Entertainment

03.04.14

Michaela Watkins: Fired From ‘SNL’ To Hollywood’s Funniest Scene-Stealer

Could getting fired from SNL boost an actress’s career? That seems to be the case for the Trophy Wife star who’s quickly become Hollywood’s most in-demand scene-stealer.

“I do like to play people I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes in a room with,” says Trophy Wife star Michaela Watkins.

It’s a good thing, too, considering the treasure trove of hilarious scene-stealing—and wacky blunt, and sometimes maddeningly annoying—characters the actress has unleashed on us since breaking out in 2008 during her infamously (and unjustly) short year on Saturday Night Live. (Remember those “Bitch, pleeeze” sketches?)

She’s played hippie-dippies, free spirits, straight talkers, ball busters, and a whole roster of huge personalities opposite the likes of Jennifer Lopez (The Back-Up Plan), Jennifer Aniston (Wanderlust), Laura Dern (Enlightenment), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (The New Adventures of Old Christine), Max Greenfield (New Girl), and James Gandolfini (Enough Said). It’s all led up to her gut-busting turn as the eccentric second wife on the ABC sitcom Trophy Wife, her first regular series role since being let go from SNL five years ago.

Watching her run away with each scene on Trophy Wife, like some mischievous comedy bandit, it becomes all the more flabbergasting that, after solidifying herself as one of SNL’s most exciting and talented new stars on her debut 2008 season, she was unceremoniously shown the door by Lorne Michaels. “He felt deep down that I should have my own show,” was what Watkins said Michaels told her at the time of the blindsiding. The firing—though never a happy thing—does, at the very least, seem fortuitous in hindsight, when one takes in the sheer number of memorable supporting turns Watkins has racked up leading up to Trophy Wife.

Imagine: being fired from SNL being the best thing to happen to a person’s career.

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She’s the kind of star that, once you remember that you recognize her and calculate what you recognize her from (The Back-Up Plan? New Girl? Enlightened? Hung?), you let out an involuntary coo, because you also remember how talented she is and how much you love her. Get ready for that coo to become even louder, as Watkins has a doozy of an episode on Wednesday night’s Trophy Wife, as Kate (Malin Akerman) unearths the wedding videos of Pete (Bradley Whitford) and his two ex-wives (Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Diane, and Watkin’s Jackie.)

Ahead of the episode, we chatted with Watkins about all that SNL drama and how it’s shaped her career, and why she’s so good at playing those characters we wouldn’t want to spend five minutes in a room with. (And how, because she’s so good at it, we end up wanting to spend forever with them.)

I hear this is a big episode for you on Tuesday.

Yes! We get a tiny little glimpse into why Jackie and Peter were ever in a million years together. They’re cleaning out the garage and Kate finds a couple of wedding videos from the ‘80s and ‘90s, including Diane’s and Jackie’s. Jackie’s video … it explains a lot. People look different, let’s just say that. Bradley [Whitford] and Malin [Akerman] have a joke when we’re talking about why Pete and Jackie were ever together, that after they got married Jackie got in a terrible car accident and that’s why Jackie’s the way she is.

Ha! I assume that’s not the real back story, though.

No, that’s not the back story. But you do see why after his marriage to Diane that he runs into Jackie’s arms.

I’m glad you brought this up, because it always baffled me what the attraction could possibly have ever been between Jackie and Pete, because they seem from two different worlds.

So diametrically opposed? It was something that was always gnawing at me. What we decided was that it must have been that Diane required so much in their relationship and required Pete to be someone who maybe he wasn’t but someone who fit in the mold that Diane wanted, but ultimately probably disappointed him. Then he probably felt refuge and solace in someone who thinks that everything is wonderful and totally OK to do in this world. So the pendulum just swung so hard the other way it almost fell off the clock. You can see that she’s the complete opposite and after that he needed to find someone who feel more in the middle somewhere. Not too crazy.

Do you think Jackie’s crazy?

I don’t think she’s crazy. I just think she has an interminable warmth that’s almost punishing. She doesn’t have boundaries and she doesn’t have a filter. I think that she doesn’t impose those things on other people, either, which I imagine would’ve been a welcome thing after being with Diane. I’ve done that. Haven’t you ever gone out with someone who was the complete opposite after dating someone who it didn’t work with, and then was like, “Wow! That was crazy”?

Hey, this interview is about you.

I want to know! I want names! But I do think that Jackie is not crazy. I respect the Christ out of Jackie. I think she’s amazing. This is a woman who can do anything. Anytime anyone brings anything up she’ll do it. If it’s crafty, if it involves imagine, she’ll do it. I think she kicks ass in that department. Emotionally, I think she’s immature in some ways. She’s got a hard time with her own culpability. I think she gets frustrated really quickly. If you know anybody who has ADHD, it’s like that. She gets overwhelmed very quickly and is all over the place.

I’ve noticed that a lot of the characters you play are a little wacky and a little neurotic. I’m wondering: are you as wacky and neurotic as your characters? Or what do you think it is about you that you keep getting cast in those roles?

I don’t think so. I had this really awesome, fun time where I kept getting cast as a really mean bitch. That was so satisfying. Then I remember going through a phase where I was getting cast a lot as a lesbian. None of these things were reflected in my life. I don’t think I was a bitch, but it was so satisfying playing all these parts. I think the wackiness that you’re seeing, though—I think I naturally have a very fast pattern. I do think non-linearly. So I think that comes off as nervousness or anxiety in a person.

