There's a reason to be captivated by Michaela Watkins.
In Hulu's Golden Globe-nominated comedy, Casual, Watkins embraces the ugliness of divorce, dating and self-discovery as Valerie, a therapist fumbling her way through her new reality after catching her husband with a younger woman. It's a noticeable departure from the zany female characters she's flawlessly played in years past.
"It's a relief that people are interpreting the character in the way I intended, because it's one of the first times where I'm not bringing a character to a show," the 44-year-old actress told ET. "I'm bringing a lot of myself."
While Watkins was well-established as a broad comedic force -- just watch her superb work on Saturday Night Live, Trophy Wife and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp -- she's fully engaging in the comedy about the struggles of everyday life, often unpleasant and cringe-worthy, and excelling at it.
"Here, I feel like I'm bringing every emotion, every life experience, every feeling I've ever had to everything," Watkins said of her Casual journey, which is in the midst of its second season. "It's more leveled and it's more layered and it just feels more exciting, for those reasons."
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If there's one moment that encapsulates Watkins' sentiments, it's a five-minute span in the Thanksgiving episode.
In the climactic scene, Valerie has a mini meltdown at the dinner table after her parents announce they've decided to abruptly remarry. With her ex-husband and his mistress also present, the irony and the sadness of the moment is distilled into a few seconds of Valerie laughing at the absurdity of it all -- "to the point where I mentally break," Watkins said.
"That was a really, really hard day. It called on every resource I had and I couldn't leave," she recalled, noting that the stress of the day-long shoot fueled the intensity of the scene. "That was really exhausting."
It's those kind of complicated moments that give Watkins great joy as an actress, and she's well aware of how rare it is on TV for women of a certain age to show their complexities.
"There are not a lot of female characters who are approaching 40 who get to be so many different things," Watkins said. "They're not just moms, they're not just wives, they're not just good at their jobs, and usually every show just shows them doing one of those things well."
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"Especially in season two, [Valerie]'s complete, whole. She's a friend, she's a sexual being, she's insecure, she is fiery, she is confident, she is everything," Watkins promised.
Unrestricted by the guidelines of network television, there's a certain freedom afforded when it comes to Casual's sex scenes. It is, in part, a story about a woman, nearing 40, who is trying to find love again -- no matter how awkward or embarrassing it may be.
"It's easier to simulate sex in front of the whole crew and a camera than I ever thought it would be," Watkins said candidly, when asked what she's learned most about herself while doing the show. "Once you do it one or two times, you can actually completely stay in character. You are committed. It's not a big deal at all. It's what your character does and you don't have to apologize for it."
"You sort of cling to that, you know? Better than clinging to other things: 'Should I hit the gym?' or 'Why didn't anybody ask me to do this at 22?'" she said, half-jokingly.
One thing's for sure, Watkins' unapologetic performance in Casual may change people's ideas of what she can accomplish in comedy: "Nobody wants to be put in a box."
Additional reporting by Stacy Lambe.
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