Journeywoman

11.12.13

‘Family Guy’ Star Alex Borstein Is Ready for Her HBO Close-Up

The voice of Lois Griffin on ‘Family Guy’ and a writer/producer on ‘Shameless,’ journeywoman Alex Borstein will get her big break in front of the camera, on the HBO series ‘Getting On.’

You’ve heard Alex Borstein before.

For 12 seasons, she’s played the voice of Lois Griffin, nasally matriarch of the Griffin household, on the celebrated animated TV series Family Guy. She’s also, in addition to writing and producing on the Fox sitcom, served as a writer and consulting producer on the Showtime series Shameless, and popped up in several small movie roles over the years, from the assistant to Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck to the mother of Mark Wahlberg’s character in Ted.

“It’s fed a lot,” says Borstein. “But I still felt like, ‘Goddammit, before I can only play mothers or grandmothers, I want to be on a show where I can play a real rich person before that part of life.”

After 17-plus years working mainly behind the scenes, Borstein finally has her shot.

In the new HBO series Getting On, based on the British series of the same name, she plays Dawn Forchette, head nurse of a geriatric ward in Long Beach, California. It’s a dark comedy about mortality and features a cast of journeywomen comediennes flexing their improv chops, including Roseanne’s Laurie Metcalf and Reno 911!’s Niecy Nash.

Borstein plays the straight character to Metcalf’s wacky physician in a role similar to Tony Hale’s in Veep, and she shines, imbuing Dawn with a clever brew of deadpan hilarity and genuine pathos. The six-episode season premieres on November 24 as a much-needed shot of estrogen following the fourth-season finale of Boardwalk Empire.

“I can’t believe it,” she says. “It’s just fuckin’ cuckoo-bananas.”

When I meet Borstein at a coffee shop in Silver Lake, California, I tell her I’m interested in writing a “full-bodied” profile of the 40-year-old star.

“Well, I’m a full-bodied girl!” she replies.

She orders a burger, and we get to talking about how she manages her myriad projects. In addition to starring in Getting On, she’s voicing Lois Griffin on Family Guy, writing a pilot for an adaptation of the BBC series Linda Green, writing a movie screenplay, and popping up occasionally as William H. Macy’s frazzled lawyer on Shameless. She’s also a mom.

“Our kid might be a tiny bit of a prick…maybe not an asshole, but he’s kind of a dick,” jokes Borstein. “He’s 5.”

Borstein, a self-described “short, chubby” comedienne, has no filter, and she’s a lot of fun to chat with. When I tell her our office is in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, she lets rip.

“I hate the Gansevoort hotel,” she says. “There was a comedy club nearby called Comix, and they’d put me up at that Gansevoort, and my husband and I would look out the window and watch the drunk fuckin’ stupid women in their heels get them stuck in the cobblestones, and I’d do a play-by-play commentary where if this was the wild, they’d be eaten and captured…and killed.”

Sex and the City was like women observed and being looked at, and Girls, and our show, Getting On, is more about life being observed and the quiet observations women are making about the lives around them.”

It’s a strange coincidence that Borstein’s first starring role in a live-action sitcom takes place in a hospital. The Illinois native is the daughter of two shrinks, and she describes her family as “middle-class Jewish nuts.”

“They say the shoemakers kids run barefoot, right? So we’re all fuckin’ crazy,” she says. “Every family is a painting, and we’re a surreal, abstract mess of colors…but it’s still something you want to hang in your living room.”

Borstein’s knack for comedy was born of being the family “icebreaker.” She’s a carrier of hemophilia and her older brother is a hemophiliac, so there were medical crises at the home all the time. Whether it was on trips to the hospital or Passover dinner, Borstein would ham it up, regaling her family with impressions of their favorites celebrities, from Eartha Kitt and Johnny Carson to “anything Gilda Radner did on SNL.” At 16, she tried out her act in public: Her parents escorted her to a tiny Illinois bar, where she riffed on the oddities of being raised by two mental health professionals.

We are interrupted by the arrival of her burger, a gigantic, half-pound slab of beef sandwiched between two shiny brioche buns.

