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From left: Charlie Gillespie, Michaela Watkins, Linsey Stewart and Dane Clark attend the Virtuosos Award ceremony during the 39th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival at The Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Feb. 10.Elyse Jankowski/Getty Images

Michaela Watkins delivers best friend energy. Sister energy. Watch her freeze in the 2023 film You Hurt My Feelings – unable to look, unable to look away – as her novelist sister (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) overhears her husband diss her new book. Watch her, playing Hoda Kotb in a Saturday Night Live sketch, try in vain to keep a careening Kathie Lee Gifford (Kristen Wiig) on message. Watch, on the series Tiny Beautiful Things, how tears prick her eyes as she calls out the self-absorption of her ride-or-die (Kathryn Hahn).

That’s the energy Watkins gives in real life, too. We met for breakfast recently at a Toronto hotel, and after four seconds I was desperate to fling away my reporter questions and ask friend questions instead – what are you reading, what was your mom like, what wisdom can you impart (because you seem to have lots, specifically the kind I care about), how is your oatmeal, can I have a bite?

“Being friends with women is the best,” Watkins says. “You really dig in. When a man is mad at me, I’m like yeah, whatever. If a woman is mad at me, it debilitates me. Because I know there’s a good reason.” I apologize when my croissant arrives, because it’s the size of my shoulder blade and she can no longer eat gluten. “Please,” she says, grinning, “I live in L.A. You can buy a gluten-free house there.”

In the new Canadian film Suze, written and directed by Linsey Stewart (Workin’ Moms) and Dane Clark (Run the ‘Burbs), Watkins plays the title character, divorced and underemployed, whose spoiled daughter sashays off to university and saddles Suze with her ex-boyfriend (Charlie Gillespie), a Gen Z Jeff Spicoli. The tentative relationship they build showcases another Watkins specialty: characters who are exasperated and underappreciated yet still energetic and hopeful. It’s a sweet spot as tender as a bruise.

“This is weird to say about myself, but I do think I’m an empath,” Watkins says. “I can’t watch horror movies because my brain thinks it’s happening. I’ve played some hilariously horrible characters, who are in the story just to say awful things. But I need to know for myself why they’re that way. I don’t pester the director with it, I don’t ask for a hidden bandage on my left shoulder so I know I’m secretly in pain. But I know. I just always want to know how other people think.”

“I was bad at acting when I was younger,” she admits. “I thought it was presentation. Now I realize it’s just how you react to everyone else around you.”

Clark and Stewart wrote Suze with Watkins in mind – not the first time that’s happened – and Watkins’s reaction was half-flattered, half-horrified. “Aaah, no!” she says. “I don’t want to go to work every day and play that person,” meaning herself. But she read the script and did what she’s learned to do over her 30-year career: trust her gut. “That is the journey, right?” she asks. “To have some confidence that you know what you like and don’t like.”

It helps that she was a late bloomer, career-wise. Raised in a Syracuse, N.Y., suburb, followed by Boston after her parents’ divorce, Watkins studied theatre at Boston University, then moved to Portland, Ore., and did plays. At 30, she relocated to Los Angeles and joined the Groundlings improv troupe (where she met Catherine Reitman, still one of her best friends; later she starred on the series Casual, created by Jason Reitman).

In 2008-2009, she spent one season on Saturday Night Live – “I was turning 37, the age most people leave SNL,” she says – and though Lorne Michaels didn’t ask her back, she’s not bitter. “I owe that man a lot.”

Steadily, she gained a reputation as a comic actor other comic actors want to bounce off, doing memorable turns on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Transparent, Catastrophe and In a World, to name a few. “By the time I moved to L.A., I was fully developed, so I was never pigeon-holed,” Watkins says. “Now I can land in anything and find something I can bring to it.”

She’s worked with Louis-Dreyfus so often, (The New Adventures of Old Christine, Veep, Enough Said), they banter like sisters. Jeannie Berlin played their mom in You Hurt My Feelings; after their scene was over, Watkins texted Louis-Dreyfus, “Jeannie Berlin’s mom was Elaine May? How did I not know that?” Louis-Dreyfus did not text back, “Yeah, isn’t that cool?” She texted, “What the hell is wrong with you?” Except she said something much stronger than hell. This story cracks us both up for several minutes.

At 52, Watkins is learning to ask for what she needs. (When her emergency hysterectomy threatened to derail Suze, she asked her oncologist, “How’s your Monday?”) “Sometimes I can’t believe my own chutzpah,” she says.

“But I’m a hustler. I’m happiest when I’m working with other people toward a shared goal. When people pay you to do what you love, it feels like as quickly as it comes, it can go. The way I live now is nice and comfortable” – happily married, two dogs, a house in Ojai, Calif., and a pied-à-terre in L.A. – “but I’ll never have a walk-in closet. I compromised a closet to get a bigger bathroom, and no regrets.” She grins. “I mean, small regrets. But my goal is to live an interesting life, and interesting lives don’t have walk-in closets.”

She also knows what she doesn’t know. “If you asked me five years ago, I would have been like, ‘You have to meditate, and you have to do some kind of movement, and nature is important!’ But now I don’t know anything. Now I’m like, ‘What do you think? What makes you happy?’ It’s more questions.”

Suze speaks to that, and to the grave concerns Watkins harbours about how divisive and uncivil discourse has become, in North America and elsewhere. “I don’t know how we solve our world ails if we’re not willing to look somebody in the eye and get to know them, and stop dehumanizing each other,” she says. “That’s exactly what happens with Suze. At first she writes this guy off, then it turns out no one has been as nice to her as he is.”

So that’s the secret to sister energy – we can love anyone we take the time to get to know? “Put it this way,” Watkins says. “I’ll never do a film with Tucker Carlson. But his daughter? I don’t know if he has one; God help her if he does. But she might be cool.”

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