BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Michaela Watkins isn’t the “Trophy Wife” in the title of the new ABC sitcom, premiering Tuesday at 9:30 p.m., but she definitely feels like she’s won a prize.
The Wellesley-bred, Boston University-educated actress gets to play with an accomplished ensemble cast that includes Emmy winner Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”) and Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden (“Pollock”).
Watkins costars as Jackie, the flaky second ex-wife of Whitford’s character.
“I think that Jackie is sort of the antidote to the first wife,” she says of the more rigid Harden character. “The first wife was all business and all serious. Then comes Jackie, who is all heart. And you can see how he overcorrected a little bit maybe, and then came back to the middle with [the title character, played by Malin Akerman].”
Since her 2008-09 stint on “Saturday Night Live,” Watkins has been busy both onstage with the Los Angeles improv troupe The Groundlings and onscreen, doing guest appearances on such series as “New Girl," “Anger Management,” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine” as well as the recent films “In a World” and “Afternoon Delight.” We had a chance to chat with Watkins — who had just become a wife herself the previous weekend — at the recent Television Critics Association press tour.
Q. Jackie is pretty wacky in the pilot. Will you sustain that level?
A. As the show continues and we see more of her, we have to ground her down, otherwise she’s going to take off into space. Even reading the next episode I see there’s definite grounding to her . She’s not just cuckoo, banana, cracker nuts.
Q. But it’s fun playing cuckoo, banana, cracker nuts, right?
A. Oh, it is amazing, especially with my background in sketch comedy and improv, but I’m also an actor so I feel like if it’s not a five-minute sketch we have to believe her, we have to feel for her. It has to be a real person. And I do know people who live sort of in the clouds but have very real wants and needs and fears, but the way they express themselves is just a little off.
Q. Just guessing that it’s not that difficult to play once being in love with Bradley Whitford?
A. No, he’s so charming. The funny thing is how disarming he is because I just think of “West Wing” Bradley Whitford and it’s like, “Oh my god!” But he is so funny. He is constantly telling stories and sharing about his whole life in these ways where it’s like I’ve known him for a long time in a very short amount of time.
Q. You had a memorable guest shot on the HBO series “Hung” that ended up with your presented-as-straight character getting frisky with Arden Myrin from “MadTV.” How was that?
A. Um, interesting. It was a lot of pasties. (Laughs). It was sort of like comedy nerds had something just for them — “MadTV” and “SNL”! She’s hilarious. Those are amazing actors. I was really blown away by them. When you watch something like that you think there’s a lot of editing happening, but they were really in the moment.
Q. As someone with an improv background, are you given latitude to try different things on the show?
‘I feel like if it’s not a five-minute sketch we have to believe her, we have to feel for her. It has to be a real person.’
A. I am. We’ll see how long that lasts. (Laughs.) But [the producers have] really loosened the reins to really let me go. The fact is, their script is so funny, I think everything you’re seeing is pretty much the script but sometimes they do give me leeway. They’ll do a take where they’ll go, “Hey Michaela, just go crazy.” (Laughs.)Interview has been edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.