Michaela Watkins on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ Loving Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Her Failed Makeout Summer
Some actors when they show up on screen, you just relax. They aren’t necessarily the stars of the shows or films they’re in, but their presence is like a stamp of approval: This must be good if this person is in it. Michaela Watkins is one of those actors. Her Twitter bio reads, in part, “I’m that gal from that thing that you watched,” a winking acknowledgement that she’s everywhere, even if you don’t remember her name. But once you see her face, you know you’re in good hands.
Where have you seen Watkins? She’s been part of the Groundlings. She’s appeared on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Enlightened, Key & Peele, Modern Family and New Girl, not to mention Trophy Wife, Transparent, The Unicorn, Catastrophe, The Dropout and Search Party. She was the star of the beloved Hulu series Casual, in which she played Valerie, a therapist and mother who divorces her philandering husband, discovering the joys and traumas of modern dating. She’s a writer who co-created the USA series Benched, and she’s popped up in plenty of your favorite big-screen indie comedies, like Enough Said and They Came Together. Perhaps you recall her one season on Saturday Night Live, where she briefly held the distinction of being the oldest female cast member ever hired for the show. There, she delivered cutting impressions of Arianna Huffington and Hoda Kotb, and she created Angie Tempura, a surly young celebrity blogger who anticipated the culture’s growing contempt for celebrities in the age of social media.
Watkins wasn’t brought back for a second season, but her career has only flourished in the decade-plus since her time at 30 Rock. This year should be an especially big one for her: Now in her early 50s, Watkins is part of three high-profile projects coming our way soon. This Friday, she has Paint, a quirky oddball satire about a self-absorbed, Bob Ross-esque PBS painter (played by Owen Wilson) whose local stardom evaporates once he’s replaced by a younger, hipper painter. (Watkins co-stars as his long-suffering former girlfriend who’s a producer on his show.) If that’s not your speed, the same day Hulu will be unveiling Tiny Beautiful Things, a bittersweet dramedy series starring Kathryn Hahn as a failed writer who becomes a gossip columnist, with Watkins playing a sympathetic bartender. And then on May 26th, she’s in You Hurt My Feelings, the great new Nicole Holofcener comedy in which she and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (her former New Adventures of Old Christine co-star) play sisters coping with Louis-Dreyfus’ revelation that her husband secretly hates the book she’s writing. Watkins makes each of these projects better. There’s just something about her.
Speaking over Zoom from her Los Angeles home, relaxing on her couch in her comfy pajamas, Watkins exudes a warm, unpretentious air. She loves good conversation and laughs easily, peppering her comments with the occasional self-deprecating or dark remark. (At one point while discussing developing sketch characters that feel real, she volunteers, “I could never do kids’ theater. I would never be great at that unless I scared the children.” Watkins laughs. “I could play a witch and really scare the shit out of them.”)
This seems to be a happy period in Watkins’ life. She’ll be celebrating her 10th wedding anniversary with her husband Fred Kramer this summer, and she received great reviews out of Sundance, where You Hurt My Feelings premiered. But at the same time, she’s worried about the direction of the country, focusing her social media on condemning gun violence, anti-Semitism, Elon Musk and the MAGA crowd. And she’s still grieving her close friend, Sword of Trust indie filmmaker Lynn Shelton, who died in 2020 at the age of 54 — although, as Watkins admits, she very much feels like Shelton is still part of her life, their long talks continuing despite her death.
Befitting Watkins’ varied career, our interview ranged across different topics. She explored the melancholy air she gives off in even her comedic performances. She discussed what aspects of Casual’s Valerie most spoke to her — and what it was like to let go of that show after four seasons. She reminisced about her grand plan years ago to have a “makeout summer,” which didn’t quite pan out — but, hey, she found Kramer in the process. And she was very honest about her regrets about her difficult year at Saturday Night Live.
You have a lot coming out this spring between Paint, Tiny Beautiful Things and You Hurt My Feelings. Were you filming these all back-to-back?
