A decade ago, Alex Borstein was nearly a regular fixture on an Amy Sherman-Palladino TV show: She played Sookie in the original Gilmore Girls pilot, but scheduling conflicts got in the way, and it wasn’t until The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel that the two friends were reunited. Sherman-Palladino wrote the role of Susie, a butch employee at the Gaslight Café turned manager of Rachel Brosnahan’s Midge Maisel, with Borstein in mind. The only problem? After HBO cancelled Getting On, Borstein decided to take a break from acting and move to Europe. But after Sherman-Palladino sent over the Maisel script, “Of course I loved it and I texted her, ‘Fuck you, now what do I do?’” Borstein said. “I couldn’t possibly say no to it because I don’t know if anything like this would ever come up again.”
With that, Borstein, who’s best known for her role on MADtv and for being the voice of Lois on Family Guy, is back on TV. The actress spoke to Vulture about collaborating with her old friends the Palladinos, what stand-up was like in the 1950s, and why it’s fun to play a woman who isn’t trying to appease anyone.
One of my favorite scenes in Mrs. Maisel comes in the fourth episode, when Midge and Susie watch the different styles of ’50s stand-up. What’s it like to look at comedy from that angle?
That scene with the ventriloquist dummy? That’s my favorite scene in the whole series. That made me laugh so hard every take. Having done stand-up, it’s so nice to not have the pressure of it and just sit back and watch everyone else suffer.
When I started doing it, people at clubs would say, “Well, you’re very funny but I can’t book you, you don’t have enough jokes per minute.” Then, they were like, “You’re more of an alternative storyteller and you’d have to go to a special alternative night.” Now, it’s blended. You’ve got a lot of people that are telling stories, doing characters, then there’s a joke, then there’s a character. In the ’50s, it seemed to be more separate. This is a joke guy, this is a political guy, this is a character person.
Did you research the era for the part?
No, they had to do all that research, thank God. It’s so nice not being responsible for the writing. I listened to a lot more Lenny Bruce, because I’d known a little bit of his work but not tons, so I really wanted to learn more about him. I did a movie several years ago called Good Night and Good Luck and I did a lot of ’50s research then, so I was able to be lazy on this and hold over.
But it’s very cool getting to bring it back to life and see how relevant it all still is, that women are still having to work doubly hard in this male world. Both comedy and otherwise, nothing’s changed and yet everything’s changed. We’ve got people like Amy Schumer filling stadiums and changing the economic dynamic of women in comedy, and Bridesmaids and Melissa McCarthy, but it’s always good to look back and see how little has changed and how much more work there still is to do.
Especially in the wake of the Louis C.K. scandal, and discussions about sexual harassment in Hollywood in general, people have talked about the limited roles for women in comedy. It’s cool for Midge to get a female mentor like Susie, who seeks her out and gives her guidance.
Yeah. Susie knew she liked this business and knew she liked picking talent out of it, but I don’t know if she ever thought she could effectively manage until she saw Midge. It’s unheard of that she’s doing this stream of conscious [act] from a female point of view. She’s honestly talking about a divorce in the ’50s, and sex, and she’s talking about liking sex. I’m like, who is this creature?
Women are much more fearful of saying no to anything, in work and in life. Women are afraid to not appease and not be a pleaser. Midge and Susie are so interesting and so fun to play because they’re both women learning to say no and learning not to appease and decide, “What do I want? How do I want my future to look?”
Why do you think Susie is so interested in comedy?
I mean, she’s dark. She’s part of this counterculture. She works at the Gaslight, which isn’t just comedy — there’s spoken word, there’s poetry, and there’s music, so she’s a part of that Bohemian world. I think, being quick-witted and being dark and being sarcastic, she just bent toward comedy and realized very quickly she had an eye for it.
Some people have asked me, “Do you think she’ll ever do stand-up?” I think she’d be terrified to actually be vulnerable on stage. I think Susie prefers being a Salieri instead of a Mozart.
What’s it like to watch the stand-up as performed on the show?
The hardest thing in the world to depict dramatically is stand-up. That was my biggest worry going into the series. Any time you shoot a live stand-up show on camera, it’s altered. It’s like a photograph of a painting — you’ve seen it, but it’s just not the same thing as visiting the Louvre and just looking at the Mona Lisa’s eyes. Dan and Amy did a really wise thing in creating a character who does stream of consciousness storytelling instead of jokes because that would have been impossible. It miraculously translates so well.
And Rachel is a great performer,
She’s great, and she’s not attacking it like a stand-up, which I think is making it more successful.
What do you mean by that?
