Austin Basis on Hulu’s ‘Casual’ season 3 and creating a relatable series

11:30 am EDT, July 7, 2017

Nate D'Agostino

Austin Basis was kind enough to chat with Hypable about his guest starring role in Casual’s third season exclusively on Hulu. We talked about the incredible Michaela Watkins, Casual’s unique treatment of guest stars, and what makes the series so relatable.

Hypable (H): What can you tell us about your character’s (Ethan) journey in the remaining episodes of season 3 and his relationship with Val (Michaela Watkins)?

Austin Basis (AB): Ethan is in the storytelling class with Val earlier in the season and he’ll fall back in around episodes 10, 11, and 12. I really appreciate how Casual, one of the few shows that does this, where they’ll introduce characters in a peripheral way. It happens both seasons, where you’ll meet a group of characters and then you figure out there’s one character in there that either Val, Alex, or Laura connect with. Then, ultimately, the deeper connection is with someone else from that group.

That happened with Spencer (played by Rhenzy Feliz) Laura’s [Tara Lynne Barr] love interest last season who had cancer. He was peripherally in these student meetings early on and then he became a deeper arc later in the season. Like in life, you know, you don’t automatically connect to the people initially that you’re going to connect with deepest.

Different sets of circumstances cause some relationships to be very hot and heavy, not necessarily in a sexual sense (laughs) but you know, kind of “peak out” in a very short period of time like 2-3 episodes then other characters it’s like more of a marathon journey where you’re seeing that character evolve with the main characters over like 4, 5, or 6 episodes. I guess I got kind of lucked into getting one of those characters where it’s a nice several episode arc than a couple quick episodes.

I think Ethan kind of influences Val and gives her some sound advice that may be obvious to Ethan but from Val’s perspective it’s always harder to make those observations and decisions from a first person perspective. From Ethan’s point of view, his outlook and advice help Val on her journey which is a big arc this season.

H: What’s it like working with Michaela Watkins (Val)?

AB: She’s awesome and so down to Earth! I was a fan of Casual for the first two seasons before I auditioned and getting to work on it is such a great experience because you’re working with these people who are also these characters you’ve come to know and love. But now, getting to meet the person behind the character, and knowing her work from other series like the new Wet Hot American Summer where I thought she was hysterical, so I was like “oh my God”, she’s one of the best things about it. To get to know her on a personal level like that and work with her in this show was extra special.

Like I was saying, she’s so down to Earth and professional in the sense that I’m an actor that always wants to rehearse and run lines, one of our scenes she had her dog Jess on set so we walked her dog for like 20-30 minutes while we were waiting and ran lines in the process. Some of those run throughs are almost like, I don’t know if they even came out better than the scene but they were so relaxed like we were just talking.

Sharing stories about life and just you know “shooting the shit” as it were, you don’t really get that too much as a guest star on shows where people who are regulars are part of the machine, who you deal with while you’re working and then they continue working and when you leave. It’s a weird dynamic and I hope that connection comes through in the scenes.

H: Absolutely! I feel like, especially in a show like Casual, the guest stars aren’t treated (in a storytelling sense) like they’re temporary but rather real actual people with their own ambitions and struggles because each character is so fully fleshed out.

So what was it that first drew you to Casual?

AB: A show I’d done a few years ago on the CW called Life Unexpected was created and executive produced by Liz Tigelaar who I’ve known for almost 10 years. So, when the show ended, we all remained friends as we went off to do our own thing which is always fun to circle back and support them and even get to work with them again.

In this case, Casual premiered at the Toronto Film Festival (since Jason Reitman is a Canadian native) so they had the first TV category of the festival where they aired the first three episodes and did a panel with Jason [Reitman], Zander [Lehmann], Helen [Estabrook], and Liz Tigelarr who was brought on as the showrunner. I knew she was going to be in Toronto and I was filming Beauty & the Beast and I went to the screening and Q & A. I was able to support her and reconnect and say how much I loved the show.

When it came out, I didn’t have Hulu but kind of got Hulu because of it and it was definitely worth it. The thing about Casual and Liz and her writing, (knowing Liz) I can kind of see some of her influences in the show. Zander (Lehmann, the creator and executive producer), his influences, I think are what you’re talking about where every character is three-dimensional down to the person at the coffee shop that Val has a crush on. That is what I love about watching shows like this is that there’s a sense of reality almost to a naturalistic point of view where it seems like real life.