Well, Paint was actually shot in ‘21. It was a long editing process — I watched a very early rough cut. I remember saying to Brit McAdams, who wrote it and directed it, “Where’s your movie?” I don’t know if this is true, but I’m guessing you take a lot of input from a lot of people, and you start to lose your movie. What happened is Brit — he’s a commercial director as well, and he really knows how to edit, and does a lot of his own projects — he just took the movie over, because this movie was made for no money. They were out of budget — they couldn’t pay an editor — so he took the movie back and started noodling away at it for about a year. He was like, “I think it’s good now.” My husband and I went to the premiere — we were just shocked. I was like, “There’s the movie. You got the movie back!”
(Paint) is a very, very specific, quirky kind of flavor. I’m very curious to see how it gets received, because I think when they try to get as many butts in those seats, they try to make it look like a very broad, mainstream comedy. But (this is) very niche, and it always has been — off the page it was. But I happen to love that unique little note that it hits. I was like, “Is this a great movie, or do we just think it’s great because we’ve seen it really go the distance?”
Like you said, that movie has such a precise comedic tone. Did McAdams explain that to you before sending the script so that you knew what to expect?
I don’t think I was told what the specific tone was. I know that when I got to Saratoga Springs, Brit, Owen (Wilson) and I sat down on a porch — it was the height of COVID, by the way — and we had a think about our characters, and what our history was and how that played out. We talked in-depth about that, but we didn’t talk about tone. But when the cameras were rolling, Brit was like, “That’s it: You’re in the zone.” I think his tone was so clear on the page that I took a swing and hoped to god I was right. I still don’t know if I was, but I was told by Brit that I was, so that’s all I can go off of.
It’s weird to be in a movie where I’m the straight guy. If it was (a more overt comedic role), I’d know exactly what to do, but as a straight person, I was like, “Okay, here we go.”
What is that process like as an actor: “Owen’s going to be zany, which means I have to be as real as possible or this won’t work at all”?
I had to have two things going on at the same time. One, I had to remember that I’m the audience in that movie. I’m looking at all these wackadoos in this provincial little Vermont town and looking at this guy, who is essentially the big fish in a small town. I’ve witnessed that before: I lived in Portland, Oregon, doing theater in the late 1990s, and I watched the big fish in the small town go out after the play and hold court at the restaurant bar, shut it down telling tales of that one time they did “the Scottish play” and someone forgot the dagger. (Laughs) I remember it so well. I think I’ve always approached life wanting to be part of (a creative world) but also have this quiet observational brain that’s always looking back and going, “Such a funny thing that we do — what the hell are we doing?” With this movie, I was aware that we are experiencing these people through my eyes.
The second thing is my character has to really desperately want to want something strong enough that she needs to be there — that I have something missing in myself enough that my desire to be part of this group of people has got to be strong enough that I want it, even though I know how nutty everybody is.
You mentioned that your character has “something missing” in herself. Thinking about your work in general, I often pick up a sense of soulfulness or melancholy in your performances — and it’s very much there in Paint and You Hurt My Feelings. Obviously, there’s humor too, but there’s also something that’s really lovely in how you play funny/sad characters.
When I was at Groundlings, I had a teacher who really liked a character I was doing — he wanted to use me as an example for the class: “I want your characters to feel so real that, even though we’re doing sketch comedy and you’re playing these outrageous characters, I want to know that if I walk into a 7-Eleven (and saw them) that I would be like, ‘Whoa, this person is nuts.’ But I (want to) believe that you’re not putting on a wig and going to 7-Eleven and doing a bit — that you’re actually this person.”
I would go pretty deep on these characters. It’s not like I would go deep in the sense that… I’m not a method actress, I’m just not, and I don’t have to walk around like that person. I feel like I can drop pretty fast into all kinds of feelings. Deep pain is a rich well that seems very accessible. I’ve been a very fortunate person — I won’t say I live a life of extreme tragedy, thank god, knock on wood, and I don’t want to have to live it to learn how to do it. But I’ve had enough pain and grief that it’s very accessible. I’ve never forgotten the feeling.