“Wow, that’s a big-ass burger!” she shrieks, taking a big bite. “Ho-ly shit, this is really fuckin’ good. A little bit bread-y, but it’s good.”

After high school, Borstein enrolled at San Francisco State University, where she majored in rhetoric. She was doing her stand-up routine in the dorms and dining halls when one day, Jeffrey M. Anderson, now the film critic for Combustible Celluloid, approached her and said they should form a sketch comedy group. They recruited a few other members and named themselves The Virus, later renamed 25% Off.

“We actually caused a lot of controversy on campus,” Borstein recalls. “One of the members of our group played the university president as a very uptight, suit-wearing, closeted homosexual. We did a cabaret song called ‘I Want to Do You in the Butt,’ and it was a blues number of a woman basically saying, ‘If you really love me, show me and get off in my ass.’ The women’s groups on campus thought it was terrible.”

The inspiration for the joke that got them in the most hot water was then-President George H.W. Bush likening Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler.

“We wrote a sketch of Saddam Hussein and Hitler meeting in hell, and it was really controversial,” she says. “I’m Jewish, but the Jewish organizations on campus were offended because no one compares to Hitler. A lot of Jewish people like to say he’s the greatest awful person ever, and don’t you dare say anyone else is as wonderfully horrible.”

She pauses, before adding: “The one thing that makes me scared about the way things are going right now is you don’t have the freedom to try stuff anymore, with Twitter and mobile video. They’ll say you’re a sexist, jerk, or anti-Semitic. I don’t think I’d want to be coming up as a comedian right now. In a live comedy venue, there should be no boundaries.”

After graduation, Borstein took an internship at the ad agency Schwartz Rahman. Their biggest client was Mattel, so she did a lot of copywriting for high-end Barbie dolls—porcelain Barbies that ran a few hundred dollars a pop.

“I grew up hating that bitch, and there I was, giving her a voice in print,” she chuckles.

While at the agency, she began taking improv classes at the ACME Comedy Theatre in Hollywood, where she met her husband, Jackson Douglas, and one-time writing partner, Erin Ehrlich. She performed there from late-’93 to ’95, when the wife of the founder of ACME, who ran several daytime animation shows, approached her and Ehrlich. They were hired to write for the TV series Casper the Friendly Ghost, which led to writing for Pinky and the Brain. Borstein figured she could make a living writing and quit the ad agency.

In 1997, Borstein, Ehrlich, and two other members of ACME submitted themselves to the Big Stinkin’ International Improv & Sketch Comedy Festival in Austin, Texas. The group got in and did five sketches. The crowd, she says, went nuts.

“One of them was me playing a little girl taking a hearing test, and the two voices of the people administering the hearing test get into a martial spat,” she says. “So it’s almost a silent bit where I’m just darting back and forth reacting to the crazy shit they’re saying. It ends with one gunshot, where I raise my right hand, and then another, and I raise my left, and then the lights go down.”

In the audience was a casting director for the sketch comedy series MADtv who was so impressed by Borstein that she eventually cast her on the show. She starred on the series for five seasons, and her character Miss Swan, a hilariously clueless Asian immigrant, became a fan favorite.

“I still got pictures this Halloween of people dressed up as her,” says Borstein. “She’s based on my grandmother. We’re Hungarian-Mongolian heritage, and whenever we’d spend time with her, I’d watch her. I did comedy sketches of her at ACME, but she was known as ‘The Other Mrs. Gabor’ then. The sketch was her returning a dress to a store that she’d clearly worn several times and washed.”

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In 1998, Leslie Kolins Small, who developed late-night alternative programming for Fox, introduced Borstein to a young animator, Seth MacFarlane. Small was helping him develop an animated sitcom that would air between MADtv sketches, mimicking the model of The Simpsons, which came on as interstitials between sketches on The Tracey Ullman Show.

“There was ownership issues, since the MADtv folks wanted to own the show, and Seth was savvy enough to say, ‘No, I’ll take my chances’ and developed it on his own,” says Borstein.

