On Hulu's Golden Globe-nominated dramedy, Casual, Michaela Watkins showcases a different side of herself with her most personal and restrained role yet. As Valerie, a therapist and mother embracing the ugliness of divorce and embarking on a journey of self-discovery, the actress makes a noticeable departure from the zany characters she's known to portray in her career.
This is definitely not Trophy Wife, the ABC sitcom in which she played ex-wife Jackie Fisher, or the darkly funny Rhonda on Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.
"I'’s kind of a relief that people are interpreting the character in the way that I intended because it's one of the first times where I'm not bringing a character to a show," Watkins, who fans first discovered during her short time on Saturday Night Live, tells ET. In addition to Casual, Watkins has also made an impression on viewers with her recurring roles on Amazon's Transparent. "I'm bringing a lot of myself. It's just good old-fashioned acting, you know? It's not so much picking out of character at all. It's putting yourself in situations and creating a person, how they would react to these situations."
Admittedly, it has been a challenge for the 44-year-old actress, who is used to playing "silly and fun" characters instead of someone like Valerie, who runs much deeper.
"It's hard to wash it off," Watkins says, "because you're using all these parts of your own emotional world that you don't normally get to bring to your work. Here I just feel like I'm bringing every emotion, every life experience, every feeling I've ever had to everything. Then I have to figure out how to process how this person would process, like, 'This is how I would do it, but then how would Valerie do it?'"
"She's much more restrained than I am," she adds. "It's more leveled and it's more layered and it just feels more exciting for those reasons."
While she's finding an emotional balance as Valerie, whose struggles of everyday life are often unpleasant and cringe-worthy, Watkins is using lessons from her improv days in unexpected ways.
When the actress, who was a regular performer at The Groundlings, used to teach improv, she would play a game with her students where they would have to do a scene without being funny at all. It was about being fully committed to the character -- not making the audience aware that they were aware of the joke. "When you're doing comedy improv, you need to look for the joke and that takes you out of the reality of the situation," she says. "So, doing that exercise was really helpful to a lot of people to really commit."
"And the nature of Casual, because of the type of show it is, you're in it. There is no getting out of it," Watkins continues. "I'm not even talking breaking fourth wall. I mean, if at any point I feel like the audience thinks that I'm aware of the ridiculousness of my character, then I know that I'm not doing my job very well."
Clearly the lessons have paid off, because Watkins continues to make Valerie a delight to watch each week on Casual.
New episodes of Casual debut Tuesdays, only on Hulu, and the show has just been picked up for a third season.