I think that the line between comedy and realism is very thin. I think that I’m just not really able to play a character that I don’t believe I am partly a little bit — or at least a version, or at least believe that I could be. Maybe it’s not that it’s melancholy or sad, but that it just has more dimension than probably most comedy scripts are asking for.
I’ve never really (thought about this) before. Sometimes, I’m the person who, when we’re having a stupid conversation, will take it to a darker, more serious place, just naturally. Maybe what you’re seeing (in my performances) is that I’m not afraid of that area. I don’t really endure small talk very well: “Nice day we’re having, you look really nice considering the world is burning.” (Laughs) That’s the kind of place that my brain is always going to. Maybe it’s just a generalized anxiety disorder, low-key depression, I don’t know. (Laughs) But I’m just not really interested in characters unless they have many, many layers. Otherwise, what are we doing?
This thing about you not liking small talk and wanting to go dark and deep: Was that in you as a kid as well?
I think I came out in the world that way. I have much older sisters, and I have parents who were only children. I didn’t have cousins my age. Everybody was older than me. I was more interested in what adults were always talking about at the dinner table — until I started liking boys, then that’s all I liked. (Laughs) But then I got over that again and started being more interested in what all the adults were talking about.
I’ve always been that way: If there’s two conversations happening, and one is with the most gorgeous human model you’ve ever met — and they’re talking about their morning regimen — versus two septuagenarians talking about politics, I will gravitate to that. I have such FOMO about good conversations. I love good conversations.
Loving conversation seems integral to being good at improv, which you’ve done a ton.
It is all about listening and responding. My sister’s a corporate attorney, and she’s socially awkward — she’ll be the first to say it. She said to me, “I’m getting these (performance) reviews where they’re saying I don’t make eye contact.” (Laughs) She’s so bright, she’s so smart, she speaks so many languages — she speaks Japanese and Korean, and she’s brilliant — but her interpersonal skills are somewhat lacking. So she said, “What should I do?” She was in her 50s. I go, “Why don’t you take an improv class?”
She, along with these 21-year-olds, was in an improv class at UCB in New York City, and I guess everybody at her office thought she was having an affair, because she would leave at noon every day to go take an improv class downtown with these 20-year- olds. (Laughs) She loved it. She said to me, “I go to a party now, and when I don’t know what to say to anybody, I just ‘Yes, and…’ to them. They say, ‘I like these olives,’ and I say, ‘Yes, and they’re stuffed with blue cheese.’ Then we’re having a conversation!”
It was just so funny: She’s at the height of her career, taking basic improv, but it’s all about listening and responding. Maybe that’s why it’s my happy place.
You’re so good playing a sister alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus in You Hurt My Feelings.
We both have sisters, and we both have close relationships with our sisters. We both have gaps in our sisters’ age. My sisters are older than me, and her best friend’s sister is about my age. It was very lived-in for both of us, that relationship.
Obviously, you two have worked together before. But it just seems like there’s this easy, natural rapport between you.
She’s the greatest human on earth. I had to get over the fandom part of me, and I didn’t even watch every Seinfeld, or even half of them or a quarter of them. I think it’s a great show — when it was on in the 1990s, I didn’t have a TV set, so I missed it. But just having worked with her… I would watch her during The New Adventures of Old Christine, and the way she was on set, she was a hero to me. She’s definitely somebody who lifts up everybody around her. She has no ego. This is a woman who simply (believes) the best joke wins. She doesn’t care whose it is — she’s not competitive, she’s not petty, she’s not insecure in any way, shape or form. She makes everybody around her feel really good. If I happened to pop off with some joke, she’d be like, “Let’s do that!” — we’ll find the director and be like, “Michaela said that, I think we should do that.” Then we would build off of each other and crack each other up. It was so fun.
