Michael Showalter ’92 enjoys the rare distinction of having directed two actresses to Oscar and Emmy awards within the same year. In 2022, Jessica Chastain won her Best Actress Oscar for the Showalter-helmed televangelist movie The Eyes of Tammy Faye. A few months later, Showalter picked up an Emmy nomination of his own for directing “Outstanding Actress” Amanda Seyfried in The Dropout, an Apple TV + series about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.
Speaking from Atlanta, where he’s been working with Oscar winner Anne Hathaway on the upcoming single mother-meets-younger-hunk dramedy The Idea of You, Showalter ponders his hot streak as a woman’s director par excellence. “I grew up in a household where my mother was a major academic, a major feminist, so I was exposed throughout my childhood to smart, complicated women who were not following the script society provided them,” Showalter says. “Now, when I work with a great actress like Jessica Chastain or Anne Hathaway, they sense that I have no agenda other than to help them go as deep into the work as they’re willing to go.”
Before mainstream Hollywood came calling, writer-actor-director Showalter, raised in Princeton by professor parents, specialized in “absurdist” comedy rooted in his antics as a member of the IMPROVidence sketch troupe he joined at Brown after transferring from NYU. “It was an enormous honor to be part of that group,” Showalter recalls. “We did weekly shows at Sullivan Hall, all over campus.” Initially, Showalter says, “I thought I’d probably go to graduate school and get into teaching cinema studies or something because that was the family business. But while I was at Brown, I sort of decided that I wanted to be a performer and an actor.”
After graduation, Showalter returned to New York with a degree in semiotics. “I loved applying semiotics to my comedy, looking at the way messages are given to and received by an audience,” he says. Showalter pushed the limits of high-concept silliness by writing and performing in The State, the sketch group’s eponymous MTV series. He cowrote and acted in the 2001 teen movie spoof Wet Hot American Summer, costarred in Comedy Central’s show Stella, cocreated quirky dark comedy Search Party, and collaborated on numerous cult-popular shows. In 2017, Showalter directed his first hit, The Big Sick. “That was a game changer,” says Showalter, whose most recent project, gay rom-com-turned-tragedy Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies, opened in December and now streams on Peacock. “The transition from comedy to what I’m doing now is that in something like Stella, the comedy came out of doing a dramatic scene and putting it in quote marks, winking at the audience. Now, I’ve simply removed the quotes. Same themes, only I’m doing them earnestly.”