Joel is the catalyst for everything we’ve seen in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Way back in the first season, his affair and abandonment are what encouraged his now-ex-wife, Midge, to give stand-up comedy a try, and we now know how lucratively that turned out for her. But in the ensuing seasons, he seemed to have earnestly taken to the Pearl Jam method of redemption, acting as an audience surrogate of sorts while he established a popular nightclub and dealt with goings-on between the Maisels and the Weissmans. He wasn’t there for the bullshit, you know?
Then it all comes crashing down in this week’s “The Pirate Queen.” In a flash-forward to 1987, an aging Joel is serving a prison sentence and getting a much-needed visit from Midge. (“The only battles here are over sections of the Financial Times,” he jokes.) While it’s unclear why he’s behind bars, the warmth between the duo hasn’t dimmed — a recurring theme this season as Joel and his intuition continue to question why “fucking mobsters” are in Midge’s business orbit. Michael Zegen says that all of our Joel questions will be answered in due time, but until then, we can talk about his prison appearance and how Joel and Midge are “soul mates.”
Do you sometimes think you’re playing a totally different character than in the first season?
I do. It’s like that thing where you watch the pilot of Seinfeld and everybody’s completely different than where they ended up. I do see a bit of that, but I think it’s a testament to Amy Sherman-Palladino, Dan Palladino, and their writing. Characters evolve, and Joel is obviously no exception. I mean, he really evolved. He’s pretty much a completely different person.
In what ways?
When we first met him, he was really despicable. He cheated on Midge, this character that everybody fell in love with immediately. It was hard to win back an audience after they see something like that. But I’m unsure if that was truly who Joel was. The audience caught him in this moment in life where he wasn’t happy and he acted out because of that. I don’t think that that’s who he was, and who you see him as now is, I guess, a better representation.
When do you think he stopped being an ass and instead started working toward redemption?
I’d argue it was still in that first season. I believe it was the third episode where he tells Midge something along the lines of “I’ll take you back.” I’m trying to remember exactly what he said. I need to rewatch this show for the 80th time because I haven’t seen that first season in a while now. But Midge says “no,” and he responds, “Why?” And she says, “Because you left.” Ever since then, he’s been trying to win her back. I don’t necessarily think they’re right for each other. They clearly have love for each other. They have kids together, so they’re always going to be in each other’s lives. But at the end of the day, probably the best thing for them to do is to chart their own paths, which they’ve been doing.
In an interview you did with us a few years ago, you said you got the sense that Joel was the realest character on the entire show. Do you still maintain that belief?
I do. He’s the most grounded. I think he’s a representation of the audience. The audience can see the show through his eyes. I mean, a lot of other Maisel actors will say that they’re the audience’s eyes, but they’re portraying these characters in sort of a heightened fashion. Joel is the one who’s most based in reality.
He’s somehow the only person who understands just how bad mobsters can be.
That’s Maisel-land for you! It has a lot to do with who’s portraying these characters. Amy and Dan didn’t know me when I first started on the job. Whether they knew it or not, they started writing for me. It’s kind of a combination of both Joel and myself. They write to our strengths, and they write to our weaknesses. I think that’s the same thing for every TV series that gets the opportunity to continue from season to season.
Now you must tell me what your strengths and weaknesses are.
They could probably tell you better than me. I couldn’t tell you what my weaknesses are, but for my strengths, I have a pretty good sense of humor and I’m able to get a laugh out of lines that they write. They’re amazing writers, but I’m not quite certain that everybody could do that. I feel uncomfortable talking about my strengths. [Laughs.]
Obviously, a huge development this season is that Joel eventually goes to prison, for reasons that aren’t yet clear.
But you’ll find out, yes.
A theme that’s emerged is how Midge’s success is coming at the expense of those around her. When you first read the script, what was your inclination about why Joel went to prison?
I’ll be honest — I didn’t know. It wasn’t even through the script. I found out from one of the makeup artists. I don’t like to know anything that happens to my character from episode to episode. I like to just read the script and be surprised. So right before we started filming, one of the makeup artists told me, “There’s a big shocker for your character. Do you want to know?” At that point, I was like, “Sure, tell me.” So he told me that it starts out with Joel in prison. I loved it. I had no idea what he did. I assumed it was malicious. I didn’t assume it was anything heroic. It wasn’t until the next episode until it all became clear.
How do you envision Joel’s life behind bars? From context clues, it’s a white-collar joint.
Yeah, that was the thing for me. It did say in the script that it was a short sentence. I think it was only two years, so I knew he didn’t kill anybody. It did appear to be some sort of white-collar crime. But the truth is that it’s more than that and it’s deeper than that. I was happy with the reveal.
I felt bad that Midge gets a fabulous 60 Minutes flash-forward and then there’s Joel, doing his best in jail.
For sure. It’s funny. When I read the first script of this season, I didn’t like the flash-forwards because it took away the surprise and you now know she succeeds. But as I watch it, it makes a lot of sense to reveal it early on.
What was going through your mind getting aged up to 1987? Did you have any input in how you wanted to present yourself as an older man?
I wanted to keep my hair, which luckily they allowed me to do. They hired a special-effects makeup artist who also did Colin Farrell in The Penguin and the new Batman movie. I knew we were going to get the best of the best. As an actor, you always want to play with makeup because it helps inform your character. Also, selfishly, I wanted to see what I would look like 30 years from now. It was amazing; I had to do a body scan and a head scan. I’ve never done anything like that before. It took a very long time. The only other time I can remember doing something like that was when I had a role on The Walking Dead and had to play a zombie. I knew that it takes two hours — a minimum, really — to get into the makeup and another hour to get out of it. It was so completely worth it. Seeing Rachel also in full aging makeup was really special, too.
I like that you were cool with the wrinkles and the sun spots, but going bald? No way.
[Laughs.] The other factor, obviously, is how your body moves as an older person. They had us work with a movement expert and a movement coach. But the truth is it’s like he’s not that much older. I think he’s only in his late 50s or maybe his very early 60s. People in that age range aren’t walking around with a hunch or anything like that.
Joel asks Midge during their prison visit, “Why do you keep coming here?” He doesn’t get an answer, so I’d like to pose the question to you.
They have this shared love for each other, whether it’s romantic or not. They’re one of the very few people in each other’s lives that they can honestly trust. It’s amazing that they’ve continued this relationship through the years, always looking out for each other and always having this love for each other. But it’s also sad.
Listen, I’m not saying I was against their relationship or anything like that. I was just surprised by the fact that they don’t end up together — or, at least at this point in their lives, they didn’t end up together. Because maybe afterward, who knows? That’s the one question that everybody always asks me. People come up to me on the street and say, “Hey, man. Are Joel and Midge going to get together?” I always say, “I don’t know.” That’s true. I don’t know. It just made me a little sad that they sort of showed that. But I appreciate it. I never thought they were going to get together, to be honest.
Was there an expectation from you that they would?
It’s weird — I never thought they would, and I never assumed people would want them to. Especially after that first episode: the pilot where he makes this colossal mistake. The audience immediately turned on him. It seemed weird to me that people would want them to come back together.
I thought it was pretty lovely that they’re still on affable terms. Especially since Midge dates, who, Quincy Jones and Paul Simon?
They are each other’s soul mates. I think some people have multiple soul mates, and perhaps that’s the case with them. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they are soul mates.
If Joel had one entertaining prison performance, would you rather it be like Hugh Grant in Paddington 2 or Jerry in the Seinfeld finale?
I never saw Paddington 2, so I need to catch up on that. I would assume it would be more like Jerry, attempting a comedy act. But Joel would probably still bomb.