I think about her all the time. It’d been a while since I worked with her — last time was on Veep a long time ago — and I always said, “If I have (my own) show, I’m going to make sure I’m just like her, making everybody feel real good.” Hopefully I’ve done that.
You Hurt My Feelings is about Louis-Dreyfus’ character, who’s an author learning that her husband has been lying to her about what he thinks of the book she’s working on: He actually doesn’t like it. The movie’s not just about the artistic life, though — it’s about the little white lies we tell in our friendships and romantic relationships, too. Making the film, did it change how you feel about the value or drawbacks to telling white lies?
Not at all. (Laughs) I am honest, maybe to a fault, but I can’t lie-lie. If I say I like something, I’m telling you. I might omit things that I don’t like — I’m not going to say, “I did not think you were very good. I thought you were pushing.” (Laughs) I’m not going to ever say that to a person — I’m not a monster. But it bums me out because it means that there’s so many times that people think that I probably suck (and don’t say anything). (Laughs)
I’m in a very happy marriage, and one of the things that has been real growth for me is I do not require my husband to give me compliments all the time, because he makes me feel very secure. But I read (You Hurt My Feelings) and I called Nicole (Holofcener): “I love the script so much. But now I’m sad because I think Fred’s been lying to me.” Nicole goes, “Of course he is lying to you! I think you’re lying to me right now!”
My husband liked me before he knew what I did. I met him at a brunch — I wasn’t performing. He didn’t know if I was any good or not, but he liked me, and he was terrified (to see me in something). He happened to be going to Sundance when I was at Sundance — this was 2011, I think — and that was my first time at Sundance. He sat next to me in the theater and I was so nervous. Afterwards, he was like, “That was so great” — the relief that I was not a terrible actor was so palpable. He couldn’t believe how nervous he was. What if I was bad? What if I was bad at my art? That he really liked me (but) would have to sit there and be like, “Rah, rah, rah, you and your terrible acting! Your delusion! Yay, you!” (Laughs)
So when he doesn’t like something you’re in, how does that play out?
This is where the growth comes in: Instead of just tying myself up in a huge ball of stress and self-loathing, I am able to really hear, “What is working? What isn’t working?”
He’s not an artist, he’s not an actor, he’s not a creative person, but nobody gives me better notes than him, because he’s just removed from it. He reads everything I write, he watches everything. I really take (his notes) to heart because he’s really thoughtful. He’s not just like, “I just didn’t like it” — he’s like, “I think what you started here was really good. I wonder if maybe you want to go back to keep talking about that other thing over there…” I’m like, “You’re right, I lost the thread.” He’s a good partner, and he’s a good creative partner.
During your time at Saturday Night Live, you did a lot of impressions. But I don’t think of you as an impressionist. Was that a conscious choice on your part? Some comedians get really pigeonholed as “Oh, they just do impressions.”
I’ve always done impressions my whole life, but it was of people in passing: the teachers, the quirky neighbors, so-and-so’s mother. I just love to do impressions of people in my life and people I knew — but with my point-of-view of what was funny about them. It’s not just the straight-up impression, which I love that people can do that — like that guy who does Trump on SNL, that is uncanny.
There’s a reason I’m doing an impression of (someone) — maybe it’s because there’s a pitch in their voice that just makes me laugh. There’s just something I observe in them that’s uniquely interesting to me. That podcast with the guy who may or may not have murdered his school friend, I was listening to it so much that I would be in the shower just talking like Sarah Koenig. Then Funny or Die did a funny (send-up) of the last episode — I was like, “I have her so locked and loaded in my head, I can totally do this, this would be so fun.”
Arianna Huffington, I used to listen to Left, Right & Center here in L.A. — I would just be in the car and start talking like Arianna Huffington. I just shot in England for four months — when I come back, I love to imitate all the different kinds of British people. All the people who are like (lilting British accent) “Hello, Michaela,” and the other ones like (masculine British accent) “Hello, darling.” It’s just so fun — but they’re not famous.
