You know Michaela Watkins, right? She was on “Saturday Night Live” and was the star of “Casual” and “Enlightened.” You’ve heard her voice work on “Big Mouth” and “Robot Chicken,” and she was in indie gems like “In a World,” “Sword of Trust,” and “Thanks for Sharing.” You know her from somewhere.
“I get to work all the time, and nobody really knows who I am,” she recently told IndieWire. And, as Watkins makes clear, that’s no complaint. She’s got a great acting career, one that started quite late by Hollywood standards. A former member of improv troupe The Groundlings, she spent a decade bumping around in single-episode, minor-role stints before spending a year as an “SNL” featured player in 2008.
From there, she spent a season on “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” starring opposite another former SNL star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus — who’s now her co-star in Nicole Holofcener’s “You Hurt My Feelings,” which premiered at Sundance this past January. The A24 title follows Beth (Louis-Dreyfus) after she discovers that her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) secretly hates her newest novel. She turns to her sister Sarah (Watkins) for support, but she’s navigating bumps in her own marriage to Mark (Arian Moayed) stemming from their own professional issues.
Ahead, Watkins tells IndieWire the hard truth about casting, willing work into existence, why you should treat everyone as a peer and how, in her spare time, she plans to work toward eradicating white supremacy.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: How often, just in your daily life, do you run into people who are like, “What do I know you from?”
Michaela Watkins: Yeah, it’s weird. Do I just have a really bland face? Because people will say, “Oh, where do I know you from?” And at the time, maybe it was “Casual.” And they’re just like, “Oh, who’d you play on it?” And I’m like, “The person, the lead person.” But it’s fine, and I get zero hassle anywhere I go. I get to work all the time, and nobody really knows who I am.
You must love to work, because it seems like you always are. Do you? And if so, why?
Nobody’s ever asked me that before. I do love to work, on the right thing. I’m so happy now, because I feel like I get to work on the right things, the things that make me really excited and really happy, even if my part is not the most interesting thing off the page, I’m [still] a fan of the project that I’m working on or the people that I’m working with. That juices me a lot.
But why do I love to work? Meaning, purpose. I feel I’m in that small percentage of people who get to do for a living what I actually love to do and to be a part of, so I’m very grateful all the time. When I’m at work, I’m always like, I’m so happy that this is my job.
I still never stop being grateful, I think also because this kind of work came to me later in life. I’m not a child actor, and I certainly didn’t hit my stride in my twenties. I was a waitress and a bartender to my mid-thirties. So I think it’s like with my husband, I met him at 39, and I’m obsessed with him, because I know what else is out there.
Walk me through your casting on “You Hurt My Feelings.” Surely, Nicole just called you up to ask you to play Julia’s sister. That’s how this works, right?
[Laughs] I love that. Here’s the real order of how this happened: I was at the premiere for “The Dropout,” and Nicole was there because she’s friends with Elizabeth Marvel, who played Elizabeth Holmes’ mother. And this is why the pandemic was sort of screwy, because it is so important to leave your house. This was my first red carpet event since the pandemic started, and I’m dressing up and putting on Spanx and uncomfortable shoes.
And I was like, “Why do we do this?” And this is why we do this. Because at this premiere was Nicole, who I hadn’t seen in years. And she said, “Oh my God, I’m making my movie.” And I said, “Oh, that’s so great.” She said, “I’m making it with Julia.” And I said, “That’s amazing. That’s magic. The two of you are back together, the band’s back together.” And then I said, “Does she have a sister?” And she said, “No, she has a best friend.” And I said, “Oh.” And she goes, “And it shoots in New York. Do you live in New York?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “Oh, well.” And I said, “Oh, well.”
And then a few weeks later, my manager calls, who’s also a huge Nicole Holofcener fan and knows that I am too, and said, “If you can figure out a way to live in New York, would you go do this film? Would you fly yourself there? Put yourself up and go do this film?” And I said, “I would do that. For Nicole, I would do that, not for anybody else.”
[When I talked to Nicole then], she said, “I thought about it, and I think it makes more sense that they’re sisters.” I read it and I could see that there would be a version where they were friends, but, to me, sisters is so much better for the movie. I don’t think it occurred to her until I said, “Does she have a sister?” Low-key, because I’ve always wanted to play Julia’s sister. That’s the only reason I said that.
On set, were you and Julia improvising? You are very natural as sisters.
Nicole writes the way we speak. We share a brain cloud together or something. I feel like I speak Nicole, Julia obviously speaks Nicole, Nicole speaks Julia, Nicole spoke me. It had so much ease. Before we started shooting, we all sat down with Tobias and Arian, and we went through the whole script and we would talk about scenes and if somebody had an idea of how it could punch up. Nicole would just hear things out loud, and if something didn’t sit right with her, she would say, “That’s dumb. Don’t say that.” Sometimes we would all put our brains together and try to top it in the room, so that when we went to go shoot, I felt like we had really kind of excavated everything pretty well.
There’s no bang, bang, shoot, shoot in her movies. There’s no explosions. It’s really just the subtleties of how we feel all the time. We could all sit here and navel gaze and go on and on about our feelings, but there’s something about the way she writes, where she gets a very abstract idea and notion about dynamics between people and how they feel and condenses it into short scenes.
Especially when it comes to your work on television, you really seemed to roll with the evolution of what a TV comedy is, going from something more traditional like “The New Adventures of Old Christine” to something more out-there like “Search Party.” You make it look easy to go from these different things, and you fit right in all these different places. How do you do that?
I love what you just said so much, I’m just going to marinate in that for half a second.
