Those lucky enough to live in New York right now have the chance to sample two very different, eye-catching Tony Shalhoub performances. In Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, he plays Abe Weissman, the Ur-1950s New York Jewish father, whose daughter’s antics drive him up the wall and distract him from his two favorite hobbies, playing the piano and talking about math. In the Broadway musical The Band’s Visit, based on the film of the same name, Shalhoub plays Tewfiq, a restrained, pained conductor of an Egyptian concert band who gets stuck in a middle-of-nowhere Israeli town and develops a moving bond with a woman played by Katrina Lenk. Vulture caught up with the actor over the phone to find out what sold him on Mrs. Maisel, how he was convinced to do a musical, and why he loves roles where he can fail.
Let’s start with The Band’s Visit. You sing in the show, and as far as I can tell, you haven’t sung onstage before. What drew you to it?
This goes back a few years now. I was first approached by Tom Hulce, who’s a big producer. We’d been friends for a while. He approached me with this idea, and that’s when Hal Prince was involved — Hal Prince was the director early on. I tried to convince Tom that he had the wrong guy, that I’m not really a musical guy, but he wouldn’t listen. They talked me into doing a workshop. It was a couple of workshops, a lot of me pouting and ranting, and here I am and I’m having the time of my life.
When did you realize that it would all come together?
It was about a week ago. No, I guess when we were doing it Off Broadway and we started to get into the early previews, and we just became very aware of the impact it was having on audiences. We were hearing reactions that you rarely hear, saying that this is one of those rare things that comes along every once in a while, and it’s unexpected, and that it’s a respite that people seem to need right now in the face of everything that’s going on in the world and in politics in our countries.
The show takes place in a politically charged region, with an Egyptian band coming to Israel, but it’s not about politics.
No, it’s really not. It wants to set politics aside — please, God, a moment — because we can’t seem to get away from it now. It pervades everything. In a sense, it’s inevitably political. Even by virtue of the fact that it’s not about politics, and really, isn’t that a refreshing perspective on politics?
You started previews right around the time of the presidential election. Now, you’re on Broadway and we’re solidly in the Trump era. Have reactions to the show changed?
Yes, for us, certainly. I remember when we were at the Atlantic [Off Broadway], one of the days in tech was Election Day, and we all left the theater very late and went to a watering hole around the corner where we could watch the results, and all of a sudden we realized we’re in a different play now. It was an important play because it resonated and all of that, but it’s shifted significantly. Today, more than a year later, it’s again a different play. It’s just a relentless Rubik’s Cube of trying to reconcile what’s going on in the world with what we’re doing on that stage. There’s no one in that audience that can see this piece without thinking about the current situation. Yet, when we get to the end, we feel somewhat gratified that there’s a hopeful message.
The character you play, Tewfiq, is such a closed-off person. How did you find a way into him? How much did you look at the film?
I saw the film when it first came out, long before I knew there was going to be a musical. I was impressed by it, but I didn’t want to check in with it too much because I like to try to create things from the ground up. But I was impressed, by the stillness and kind of softness of this character. It was, for me, a little bit of going outside my comfort zone because I tend to wanna do things with a little more flash. I try to squeeze whatever joke or comment there might be out of it. But [director] David Cromer, he said, “This is something where we really just wanna get in touch with the inner life of this guy, and you don’t need to adorn it in any way.” I had to trust that.
You’re also in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, doing a very different kind of performance in a talky Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino show. How did you get involved in that?
They approached me and I loved the pilot. I had a long conversation with Amy and Dan about where this character might go in terms of the story. I always loved their sensibility, and I have to say, the fact that it’s 1958. I just loved going into another period. I feel like I was born in the wrong time.
Abe Weissman is such a specific portrait of an Upper West Side upper-class Jewish father. Did you do much research for it?
