Michaela Watkins Is “Honest to a Fault”

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

“This movie reminds me of our need for meditations on loving couples lying to each other,” deadpans Michaela Watkins. You Hurt My Feelings, the latest film from director Nicole Holofcener, in which she stars alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is a comedy of manners that probes the tricky dynamics of telling the truth to the ones we love, and working on it restored the actress and comedian’s need for a little drama in life.

With a background in theater and improv, Watkins made a name for herself on the hallowed comedic stage of SNL before finding a natural cinematic home in the world of mumblecore and its lowkey comedic offshoots, from Lynn Shelton’s Sword of Trust to Holofcener’s Enough Said. Her television work is vast — she starred in Jason Reitman’s Casual for four seasons, but name a major comedy series from the last ten years and she’s probably appeared in it too, from New Girl to Search Party, Transparent to Big Mouth.

As Sarah in You Hurt My Feelings, she tends to sister Beth’s (Louis-Dreyfus) emotional wounds after she overhears husband Don (Tobias Menzies) criticizing her next book. Like much of Holofcener’s work, the film balances a light skewering of its middle-class milieu and their neuroses with poignant commentary on our most delicate and important relationships in life and meditations on how to nurture them. Given the many awkward encounters, miscommunications, and faux pas that Beth, Don and Sarah stumble into, we asked Watkins some of our social-etiquette questions to get a handle on what to do when all our feelings are at stake.

You worked with Nicole Holofcener and Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Enough Said. Was teaming up with them again for You Hurt My Feelings a no-brainer for you?

It doesn’t really get better than that. This movie was, out of every job I’ve ever done, the easiest. The pandemic killed gossip — well, good gossip, because everything was very life and death and very serious and no laughing matter. Where were the good old gossip days of, like, marriages blowing up because somebody overheard something or whatever? Good old shit like that.

I’m glad we’ve established your appreciation for gossip because this leads me perfectly into the first of our etiquette questions. Do you gossip a lot?

I have a lot to say about gossip. I don’t like gossip; I think it’s really detrimental and horrible. I just had a big birthday, my 50th, and my husband told everybody to come up to me at some point during my party and say to me, “I have a secret.” Then they could make something up or not, but the problem was I had really bad back pain and somebody gave me some pot, which I don’t really smoke. If somebody tells you they’re not good with pot and then you say, “No, no, this is a chill version,” don’t bait and switch and give them the version that’s not chill, because I was out of my mind freaking out. People are coming up to me and telling me they have secrets and how they’re, like, in threesomes and things like that. It was so overwhelming. Anyway, gossip is bad. We shouldn’t gossip. It’s only life saving when we’re telling people “that guy’s a predator.” That’s good gossip. That’s etiquette.

How do you feel about telling little white lies?

I’m honest to a fault. If I don’t have something nice to say, I find something to fall in love with. Every time there’s applause at the end of a show or a movie, anytime people are collectively coming onboard for something positive, I cry. I could watch the worst play, but when people cheer and everybody bows and they look so proud of themselves, I cry, and anything negative that might have been floating in my head just goes away. So I know better than to come up to people after a play and say, “Congratulations, you look like you were having so much fun” and all those terrible things that people say which are very clear messages that they hated it.

What’s your No. 1 rule for giving advice?

I love getting older because I can tell you that I’ve changed and things change. In my 30s, I just told everybody every single thought that came through my head, but I hadn’t had all the lived experience. In my 40s, I had the lived experience, so I was very definitive. And then in my late 40s, I realized I don’t know anything. Now I’ve been around long enough to see that there are exceptions to everything, right? So when I give advice, I always say, “Do you want to know what I think?” But I spend so much more time listening now than I ever did. Sometimes — and this is crazy for me — I just say nothing.

What is your No. 1 rule for canceling plans?

I know I’m supposed to put myself first and all that shit, but if it has gone past the point of no return, I will get myself there and make sure it happens. For me to cancel at the last minute, something really severe has to be happening. I never lie about why I’m canceling plans.

What is your No. 1 rule while walking on the street in New York City?

One year, my friend Nina decided she just wasn’t going to move out of the way of people just to see what happens. Everybody would get out of her way, except for white men who would walk straight into her. And she’s been called a bitch, she’s been called so many things by white men who are not used to moving out of the way for anybody. When I walk in New York City, I’m five to ten people ahead of myself so I know exactly which route I’m gonna take. Sometimes somebody springs out of a store or out of a taxicab and really throws you off, and it’s like a video game. Every once in a while, if it’s just two people on the street and we’re about to collide, I will test Nina’s theory. I’ll tell you what, they’ll never get out the way — they just won’t.

What’s your No. 1 rule for a successful dinner party?

I hate when people are barely done and everybody feels this need to clear all the plates right away. I love the European way of serving dessert where you just ate chicken. Let everything sit out; fill some wine glasses. Eating could stretch for all night long for all I care. Another fun thing that I love to do is a macro conversation, where the whole table is in one conversation. I love when somebody poses a question to the table and everybody has to go around and answer. I love forced fun.

How about a rule for sending a gift to someone?

If somebody gives you something, you need to call them and say thank you. I have ADHD — do you know how much effort it takes for me to go to a store, get something, and make sure that it gets wrapped and given to you at the proper time? Ninety-eight percent of my mental reserves were used just to give you that gift.

Do you think saving a seat for someone is fair?

It depends. If it’s the High Holidays and you’re in temple and your wife and kid are coming, yes. If you’re at a baby shower and there are like six chairs and then seats on the floor, I don’t think you can save a seat. You definitely can’t save a seat on public transportation. Saving a parking space, that you cannot do. You cannot stand in a parking spot because you know your friend is circling the block. You miss it, you lose it. That whole thing when there’s a human being standing in a parking spot and you’re like, “Where’s the car?” “They’re coming,” I don’t give a shit, move. They missed it. I’m here, get out of the way.

What is your No. 1 rule when texting?

Curt text messages can really throw people for a loop and because there’s no accounting for tone via text, I flood them with emoji that just make me sound like I’m being nice. I also don’t believe in having to reply immediately unless it’s an urgent matter. I feel the pressure that I’m supposed to respond in the moment, but I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to respond constantly. I’m also annoyed that men are better at that, because I want to be better at that. I want to not feel like I have to reply. I also don’t analyze texts. There are better things to do with my life than try to figure out what somebody meant by something.

If there’s one final rule you could apply to life for everyone, what would it be?

When I knew I was talking to you, I wrote down my own etiquette rule: Read the news. If you don’t vote or you find politics exhausting to the extent that you can barely name any horrible bill that has been passed that targets everyone who isn’t a white Christian nationalist, you’re an asshole. Your privilege of being too tired to know what is happening when most people wake up and go to bed with a target on their back is unconscionable. Get your head out of the sand.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Michaela Watkins Is “Honest to a Fault”