I would say that what I have under my belt and what I’m really for grateful for The Groundlings School, and then I was in the Sunday company for a year and a half, where you kind of have to write a new show every single week. You have to constantly reinvent the wheel in your comedy, not just because you have to do fresh scenes every week, but because I have to show and prove myself to the main company that, if they bring me in, that I can hit all the notes. If you want to be cast-able in everybody else’s stuff, you’ve got to have a nice range and play the straight woman and play wacky, loony, zany. That place stretched me in a way that I sometimes, low-key — why do I keep saying low-key? Did I say that? Is that my second time saying it today?
It might be!
I never say that. I’ve never said those words before. I’m just watching some weird TikTok or something. Anyway, my point is, I worry that I might not be stretching myself enough now, and I sometimes worry, what if I atrophy in my comedy, because I’m not forcing myself into other realms enough? Maybe I’m just paranoid about that, because I think my brain is still my brain, and I still drive around being like, whoa, thinking this and that.
You also are often working with the next generation of comedians, and I read a number of your previous interviews where you were talking about them and you called all of them “peers.” You’re not like, oh, these young little scrappy upstarts. To you, it seems like everyone is a peer.
I definitely [think that], because everybody is teaching me stuff. I think if I was working with young people who were like me when I was that age, I don’t know what I would think, because I don’t know what I had to offer at that age. I am really impressed with young people right now, especially Gen-Z, I feel so much hope. It’s sad that we’re handing them [so much] shit, but they see the world so beautifully, because they’re not hung up on any of the shit that I was. I’m just so curious to see what they’re going to be like as adults. I hope I live long enough to find out.
I always learn so much from everybody. I just do. Maybe it’s because I don’t have my own kids that I’m stuck in this warped timelessness where I like to hang out with 80-year-olds in a knitting group, and I like to hang out with 18-year-olds.
Recently, my friend was having a party, and I walked into his daughter’s room, and there were seven other teenagers sitting in there, and I was going to get my coat, and they all got quiet when I walked in. All of a sudden, I felt really self-conscious, and I was like, “So, what are you guys talking about?” And they go, “Gender.” And I paused, and was like, “Do you have any questions?” And then my friend’s daughter pauses and looks at me and goes, “No, do you?” And I was like, “Yeah, I do.”
Have you reached a point in your career where other people are casting roles based on you? You seem like the kind of performer that casting directors are like, “We need a Michaela Watkins energy for this.”
I know that there’s been some commercial things that people have sent me where they say, “I’m going out for a commercial, and they said I’m a ‘Michaela Watkins type.’” And I was like, I’m available. I’ll do it. What’s the money? So that has made me laugh, but I don’t know. I’d like to think that that’s true. I would be immensely flattering if that was true. I do have friends who send me, they’ll take a secret snapshot of somebody at the grocery store, and be like, “This is your next character.”
You’re in what we love to call the Beloved Character Actress Era, much like your “Tiny Beautiful Things” co-star Kathryn Hahn was a few years ago. Would you want a career like Kathryn, where you’re suddenly above the title on shows or leading your own Disney+ thing?
Yeah, is the short answer. I don’t have a longer answer. I love Kathryn, and I very much would love the Kathryn trajectory, for sure.
So, has Marvel called yet? Has Disney called yet?
I think there was a “checking my avails” at one point, but then they went another way. I would totally be down for that. I also feel like I’m such good material for that, because they’re a little offbeat and odd. They go there, and I go there, and so I’m like, “Let’s go there together. Why haven’t you called me?”
If you had told me 10 years ago that Julia Louis-Dreyfus was going to be a Marvel big bad, I would not have believed it.
I know. I know! But maybe they’re good on character actresses in the Marvel universe.
You’re also in this period of your career, where things you were in before, there’s constant rumors of them being rebooted. Is there anything that you’re precious about where you’re like, no, please don’t do it?
If they rebooted “The Backup Plan” with J. Lo, that might be weird. Are we childbearing age anymore? I don’t know. But I [have not heard] the rumor that they would reboot “Enlightened,” that would be unbelievable. I would do anything with Mike White, of course, and Laura Dern. She was a masterclass, just watching her. I have never seen anything like it.
What is something that you want to do that you have not yet done?
A period biopic.
I was locked and loaded with that answer, wasn’t I?
Yes, you were. Not many people are.
I want to embody somebody who is a known presence, but who we’ve never gotten to know. I’m kind of making two of my hopes and joys as one, which is to do a biopic about somebody and a period piece. If they can be the same, that’s great.
I would love to play, I don’t know, whomever. I don’t even care. I would play Kellyanne Conway if the opportunity came up. I want to get a dialect coach, and I want to go full immersive. I just want to just bury myself. I also want to do something where I play multiple characters [in one project].
Right now, my biggest job is trying to get all these women to Denver for June 5 for Here 4 the Kids [an event in which thousands of women will descend on Denver to demand that Governor Polis sign an executive order banning new gun sales and issue a buy-back order], since gun violence is the number-one killer of children. This is a movement.
When I was in England for four months just now shooting a show, and everybody there said, “Oh, I love America, but I want to go, but I’m so afraid the guns.” We became those people, the people who are afraid to come visit you. You’re afraid to let your kids go visit. I think we need to call it out for what it is, which is white supremacy. I mean, this whole Second Amendment thing is rooted in white supremacy, so I don’t know if we’re ever going to conquer guns unless we can really dismantle that or at least acknowledge that they’re part and parcel.
I’m going to put this out there. And I’m going to put “Marvel, call her” out there. Let’s see what we can do.
A24 will release “You Hurt My Feelings” in theaters on Friday, May 26.