At the Groundlings, we’re not really encouraged to imitate people — we’re encouraged to do original characters. I never wanted to be derivative — I was always trying to pitch my voice somewhere else or find unique, new characters all the time. When you get to the Sunday Company, which is the highest level before you’re voted into the main company, it’s like a Saturday Night Live schedule. You’re turning out a new show every single weekend — you’re constantly having to reach into the bottom of the barrel, and you’re like, “I don’t have any more characters left. I don’t have any more takes. I don’t even know who to do anymore.” So you have a couple of shitty shows, and then you find something in the world that does inspire you for a new character. It’s usually just, I see somebody that I’m like, “That person.” I just cherry-pick from people and then put them in a situation that I think would be interesting.
What’s weird is when you get into the real world of getting parts — at this point, I get offered things that people think are in my wheelhouse. But I’m not doing that creative excavating that I used to do in the Groundlings, and I really miss it. I’m playing people that are in my personal sphere. I would say that all the characters that you’re naming are all versions of me, but I’m not really doing that deep, hard excavation. I really hope I get to do that where somebody’s like, “Hey, let’s do something where I want you to go so outside of your orbit.” I’m not like the lawyer on The Dropout — I know I’m not the lawyer on Search Party. There’s these other things where I know I’m not those people, but Search Party, playing that lady, it was so fun because that felt like the closest to doing sketch comedy in a long time.
I found online part of your SNL audition reel. It’s this very odd bit in which you’re Arianna Huffington waking up in a bunk bed. How did that come about?
This wonderful man Andrew was videotaping me doing my characters. I was packing up to leave and I was like, “I feel like I should do an impression.” I was a bartender, and to make my customers at the bar laugh, I kept pretending I was Arianna Huffington as a bartender. I was like (perfect Arianna Huffington impression), “How many olives do you want in your martini?” I just was cracking everybody up, so I was like, “Maybe I can do an Arianna Huffington impression…”
He had a loft bed in his apartment, and I go, “What if I just pop up there and I do Arianna Huffington waking up in a frat house?” He put the camera up on his shoulder and that was one take. It makes zero sense, but he’s like, “I think I got it.” I was like, “I don’t think I could do that again — I don’t even know what I said.” He’s like, “We’ll edit the tape and see if it should go on there.”
My first week at SNL, Seth Meyers said, “Hey, do you want to do your Arianna Huffington?” Thank god I listened to my instincts and just was like, “What if we just did this?” It was just amazing — my first time on SNL on camera was doing that.
When you got hired for SNL, you were, at that point, the oldest new female cast member in the show’s history. But I wondered if what made it hard wasn’t your age but, rather, the age gap between you and everyone else.
It was my fault. I was a little obsessed about it, because I knew I was the age of people when they were leaving SNL, not when they were starting SNL. I was 37. If you do a long tenure on that show, you might get hired at 25, 26, 28 — let’s just say 29 even. That’s six seasons, seven seasons, eight seasons — most people do between four and eight. I was older than the most senior people on the show, and that was weird to me, because I was just starting.
To add insult to injury, my costar who I was hired with, she was a peer comedically, but she’s not a peer age-wise — she was 21. I could have been her mother — I was 16 years older than this gal. We’re sharing an office, I felt bad for her — I was like, “She needs a drinking bud.”
It was playing in my head more than, I think, anybody (else’s). I don’t think anybody gave a shit, to be honest, how old I was — I really don’t. I couldn’t get it out of my head because I really had thought that ship had sailed — I was so happy to be there, but there’s already an innate insecurity being at 30 Rock in the first place. Everybody walks around a little unsure of themselves, but I was the last one at every bar, every afterparty — just trying to show people, “It’s okay! I’m not an old lady! I got this!”
