Actresses Are Not Horses: Alex Borstein on ‘Mrs. Maisel,’ Speaking Up, and Stepping Out of Line
“I began to notice that most female characters of substance were described much in the same way that a horse would be...” A candid talk with the “Mrs. Maisel” Emmy winner.
After Alex Borstein finished her acceptance speech for winning Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series at this year’s Emmy Awards—her second in a row for playing talent manager Susie Myerson on Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—she ran backstage and threw up.
Part of the problem, she guesses, was that she hadn’t eaten that much that day and had just taken a shot of whiskey in the audience with her date, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, who hired her to voice Lois Griffin on the animated series 20 years ago. Mostly, though, she was overcome.
She was overcome by the win, sure. She was so certain that Olivia Colman was going to take the trophy for her performance in Fleabag that she begged Amazon to let her stay home in Barcelona, where she lives with her kids when she’s not working. She had her turn last year and celebrated memorably, stripping off her dress’ shrug on the way to the podium and doing a shimmy before admitting from the microphone stand, “I went without the bra” and using the platform to advocate for women sitting on public restroom toilet seats: “If you sit, we can all sit.”
More than the shock of a repeat victory, she was overcome by what she decided to share on stage.
On the flight from Barcelona to Los Angeles, she thought she should at least think about what she wanted to say on the chance she should win. Then she thought about the topic that’s dominated nearly every interview and conversation about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which premieres season three of 1950s housewife Midge Maisel’s (Rachel Brosnahan) unlikely journey to becoming a stand-up comedian on Friday.
“So many of these questions we get in the press are, 'People are happy to see these women with strength. Finally we have strong women. Do you think women are getting stronger? And Elizabeth Warren! And strength!” Borstein says. “And I’m like, these women have always been in our lives, some even more so than today.”
So on stage she thanked Mrs. Maisel creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, the women in her cast and crew, and her mother and grandmother, who are both immigrants and Holocaust survivors. Then she told the story, the story that meant so much it made her puke.
Her grandmother was in line to be shot into the Danube River by an Arrow Cross soldier in Budapest during World War II and asked, “What happens if I step out of line?” The soldier said, “I won’t have the heart to shoot you, but somebody will.” She survived, eventually crossing the border into Austria and making her way to the United States. “And for that I am here and my children are here,” Borstein emotionally said at the end of her speech, thrusting her Emmy in the air to applause. “So step out of line, ladies! Step out of line!”
It not only became the most memorable speech of the night, but an instant viral rally cry. Borstein was initially nervous that she had shared too much about her family. But its impact astonished her.
“I had no idea what effect it would have, that it would become like a T-shirt and a hashtag,” she says. “It was crazy to wake up to that and be turned into some kind of a bizarre phenomenon about ‘step out of line, ladies.’”
It’s funny for her to think about now. As a longtime comedy writer and performer who got her start on the sketch show MADtv and, prior to Mrs. Maisel was probably best known for Family Guy, oversharing wasn’t so much a fear as a job requirement. The experience of telling her grandmother’s story opened her eyes to the reach of Mrs. Maisel and the platform she has to say things—not just funny things, but real things.
She’s considering it all now on the eve of another season premiere in a hotel room in New York City, staring out the suite’s picturesque window as snow falls outside. She straightens her posture and grins as she crowns herself “a queen in the hotel,” admiring the beauty of the snow but shielded from its wet chill. It’s a perch to which she never expected to ascend now, at age 48, after several decades of searching for characters of substance in an industry that often describes such roles, as she’d later explain, “the same way that a horse would be.”
There are points to make about, yes, being a woman in comedy, though she once told The Daily Beast that finding new ways to talk about that particular phenomenon was “like asking a dog how it feels to be a dog.” She tells stories about the chances she’s had to take, what she’s learned about what she’s willing to live with and what she’s willing to live without, and what it really means to be bold. She stands up and acts out each anecdote all over the room, like we’re in some sort of sketch-comedy snow globe.
Once we start talking about her grandmother and that Emmys story, it’s hard to get off the topic, especially since the overarching message reverberates so deeply not only in Mrs. Maisel, but in her career and life.
She doesn’t remember the first time her grandmother told the story, because “it was constant.” There are two types of Holocaust survivors, she says—those who never want to talk about it and those for whom every day is a reminder of the experience, leading to a preoccupation with memory, gratitude, survivor’s guilt, and a resulting, relentless dialogue about it.
“It permeates who you are,” Borstein says. “It’s stamped in your DNA, and the DNA of generations to come.” She contemplates that statement in terms of her own life. “I’m comedic, but there’s a darkness. Some of that I think is part of that stamp.”
It goes without saying that she’s aware that she’s never been faced with something with the gravity of a gun to the back of her head—though she says it anyway—but she’d like to think that she’s inherited the instinct to be bold.
“I stopped someone from cutting in front of me at the passport line, does that count? It’s like, we’re all about to board, lady. We’re all running late. Get back in line. Now is not your time to step out of line, bitch. Get back!”
