Michaela Watkins’ ‘Casual’ Goodbye: TV’s Most Underrated Actress’ Next Act
Looking back on four seasons of TV’s underappreciated gem ‘Casual,’ how her short run on ‘SNL’ shaped her, and all the ways her life changed in between.
Michaela Watkins and I are genuinely surprised to see each other.
She was doing press for Casual, but I was going to be in Norway. I was going to be in Los Angeles the next week, but she was going to be in...Norway. But she’d FaceTime me, her publicist promised, giving me a phone number and time-zone-complex instructions about when to call.
So I do, smiling into my iPhone camera from my Beverly Hills hotel room. “Oh! We’re FaceTiming!” Watkins says, not having gotten the memo and slightly startled when she answers from a park bench in…Maine, where she’d had to go unexpectedly. She’d forgotten to update her interview schedule from the European time zone.
Time, space, and technology had done their best to throw us off. And yet, somehow, Michaela Watkins and I make a connection.
Perhaps I’m being a bit precious reading this encounter as blessedly on-theme for the final season, and the series message, of Casual, Hulu’s Golden Globe-nominated series about the intersection of dating-hell and self-discovery.
The first season of the Jason Reitman-produced dramedy debuted at the dawn of swiping. Dating apps were all the rage, and no one really understood yet how they’d affect the human aspects of relationships, let alone romance. The fourth and final season, now available on Hulu, flashes forward to the future, imagining how VR and other technical advancements could further muck up the already muddy swamp world of dating.
The series centers on Watkins’ character, Valerie, a 40-something woman navigating life as a recent divorcee and single mom to a rebellious teenage daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr). They move in with her bachelor brother, Alex (Tommy Dewey), mad in his own prison of arrested development. Over the course of four seasons, the trio does unspeakable things to each other, typically out of selfishness. But they also possess enough love for each other to reliably mend frayed bonds.
Their destructiveness. Their compassion. Their romance. Their cynicism. Their delusion. Their hopelessness. They were beautifully, horrifyingly relatable. And in the season four finale, they say goodbye to each other. Alex is moving to be with his child and baby mama. Laura is entering a serious relationship. And Valerie, for once, is alone—and happy about it.
“I love that Valerie didn’t have to end up with a man to show what happiness is,” Watkins says. That television is finally at a place where a character who is in her forties can come to the end of her arc and feel that way marks major progress, too.
Watkins’ career, or life, for that matter, is hardly at the end of an arc. That aforementioned trip to Norway? It was for her and husband’s biking trip through Bergen to celebrate their five-year wedding anniversary, and Watkins has five publicly announced projects coming out in the next two years. But it is the end of what she maintains has been the most monumental and also most unexpected stretch of her life.
Not only was Casual steady employment. It meant working with female directors. It meant a character she wonders and sometimes fears may be the best she’ll ever play. And she got to bring it all to a satisfying conclusion.
So how is Michaela Watkins now? Is she, like Valerie, happy? At peace?
“Now that it’s over, I feel processed,” she says. “So I’m not mourning the end of Casual because we did it in real time in the show. The show as written mourns the end of Casual. So now what I am is really excited.”
Prior to Casual, Watkins was Hollywood’s go-to comedy bandit, storming into supporting arcs with her repertoire of loopy and neurotic characters and running away with the spoils: gut-busting laughter.
Shows and movies her comedy looted include The Back-Up Plan, Wanderlust, Enlightened, New Girl, Trophy Wife, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day at Camp, Playing House, and one of the most remarkably productive first seasons of Saturday Night Live in recent memory—probably rivaled only by Kate McKinnon’s freshman year, making it all the more shocking when she wasn’t invited to return.
With Watkins, it was a case of what you’re known for is what you’re asked to do. A role like Valerie? “I always knew that was in me as an actor,” she says. “I just didn’t know how to break into that.”
Watkins was actually the first person to ever audition for Casual.
After her first read, Reitman turned to Zander Lehmann, who created the show, and said, “Yeah,” with a surprised, satisfied look on his face. Lehmann reciprocated. “It works!” They had never heard their words read aloud before.
Watkins’ response: “Cool! Congratulations! Have fun with Maggie Gyllenhaal,” she said, assuming they’d go with someone more famous.
A few weeks later, she ran into Reitman. He told her he wasn’t sure whether or not it was comforting to hear, but she was his choice for the role. The network, on the other hand, wanted—and she finished the sentence for him—“a big movie star.” They ended up working together again when Reitman invited Watkins to participate in a charity live reading of the Goodfellas screenplay in the Lorraine Bracco role.
“There he kind of said to me, ‘Have you heard from Hulu?’” she says. “And I said no. He said, ‘Cool.’ Then I got the job.”
Valerie is a tapestry of contradictions stitched together into one of those prickly quilts we can’t resist, for all their scratchiness, because of their comforting familiarity. She’s contemplative and polite, yet she learns to be outlandish and indulgent. She’s nervous, but competent. Sexual, but reserved. When her guard is threatened, her porcupine needles go up. But she never means to hurt anybody.
