After more than two decades in show business, Alex Borstein is finally getting the recognition she deserves. The comedian, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and now spends most of the year at her home in Barcelona, is a double Emmy nominee this year for two, on the surface at least, very different roles.
Borstein received her second voice-over nomination for playing Lois Griffin on the 16th season of Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy. But it is her performance as Susie Myerson, curmudgeonly manager to Rachel Brosnahan’s stand-up sensation Midge on the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, that has catapulted her career to another level. For that role, Borstein was honored with her first-ever live-action Emmy nomination for supporting actress in a comedy series.
With 14 Emmy nominations overall—and a win for best comedy series at the Golden Globes—The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is poised to clean up at next month’s ceremony. That could mean a first-time win for Borstein who, despite not playing a comedian, is often the show’s funniest character.
Calling The Daily Beast on her drive to the airport in Los Angeles where she will fly to New York to finish shooting that show’s second season, the actress reflects on a “lucky” career that began in earnest with her breakout stint on Fox’s MADtv and has culminated with the most “well-rounded” part she’s ever played on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Is it gratifying for you to get so much critical and awards love for Maisel in particular?
It’s strange more than anything. I’ve been working for so long, you know? It’s kind of like if you have a large group of children, if you have 12 kids and one of them gets a gold medal at the Olympics. It’s pretty cool, but I’ve been doing this for a long time, I’ve got these 11 other kids. I don’t even know what it feels like yet.
In the supporting actress category, you’re up against your Getting On co-star Laurie Metcalf.
Isn’t that funny? It’s awesome. Laurie’s a genius, so that’s pretty cool. Cool company to be in.
I know, I loved that show so much and miss it.
Oh my God, me too. That little number broke my heart.
How do you think about your time working on Getting On now?
That was a rare and unique experience. I just made the analogy of every project is like a child. That was like the perfect baby. That was the baby that slept through the night, that cuddled. That was the the baby that latched perfectly and you made enough milk and everyone was happy. That was perfection. The location was seven minutes from my front door. The group of people was tiny, the crew was dedicated and everyone was very like-minded. We all knew the material was so special and the writing was special.
I’m a big fan of Maisel as well and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Susie after watching the first season. How much of that character was on the page as is and how much did you bring your own personality and point of view to it?
You know who else would be great in the part is Danny DeVito. I like to think of myself as America’s Danny DeVito.
Isn’t Danny DeVito America’s Danny DeVito?
Aw, shit. Forget it then. Maybe I’m Spain’s Danny DeVito. No, you know, I’ve heard two different stories. One that Amy [Sherman-Palladino] wrote the part for me and another that that’s not true. So I’m not sure which is true. But there’s a side of me that she had seen and included and there’s definitely pieces of me in there. But she’s a very different creature too. I think she’s a lot angrier than I am. She’s a little happier being alone, she’s a little more intense in some ways than I would be.
Midge doesn’t always treat Susie well in the first season. Why do you think Susie stays so loyal to her throughout all that?
I think the two of them have a friendship and they certainly care for each other. But it’s also business. I think Susie is something of an art collector and an art dealer. She sees what a gift this girl has and does not want to let her out of her sight. She does not want to let her out of her clutches. This is going to be a very valuable piece of art one day and she knows it. So I think she’s willing to let the painting shit on her a bit.
Going into season two, Midge is becoming a bigger success, a bigger star. What does that mean for Susie?
Well, you know, they’re on this rollercoaster together. So I think they’re going to hit bumps together and they are going to have highs and they’re going to have lows. What’s cool about it is it’s a very symbiotic yin and yang relationship. They really need each other. And they really have a lot to learn from each other. In some ways she’s out to refine me and in many ways I’m out to toughen her up. They’re kind of a perfect union, trying to make it in this ugly world of stand-up.
What do you feel like you know about Susie now that you didn’t heading into season one?
