In season one of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Michael Zegen’s character Joel Maisel begins as the loutish, cheating husband who unintentionally puts Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) on her path to comedy fame. He’s briefly, partially redeemed at the end of the first season after he watches her perform a set and recognizes her originality and talent. But Joel is not always popular, either within the series or among a subset of Mrs. Maisel viewers who are frustrated that the show’s second season continues to follow Joel’s story rather than dedicating itself entirely to Midge.
Before the premiere of season two, Zegen talked to Vulture about his own view of Joel’s character, whether Joel and Midge should ever get back together, and whether Joel deserves to be forgiven. This interview contains a few gentle spoilers for the first half of season two, and also lifts the veil on whether Zegen is actually a great bowler. (He is not.)
Joel’s a fascinating side story that happens throughout this show.
Mm-hmm. I think so. Some people don’t, but I think so.
You think some people don’t?
I know some people don’t. They write about it!
What do you find interesting about him as a character?
Part of me thinks he’s the realest character on the show. And that’s not to say anything against anybody else, because I think everybody is fantastic. But I think he’s got many layers to him. You know, he’s sort of made out to be the villain in the first season up until the end. And he was sort of redeemed a little bit. Now, in the second season, I think he’s humanized even a little more.
One thing I’m curious about is how much Joel is or is not changing in this second season. Do you feel like he’s trying to change?
I mean, everything’s happened in such a short period of time, I don’t think there’s going to be huge, sweeping changes to the character, you know what I mean? And I think that’s real, too. He’s flawed, and I love that they explore the fact that he’s flawed. He’s still trying to find something that he’s good at. I mean, he’s not good at stand-up; he hated his job at the plastics company. So the reason I say that he’s the realest character is because he doesn’t know what he wants. I’ve been fortunate in my life that I’ve always known what I wanted, I’ve always wanted to be an actor since I was a little kid, but I have friends who are my age who don’t know what they want. So that’s why I feel like it’s so real.
In the second season, Joel starts picking up the pieces of his parents’ clothing business. Do you think that makes him happy? Is it just a stopgap?
You know, this is in a time where they didn’t have internet or really a lot of stuff on TV, so what’s his alternative? What’s he going to do? He cares about his parents obviously, and the factory is going under, so it’s his responsibility, and he takes it upon himself to take charge. Whether or not that’s his career path, I don’t know. But at least it gives him something to do in the meantime.
So you don’t think Joel wants to become his father, at the end of the day?
I don’t think so.
What is that clothing-factory set like? It’s so beautiful and busy. Where is it?
There are two places. There’s one in Brooklyn, which is real. Martin Greenfield — he’s a clothing manufacturer; he designs suits. He’s designed suits for presidents; he actually designed suits for Boardwalk Empire, which is the other show that I did. And the funny thing is that most of the extras who are in those scenes are actual employees of the factory.
Yeah! And then they built a section of the factory on one of the soundstages, in Brooklyn, at Steiner Studios.
When you’re there filming, are the extras behind you actually making clothes in real time?
Kind of, yeah? I think so? I don’t think they’re making actual clothing people are going to be wearing. Perhaps they are? To be honest, I don’t really know. But you know there are, like, those steamers, and they’re pressing things over and over again. They’re not really making stuff, probably, but it looks like they are. And hopefully they’re getting paid more than they would normally. But they seem to enjoy it!
What kind of direction were you given from the beginning about how to play Joel and who he is? One of the interesting things about him is that his job is really to define what Midge isn’t going to be anymore. Was that ever frustrating?
No, I embraced playing this antagonist. Playing a villain is the most fun you can have being an actor. And to be honest, I didn’t know that they were going to try to redeem him in the end. I thought he was supposed to be the villain. Especially in the first episode, because that’s really all I had to go by. Going into it, I embraced the part of the villain. And there’s a scene in episode three, I think, where he says to Midge, “I’ve decided I want to give it another go.” And I was like, “Aww, man, the audience is going to hate him.” But I love that! I was like, “Yeah, this is going to be fun!” But then little by little … and it wasn’t something that they took me aside and were like, “Hey, he’s not going to be the villain forever.” It wasn’t anything like that. You just go script to script and kind of evolve along as you play the character from scene to scene. You just kind of go with it. The beauty is that the writing is so wonderful, and clearly Amy [Sherman-Palladino] and Dan [Palladino] had an idea for the arc of the character. They didn’t share it with me. And to be honest, I sort of appreciate that. I don’t need them to tell me anything, or what’s going to happen. I like being surprised.
Do you think he and Midge are going to get back together eventually? Do you want that to happen?
I don’t know! I don’t think right now they should get back together. I think he cheated on her, and he needs to pay the price for that. A lot of people say to me, “Oh, I hope you and Midge get back together,” and I’m always shocked by that. Because if somebody did that to me, I’d be pretty pissed off! I don’t know if I’d be able to forgive that person. It hasn’t happened to me, knock on wood, but I don’t know if I would be able to forgive and forget. So I’m always surprised when people tell me, “Oh, I’m rooting for you guys.” It’s like, really? But on the other hand, they did get married at a very young age, they met at a young age, they had kids at a young age, so I guess part of it is understandable in a way? But, not really.
So I don’t know if they should get back together. Maybe someday. Maybe someday down the line they’ll both grow up, or at least he’ll grow up. But I think by that point she’ll be too big for him.
Yeah, the show seems to be going in this direction where she’s on one track and he’s kind of left without knowing what to do. Do you think about that when you think about playing him?
Yeah, whether it’s her career or whether she starts dating other people, I think there’s going to be that jealousy factor, and there’s more of that in season two, especially in the second half.
Joel gives a speech about forgiveness when he’s standing next to Zachary Levi’s character Benjamin, watching the fireworks. Do you think we’re supposed to understand Joel as regretting the cheating, in that moment?
Yes, I think he’s always wished it didn’t happen. He regrets it immensely. He’s the reason why she’s on this career path; if he hadn’t cheated on her, she’d still be at home taking care of the kids. Well, they don’t really take good care of their kids.
They really don’t.
But he was the catalyst for this whole show, for the most part. So, yeah, I think he regrets it immensely.
Do you think he’s hoping he can be forgiven? I’m so curious about how frustrating it must be for him to be left behind.
I think he knows it’s impossible for him to be forgiven. I don’t think he’s forgiven himself.
The whole Catskills set is so impressive — there’s a whole scene where you have to be bowling. Did you have to practice to make that work?
Well, they have this thing called CGI. [Laughs.] It’s funny because they actually did set it up so the pins would fall down at the same time — they pull the string and the pins would all fall down. But I had to get it sort of down the middle. And I did take a bowling lesson. I mean, I’d bowled at birthday parties, but I wanted to learn proper form, so I did have a lesson from a friend. But we were doing the scene, and it was a very old bowling alley. It was at the resort, and I think they knew it was there; that’s why they wrote the scene. But it was such an old bowling alley that the wood was warped, so it was almost impossible to get it down the middle. So they actually did CGI. Which I didn’t know! I was doing ADR [rerecording dialogue post-shooting], and I had to add a line to that scene, and as I was watching I was like, “Whoa, did I get that?” And they were like, “No, no, no, they CGI’d that.”