In Amazon’s late 1950s-era comedy series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Alex Borstein’s character Susie Meyerson is first found behind the bar at the Gaslight Cafe, a dive comedy club in New York’s Greenwich Village.
Soon, she’s in the powerful position of determining who gets on stage. After an initial frosty reception—the result of being bribed with a brisket-- Meyerson is wowed by Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a housewife turned comedian played by Rachel Brosnahan, and swiftly decides to become her manager – and her friend.
The two characters stand on the cusp of the women’s revolution, breaking out of traditional societal roles foisted upon them.
While creator Amy Sherman-Palladino crafted the character of Meyerson with Borstein in mind, there was one huge logistical problem. The actress had relocated to Barcelona, yet decided the role in the show, shot in New York, was too good to pass up.
It is perhaps Borstein’s highest-profile role, as many of them on her lengthy list of credits feature her distinctive voice in shows including Fox’s long-running Family Guy, for which she’s been nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards.
Borstein has a vibrant film career, with roles in recent features including The Angry Birds Movie, Love the Coopers and ParaNorman.
It may be a cliché but you could call her a triple-threat. (And she would probably like that.) In addition to voicing and acting, she also writes.
During our conversation, Borstein had this to say about her career: “I started in shitty little plays, some shitty stand-up, shitty sketch comedy and then voiceover. But it's all acting. Which is really just lying for money.”
The fun was just beginning, as can be seen in this very frank discussion about her vast repertoire.
You’ve made your career in comedy, both in animation and live action, but this is more of a dramatic role. Talk to us about the character of Susie Meyerson in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Susie Myerson is a little bulldog. She's kinda built like a Mini Cooper and hugs the road with everything she's got. One of her lines in the pilot perfectly sums her up in that she doesn't mind being alone, she just does not want to be insignificant. She wants to do something with her life that she deems important. And she finds importance in amplifying and calling attention to Midge's voice.
Even as Midge grows and changes, so does Susie - and we are learning about her back story. So tell us about the evolution of the character this season and where she may be headed in Season 2.
Susie evolves a wee bit in Season 1. If she was a tadpole, it would be the equivalent of budding a couple of little feet. The tail is still there, mind you, but she may absorb it in Season 2. Or chew it off if she gets hungry. Susie has always been a hungry creature, I think, but discovering Midge has opened her eyes to a menu. It has given her a drive, a purpose. A definable purpose.
With the role created for you by Amy Sherman-Paladino, tell us about your previous work together.
I have known ASP for about 20 years now, which makes me want to throw up a little. Not because I don't treasure having her in my life but because that's just an indication of how fucking old we are now. The grave is taunting us and it's gonna win.
I first met Dan Palladino while working on Family Guy - he was my boss and a mentor. It was under his watchful eye that I wrote my first produced piece of prime time television. He later introduced me to Amy and I auditioned for Gilmore Girls.
We shot that pilot in a small town in Canada and had so many fun nights together, eating steak dinners and laughing our asses off, we vowed to try to always work together. And here we are 20 years later doing it in New York. I wouldn't have it any other way. She's a brilliant writer, a good friend and an impressive drinker.
Let’s talk more about your experience on the original Gilmore Girls and on the recent Netflix version, A Year in the Life.
Gilmore Girls was a great experience. Amy, Dan and I all got on like shits in a bowel. I loved the opportunity to play multiple characters on the show. That really never happens. But on Gilmore it did.
The Netflix re-boot was a fun ride down memory lane. A little disconcerting that I required less time in make-up to play Miss Celine, but mostly a sweet visit to a galley of great characters all from Amy's sick little brain.
Back to Mrs. Maisel, you have interactions with the Lenny Bruce character in the series. Was he one of your comedy gods – and who are some of the others in the business who have been inspirational to you?
Nope. Lenny Bruce was not a comedy God for me. I had a hard-on for Steve Martin, Gilda Radner, Madeline Kahn, Danny Kaye, Richard Pryor...
One scene that really stuck with me in MMM was when you were on the phone with Midge’s mom, Rose Weissman, and kept giving her different names for yourself. It was both poignant and hilarious.
Midge's mother has some similarities to my mother, namely that she can be intimidating to outsiders. It's fun to play Susie as a bit intimidated, or star struck, as she was when meeting Lenny Bruce. It's like seeing a pit bull making a lot of noise and then coming around a corner to find a fucking horse.
What’s different for you being on a sketch comedy show like MADtv and then being part of a series like Mrs. Maisel?
MADtv was also a scripted show, just not serialized. It was an amazing experience working on that show. The most important things I learned on that show were: 1) not to be too precious about anything that you create; 2) we are all replaceable; 3) comedy is offense by rule and you can't take anything personally.
Working on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is different in that I am not responsible for any of the writing. I just show up and say the words. Or try to, anyway.
Tell us about your work on multiple seasons of Family Guy and what’s in store next - and working with Dan Palladino.
Family Guy is a miracle. It's like the fuckin' Hanukkah of show business. Thought it might last one night and here we are eight days later. I love the show because it still makes me laugh aloud. Every time I record, I laugh. And there is no greater joy than laughing. (Well, maybe eating or screwing while laughing.)
What are some of your fondest memories from being part of Getting On?
Getting On was my first and greatest love. The people, the writing, the tone...it was a rare, gritty and beautiful mess. When it ended it broke my heart. Even though I know the break gave me some interesting architecture deep in there, it still hurt like a motherfucker.
You also did some memorable work on another premium cable show, Shameless.
My time on Shameless came to be after a chance meeting with John Wells. He was working on a project with a neighbor and dear friend of mine and we were introduced in the hall. When he was ready to produce the pilot for Shameless he invited me to work on the show as a writer, but I was very pregnant at the time and had to pass.
Luckily the show went to series and I got the opportunity to work on the first three seasons before Getting On reared its head and stole me away. Writing for Shameless was a privilege and I learned so much in that writer's room. It was a really rich group of people both in front of and behind the screen. And Joan Cusack gave me a bit of life.
What was it like voicing two different characters on Bordertown?
Bordertown was a great but short-lived experience. I knew [executive producer] Mark Hentemann from Family Guy, so the project felt familiar and fun to work on.
Of all the comedies on television, what are some of your current favorites as well as those from the past?
I'm completely out of the loop on new TV shows. Still hoping to catch up on Game of Thrones sometime soon. I'm on Season 6. As for old shows, I Love Lucy still reigns supreme, if you ask me. And the original UK The Office was perfection.
If Mrs. Maisel was set current-day, what might be different with your character and with your “womance” with Midge?
I'm not sure MMM could be set in 2018. I'm afraid it would get lost in translation and lose its charm.
What reactions have you received about the show thus far?
People seem to really like the show. It sounds like the show and main character's optimism are a welcomed escape right now in this dark time of negative horseshit. It's a rose-colored look back at 1958, a year that was certainly no utopia (especially for women and people of color.) The rich characters and visualization of the era are appealing and satisfying to the senses. I'm told it's a great binge.
You are based in Spain now. What is your life there like as an ex-pat?
I'm loving life in Spain these days. Best decision I ever made. (Well, that and the IUD.)