There's nothing casual happening in Michaela Watkins's career.
As the actress/writer's critically lauded streaming series "Casual" returns for a surprising third season on Hulu -- surprising in that the final episode of the second season appeared to satisfyingly tie up the show's central storylines -- she remains one of Hollywood's consistent go-to talents: she maintains a unique, multi-character recurring role on Amazon's "Transparent," is an in-demand TV guest actor with recent appearances on "Speechless," "Nobodies" and "Angie Tribeca," and has a busy slate of film work as well in movies like the recent "How to Be a Latin Lover" and the upcoming Will Ferrell/Amy Poehler comedy "The House."
Somewhere in there Watkins found a few spare moments to sit down with Moviefone to discuss the return of "Casual" and take a look at the unique, diverse creative run she's been enjoying.
Moviefone: With this show, you get this spectacular and potentially series-ending Season 2 finale that brought every bit of emotion out of you and the viewers -- and then you get another season. What was your immediate thought once you knew you were coming back?
Michaela Watkins: That's a great question. It was multi-fold: I felt like one of those things, remember when "Enlightened" ended after two seasons? It was like, "That's a bummer." I thought that was a really quality show, but it told a great story in two seasons.
I know that that third season could have been really interesting to see, what does this character do in success? So we've killed off the patriarch of the family. But I've seen the scripts coming -- also Tommy [Dewey] and I are writing part of the scripts this year, so we've been in the writers' room.
It's so interesting. It really goes into a completely, "What happens after Val and Alex are no longer living under the same roof?" Second season they were under the same roof, but they couldn't have been further apart. Then what happens in the third season when they are apart? What is the intimacy there?
While the second season was really about friendship, everybody trying to find friendship, I think the third season really, ironically, is about family, everybody searching for family, in whatever machination that can be. Family means something different to everybody, so it's really interesting. It's really staying in the pocket of what the show is, but also bringing a totally new storyline, new information -- and none of it feels out of character.
Did you get a sense there was a freeing nature from the way Season 2 concluded that opened up all these possibilities? Or was there a struggle at first to figure out where to go?
It was always [series creator] Zander [Lehman's] deep plan that, if there were three seasons, where this would go. So it's not like they all were scrambling going, "Oh sh*t, what do I do? We've completed the story. Now what?" So luckily, there's a lot of meat on that bone.
I think they know where everybody goes. It's how they get there is what the writers' room is, essentially. It's breaking out how are we going to go to where we want them to go emotionally? But that's the fun part, is figuring out the day-to-day within these characters' lives. Who do they meet? What does that inform? And then how do they handle it?
What do you like about having a voice in where Valerie goes? More so than if you were just coming in to play the role, but you get to be behind the scenes and contributing to it as well?
Always keeping in mind to be very respectful of the fact that, no matter what, this is Zander's show. It's his vision. He knows exactly the chord that the show is doing. Nothing goes in a direction that he's not completely comfortable with. So that's the first layer.
The second is, it's just fun to be in the room with Tommy as well, because we're writing it together. The third season, we know these characters so well that I think it was fun for the other writers to be able to have somebody who is going to eventually be playing them, knows intimately what they would do.
So it was really fun and different in any other writing capacity I've ever been in, where I had felt like I knew the characters so well. I can sit with all of them and think, what would they do? What would they do? You essentially know. Now, do I like that better than showing up and having a script that tells you what happens? I don't know. Because the truth is like, I love the surprise of cracking that script and seeing where my character goes.
Do these characters continue to grow? Do they evolve? What happens when they evolve enough that they don't really, does that kill storyline? And the truth is, it doesn't, because we're who we are. We come to the world with so many issues, and triggers, and things like that. And how we perceive, how we evolve, is all part of our becoming. So while we may be improving, improvement is not an axis up. It's going to be up and down, and up and down, and sometimes you really screw up. It's great to see them screw up in their evolution.
Nobody evolves at the same pace. So if you're in a good place, other people around you may not be.
Exactly. You might be having a killer year because you just finally realized that you don't have to date an asshole. But you have a friend who's, like, dating a married man, and they're still working that out.
Tell me about the joys of being on the cutting edge of the way people are consuming their entertainment now. Have you felt any sort of difference in that aspect, both with this job and with "Transparent"?
I love streaming, just in general. I think it's been the best thing for me and my sensibility, and what I like to do. Just because, whether it's something as broad as "Wet Hot American Summer," or as like visceral as "Transparent," or as thoughtful and relevant as "Casual," it feels like it's such a unique way to get to tell story, and for people to take it in. They don't miss it.