Then there are jokes in there that don’t sacrifice the suspension of disbelief and that tone but they’re just as funny and punch as hard as a joke on a network family sitcom. This has those same jokes but they’re done in a natural sort of way and come out of the deepest darkest places and need for that tension to be relieved by the characters. So, there’s dark elements in this real, poignant stuff that the actors are all able to execute. But at the same time, within those moments – and like in life – when you have a funeral where you’re euthanizing you’re father (laughs) [in the season 2 finale] there are jokes that need to happen in life for you to be able to deal with that and they put that into the show.

It’s called a comedy, there is some drama but I think Casual strikes the balance that a lot of these streaming shows don’t. You know in some cases, and I don’t want to name shows, but certain cases, it’s over-the-top comedy and it’s just purely comical. There’s no dramatic or realistic undertone and I have a problem relating to those shows. Then on the flip side, there are half hour dramas categorized as comedies where you’re led to be disappointed that there aren’t laughs in the show.

Casual is the perfect balance of both of those and that’s why it was such a pleasure to get to be apart of that and try my hand at doing that which is what I try to do with really any project I do. There’s always a level in there where you can have some fun and make a joke and vice versa always moments in comedies that you can make poignant and dig deeper than you’re average comedian.

H: It makes it a lot more relatable to watch as an audience member as well like you don’t really feel like you’re watching a show rather than someone’s life story. It’s really formed in a way that makes it believable especially with, like you said, that realistic balance of comedy and drama you get from real life.

So, what’s the atmosphere like on set? You said you have prior experience in TV so is filming for a streaming platform like Hulu any different?

AB: Well, I did an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm which is similar to this in tone [as Casual] but it was improv which is a different process with two cameras running at the same time and you do a lot of different takes with a lot of different options. They basically write the show after it’s filmed based on what people come up with and how each scene goes with the actors involved. Before I started doing TV more consistently, I worked pretty entirely in independent film outside of a couple commercials I did. The commercials paid the bills; the independent films were what I felt most passionate about.

That kinship that you sense when you go to a film festival, however big or small, from the artists involved, not just the hype around it if it’s a bigger festival. There is a slightly different way each of those, whether it’s a premium network show or regular network show, they’re run differently and they proceed differently. There may be more money but less time and more pressure. I feel – and I’ve heard this about Hulu too from a writer that used to write for Beauty & the Beast but now writes for The Path – most writers for networks shows write about a month and a half before they start filming so that time is spent trying to arc the season and write the first few episodes so you’re ahead of the curve once they begin filming because then there’s network cuts, edits, a whole post-production process.

It’s a hard grind when you only get a month and a half to do that for a 22 episode season. For Hulu, they’re shorter seasons and for The Path – and I think they do this with Casual too – they had all but two episodes written before they started shooting. It’s kind of crazy that they had like three solid months of just the writers. So, with that in mind, you get that sense on-set, the relaxation, ease, and the stress-free environment is magnified so the work is allowed to live and breathe on it’s own as opposed to “get it and go” and making your day.

It’s not all about the budget – I think time is more valuable than budget – so if, obviously with the shooting budget there’s a certain amount of time that you can’t shoot past or your budget goes but, if you take the time to write out like ten of thirteen episodes before the season even starts filming, then you’re ahead of the game and you can really focus. Zander and Helen are on-set always on Casual which doesn’t happen on a network show because most of those people have to be in the writer’s room writing, reading, and editing drafts. So to have Helen and Zander there every scene that I shot they’d be there seeing what works and what didn’t, editing it, coming to the actors and directors with notes and the idea that they are so involved in the process is a testament to the results of their efforts.

You can see the difference between this show and other shows that probably don’t have that as a factor. To have your executive producer and creator there for every shot of the series is kind of amazing to make sure their vision is coming to fruition so they don’t have to wait until the editing room. Another factor that makes it feel like an independent film is that they actively seek out independent directors and filmmakers. Every year at festivals there’s a kind of new class of filmmakers that come out and yes, they’re doing independent films but Casual is basically like a shortened version of an independent film and they’re going to direct two episodes back to back over the course of a couple weeks, that’s like a short film shoot.