Small knew Borstein did voices and suggested her for Lois Griffin, the cerebral, red-headed wife of dim-witted Peter Griffin and mother of Meg, Chris, and baby Stewie.

“The voice for Lois was one that I was doing at ACME Theatre in a sketch called ‘Magic Man,’ about a son coming home to tell his parents he’s no longer going to be a stockbroker, but he’s going to be a magician,” she says. “I played the mom, and the voice I did for her was based on a cousin of mine from Long Island. She’s Hungarian, so it’s kind of a weird New York accent. Seth said, ‘Speed it up a bit, but I think that could work!’”

Borstein’s had to fight hard for every role. She was initially cast as Sookie St. James, BFF to Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) on the WB sitcom Gilmore Girls, but MADtv wouldn’t let her do both shows simultaneously, so Melissa McCarthy replaced her after the pilot. And despite her singular vocal performance, Borstein almost lost the role of Lois Griffin.

“They tried to replace me with everyone in Los Angeles,” she recalls. “I kind of understood Fox’s position, because they hadn’t auditioned anyone for it, and I was just introduced to Seth by this lady. As annoying as it was, I sort of get why they did it.”

In addition to voicing Lois, Borstein became a writer and producer on Family Guy—no easy feat. According to Borstein, each episode takes “about nine months” to make.

“You have a room full of 18 to 20 writers, all the stories are broken, and as each story is handed off to a writer, they do an outline, which is torn down, so they do another one,” she says. “Then it goes to script, and you have two weeks to write a script. The whole room tears the shit out of your script and everyone rewrites it together. Then there’s a table read. Based on that, another rewrite happens before you go in to record.”

And during recording, Borstein says each actor is acting “in a vacuum,” so she has to imagine what the other actors are saying, which can get pretty tough. The voice sessions range from a half-hour to two hours and often require her to return to the studio over the course of the nine months to re-record jokes that MacFarlane felt didn’t land.

Despite his initial effort to replace her, Borstein expresses nothing but admiration for MacFarlane, who has evolved from nerdy animator into dapper Oscar host and A-list Hollywood director.

“I knew him when he was wearing a rugby shirt, jeans, and Dr. Martens, with his hair all brushed forward,” she says. “He had round little coke-bottle glasses. He really was, for appearances, a totally different human being then. He’s like a swan. The thing that has remained the same about him is that he’s a fucking genius. It’s sometimes painful to watch, like Salieri to Amadeus. Every ounce of him is gifted. He’s also fuckin’ nuts, like most geniuses are.”

Borstein says MacFarlane is “definitely doing Ted 2—that’s coming” and that the Fox sitcom doesn’t plan on going bye-bye anytime soon.

“I think there’s a part of Seth that would have a really hard time saying goodbye to Stewie or Peter and losing that foothold in pop culture,” she says.

After a series of minor movie roles—the juiciest probably was as Halle Berry’s best pal in Catwoman—and a writing/producing stint on the first two seasons of Shameless, Borstein received an email from her agent just weeks after having her second child, saying, “We have an audition for you.”

“I was like, ‘Are you crazy? I just had a baby!’” Borstein exclaims. “But then I saw that it was Getting On. So we went down into the kid’s bedroom and my husband shot my audition.”

Borstein recorded the video on Halloween 2012 and met with producers on November 8.

“My boobs were still leaking when I met them, I hadn’t slept, my hair wasn’t washed,” she says. “But apparently that’s what they liked!”

She landed the part two days later, and the pilot was shot in December. Then came the waiting. In May 2013, the series was green-lit, and they shot the six-episode series in July and August at an abandoned hospital in Pasadena, just seven minutes from Borstein’s home. She pulls off an incredibly delicate balancing act on the show, playing the overwhelmed head nurse of a geriatric ward balancing her unbalanced boss, mile-a-minute medical dialogue, and the tragicomic tone—but she nails it.

Sex and the City was like women observed and being looked at, and Girls, and our show, Getting On, is more about life being observed and the quiet observations women are making about the lives around them,” she says.

She takes a brief pause, and unleashes a nervous laugh.

“I still kind of can’t believe it—that I’m being given the chance to do something at this level.”