With network, I feel like if you didn't get on that train early, then it's gone, and there's going to be another show soon. But with streaming, they live there, and they stay there, and people can come to it and find it eventually.
I know I'm somebody who needs to hear something 100 times before I finally act on it, and I'm just starting to watch "Black Mirror," and I'm like, "What? This show! I'm running out and telling everybody. Everybody's like, yeah "Duh." I'm going, "But--!" "Yeah, we know."
Tell me about the opportunities that "Transparent" has given you, because that's got to feel pretty special, creatively, for you, in the way that they use you in particular.
It's funny, because it uses me in a very strange way. The first season I played someone close to my age, but in a '90s flashback. In the second season, it was somebody older than me, but in 1930s Berlin. The third season, it was somebody in their 60s or something, and it was still here in California.
So it's a fun range, and only Jill Soloway, I feel, has the chutzpah, if you will, to sort of run with her instincts in that way. Everybody does, believe me. Zander does. But I'm just saying, because that show can really push boundaries, I feel like she's somebody who has the room and the ability, because of the nature of that show, to really say, what happens? What happens if? What happens if we shoot in Israel? What happens if we do this? What happens if we have a flashback about that? I just don't think she has that thing that says, "You probably shouldn't ..."
Do you have any insight as to why you got that opportunity with "Transparent"? Why Jill said, "I'm going to bring her back in these different ways."
I don't know. Jill decided early on. When I first met her, she said, "I think you might be my muse." And I don't know why. Like I said, she's somebody who when she has a gut feeling, she runs with it. And I have learned that when she has a gut feeling, it's always best to listen to it. So I say yes to everything she has me do, no matter how potentially embarrassing and humiliating it might be. Eventually, now it's really paying off.
Especially in the last few years, you've been getting all these great opportunities in so many different styles of shows and different types of characters. Did you worry at any point that you had to make a choice between comedy, like straight up comedy, or would you be able to indulge your dramatic side? Was there any trepidation about being pigeonholed?
When "Casual" came about and I auditioned for it, and I found out I got it, I was so thrilled, because it was exactly what I wanted to do next. It was like the exact thing I wanted. I love all the work I do, the opportunities, and those are all wonderful, and I get to do some really fun roles. But that's it. They're fun roles that sort of pop in, give some information, and then the story continues, and then they leave. I felt like I really want to chew the meat. I just really want to get to know somebody in a consistent way.
I love coming in and changing character, costume, and face, and age, and all those things. That's fun. I've come from improv and sketch comedy as well, and theater. But I really never -- other than "Trophy Wife," which was a very short-lived show, "SNL" was a sketch show -- I never got to really sustain one character, who's got a depth of field like Valerie does. This is a dream come true for me.
It's also considered a comedy, but I guess we can call it a dramedy. It's a challenge because I know I have to pull back on the jokes. I know a funny reading of whatever it is, but that's not the character. That's not the tone of the show. That's not the intention. And the challenge more is, don't be funny on this line. This is who they are. This is how they live. Not everything I say I do as a joke.
More so than Valerie, certainly. I'm a sillier person than she is. Valerie has a sense of humor, it's just not what she leads with. To really commit to that character, I have to commit to that, too. Sometimes I'm like, "I know what the funny version is, but I can't do it. I can't do it." I know what it is, but I can't do it.
Who are the people who inspired you? The actors and comedians that you took inspiration from.
You know who really inspires me a ton? I used to recur on her show, "New Adventures of Old Christine": Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I said to myself, "If I ever had my own show, that's exactly how I'm going comport myself and run it." I had a show that I co-wrote with my friend Damon [Jones], co-created, called "Benched" on USA. I always had Julia in my head as somebody who's just like a hard worker, super warm, and capable, and made everybody feel valued, and respected, and all those things.
She's somebody that I always think about, because I love her. I respect her so much. I find her so inspiring. I think she's so funny. She's so her. She's so uniquely herself. I don't see her apologizing for that, ever, or playing small. And she's also not putting on airs and fluffing up. She's just her, completely her, and I just love her.
Give me your bucket list of things you still want to do in your career.
Okay. I'll tell you right now: I want to do like a big floofy -- it's a word, "floofy" -- big budget period piece biopic. Of like, ideally, Lucille Ball. Really, anybody. I want to do like a full-tilt period drama. Pre-'50s. Anything beyond. I don't care if it's medieval times. I don't care. I love Edwardian. That would be fun. You know what would be great? A Jane Austen film!
If you come to our set, it's so homey and delicious. I actually love our set, because it's like an alternate reality, but one I know well. But it would be fun though to go into the full regalia. I'd love to do "Downton Abbey." I know it's done, but still. Let's do it.