The pilot for Trophy Wife was really strong and got kind reviews from the critic, but a lot of people were not thrilled about the name “Trophy Wife.” What did—or do—you think about the title?

It’s so funny because, yeah, my first reaction to “Trophy Wife” was sour. I think I had just gotten a call from my agent’s assistant, who was new and didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to say this, but said something to the effect of, “Hey, we’re going to cancel your chemistry read because we just realized you’re too old.” It was to be Mindy Kaling’s friend, or something like that. “But here’s a script for a show called Trophy Wife.” And was just like, Oh god. Is this it, Hollywood? Is this it? “And also it’s not for the trophy wife. It’s for the old, haggard ex-wife.” I was like, OK, I’ll be jumping off the balcony now.

But then I read it and saw it was really funny and well-written. And I thought, I get it. This is an ironic title. And then you cast the terrible, hideous looking Malin Akerman in the lead role. I think the irony got lost somewhere. You just had the hot blonde as the face of Trophy Wife. I think people were like, yeah, I live in that world I don’t want to watch that world. I have no idea where it went awry, but I personally love the title Trophy Wife, because it’s tongue in cheek. She’s anything but a trophy wife. She’s really grounded, she’s cool, she’s got her own mind. She’s not just a medallion.

I’ve always been frustrated because I feel like the show and its tone and its message is the perfect fit to air after Modern Family and it’s baffled me that ABC doesn’t put it in that timeslot.

Geez, I sure hope you put that in your article!

It doesn’t make sense to me!

I think it’s a head-scratcher. ABC—I would love to know what’s in their minds, for so many reasons. I think they’re trying to cultivate a Tuesday night of comedy. Maybe they’re in it for the long game. Let the show find its feet and then spring it on everybody. I think it has found its stride, and really quickly, too.

So you’ve been working non-stop these past five or six years. Now with Marcia Gay Harden and Malin Akerman, movies with Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Aniston and Amy Poehler, so many people on Saturday Night Live. Who is the person people ask you most about working with?

Jennifer Lopez. Evvverrrrybody wants to know what it’s like working with Jennifer Lopez.

Well…?

The answer is very simple: great. It was great! She’s kind of like your cat, you know? You know how when you’re alone with your cat, your cat is kind of silly and goofy and kind of crazy? And as soon as people come over your cat is like someone you’ve never met before? You know, poised. That’s sort of what it’s like working with Jennifer Lopez.

That is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard. “Jennifer Lopez is like your pet cat.”

Ha! You know, when you’re alone she’s great and so fun. But I had to put myself in her position. When someone is in the tabloids and all that, and it was just before her split with Marc Anthony, you just feel like there’s people waiting for her to do something, anything—scratch or pick her nose, pick a wedgie—so they could be like, I got her! You can feel that sometimes with people who are megastars in that way, that that’s what they have to deal with on a daily basis.  What’s fun now is that I have a show at USA that I co-wrote called Benched. I’m completely behind the scenes and not the actor at all. It gives you more perspective about all that’s involved.

I love that you’ve been working so much these past few years and are on Trophy Wife and now have your own show coming on USA, because I remember when the SNL exit was happening and everyone was so shocked. You gave an interview where you said that Lorne Michaels told you that he let you go because he felt like you should have your show. That’s kind of coming to fruition now, right?

I think what Lorne Michaels said was that he could really see me on my show. That’s sort of been transmuted through interviews and what gets edited to say that Lorne Michaels said I should leave because I should get my own show, and that’s not necessarily related. But, if they were this would be a great a narrative because it would just show that Lorne Michaels is a wizard.

Ha! I feel like a lot of people already think that about him.

I think that was one of the greatest things about SNL. Just being asked to the prom was really amazing. Whether you’re there for a year or for 20 years, at one point this guy who has a pretty good track record felt that you should come on his show. For me, I think that was in itself the best. That was great. It satisfied the part of me that grew up and was weened on SNL. So I feel super super lucky about it. I actually have huge respect for Lorne Michaels. I think that guy is really something. The life he’s lived and what he’s done and how he’s changed people’s lives—how he’s had a show that’s been on air and been this successful this long is really pretty awe-inspiring. So I think if he felt like, ‘Hey I could see you on your own show’ and now it’s happening, I think that says more about Lorne than me. But like I said, I don’t think it happened by accident. Nobody handed me a show. I definitely had to work hard for it.

Do you have a favorite memory from that time?

I do have this great, great moment—there are so many, that year was really spectacular. I remember Seth Meyers said to me, when I was doing that bit with the coffee on Weekend Update and I accidentally knocked over a whole latte on the Update desk, and Seth Meyers told me that stain was still there.

Whoa! That’s amazing.

Right? But my favorite moment moment, where you have a real ‘What the hell!?’ moment…I loved the movie Dangerous Liasons with John Malkovich. Seth Meyers pitched an idea that he would do a sketch with John Malkovich where it would be him in a hot tub doing Dangerous Liasons and it would be called J’acuzzi. Everybody laughed so hard. I played the Glenn Close part. So they had to make me this waterproof renaissance gown and I would have to descend into the hot tub for rehearsal. And then I think Kristen Wiig played the Michelle Pfeiffer part and John Malkovich is saying all the lines to Dangerous Liasons to my face. Then we cut from rehearsal and Kristen just said to me, as I’m soaking wet in this jacuzzi with John Malkovich, and she said, “Can you believe this is our job?” And I just freeze-framed on the moment and got so choked up and started to cry. I was completely overwhelmed with how crazy it was.