Michaela Watkins doesn’t talk about sex with her sisters—or anyone in her family, for that matter.
“No. No. No. Not even a little bit,” she told me during a phone interview this week. “I think because I’m the youngest by seven years pretty much if anybody talked about sex in my family I would cover my ears and scream.”
Watkins gets chatty about dating, sex and her character’s personal issues in “Casual,” a dramedy executive produced and partly directed by Jason Reitman. The Hulu series debuts Oct. 7.
Watkins plays Valerie, a newly divorced mother who has moved with her teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) into her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey), the creator of a secretly sleazy dating app. Together they struggle with and support each other in the difficult world of dating.
“Casual” offers Watkins her first major starring role after 15 years of creating memorable guest and supporting characters in comedies such as “Saturday Night Live,” “Veep,” “Enlightened,” “Trophy Wife” and recently “Transparent” and “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.”
The actress and I talked about playing the lead role, how “Casual” is more about family than sex, and whether sadness can be funny.
Valerie is so sad. It’s almost hard for me to watch.
You don’t like your women sad?
Well, not really?
I guess there’s no way to win with that answer, is there?
Did it concern you that the character was so sad?
I thought it might be pretty awful [so] I was really excited. I’m kidding! But I was really excited to take on a role like that. It’s different from most roles I do … There’s a sad person in all of us.
But I don’t know that Valerie is necessarily a sad woman as much as it’s just a sad time in her life and therefore she is sad. I see her getting happier, especially if there is a Season 2—I think it’s happy time. I’d like to see how she functions in that kind of emotional world.
When we meet Valerie she’s at sort of the lowest point in her life. Everything she is kind of known to depend on—being a wife, being a mom—is gone.
Her daughter doesn’t need her anymore. Her husband doesn’t need her anymore and it’s just kind of like, “OK, who am I now? I guess I’m a woman. Women have sex, right?” And she’s got to go out and do that but she doesn’t know how to date or any of those things.
And I can relate to that. I think dating is such a weird thing.
What drew you to the role?
Well, first of all I was drawn to it because I’m a huge Jason Reitman fan, but that’s beside the point. Secondly I was drawn to this script because I felt like Zander Lehman captured the brother-sister relationship. It’s so weird.
And I was so curious about it because I have sisters that I adore but I’m not that kind of close with them. And I do have friends who have these sort of really intimate relationships with their sibling and … I feel like there’s not been a lot of entertainment that has sort of gone into that.
You said you and your siblings aren’t as open about sex and dating. Would you run screaming even at this time in your life?
Yeah, actually maybe I would. Probably. It’s hard to unring that bell. I wish my mom would be more open about it because she is definitely the most demure of everybody in my family. But yeah, we’re not open that way.
With my girlfriends—that’s a whole other story. We talk about everything. But I think it was because I didn’t have the kind of family where we talked about any of that.
You mentioned that you think in Season 2 it will be happy time for Val. It seems like there’s almost immediately growth for a lot of the characters, or at least revelations.
Just keep watching. [Laughs.] There’s probably de-evolution that happens more so.
One step forward, two steps back?
Yeah, I think sometimes when we come to these transitions in our life we sort of break apart everything and rebuild. But I think before you get to that rebuilding phase you’re in the destructive phase. That’s probably what most of Season 1 is dedicated to. Fun! Comedy!
Well, that’s another thing. Is this really a comedy?
You know, is “Orange is the New Black” now that it’s an hour long, is that not a comedy? What is a comedy anymore? It’s a comedy because it’s funny to watch these characters go through these very real ,very natural human situations where they screw up. I think that’s what’s funny. But it’s not a comedy in the way that there’s a joke, you know—laugh line, laugh line, laugh line.
In fact, we know where the jokes are; we sort of went out of our way to kind of resist the temptation to hit them very hard because we never wanted people to forget that they were watching real people. We never wanted people to disengage from the reality of what was happening to them.
It does feel natural in that way that comedy unexpectedly creeps into every day life. And there’s no laugh track, which is great because that would just totally ruin it.
I know. Wouldn’t that be crazy if there was?
That might be a funny experiment to just take some video and put laugh tracks in the spots.
I would love that. I want them to do like a gag reel of that. That would be so amazing, especially during the sex scene.
Speaking of sex, Valerie finds a little bravery with the young waiter? Is she going to keep hitting those notes every once and a while?
There’s courage in alcohol, isn’t there? No, I think Valerie is so controlled that unless something externally is taking her out of her mode of being totally in control of her life, and that does happen more in the season, she is trying very hard to keep her life together. She’s trying very, very hard. But when she lets her guard up at any time very bad things happen.