So, they kind of cherry pick all these great directors from the independent film world and plug them right into TV and some of them haven’t even directed TV before. Which doesn’t make a difference because this show is kind of like a shortened dark romantic comedy/independent film just in a half-hour package. The third thing too which I think is important – and I know a lot of shows are doing it – like Glow or Orange is the New Black have a lot of female characters so a lot of the directors will end up being females. There’s a male at the helm of this show (Zander [Lehmann] and Jason Reitman) and they have obviously Helen [Estabrook] and Liz [Tigelaar] but Zander is really the visionary of the show and almost every director this season was a female director.

It’s not because they’re telling female stories, it’s because those directors were the best directors of the films they saw. The idea that, yeah it should matter in a sense if you’re telling a story from the female perspective it’d be nice to have a female director, but if you’re just hiring the best people out there and they happen to be female, that has a lot of value too. Yes, there are female perspectives, Val and Laura but Alex [Tommy Dewey] is a totally male perspective like that middle aged dysfunction. So to have a female be able to tell that story too is a testament those director’s abilities and to the writers and executive producers who are able to put it in the script.

H I think as an audience member too that comes out pretty clear especially having the seasons planned out in advance it feels very smooth and you really get a sense of that when you’re watching so it’s great to hear that’s intentional and that the atmosphere on the set is, well, casual.

AB: Yeah! The first episode I had done, I read two scenes for the audition and only one of the scenes was in the first couple episodes. I knew there were more episodes down the line but I wasn’t sure how the second scene was going to play into the story. I thought they were back to back scenes for the episode and they weren’t. So, at the time, we were filming episode four and they knew what was going to happen in episode ten which was the other scene. The fact that I auditioned with two scenes, one from episode four and one from episode ten that wasn’t a fake scene to see how I could handle certain types of material it was almost word-for-word the final draft of the scene.

So, to be able to have a conversation with Zander and say “so, how do you see this arc?” to understand where this character is going. He was able to clearly explain it so in a sense, I didn’t have to worry about trying to guess what my next step as a character will be. As an actor, you have a point A and a point B and you have to figure out how the character gets there through the writing. So it’s good to know that in advance. I’m the type of actor who likes to know that to start a course to that moment and not anticipate or play it before it’s ready, especially if it’s a reveal moment.

H: That preparedness and passion really shows in the end product and helps everyone do their best work.

Lastly, what I really love about Casual is the portrayal of authentic relationships as well as managing your expectations of such. In addition to that, it’s also a commentary on social media’s affect on those giving it a fresh perspective amongst today’s TV making the series highly relatable. Is there a particular character or moment you find yourself really relating to?

AB: I don’t relate to Alex necessarily in the sense of the ease with which he has had in living in the world he created (the dating app “Snooger”) that he was able to take advantage of in a positive way. I’m kind of a character-y looking guy (laughs) so I never had that experience of casual sex and all that, even in the internet dating world. I relate to the experiences, the dating experiences and encounters of ironically Val of all people just because I’ve had a few internet dates, very few, that just didn’t turn out well.

There’s an experience, and it may just be her actual experience with dating or the awkwardness of it, or the ability of Michaela [Watkins] to be able to play the reality of those moments. Even though we’re both happily married, the idea that she’s playing a character that we can both relate to in the same sense of awkwardness and discomfort that a lot of shows really shed. They take away the doubt people have with every choice they make on a date, insecurities, vulnerability, and it’s the opposite with Casual, they put it in there purposefully because it is present in everything and they just heighten it and make it funny, and even sad sometimes.

But what it comes down to is all that stuff is real. To shy away from that in today’s day and age, there’s no excuse for that. So, to really make an effort to combine those moments that are most awkward and uncomfortable and vulnerable but ultimately relatable is a testament to what the show is. I’m always surprised that it doesn’t get more recognition Emmy wise especially Tommy and Michaela are stand-out among the comedians I’ve seen on TV in regard to what they can do both comedically and dramatically and not sacrifice the reality of the story their telling.

H: It’s also very validating for the audience to see a medium like TV that’s always been so far-fetched to get into this reality of not always having all of your shit together because everyone is on their own life journey figuring stuff out. I’m kind of in the same boat in terms of who I relate to, I find myself relating a lot to Laura [Tara Lynne Barr] and I think it’s really interesting and uncommon that we’re both guys yet find ourselves relating to them instead of Alex. So for a show to be able to do that is just really spectacular.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about Casual with us! It was great to get a peek behind the screen and see the passion behind such a fantastic series. Casual season 3 airs Tuesdays on Hulu and you can catch up on the first two seasons here!