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It’s easy to name the star of your favorite TV show, right? They get the most lines, the biggest story arcs and your longer Entertainment Tonight segments. But done right, it’s the less conscripted supporting characters that are often more interesting to watch. And few do them better than Michaela Watkins. GQ was paying attention when a lot of us were looking in whatever direction studio marketing was pointing. “Watkins has played an absolutely impressive and consistent and memorable parade of characters in television and movies for over a decade. If a TV show is super funny, Michaela Watkins likely has a super funny guest arc on it.” We’d expect nothing less from an actor whose three favorite words to hear from a director are “just go crazy.”
She was doing that long before she started piling up the small but stellar film and TV appearances making increasing demands on the scroll bar of her IMDb page. Being a keen mimic by age eight helped her keep everyone laughing – something she saw as her role as her parents went through a painful divorce. As she told Jewish Journal, “It was my way to be seen by my family and later the opposite sex. My way of flirting was, ‘Watch me shove a whole hamburger in my mouth.’” Career and life lesson number one: Humor trumps vanity every time.
It also landed her in a community theater British farce as a 15-year-old, where she realized the only thing better than an audience was a captive audience. “They have to sit there. They can’t leave!” After studying theater at Boston University, she moved to New York and found herself struggling to build a career. An impulse road trip to Portland became a four-year immersion in regional and traveling theater, but in 2001 she decided it was time to move to L.A. and get herself on a TV show.
Her first TV appearance was on The WB’s Charmed, which could be considered an artistic step down from the thea-tah, but Watkins didn’t see it that way. She gave herself permission to go full throttle in any direction, and episodic TV work allowed her time to pursue interests closer to her heart. She joined The Groundlings to hone her improv and sketch skills, and that’s where Lorne Michaels discovered her. Career and life lesson number two: Best not to limit yourself to one pre-conceived path.
Her hilarious sendup of Arianna Huffington landed her on Saturday Night Live, but her most memorable character was Angie Tempura, an iced coffee-drinking, celebrity-snarking, secretly Zac Efron-loving computer nerd whose catch phrase “Bitch Pleeze” temporarily became a website. Anyone on SNL better be able to do a damn good impression, but Watkins’ true skill as an actor is her ability to read what’s behind the facial tics and speech patterns, and they don’t always come from a funny place – hit YouTube and watch her SNL Hoda Kotb impression closely.
When she was let go after only one year on the show, Entertainment Weekly wondered, “What was Lorne Michaels thinking?” We may never know, but the blow was softened a bit when he told Watkins he thought she deserved her own show. She agreed, and went right back out to L.A. to work on that. What she got was more supporting roles, enriching series like The New Adventures of Old Christine, Enlightened, New Girl, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Modern Family and ABC’s short-lived but well received Trophy Wife. She did the same in indies like Wanderlust, Afternoon Delight and In a World… She also co-wrote Benched, USA’s 2014 sitcom about a high-powered corporate lawyer’s implosion and subsequent humbling as a public defender.
If Watkins became known for writing and playing “crazy ladies,” maybe it’s because she loves them, and hates filters. “Of course I don’t like to think of myself as one, but maybe I am,” she told Vulture. “I’m always drawn to them; I think it’s because I’m attracted to people who aren’t in the business of people-pleasing, who say what they really think.”
But she can do a lot more than crazy, and proof came in 2015. The Lorne Michaels Prophecy was fulfilled, and Casual’s gain is every other TV show’s loss. Watkins stars in the Hulu dramedy as Valerie Meyers, a recently divorced therapist venturing into online dating with the help of her dating app-developer brother. The show tackles dating and family dysfunction from different perspectives, while showing what Watkins can do when not relegated to comedic expository support. The New York Times likened Casual to an episodic independent film, writing, “Ms. Watkins is outstanding, playing Valerie as tense and fallible and sympathetic,” while Vanity Fair predicted, “Audiences will come to realize they’ve been underestimating the actress for the past seven years.”
If you’ve been guilty of the same crime, not to worry. Casual is entering its third season, and she still shows up on other series (Veep, Angie Tribeca, Speechless) when she can. She also has roles in four films this year with several more in the hopper. Whether they’re leads or supporting roles doesn’t much matter. For Watkins, it’s about the projects and people involved. “I made a pact with myself when I was 12 that I would only work with people who make me happy. I choose happy.” And that, friends, is career and life lesson number three – the only one you really need.