I was killing myself. I was just running on adrenaline — and the truth is, it’s a pace that I was used to. Sunday Company and SNL: If you can make it through Groundlings and Sunday Company, you can do anything in our business. I was fine with the workload, I was fine with having to write for myself, I was used to all that stuff. But the constant chatter in my head… I think I assumed that everybody thought I was old. It’s a toxic way for me to have been thinking.
When I wasn’t asked back for the following season, I could only assume that when you hired two women that look like me that are 10 years younger that there’s something going on there. Even though I don’t think the cast and writers gave a shit (about my age), I wondered if, low-key, the producers did.
Because you mentioned as a kid you were drawn to adults, do you consider yourself an old soul? That might have been challenging at a place like SNL.
It was right after Obama had been elected when I got hired — Obama got elected and I was hired a week later, things were really looking up for me. (Laughs) I was so happy. They had just done these lush older women characters with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, but now the election is over — they pivoted away from that moment that SNL was having into this other moment of nonstop pop culture. Everything was pop culture and impressions.
I don’t know if I’m an old soul, but I’m not a pop-culture gal. I kept going on to these shitty little gossip columns — like Perez Hilton and things like that, finding out who he’s talking about. I was like, “I don’t know who any of these people are. I don’t watch reality television. I don’t know what Kate Plus 8 is. What does she have — eight what?”
A (SNL) writer came up and said, “Can you play Hoda Kotb?” I was like, “Boy, howdy, can I play Hoda Kotb? Yes, I can!,” because that’s the answer you give. Then I would immediately race to my computer and be like, “I don’t know what even they just asked me.” I would watch the Today show and watch the dynamic between Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda. I would just focus on Hoda’s mouth, which was constantly over-accentuating and over-pronouncing everything. I felt like Hoda also was a little like me, where Hoda is like, “I’m too smart for this shit.” (Laughs) Not that I was too smart for SNL! I just mean that Hoda had to dumb herself down to act like she actually cared about whatever it is they were talking about. I was like, “She doesn’t care. She’s being such a faker right now. She’s totally faking.” I was doing that thing of a woman who doesn’t belong at the Tupperware party trying to act like she’s so excited about Tupperware.
That disdain for pop-culture ephemera is so apparent in Angie Tempura. She hates all this popular stuff she’s trashing.
Yeah, but obsessed with all of it. Remember, 2008, 2009, that’s when things really flipped into (more) nasty media — almost the level that it was in Britain, where it’s like, we stopped being nice to famous people. We started ripping them down really hard, circling cellulite and pointing out everybody’s shortcomings. It just became so nasty. When I was getting on these sites, I was like, “This is the meanest thing I’ve ever seen. Who would write this?” I thought, “It’s got to be these basement dwellers that live with their parents, have no life and are completely channeling all of their rage into hating these famouses.”
That’s where Angie Tempura came from and the “Bitch Pleeze” thing — I was curious, “What is that person’s inner life like?” It was important to me when Zac Efron was hosting and he (confronted Angie) to show how, if any of these people came face-to-face with the people they were crapping all over, they would absolutely dissolve. They could never be that horrid in person. Boy, was I naive, because look at social media now! (Laughs) That was just the tip of the iceberg.
You’ve been outspoken on social media about politics. But I noticed you’ve backed away from Twitter in recent months. Are you less interested in engaging in politics in a public way?
I’m not less interested at all — I’m less interested in Twitter. It’s like a human cesspool — I can’t believe how much white supremacy and hate I’m seeing at a level that... it was bad before, it is off-the-charts now. I’m really grateful to all the outlets and everybody else who are paying for those blue check marks to keep bringing news so that it’s not overrun by disinformation. But it is so awful right now.