We just did an interview together and she retold the time that I told her, “You have a leg up performing this for the camera because you’ve never done clubs.” When she’s performing for the camera with no real audience and pretending there’s an audience, she doesn’t know how impossible that is, or how devastating that is. If I’m going to do a set and I run the material in my bathroom, it’s never a true depiction of what the material is because it’s all about the audience.
So, the instant feedback and the energy?
You’re riding a wave with them and it’s musical. It’s like improvising music. Because she didn’t have that baggage of having done clubs, I think it made it easier for her to dramatize it.
You’ve known Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino for a long time. What’s it like to be a regular on one of their shows?
It is different being a regular. It’s demanding. I’m terrible at learning lines. I’m good at learning lines when I don’t have to be word perfect. When I worked on Getting On, it was enough to have the general gist and you could alter the order of something. But working with them is such a pleasure. It’s so nice going into battle with a leader you trust. They know exactly what they want and are very good at communicating what they want. They’re both great writers as well as directors, so you feel really well supported.
We have a shorthand, being friends with them and trusting them for 20 years. Amy doesn’t have to wear kid gloves around me. She could just be like, “You’re doing something weird with your face there, stop it.” We can be callous with each other, which is kind of fun.
Do you ever push back with them?
There’s always moments within scenes where I disagree, but in terms of the grand scheme of who Susie is, no, we’re on the same page. My biggest worry is I want to make sure she’s not just the same brash. I want to try to color it with some vulnerability, because otherwise you’re just an asshole.
Are there aspects of Susie or Midge’s careers that you relate to?
I think there’s a lot of me in Susie and Midge. When I was doing stand-up, there were a lot of things I talked about that seemed very silly, but were therapeutic. I’ve always felt like an outsider as a woman. I’ve never really felt wholly comfortable in a women’s world or woman’s things. I’ve never been conventionally pretty or thin or girly-girl. Never felt dateable. All I’ve seen on TV has never felt like mine. I felt akin to Susie in those ways, but there’s differences too. Susie is a little more isolated than I’ve ever been. She doesn’t need any human contact and I do.
Her tiny apartment with the Murphy bed tells us so much.
Isn’t that sad and wonderful? All at once. What does a person really need? Not much. What does a person want? The world.
Did you ever have any Susies of your own in your life?
My grandmother and my mother are Susies, in a sense. I’ve had, not my own agents and managers, but met agents and managers and club owners along the way. An improv teacher that I had that was very much that same kind of brassy vulgar. She’s an amalgamation of a lot of people.
She’s a classic pusher, I guess.
She is, but she doesn’t push for push’s sake. She’s got something that people want and she’s fighting for something she believes in. I think Midge could be perfectly satiated every weekend doing a show at the Gaslight. Susie is the one who is hungry to make a name, to build something. [For] Midge, the actual art form is interesting, getting up there and telling truths. But I think Susie’s really the ambitious one. Not for the money and not for fame, but for the power and having control of her own life.
Speaking of Getting On, are there any types of roles that you find yourself seeking out?
Some of it has been me saying no to some things. I’m never offered anything, but not going on certain auditions because I’m not interested, it’s boring to me or typical. I’ve just been so lucky in the writing of Getting On and this. Lois on Family Guy is completely different, too. She turns the typical sitcom mom on its head and gets to be dark.
When Getting On ended and it broke my heart, I thought, “I’m not going to do anything else.” I picked up I moved to Europe. Amy said, “I got this thing, I know this is going to complicate your life because it’s going to be in New York. Will you read it? I wrote it with you in mind.” Part of me didn’t even want to read it, because I knew if I read it, I’d want to do it. I read it and of course I loved it and I texted her, “Fuck you, now what do I do?” I couldn’t possibly say no to it because I don’t know if anything like this would ever come up again.
If it’s written with you in mind …
It’s funny, when I auditioned for Gilmore Girls, I played Sookie. Amy had written that with someone else in mind, and when it came down to testing in the pilot, she ended up going with me. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get the part when she writes it for you. You never know.
And then you weren’t able to do Gilmore Girls.
I couldn’t do it. It probably worked out for the best, because the trajectory of what I got to do during that time was pretty amazing. It would have been great, I’m sure, to be Sookie, but you never know.
It was because you were doing MADtv at that time, right?
I was doing MADtv so I couldn’t do it at the same time. But when I auditioned for Gilmore Girls, I met Amy and her manager producer at that time, Gavin [Polone]. I developed two pilots with Gavin and that set my career off as a writer as well, so I’m pretty happy. I don’t think I would have done that if I was doing Gilmore Girls.