I can’t even believe I say, “it’s her last film,” because I need her here. I want her here so badly. I used her as such a North Star—a woman who is slightly older than me doing so much. And we need these people in our lives to show us things to look forward to, and get excited about as we go, and all the boundaries that we can break. The fact that I just don’t get to see the movies that she was most interested in making—which are [about] women in their 50s—makes me so sad because, if there’s anything women need to see, it’s movies about women in their 50s. And she was going to make good ones.
AVC: Speaking of Lynn, the first time the two of you worked together was on Casual, your Hulu series. And she was just one of an impressive roster of directors who did that show.
MW: I know! That’s thanks to Helen Estabrook, our producer.
AVC: 2015 wasn’t all that long ago, but, in terms of the growth of streaming platforms and original series on streaming platforms, Casual was kind of there at the beginning.
MW: I just feel like, when I’m 150 years old, I’m going to continue to look at that time, and those four years, as being the luckiest person I know. I mean, what’s unlucky is that, unfortunately—because it was one of Hulu new originals when they re-branded themselves—it didn’t have a ton of eyes on it. But, you know, it’s up; if people want to find it, they can find it! But I think it was such an incredibly special show. I can’t believe the roster, like you said, of directors. It was 70-percent women, female indie film directors who had come on—for a few, their first time directing TV [after having done] their own movies, like Hannah Fidell, Amy Work Rubin, and Gillian Robespierre.
And then, of course, there was Lynn Shelton, which was a life-changing moment for me because she and I got on like a house on fire. It’s weird, it’s like it was predestined in a way—we just knew we would. We found each other on Twitter because, well, I had met her one time at Sundance and had seen her movie, and she saw some of my stuff, so we were just mutual fans. And then I just remember the tweet where she’s like, “Guess who’s coming to direct you?” [Laughs.] And it was going to be my first time really “meeting her” meeting her, and not just on-the-street fangirl-ing over her. And I couldn’t believe her incredible talent, and her gift and her and her abilities. I don’t say that lightly! I’ve got to tell you, like, we were done every day at 4 p.m. [Laughs,] and we’d done a couple of takes, and they were the best episodes of Casual!
But Casual, I mean, Jason Reitman really, really, really, really took a chance on me in the sense that he went to bat so hard for somebody that the network couldn’t be less interested in hiring. [Laughs.] His joke was like, “Don’t worry, after the first season, they’re going to take all the credit for it!” And then we got to do four seasons of it. And Tommy Dewey and Helen, who’s the producer, are my closest, my nearest and dearest. I’m getting ready to work with Liz Tigelaar again, who was our showrunner, and [series creator] Zander Lehmann, who was but a wee lad! Twenty-eight when he wrote these scripts that were so emotionally intelligent, and the story that he told, and these relationships. I don’t think I’ll ever—Oh! I don’t want to say that! May that be one of many experiences like that. But, as of this point in my life, that was the best experience I’ve had in television ever.
AVC: And we have to touch on the one-season wonder, Trophy Wife, because that was such an A.V. Club favorite.
MW: You guys were so supportive of that show, it’s amazing.
AVC: And you were a lot of fun as Jackie because that’s someone I see as a lot looser, and a lot more carefree, than many of the other characters you’ve played over the years.
MW: And I actually do mourn her because, first of all, I miss my son on that show, Bert [Albert Tsai]. But I miss her so much because I got to do anything I wanted. [Laughs.] If I said, “Oh, I play the flute!,” then, you know, she plays the flute. Anything could pop out of my mouth, and then it would show up in a later episode where I got to do it. If she came in riding a Pegasus because she always had a dream of—I’m just saying that it’s not unfathomable that they would write a scene where, you know, she is trying to fulfill her lifelong dream to ride a Pegasus. So I think that kind of freedom is something that’s not afforded a lot of characters, a lot of female characters. They’re the ones who are usually holding shit together, holding it down, keeping everybody safe and nurtured. So, yeah! Darn network executives.