You might know Michaela Watkins from her stint as a cast member on the 2008-2009 season of Saturday Night Live, or from her role on Transparent as the accepting wife of a man at a cross-dressing camp, or from her my-coffee-cup-doubles-as-an-ashtray choreographer in Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.
But despite her ubiquity onscreen, Watkins has spent the last 15 years relegated to supporting roles. That ends on Oct. 7, with the premiere of Hulu’s series Casual, Watkins’ first major leading role. Executive-produced (and directed in part) by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), the dramedy stars Watkins as Valerie, a therapist and newly divorced mother to a precocious teenage daughter. Living with her emotionally stunted brother Alex (The Mindy Project‘s Tommy Dewey) and suffering, alongside him, the psychological consequences of having been reared by a dysfunctional family, Valerie dips a toe, then dives headlong, into the world of online hook-ups—hence the series’ title.
In the run-up to Casual’s premiere, Watkins spoke to TIME about finally breaking out, enduring her third-life crisis and reconciling her background in theater with TV shows about witchcraft.
TIME: You started acting as a teenager?
Michaela Watkins: Yeah. This was for the very discerning crowd of Wellesley, Massachusetts. I bristled at the idea of doing theater when I was in high school because I was rebelling and wearing all black, but secretly it was all I wanted to do. So my mom signed me up and she’s like, “ I don’t want to hear you talk about this as something you coulda, woulda, shoulda done.” I did it and that was it, game over. It was so exhilarating having an audience. People are in their chairs and have to sit there and watch you. They can’t leave.
To do your first play at 15 and then decide to go to school for acting, you must have fallen for it pretty hard.
My mom is an avid musical theatergoer. My dad would always get a subscription to the Syracuse Stage. I was always exposed to theater. So I went to a theater conservatory at Boston University. When I graduated, I had a ridiculous year in New York where I was broke. I went on a road trip and ended up in Portland, Oregon, and from there I did non-stop theater. I had just graduated and I had all these ideas about what good acting was, but I hadn’t put any of it into action. I spent five years honing my acting chops. And then I had this epiphany one day that I need to go to L.A., I need to be on a sitcom. I need to at least have tried.
Your first role was on Charmed. How did you feel about going from highbrow theater to arguably lower-brow TV?
I compartmentalized it and gave myself total permission to go whole-hog in any direction. The first thing I did was join an avant-garde theater company called Circle X Theater. That was my artistic outlet, and everything else was the hustle: hustling to get those good paid commercial jobs or hustling to get through [improv] school at the Groundlings so I could get on the main stage. I was doing stand-up, waiting tables and trying my damnedest to get enough people to see me and take me seriously. I knew what Charmed was—I didn’t have to tell myself I was doing something groundbreaking—but I knew that it was going to allow me to do more things. I remember thinking, “Jesus, do I have to be that pretty to be on TV?” It takes a nice amount of delusion to keep going.
You’ve been featured in so many shows. How does it feel to be playing the lead at this stage in your career?
It feels really satisfying, but not for any of the reasons that would probably be satisfying if I was in my 20s. I’ve definitely put in the hours, so it’s satisfying to be able to appreciate it. Even though it’s more demanding, it’s much more gratifying to play somebody that we can take our time with—it doesn’t have to be barfing out all this information as quickly as possible and then leaving the room. That’s the nature of this show, where it’s slowed down so we can see behavior as opposed to just exposition. Behavior is the thing that excites me the most.
How different is it to develop a character like Valerie across ten episodes, compared to, say, your role in Transparent, where you have one episode to get a sliver of this person across?
There’s this way that you take on a character for a time, and with this show I feel like I’ve been bringing myself to the character. [Valerie] just feels more close to who I am. It’s a little scary, because if people really reject her—and she’s not a perfect person—it cuts closer to the quick. So I take it home with me. When my character’s having a bad day, I’ll come home and be a little sad. Or if my character’s turned on, there’s definitely a pop in my step.
It’s a funny show, but a lot of the comedy is deeply rooted in sadness, whereas with someone like your SNL character Angie Tempura, who’s more purely ridiculous, you don’t get to dig into why she is that way.
That would be a really dark turn for Saturday Night Live! Tommy Dewey and I would often be doing a scene and then we’d stop and say, “Wait, is this a comedy?” My character is so screwed up that I didn’t notice—were there any jokes? But that’s what I love about this digital platform. You don’t have to hamfist what the show is. It doesn’t have to be joke, joke, joke, joke, joke.
How did you land the role of Valerie?
When you’re casting a show, you have your idea of who you want it to be and of course those are going to be very well-known names. I went in and for whatever reason, Jason said, “This is the voice of this character.” This is what I love about Hulu and Netflix and Amazon. He said, “She’s the right person for this character.” And while they could probably make a stink and say, “No, we want fill-in-famous-A-lister,” they trust his creative vision.
The show feels like an antidote to the historical trappings of the network sitcom—here, life feels real, the characters feel real.
Zander Lehmann’s script—that’s what I really responded to. The first time I tried to learn a scene, I had my hand covering it, and I would say the line, and say the other person’s line out loud, and I would think, how would I react to such a line? And sure enough, every time I would pick my hand up, that would be the line. It just felt exactly the way people talk. And I was really also curious about this brother-sister relationship because, let’s be honest, it’s crazy.
It’s sort of a platonic sibling love story.
Yes it is. I think [Alex and Valerie] are really playing out something with each other that if they can fix that, maybe they can go out in the world and fix other things. I know friends who have this sort of incredibly intimate relationship with their sibling. And I don’t get it, it wasn’t like that in my family. In some ways, I’m envious, because they have someone that’s so completely in their corner. And at the same time, I imagine it may at times feel like it’s stunting.
What do you mean when you say you brought a lot of yourself to Valerie?
There’s ways in which she’s very different from me. She’s much more restrained. If you looked at one of those EKG machines where it spits out how active your heart is, my ups and downs would be really extreme—but Valerie’s is played in such a smaller range. Valerie doesn’t fly off the handle. She swallows a lot. My suspicion is that she swallows so much over so much time and the series is about [how] she’s not able to do it anymore. She’s confronting her divorce, she’s confronting loss, she’s confronting this daughter who’s getting too big to control anymore. Now the gloves come off, and she’s pissed.
Around the same age that Valerie is, a few years back, I went through a huge metamorphosis where the landscape of what I thought my life was going to be completely shifted. It was such a weird, funky time. I have watched so many friends at that age go through it, too. It’s this feeling like you are either going to never be happy again or you may not survive it. You get to the point in your life where it doesn’t work for you anymore, and you have to change it, but that change is so painful and so necessary. It’s the best thing that can happen to a person.