Spoilers for the first five episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season 2.
Abe Weissman, the ultimate stern Jewish father from the Upper West Side, cuts loose in the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and not just by exercising in a romper. He travels to Paris to chase after his wife Rose (Marin Hinkle), who suddenly deserts him, and then picks up a new Parisian lifestyle that involves arguing in cafés and wearing berets. Then, he journeys back to the Catskills, where his family always vacations for the summer, where he terrorizes the staff, drinks his tomato juice, and does his morning calisthenics on the dock. Abe loves his routine, but his daughter’s attempts to launch a career in stand-up comedy throw him off balance, and he doesn’t know how to cope when he learns what’s going on. For Shalhoub, the lesson of the season was, “You can’t go home again. You can’t go to the Catskills.”
Though Abe’s gripes and obsessions can sometimes seem silly, Shalhoub brings it all to life with great dedication, especially the parts where Abe drinks too much on vacation. Shalhoub won a Tony this year for The Band’s Visit, and his steady career of character and lead roles in movies, theater, and TV has won the affection of (a certain corner of) the internet. Vulture sat down with the actor to discuss shooting Maisel in Paris and the Catskills, the man he used as inspiration for Abe, and how he feels about the attention he’s gotten recently.
What was it like to go to Paris to shoot this season?
Paris is, I think, my favorite city in the world. It’s just so beautiful. We were there for three weeks and my wife came along on the trip, too, so in our downtime we had a lot of adventures. And great food. We had some of our crew, but a lot of French crew, too. It’s not too difficult to re-create Paris in the 1950s, much more difficult to do it in New York. There, it’s timeless. For Marin, for her character and my character, it was kind of rekindling a bit of the romance that was probably in the earlier part of their marriage.
There’s a brief scene where Abe and Rose dance along the Seine surrounded by all these dancers. How were you able to film that?
It was the most beautiful night. One of the ways it was possible is that we started at midnight or something, so there weren’t a lot of people around. They brought in all these dancers that were playing the background, and they were all so fun and elegant, and everyone was just speaking French and smoking. It was an extraordinary experience. And working in these old cafés, they didn’t even have to dress these places very much. It served to sort of transport us back in time and make our job really easy.
There’s a wonderful scene where Abe meets all these philosopher friends and wears a beret, too.
I loved that. All of a sudden, Abe’s smoking a pipe and drinking absinthe. I like to have this opportunity to just shake that all out and do things that I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, have predicted, but also to be perfectly suitable, and then they sort of fit when you think about it. He’s a sophisticated, intelligent guy. We got to work with some fantastic actors. They were bringing us these guest stars who were the best people in the French theater, and people who had their own series. Ah, it was a real privilege.
What do you think allows Abe to convince Rose to come back?
When we first see him in Paris, he’s so resistant and he really feels that she’s unraveling and losing it. Then he realizes over time that she’s doing this for her own survival. He has to give in to that and indulge her. But I think the only way he can convince her to come home is if he gives her that space and he gives her that time and that attention, and they step off of the treadmill of their lives back in New York and try to reestablish what drew them together in the first place.
It’s interesting because the Palladinos tend to write characters that are so unsentimental and who don’t or can’t express what they’re feeling. What is that like to act?
It’s almost what’s played and what’s said between the lines, and behind the eyes. But as with all long marriages — I mean, probably Rose and Abe have been married close to 30 years — they know each other, or think they know each other too well, and inevitably that sort of complacency sets in. You have to play it between the words. I guess there’s no other way to say it.
The show shifts into another different mood when it goes to the Catskills and everyone is on vacation and Abe relaxes a little bit. Tell me about shooting that.
This resort that they found is really like going back in time. It was one of these old places that was never updated or upgraded, and it was just an amazing environment to be in. If I understand this correctly, Dan [Palladino] and Amy [Sherman-Palladino] went and scouted this location very early on. I think even in season one, and then they wrote to the location. They figured, “Okay, we have a room here with some old bowling alleys. We’ll write a scene for bowling.” And the story, or the actual episodes, kind of grew out of that particular location, which is why I think it feels so organic and so right.
The fifth episode ends with a scene where Abe sees Midge perform for the first time, and he thinks, What is my daughter doing? How did you approach that scene?
I think there’s a point in many families’ lives where a parent, or in reverse, a child sees the parent as their own separate person aside from the parent-child relationship. But I have to say, what I remember most about that scene, playing that scene, is watching Rachel do that stand-up bit. I think acting students for many years will study that performance of hers. She is just extraordinary. I was sitting in the audience and I knew I was supposed to be reacting, but when the camera wasn’t on me, I was stunned.
Right, because you hadn’t seen her film any stand-up before since you aren’t in those scenes.
Just watching one actor to another, how she carved that performance out, was just … it’s seared in my brain.
You won the Tony for The Band’s Visit this spring, and you’re on this show that has gotten a bunch of Emmy attention this year. Does it feel like you’re in the midst of a moment?
Well, I’ve been doing this a long time, so I’ve always seen it as a roller coaster. I try not to get too precious about when things are really at a high point. You can’t ever put too much stock in it because I never know the possibility of what’s right around the corner. It could be a turn or a gigantic drop. The best part of all of this is that it’s a great show, great material, challenging for actors. The best part of it is the camaraderie and the friendships that have been formed in just the last year and a half, two years, with this group of people
Were there things about Abe that you wanted to see more of coming back into the second season?
As we get to the end of season two, we start to get a glimpse into what Abe was like when he was younger, and how his life turned and twisted and landed him in the position he’s in. I don’t know this because I haven’t been told specifics, but I think in season three we’re going to learn a lot more. I’m going to learn a lot more about Abe’s past and his upbringing and his passions when he was younger. I’m really looking forward to that.
I talked to Marin about the women she’s known who reminded her of Rose. Are there people you have taken inspiration from for Abe?
When I was at the drama school at Yale in my 20s, the dean of the school and the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theater, Robert Brustein, was a scholar and a writer, director, and an actor for a while, too. He was my mentor. Before Yale, he taught at Columbia, like Abe, and just a very brilliant, sophisticated, well-traveled, well-read scholar. I sort of thought, Well, this is a chance to channel some of my mentor. He was a father figure, too, and has stayed a friend through all these years. Now he’s, I think, in his early 90s and still going, still working. That’s someone that I want — I would like to see Abe have that kind of longevity and passion.
Has he seen the show?
Oh, I think he has seen the show. I hope he likes it.
After going to Paris, Rose and Abe try to shift back into their old relationship when they go back to New York and to the Catskills, but it feels like things aren’t quite fitting. What did you make of their dynamic in those episodes?
I think you’re right. Here we are, we’re going back into our routine of how we spend our summers, and seeing people that we would only see there, and doing things that we would only do there. Abe with his workout and his tomato juice and all of that — and more drinking. Lots more drinking in the Catskills. Because it’s summer and he’s not working. I think what’s so nice about these three Catskills episodes is that we’re all trying to recover and hold on to the past and our routines, and it’s not possible. We’re caught between that desire for what was, or we imagined was, so perfect, and the reality of … times have changed, people have changed, our circumstances have changed. It can never be the same. You can’t go home again. You can’t go to the Catskills.
What’s the right approach to playing drunk?
Try not to drink. No, I think for me, it’s really just removing all kinds of filters that we impose on ourselves, societal rules, and it’s just loosening everything up.