As a performer, Alex Borstein is on two incredibly successful shows: heading into her 17th season of Fox’s animated comedy “Family Guy” and the second season of Amazon’s Golden Globe-winner “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” She is a double Emmy nominee this year for her efforts. But Borstein is also an accomplished writer and producer, counting “MADtv” and “Shameless” among those credits. “I’ll get kind of bored with one and want to flop back and forth,” she says of writing and performing. “I like the mix.”
What does voice acting give you that live-action does not?
Well, you’re allowed to age! And you don’t have to worry about gaining weight or Botox. You’re animated. You live forever. With “Family Guy,” it’s really different because I’ve also been a writer and a producer on the show and had so much control over my own fate, my own character there. It’s been such a pleasure, and in that regard it’s very different. “Maisel” is incredible, and Amy’s a genius, but it is all Amy’s baby. You bring your things to the character, but she’s written every single thing on the page the way she wants it.
What inspires you to write?
I’ve always liked writing and performing. I assume it’s like people who like to workout a lot, which I don’t understand, but they want to mix up their workouts and work out different muscles, and it’s really similar with writing and performing. It’s usually your face, using your hands, using your body and then just sitting in front of a laptop and using your brain.
How often have you found yourself writing in order to give yourself a break?
I initially started doing stand-up for that reason. It was the quickest way to get on stage and just perform — without having to find a play to audition for or get cast. It was just so portable. Just attempting open mics, there was a lot of satisfaction and immediacy and response. And I’ve written some pilots and shot some of them, and that was a really nice feeling — to see it go from imagined to produced. It is kind of like if you see something isn’t there, you want to fill the hole yourself, if you can.
What is the added appeal of a show like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” where the line between comedy and drama blurs?
I think just as a person in your 20s I went through stand-up and sketch where things are just trying to be as funny as possible and get as big a laugh as possible. You don’t necessarily have to be true to a character — although it helps. And then as you age, that’s not as satisfying. The type of comedy I’m interested in now is very different than the type of comedy I was interested in in my 20s. And I’m lucky that “Getting On” and then this have grown with me and my sensibility. A three-dimensional person who can be funny and deadpan but also vulnerable and has flaws, I also don’t think I would have been ready to access any of that in my 20s. I think being older and having children — having kids just kind of cracks your heart open and you’re able to handle a lot more.
Now that you’re in production on the second season of “Maisel,” have you found your relationship with Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino has them writing more specifically to you?
I’ve known Amy and Dan for 17 years. Dan was my boss on “Family Guy” in the writers’ room. He hired me as a writer there. So I’ve known them for so long that I think she always had a piece of me in mind with Susie. But yeah, I kind of think she sees, at every table read, the choices I make and how I deliver things, and I think she ingests that — she soaks a lot of that up and ends up writing towards it.
What is your biggest challenge as an actor in season 2 of “Maisel”?
To try to keep it from hitting the same beats over and over again. You want the odd coupleness of [Susie and Midge’s] friendship to be a through-line and be maintained — it’s what’s fun about them; it’s like Mary and Rhoda — but you also want there to be fresh elements to it so it’s not the same and to keep surprising with things we haven’t explored yet between them.
What is your character Susie’s biggest challenge in season 2?
She’s pulled this woman out of the comfort of her life and said, “Trust me, trust me, let’s do this, trust me.” And now it’s a little bit like, “Holy s—, this girl’s trusting me and her whole life’s in my hands.” And I think she’s a little terrified. They’re both terrified but trying to prop the other one up.
Is there concern about trusting Midge, as well, given that some of her season 1 actions could have been detrimental to her career?
I think it’s a little bit of a love triangle, really. I think it’s Susie with this new life, and Midge versus Joel and her family and her old life. And I think Susie is always on the edge a little, thinking she might go back. So I think Susie has that fear that she’ll be left and is not going to be able to do it. She’s not going to say that out loud, I don’t think, but she’s terrified of that.
Do you find your process for a comedic scene, versus one where Susie has to be more emotional, is different?
I don’t really have a process. I don’t know what any of that means. I get the scripts and then I desperately try to learn the words and then I hope they come out, and that’s my process.
Do you work differently when opposite Rachel [Brosnahan]?
Oh yes, we operate very differently. Rachel, I think she really works on a lot of things, and when she can, studies a lot of the material more and gives a lot of thought to a lot of things. And I’m a little bit more of a “just do it, see what comes out first” person. And I’ve been lucky that the characters I play have leant themselves to that style. I don’t know what you call it but just kind of going for it with your gut.
How much about Susie’s life outside the comedy world will season 2 explore, and how much do you want to explore?
In season 2 we do take a look into Susie’s background a little bit. And I’m torn about it. I always liked on certain shows where you didn’t see too much about somebody outside of their quote-unquote work environment, to kind of leave that a mystery. Amy’s brilliant, and I think she knows how much of her hand to show and how much to keep a mystery, but you do meet some people from my world, and more and more [Susie and Midge’s] worlds collide a little bit.
Have you found you’ve had to adjust things you thought you understood about Susie or the way you’d embody certain behaviors, based on backstory you created that might not line up with the backstory the show is exploring?
We meet a little bit of Susie’s family, and just in that, it’s like, “Oh that’s different than what I thought. I did not know that was the case.” There’s some, for lack of better language, f—ed up things in her world that I did not know specifically — and had I known that, maybe I would have played some other things a little differently, but it’s fun to slowly peel back the onion. But I feel like I got lucky in that some of the stuff that I learned actually works very well for some of the choices I already made. Amy knew all of it all along, and she would have directed me otherwise, so it does work very well. But everything you learn about your character changes how you perform. I haven’t seen any of the shows because it would completely change how I would perform it next. So for me, I try to stay as much in the dark as I can.
You’ve really been able to avoid seeing the show, even with it everywhere for awards season?
Yeah, it’s funny, we did a scene in the second season where a little bit of our worlds collide, and there were actors that when we were in the room together, I was like, “Oh hi, I’m Alex,” and Rachel’s like, “What? You guys have never met?” I didn’t even know who they played — it was actually pretty funny, having no idea who Midge’s brother was. But it works for Susie to be in the dark in a lot of her world, so for me it works.
Where do awards fall in, in terms of importance, at this point in your career?
This sounds hokey but I already kind of won the freaking lottery. I’ve been working for 17 years on “Family Guy.” I worked on “Getting On,” which I loved more than anything. I worked on “Shameless.” I worked on these long-running shows and have been so proud of them. It’s kind of unheard of, how lucky I’ve been. That’s why to me this feels just like an added icing. It’s so not necessary.