When I ask Michaela Watkins how she’s doing towards the end of one of the darkest weeks in modern American history, she replies, “Oh, thanks for asking, I’m terrible.”
The night before our conversation for this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, the comedian and actress “forced” herself to finally watch the full Sandra Bland arrest video and couldn’t get to sleep until 5 a.m.
“It was just so devastating,” she says. “I’ve always been really outspoken in this area, but something just clicked in on a cellular level. And I just don’t think there’s any way to un-know or unsee anything. And going forward that gives me hope, that this generation is not going to merrily go along with a world that was never—should never have been OK with anybody.”
Watkins, who has appeared in more than 100 TV shows and movies over the past two decades, has never been shy about her political beliefs. As a recurring co-host on Crooked Media’s Hysteria podcast, she’s dealt with the “far-right Twitter trolls” before and is “not scared to say anything right now.”
“I feel like my job isn’t really to say much to be totally honest with you,” she says. “I feel like my job right now is to amplify people who are finally feeling safe enough to start speaking or people who always have been, but haven’t been getting the attention that they should have. But I could see for people who never wanted to ruffle any feathers, that all of a sudden they’re like, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to put a black box up on my Instagram. Today’s the day!’”
While Watkins believes “any support is good support,” she adds, “I feel like it’s my job to educate myself on how to be a white person right now, in the best, most resourceful way and not somebody else’s job to coddle me or hold my hand through it.”
In 2008, after an extended run as part of the main company at The Groundlings, Watkins became the oldest female cast member ever hired by Saturday Night Live at 37. Leslie Jones later surpassed that record when she joined the cast at 47 six years later. “It was unheard of,” Watkins says. “Women my age don’t get on SNL. I don’t think they knew how old I was and I probably shouldn’t have told them.”
Watkins was fired after one season but has been making up for it ever since, stealing scenes in films like Wanderlust and TV shows like Transparent before landing her first leading role on Hulu’s Casual. It was on that show that she first worked with director Lynn Shelton, who became a close friend and died tragically last month.
Later this month, she makes yet another memorable appearance as a Marcia Clark-esque prosecutor on season three of the addictively binge-able comedy Search Party, which premieres on HBO Max June 25th.
Watkins and her husband had just “inhaled” the first two seasons over the course of a few days last year she received an email from co-creator Michael Showalter that there was a role in the third season that he wanted her to play.
“I was like, ‘Where’s the reply button? Fuck yes!’” she recalls, saying she didn’t even care what the character was. “I would get you guys coffee for the whole season while you’re shooting just to see how the mechanics of it work, because it’s so good.”
Highlights from our conversation are below and you can listen to the whole thing right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.
How the pandemic amplified the George Floyd protests
“I don’t think there would be this level of protest if there wasn’t a pandemic, because nobody would have had to sit with the actual feelings that a man was murdered in cold blood in front of so many people looking on, including the cop’s fellow compatriots. The stark reality of having, just weeks before, seeing these people protesting with AK-47s inside of a courthouse, because they didn’t want to wear a mask—I think everybody just is really just seeing everything splayed out in front of them and the most stark real terms and have to sit with the feelings. We’re not functioning in the same way we used to.”
On organizing a ‘Zoom shiva’ for director Lynn Shelton
“Since her death there’s been a little cabal of people that came together every night on Zoom. And we talk about her. It was sort of just on a whim. I just felt like during a pandemic, her world is so big and she had so many people who loved her so much, and she loved so much. I mean, she was a lover, she just loved people. So I just thought, how do we process the shock? I’m just going to open this space and, maybe we do it seven nights, like a shiva would be. She wasn’t Jewish, but as Marc [Maron] said, she sure did love them. Because of the pandemic, weirdly, there’s no way all these people would have had 6:30 p.m. free every single night for a week. So in a weird way, there was a real, incredible beauty to the fact that we could assemble. And there was this shift, it felt like, from where we started emotionally to where we got to after seven nights.”
How Lynn Shelton directed ‘Casual’ sex scenes through a ‘female lens’
“She called me and said, ‘We have these pretty crazy sex scenes that we’re going to shoot next week and I want to talk to you about them,’ which honestly, no director has ever, ever, ever, ever done. But she didn’t want to talk about like, ‘do you want to be on top or bottom?’ She wanted to talk about all the interpersonal dynamics between me and this other character. It’s not just sex for sex, which a lot of TV does. Usually the go-to is ‘throw her up against a wall’ to show there’s a lot of tension. But [my character on Casual] was totally sexually liberated with this person. So what does that look like? And I just don’t think it’s like, let’s just show her doing doggystyle and knocking over a lamp. I’d never really dissected a sex scene like that with any director before. And it was so wonderful. And then on the day, because we’d sort of mapped out in our minds, I was so comfortable. We’re just making art. She sees through the female lens and that was just so special.”
On her ‘rude’ SNL firing after one season
“I feel like it was a marathon, but the week I got there, they cut my Achilles. They’re like, OK, start running. I don’t feel like I came in into a soft landing at all. I thought that this was my big break. I thought that it was going well. I thought we were all having a good time, but then they didn’t renew my contract the next year. Maybe I was delusional. I really wanted to go back. I would have been really happy if they’d had me for three seasons. I felt like that would have been a really nice time there, but they had me for one. And then they had me no more. It does play out rather coolly, if I’m being honest. Everybody was presented with contracts except for two people. It is a little rude. It’s like, ‘I just want to say, I love everybody but two of you.’ It was a real humbling moment that I think personally was a huge growth for me. It forced me to sit with a lot of uncomfortable feelings and sadness and rejection and think about how I wanted to shape my life going forward.”
Next week on The Last Laugh podcast: Comedian Eric Andre, whose stand-up special Legalize Everything premieres on Netflix on June 23rd.