I just changed my name to Elon Musk’s Cow with my blue check mark. I don’t even look at my Twitter anymore, because I get mentioned so much — people think I’m Elon Musk. (Laughs) That’s how stupid it is — that’s what a dumb place it is now. Man, if you knew how much Bitcoin conversations I’m included on... (Laughs)
I don’t go on there anymore, and it’s such a bummer because I used to really love Twitter. I got all my news from Twitter. I really engaged with people who were on the other side of the aisle from me. It was actually like you could have conversations — you could talk about things. Somebody really needs to make another Twitter so badly that’s not run by a maniac, truly.
I just found that Twitter for me was a place for two things: to promote what I’m doing, if anybody cares; and talk about politics and social issues, because those are important to me. Now, Instagram is slowly becoming that for me. I can’t help myself: When the No. 1 way to kill a kid is with a gun and our paid-off politicians can’t consider that maybe there’s a problem with guns, then yeah, I’ve got something to say. If we’re following the Nazi playbook and we’re banning books and banning abortion — and banning trans rights and coming after people of color, women, trans, gay, LGBTQI, all of it, BIPOC, you name it — this is the Nazi playbook. Ban drag shows, but not guns? Okay…
I’m to blame. Why am I not out marching (in the streets), even if I just start down Wilshire Boulevard? Why are we not out marching or protesting? I don’t understand. I don’t know how we’ve gotten lulled into this malaise of just watching fascism take over, but we are.
Wow, sorry. I just really let loose on that.
You said earlier that you have to recognize part of yourself in who you’re playing. Where are you in Valerie, your Casual character?
There’s so much. Even though her circumstances in life were, at that point, very different from me, I could drop into her like nobody’s business. I felt like we spoke the same way. In fact, when I auditioned, I was the first person to go in and read for (producer) Jason Reitman and (creator) Zander Lehmann. When I finished my audition, they looked at each other and they were like, “Yeah, okay, thank god.” And I said, “What?” They go, “This is our first time hearing it out loud, and we had no idea if it worked, and it works.” I was like, “I’m the first person auditioning. Well, enjoy seeing 5,000 other more people. Okay, bye-bye, you’ll forget me, but this was fun.”
Did you actually say that? Or just think it?
I would not be surprised if I actually said it, but I definitely thought it. Knowing me, I made some comment like, “Well that’s great, I’m glad it works. Don’t forget me.” (Laughs) But I definitely thought, “Note to self: Make sure I’m not the first person to read for something.” But I guess it set a bar for them in some way. I think they (thought), “It was so natural for you — it was hard to see people do it because this was how we imagined it, and then you just came in and did it.”
I guess I just feel like she was a little sexually repressed. I was never a good slut. (Laughs) I decided I was going to be a slut, right before I met my husband — I was like, “Goddamn it, I’m going to marry this guy. It’s my first one out of the gate!” I was going to have flings — it was going to be makeout summer! I kept telling all my friends, “I’m just going to make out with everyone this summer.” Then I met my husband.
It’s just not my nature, and I don’t think it was Valerie’s. I could see how awkward and how hard that would be trying to do that. I don’t have parents who are as deviant as hers are, but I have challenges — obviously, we all do. I found every single thing about Valerie utterly relatable — and the way that she also couldn’t have small talk. I don’t have kids, but I imagine if I did, it would be very similar to that — we would have that kind of relationship. I have nieces and nephews, and I do have a similar relationship with them like that — I’ve always talked to them like we were peers, and it was deeply upsetting if they were ever upset with me for anything.
Of course, when you get to be a character like that, the writers start writing to your strengths. But it was always in my voice — even when I was learning the lines, I would think, “What do I want to say?,” because sometimes that helps me learn lines, and (the dialogue) would be exactly what I wanted to say. It was like (the writers) were in my head, or I was in their head — it was really a match in heaven. It was my favorite job to date, leaps and bounds over any other job, just heaven on every level.
So how did you cope with Casual ending?
