Finding the perfect balance between drama and comedy in Hulu’s “Casual” was a challenge for actor Austin Basis, whose resume includes stints on The CW’s “Beauty and the Beast” and ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder.”
Basis, a Coney Island native, appears in season 3 of the dramedy as Valerie’s (Michaela Watkins) newest drinking buddy Ethan — a big contrast from his “How to Get Away With Murder” role as a man who took a selfie with an escort’s body before calling 911.
“Well, it’s certainly different than getting slapped in the face by Emmy- and Oscar-winner Viola Davis,” Basis, 40, said in an email interview, comparing his ABC his character (who was hit by lawyer Annalise Keating) to Ethan.
In “Casual,” Basis’ character offers an extra dose of comedic relief and liquid courage after meeting Val at a screenwriting course at the UCLA Extension in episode 4, “The Sprout.” Ethan quickly becomes Val’s go-to after he finds out she’s hooking up with much-younger classmate Byron, played by former “Gossip Girl” actor Chace Crawford.
Working on a series that combines intense life moments — like divorce, midlife crises and the death of a parent — and humor “was very different and quite the adjustment,” Basis said.
“I had to be able to roll with various factors on the fly, unlike I’ve had to do as a series regular on the previous dramas I have done.”
Basis said his improv experience on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in 2009 was perhaps the best preparation for his work on the Hulu series. Directors and producers often made on-the-spot adjustments to loosely scripted scenes, requiring Basis to stay “on my toes and remain loose throughout the whole process.”
Basis, who appeared in the season’s penultimate episode Tuesday, looked back on his role alongside Watkins and shared what’s in store for the future.
The season finale of “Casual” will be available for streaming on Aug. 1.
What interested you in the role?
It was actually because I was a fan of the show. My love has to do with the ability of the writers, directors, cast & crew to capture the darkest parts of human relationships and our awkward existence, and make them funny. The moments are situational, like in the best comedies, but also real, like in the best dramas. We’re really in a golden age for television, and “Casual” is an example of that excellence. The show is both funny and dark — sometimes at the same time. Michaela Watkins, Tommy Dewey and the rest of the cast bring it all together with amazingly subtle, yet spontaneous performances. It’s one of the few shows on that makes me laugh out loud every episode. Even if I wasn’t in Season 3, I’d still love “Casual.”
What draws Ethan and Valerie together this season?
They met at a storytelling class and the rest is history. I think they connected because they share a pessimism and cynicism that they both disguise as humor. Ethan is much more content with his lot in life than Valerie is. She’s still adjusting to her middle-aged, post-divorce existence. I think Ethan has also given Val some great advice that has helped her on her journey this season. Ethan will continue to do that as they get closer.
How was working alongside Watkins?
Michaela was a doll to work with. (If she reads this, she’ll enjoy that.) She is one of those comedic actresses who can seamlessly navigate the fine line between comedy and tragedy. The best comedy comes out of tragedy or tragic moments, but when you’re playing for the laugh or the punchline, the drama tends to get lost. Michaela doesn’t do that. Mel Brooks said “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” This is what Michaela does every week. She falls into an open sewer and dies, and it’s hysterical. So, needless to say, working with her was a blast.
Did your dynamic continue off-screen?
We had some friends in common and we shared a similar approach to the work, so we hit it off from the beginning. We ran lines before our scenes, sometimes while she walked her dog “Jeff” (yes, her dog’s name is Jeff!) — so I knew she was also serious about getting the best out of every moment, every joke, every character interaction. It was truly an honor to work with her, and I hope to do it again real soon.
Next up, you’re working on an independent cartoon-hybrid series, “Not Your Buddy,” that follows the life of a struggling actor. Are there any personal parallels here from your past?
Of course. They say, “use what you know,” and out of that came the creative expression of my experience — and hopefully some comedy, as well. As an unemployed actor whose show [“Beauty and the Beast”] got canceled, I’d say [my character and I are]pretty much the same guy. We added the fictitious idea that my wife kicked me out, and that my friends and fans had abandoned me, so that the character of “Austin” could be at a rock-bottom place he needed to climb out of. Buddy T. Bearcat (Austin’s animated roommate) doesn’t help that situation at all. He actually makes it worse.
Has being a Brooklyn native helped shape your career?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Brooklyn was a great place to grow up and learn about the world. As a kid who loved the limelight and dressing up for Halloween all year-round, some of my earliest experiences imitating all the crazy characters that frequented the streets of Sea Gate and Coney Island provided me with the building blocks of who I am today, as an actor and a performer. I know for a fact that when people see a character on stage or on screen and say, “that can’t be a real person” or “there’s no way that person exists,” ... trust me: They do, and they live in Brooklyn.