That the hours would be this long? [Laughs] No. What do I know about Susie now that I didn’t know? I think it’s become clear to me that it’s really a love triangle in some ways, between Susie and Midge and Joel. Even though it’s not necessarily a romantic love, there is a three-way fight for attention in these storylines and I think that becomes more and more clear.
Does that mean you have more scenes with Joel in this new season?
Maybe it does. Yes, both of the worlds collide a little bit and you will get to see a little bit more about who Susie is and where she comes from and you’ll get to see a little bit of crossover between some of the characters that’s really cool. Not that I don’t enjoy Rachel, but it’s fun to get to play with other people.
This show really takes a hard look at comedy in the ’50s. How much do you think the comedy industry has changed, especially for women, now that you’ve examined that time on the show and are living in this time now?
It’s changed in some ways and it’s not changed in others. We’ve got Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman and Ali Wong and Margaret Cho packing stadiums and doing huge tours. They’re bringing in huge amounts of money and audiences, so that’s different. But I still feel like women are judged differently. If a woman’s language is coarse then she’s a comedian who uses course language instead of a truth-teller or a hard-hitting comic. I mean, not much has changed in that every interview you do you’re still asked very specifically what it’s like being a woman doing it, so that’ll never change I think. Trying to think of fresh ways to answer that is tough, because it’s like asking a dog how it feels to be a dog. This is all I know.
The two shows that you’re nominated for this year are clearly very different on the surface, but I think both try to tackle how far you can push comedy and what it means to go “over the line.” Do you see any parallels there between Maisel and Family Guy?
I do. You know, Family Guy was created by Seth [MacFarlane], who at the time was 25 years old and had predominantly had a pretty sheltered, indoor life. He was something of an indoor cat, I like to say. Similar in a sense to someone like Midge in that world who kind of spent her life in one place. The two of them exploded out of that and had this different view from the inside out of society, and kind of a satirical punch against everything. They push the envelope. I mean, Midge was hauled off stage by a cop and taken to jail and Family Guy has had a lot of people blown away by something and people claiming something has offended them. So there’s a lot of similarities in that regard. It’s different, however, having material come out of a cartoon face versus a human face. You can get away with a lot more, I think, when it’s animated.
Yeah, that seems to be the case, though there have been plenty of controversies around Family Guy. It does seem like you guys and South Park are able to get away with things other shows can’t, almost like they are grandfathered in by their longevity. If Family Guy was starting today, it’s hard to believe it could get away with as much.
I like to think of comedy as plate tectonics. It’s like earthquakes. And you need shows like South Park and Family Guy to let off steam. You need little tiny tremors constantly letting off some steam, otherwise I think people are going to blow. I think it’s great to have valves that people can loosen up and in the privacy of their home really have a great laugh at their own expense.
I also wonder whether you think you would be able to get away with a character like Ms. Swan today, who was probably the character you were best known for on MADtv.
I don’t know. That’s impossible to answer because, you know, we’re not doing it and we’ll never know. I know people still love it and watch it on YouTube and holler at me across the street.
Is that still the thing that you get recognized for most?
It’s a lot. You know, in New York there are a lot of Maisel fans. And Family Guy too. We’ve been pretty visually available for so long, us voice-over people, they know us from that a lot. It’s a mixed bag. But there were so many things from MADtv that are just random. I did this character called the Gap Troll that was just this creature that lived under a bridge in front of a Gap clothing store. A lot of people know that. It’s really random. I really forget how many things I’ve done until somebody yells it at me from across a subway platform.
Yeah, you’ve had such an interesting and varied career going from sketch comedy to animation to now this more real and grounded character of Susie.
I’ve been very lucky.
Do you miss sketch comedy at this point or are you happy to be doing this more substantial material?
At this stage in my life I think it’s nice to have a full, well-rounded character that you can kind of sink your teeth into, you know? Now that I’m an old lady.
This interview has been edited and condensed.