We talked about Val and Alex their relationship, but she has an interesting relationship with her daughter and then her daughter does with the uncle, with Alex.
It’s really sweet.
I love that her daughter is more free and open and honest about everything than those two are even.
We always joke that she is the adult in every situation. But she is and some teenagers are savvy like that. I do love the relationship between her and her uncle.
It’s a show about family. One could say it’s a show about casual sex and dating, but it’s really a show about a family who ultimately love each other even if they’re dysfunctional and weird.
I think that line that she has with her daughter, not the dialogue lines but the line in the sand where you want to be your kids’ friend and you want them to be open and honest with you so that they can feel like they can talk about anything.
But I feel that’s a very new way of raising kids where kids and parents have this sort of really relaxed relationship. At the same time you have to parent. And how do you toggle back and forth between friend and parent?
I do see a lot of my friends with kids dealing with that. Like I want to know but I don’t want to know. And the situations start to get really sticky and really dicey.
This show goes there. It’s not afraid of kind of pushing the envelope. It gets pretty edgy. I like that in the shows that I watch. I can’t speak for all of America, but I like something that makes me feel a little uncomfortable when I watch TV, just to challenge me.
My mother would never let us have that much freedom, I don’t think.
My God. I made some Funny or Die videos—comedy videos—and my mom’s like, “You ruined your life!”
This show never ever probably would have been picked up on a network, right?
No. I don’t know what network. Yeah I don’t think so. … I guess that’s just what I love about digital outlets that are happening now with Netflix and Amazon. You get the sort of things that don’t fit in a really perfect little box. You get things that are kind of weird and that audiences like me can find it and enjoy it.
Do you feel like the new TV landscape is actually helpful for creators who want to do something a little bit non-traditional and different?
It’s been good for me because I got to do “Wet Hot [American Summer: First Day of Camp]” on Netflix and I got to do “Transparent” on Amazon and now I get to do “Casual” on Hulu. So I’m really digging it, as you can imagine.
And those are all totally different shows, but … I could never see any of those shows on a [traditional] network.
Just even by the fact that I get to play Valerie in this show; I mean that was all Jason Reitman saying, “This is who I think it is.” He got to have incredible creative control. And then you’d have a network like Hulu and Lions Gate with a studio saying, “OK, if that’s what you think then we support you.”
And having made a TV show for cable, for USA, I can tell you it’s not that simple. I imagine that Jason is a little spoiled because he may not know how lucky he is to have total creative control. Or at least to be totally trusted by his network to do whatever he feels is right.
You’ve been in so many productions. How does it feel to be the lead, the main character?
It’s so fun. I love everything I do and there’s not one job I think I’ve ever done where I’m like, “Oh boy that was terrible.” I loved all of them. I love all the people I work with.
This is a different beast and while it would sound like it’s a lot more work and a lot more pressure, it’s so much more fulfilling and exciting to really, really, really get to know this character. And it’s a little scary, a little daunting, but I feel so supported.
Because I’ve been kind of swinging the bat for a while doing other kinds of roles I feel very ready for this now. I mean just from a technical point of you that I feel very in my element and I feel very happy about it.
And you’re surrounded by great folks. Your costars, Tara and Tommy, are really great in this.
Can we talk about them for a second? They’re outstanding. They’re so amazing. Tommy, from the second we hit the board together—I just said board, but you know what I mean. Apparently I just turned into a 1940s stage actor.
So when Tommy and I first got together there was just a huge rapport. And we’re a little different from our characters. We’re a little similar to our characters, too, but how Jason knew that the two of us would work together as well. It’s so easy. In fact every time I have a scene with Tommy or with Tara my whole body relaxes because I feel like, “Ah, home. Family.” And I just met these people.
It was almost immediate?
It was incredibly immediate. It was so fast. It was like a match just got struck and it lit. It was crazy. They’re both so talented. I keep forgetting that Tara’s half my age because she’s such an old soul. She’s just such an old soul in every way and I adore her and we spend a lot of time outside of work together.
It’s just really easy and terrific and fun. I feel protective of them in the way a sister and a mother would and I adore them.
So switching gears a little bit, is Connie going to be back on the new season of “Transparent”?
Is Connie? I’ll tell you, I’m going to be back on the new season of “Transparent,” but Connie is not.
Oh really. That intrigues me.
Yeah. I return and I return in a flashback as well, but not the same person.
I won’t ask what that is but all right.
If it works it’s going to be good. Real good. Next season of “Transparent” is going to be bananas great. But this other component that I’m doing, Bradley Whitford will be there.