She’s a real, actual woman, who happens to be over the age of 40, given the spotlight and the agency in her story. Unlike many of the characters Watkins had played before, the most captivating thing about Valerie is her quietness, how thoughts are telegraphed through shifts in posture, glances to the side, sighs and breaths. Yet Watkins never felt like she had to stretch herself to play her.
“I almost had to exhale into the character, if that makes sense,” she says. “The character already felt there for me. As opposed to, ‘Well, they didn’t really flesh out the character so I have to make a few choices and hope it dazzles them’ like a lot of wife characters. A lot of mothers.”
It’s telling that since Casual, the work she’s been asked to do has been deservedly more diverse. Visible through Watkins’ iPhone screen when we Facetime is the Transparent baseball cap she wore for her morning hike, procured during her time recurring in crucial flashbacks to 1933 Berlin in Jill Soloway’s series. She recently wrapped Sword of Trusts, directed by Lynn Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister), whom she’s always wanted to work with. But that doesn’t mean that Watkins is going, or even wants, to leave the kooks behind.
She shot two episodes of the upcoming season of the Amazon comedy Catastrophe, created by and starring Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan as a brutally honest married couple. She’ll play Rob’s sister. (Their mother was played by Carrie Fisher in the last role she filmed.) Her boyfriend will be played by Nat Faxon. As she recalls it, the two old friends essentially terrorized the prim and proper British TV set with their brash American comedy. “Because I do mostly comedy I’m usually working with friends and it’s usually a ball.”
There’s rarely a piece written about Watkins that doesn’t mention Saturday Night Live. It makes sense. As a culture, we’re obsessed with the venerable sketch series. But on top of that, Watkins’ run on the program was so unusually strong, and the end to it so seemingly arbitrary and nonsensical. She played a series of returning characters, appeared in several sketches a night, and was a mainstay at the Weekend Update desk with characters like Arianna Huffington and her sardonic “Bitch Pleeze” movie blogger. Yet Lorne Michaels didn’t invite her back, according to lore, because he thought she deserved her own show.
Since her departure from Studio 8H in 2009, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to obsess over the role the series played in her life and career. But how does she feel about it?
To answer that, she has to go back to the beginning.
“I don’t come from a Hollywood family,” she starts. “I don’t have Hollywood friends. I didn’t have any connections. So it’s really been a long sort of slog, hitting every sort of step. There wasn’t a lot of missteps. It wasn’t like I happened to get cast in the next Marvel film and went from obscurity.”
By the time she was hired at SNL, she was, at age 37, the oldest woman the show had ever cast, until Leslie Jones became a featured player in 2014. She had been doing theater. She didn’t move to Los Angeles until she was 30. She thought that ship had sailed.
Still, she had joined the improv group Groundlings and made it into the main company, so she sent in an audition tape to SNL. That was the first time: She auditioned, but didn’t get the job. But they called her back the next year right before the season started, so she had to come up with all new characters, which she wrote on the airplane there.
“It was so janky and last-minute,” she says. “But amazingly that’s how I love to work. So SNL was a really good match for me in that way, I thought, so I was really sad when it didn’t go beyond a season.”
She remembers promising herself when she got there that she was going to give it her all, because by all odds, she shouldn’t have been there. “I got hired with a 21-year-old [Abby Elliott]. I was turning 37 at the time. It was literally her first job and it was my 100th. The first 99 involved waiting tables.”
When she got back to Los Angeles, she wrote the pilot for Benched, which was eventually picked up by TBS as a series. She took an improv class at the Groundlings, which was humiliating for a performer who had just been on SNL—the endgame for improv students—but which actually helped her with humility.
“There’s a story I could have told myself at that time that could have been a bummer,” she says. “I’m happy because I was proud of what I did at SNL. It’s the only time probably in my life that I didn’t have any regrets. I worked really hard. I played really nice. I threw myself into it. I committed. Beyond that, what else could I have done?”
She starts giggling before she can get this next, surprisingly profound bit out: “So it’s like when my cat died: at least every day I told my cat I loved him.”
Nothing in Watkins’ life happened as expected. Not performing for a living. Not making it to SNL. Not having the chance taken on her for Casual. Not meeting the man who would become her husband at age 39. And probably not whatever comes next, either.
“In my best moment, I feel really optimistic about what’s next,” she says. “In my worst moment, I worry that maybe I won’t get to play characters as well drawn and real and sexy and sad and not just a mother or wife. In my darkest moments, what if that’s it? What if that’s the best character I ever get to play?”
Right now, though, Watkins is having one of her best, brightest moments.
“I did it, I’m proud of it. I’m excited to do something different. I don’t know if anyone would cast me in it, but I’d love to do a period biopic. I’d love to do a Marvel movie. I’m like, cool, now what are we going to make?”