Because we knew the show was going to be in its last season. The fourth season was eight episodes, the writers were writing toward a conclusion of their story. I’ve never shot in real time my actual emotional arc as well. The show left me in a better place than I was when the show started — the show left Valerie in a much better place when the show started. A lot of shows don’t have an evolution where (characters) actually evolve — this show, everybody evolved. You can see they’re still going to have to struggle with some things, but the codependence between the brother and sister had to be broken for them to be able to stand on their own. That was finally happening.
I had to untether myself from Tommy Dewey, who played my brother. He and I were in the trenches with this for four seasons, and I just was like, “What am I going to do when I have to go to work and Tommy’s not there?” I just grew to love him so much like a brother. I’ve since gone on to officiate his wedding with our producer Helen (Estabrook) — I still feel like he’s my brother, but I feel like we have a very healthy relationship instead of a codependent one.
It was so weird to be able to live my actual feelings of having to disassociate from this family. The show, the cast, the writers, the producers, the crew: Everybody was buddies. There was no static, and every director that came on felt like an old friend. It was also at a time, thanks to Helen Estabrook, we had 70 percent female directors and all indie film directors. It was like we were doing an indie film for four years.
Speaking of indie films, Lynn Shelton was one of Casual’s directors. The two of you were close friends, and her death in 2020 shocked a lot of us who loved her movies. What did she mean to you?
Lynn and I fanned out at each other over at Sundance one time. Then she’d been asked to do Casual and she texted me: “I’m going to come work with you!” I was like, “Oh my god, this is so cool!” We were instant friends. Katie Aselton Duplass was guest-starring on the show, and she said she felt like she was witnessing two people fall in love.
When we talk about her passing, it’s so bizarre to me, because I still can’t believe it — she feels so ever-present all the time. I feel like I can conjure her in my mind’s eye, and I feel like I just got off the phone with her. I still chat with her in my mind and have full conversations. The thing that is the sorrow that keeps just gut-punching me every single time is I can’t hear her response. But I can see and feel how she would feel about something — I watched (Marc) Maron’s special recently, and I could just feel her presence. I was like, “I think Lynn would feel like he did her proud.”
But what drives me crazy, we would have such great conversations about everything: life, death, hallucinogens, crime, racism, sexism, every topic under the sun. Really incredible conversations. We were personal cheerleaders for each other: If we had a breakdown in confidence about anything, we would have these long FaceTime video chats all the time where we would just work through stuff. Or, if she heard a record — or she’s working with a composer that she loves and wanted to tell me anecdotes. She’s enthusiastic about life — for her to not be alive is confusing to my brain, because I’ve never seen anybody more enthusiastic. She’d be like, “Look at the inside of this pomegranate! Look at it!” Everything to her was new and cool and exciting. She loved actors — specifically comedians — and would be like, “Guess who I was talking to today?!” She’d just be excited about every single person that she came across — she loved them and would watch everything they did.
The movies she was probably about to make are the movies that I most need to see. I need to see the movies Lynn Shelton — a woman who is probably five years older than me — was about to make, because there’s really not a lot of women of a certain age in films that are showing us aspirational or non-aspirational or just relatable characters. There’s more now than there ever were, but there’s not a lot at all.
I know what men in their 50s and 60s can look and be like, and it can be very exciting. But when I think about my trajectory of my future, you usually want to pull from movies or media and be like, “I want to be like that” — I think a lot of women get to this age and feel like, “There’s this vast, empty field.” I don’t know how to get excited about my 50s and 60s, because I don’t know what it looks like. Everybody casts women like that as mothers and grandmothers. I don’t know — that’s not me. I’m not a mother or a grandmother.
The sadness for me is not just that I can’t see her smiling face, because I can — I can see her smiling face. I can feel like she’s here. Her physical presence does not feel lost to me. But it’s just so frustrating: It’s like if you have a call that’s constantly dropping and you’re like, “What were you about to say? I can’t get you back on the phone. You’re out of range now." It’s so sad. It’s so sad. It’s different than Marc — Marc lost a lover, I didn’t lose a lover. But I lost a dear, dear friend. I just found her inspiring, and I learned so much from her.