It’s generally understood that Amy Sherman-Palladino wrote the role of Susie Myerson in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for Alex Borstein, and fought—quite hard, as necessity would have it—for Amazon to approve her casting.
The two had been friends for years. Borstein had originally played the role of Sookie St. James in the Gilmore Girls pilot before, unable to make it work with her MADtv contract, she was replaced by Melissa McCarthy. Still, she appeared over the course of the series and its Netflix revival in several roles, in addition to guesting in Sherman-Palladino’s Bunheads.
More than any season before it, the new episodes of Mrs. Maisel underline that at the heart of the show is an Odd Couple-like love story between Brosnahan’s title character and Borstein’s Susie. “Most shows if you have a male-female love story, there’s a will they/won't they, and then there's a break up, and then there's that drama and it's hard to consistently keep that alive,” Borstein says. “Whereas when it’s this ‘womance’”—a word she punctuates with a showy eyebrow dance—“you can be more intricate.”
In contrast to the fashionable, girly, practically poodle-coiffed Midge, Susie is typically seen with baggy slacks, a newsboy cap, and a confrontational countenance that has her, as a running gag, routinely referred to as “sir” by strangers. Journalists and critics have thrown around myriad adjectives attempting to describe her demeanor—“brash,” “bullish,” “feisty.” “Spirited” and “spunky” are so common and, it turns out, triggering that Borstein wrote an op-ed about it for InStyle.
“Over the years I began to notice that most female characters of substance were described much in the same way that a horse would be,” she writes. “When InStyle asked if I would be interested in writing about being a ‘spirited and admirably spunky’ woman who gets to play an equally spirited and spunky character, I immediately finished chomping my hay, took a shit on the racetrack, and sat down to write.”
The essay tackles the unrealistic and offensive casting breakdowns used to describe female characters, the struggles Borstein had developing confidence in an industry that didn’t see her in the leading lady mold (“young and hot but with natural tits”), and how that experience, along with the influence of her grandmother, has driven her.
It was early in her career that she noticed the ridiculous casting breakdowns. The discovery alternately horrified her and made her laugh, so she made reading them a part of her act. One of them—a breakdown for an actual role in a real project she read—became the title of her 2006 comedy special, Alex Borstein: Drop Dead Gorgeous (In a Down-to-Earth Bombshell Sort of Way).
“Even now it’s true,” she says. “You’re sturdy, you’re clever, you’re quick, you’re spunky, you’re spirited. That means you’re not a leading lady.”
It’s one of the many lessons she’s learned over the years as a woman navigating the industry. One of her first came when she booked MADtv.
Taking the leap into show business from the advertising world was already a terrifying move. In addition to training at the ACME Comedy Theater in Los Angeles before landing the gig, she held a job at an ad agency writing taglines for high-end designer Barbie dolls. (She beams remembering the copy she wrote for Medieval Night Barbie: “Ye ought not let this lady wait.”)
When Fox told her that they were going to do a “silly” photo shoot of the MADtv cast members that would be printed and wrapped around a giant promo bus, she delivered. She mugged and goofed and hammed it up for the cameras, but noticed that the other two women in the cast were just coyishly smiling and posing, doing nothing remotely silly or funny.
“Then cut to fucking three weeks later and they pulled that bus up and there's a picture of me literally looking like I'm shitting, like squatting with my legs,” she says, assuming the position for visual reference. “I've got a double chin. I look horrendous. It was the best lesson I ever learned of never try to be silly for a promotional photo, because it's going to be everywhere. That bus traveled around for a year in the United States and my face was shitting all over the country.”
The next time she had a visceral reaction to her image on a billboard, it was much happier. In 2013, she was cast in the HBO comedy series Getting On, about workers in the elder care ward of a struggling hospital, alongside Laurie Metcalf and Niecy Nash. It was her first live-action leading role. HBO had gotten the show “the tall wall,” she says with reverence, referring to the side of an entire building on Sunset Boulevard often used for TV and movie ads.
She and her dad drove up to look at it and cried together. It wasn’t even about seeing her own face. That this small, quiet show that she loved so much had gotten this spotlight moved her. “That was the first time I think I was like, I do stuff on TV and people watch it. I had this really bizarre, surreal connection of what it really means to be performing on it.”
To say that she has that realization on a near daily basis with the Mrs. Maisel phenomenon is an understatement. But now it’s less overwhelming—though it often is precisely that—than it is, in a strange way, comforting.
Some things in life are easier. She finally has a chance to be creative in a way she couldn’t afford to before, thanks to the show. In Barcelona, she appeared in the musical comedy [title of show], and will soon begin a run there in the Tony-winning play God of Carnage. This Friday, she’ll perform her stand-up comedy musical show in New York, before taking it to London next week.
She’s also been writing. “I wrote a little feature that I’m trying to get made and having a hard time finding a director for,” she says, tapping my recorder. “Feel free to print that!” Then she takes a breath and sits back in her chair, looking back at the snow falling out the window. Things have been a little manic and emotional—this last conversation but also, you know, life—and now she smiles serenely, calm. “I’m actually, I think, actually, finally very good. I’m very happy.”