I didn’t really have to do research. I modeled the character somewhat after my father, even though my father was not Jewish, but I have a lot of friends that I went to college with who were. I drew from everyone’s father. In fact, one of my best friends, his father’s name was Abe. Then, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan and their writing team, it’s hard to go off course with their words.
What were your conversations like about Abe’s larger arc?
I think just the idea that there would be a broad arc. It’s not just Midge who’s going through a large change. Abe’s a conventional guy; he’s set in his ways — this is what men do, this is what women do, this is what parents do — and yet they assured me that he was going to be part of this changing landscape, and he was going to have to make certain adjustments.
You play a Jewish father on Mrs. Maisel, your character is Egyptian in The Band’s Visit, and you’ve played Italian characters in films like Big Night. How have you learned to move between these different accents and backgrounds?
I’ve been lucky that even when I was younger, just because of my look or whatever, I was afforded the opportunity or called on to try. “Can you do this Hispanic character?” “Can you do this Italian character?” “Can you do this Jewish-American character?” I just had to develop a facility for their accents. A lot of years doing that, I guess.
It’s rare to see such a developed character from an Arabic background onstage, or in anything American. How does it feel to portray that sort of role?
It’s great! You’re right, it is rare to see, and to hear Middle Eastern music — Israeli-style music and Arabic music onstage at the same time. I think the last time that happened was never. I know there are a lot of people in our cast who spent significant amounts of time in Israel. They speak Hebrew, and they couldn’t be more proud to bring these characters and to speak these words on a Broadway stage. It would be wonderful if it leads to more.
You’ve done a bit of stage work recently. Do you feel like you’ve gravitated more toward it?
Before I did any television or film, I did years and years of theater. Television and film stuff, even though it went on for a good, healthy number of years, almost felt like a diversion from theater. So now, I feel like I’ve landed back here in the last several years. But I still have the Amazon series to do, so I have the best of both worlds. And I did a film Stanley Tucci directed that is coming out in the spring called Final Portrait, which is about [Alberto] Giacometti, with Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer. We’ve been friends for a long time. Actually, even before Big Night, I first worked with Stanley in the theater. He was a fantastic stage actor when I lived in New York, because we were both kicking around doing plays.
What sorts of projects are you interested in now?
I want to stay on this track of doing projects that seem to be out of my comfort zone. That’s what The Band’s Visit was all about. I felt like there was a distinct possibility that I could fail big and fall flat on my face, but I was at a point in my life where I thought, “Eh, this is probably a good time for that.” As it turns out, I did come out the other side, and I’m so happy I did it. Maybe one day I’ll get lucky and fail monstrously.
Your Band’s Visit co-star Katrina Lenk has a small role in Mrs. Maisel. How did that come about?
I had already done the pilot of Mrs. Maisel by the time we were doing the Off Broadway production at the Atlantic, and so Amy and Dan, being loyal and supportive, came to see The Band’s Visit. I don’t even think they saw me in the actual play, they just saw her. They became enamored with her, met her afterward, and then because of that, they went to see Indecent — which she did on Broadway — and they loved her in that. I didn’t have to do any arm-twisting or persuading. They just said, “You think Katrina would come and do a part on our show?” and I said, “Sure, why not?” I have a feeling that character might come back. Dan and Amy saw the Band’s Visit again on Broadway last week and got to see her again, and they’re as enamored with her as you could be with anybody. How could you not be?
You were in Monk for so long. Do people still recognize you from it, or expect you to be like him?
They do, which is surprising to me because Monk ended over eight years ago, but I guess people do watch it in reruns and so on. I feel like I look so different and I’m older, but people remember it. I think they expect me to be like that character. People will ask me if I want a wipe and all that. I guess that character loomed large in my career, but I just think of it as one of many things that I did. I try to do other characters that are different from Monk, obviously, because I’d like to be remembered for more than just that. Abe is such a departure from that character, I’m hoping The Marvelous Mrs. Marvel helps to unravel that image a bit.