Michael Zegen just began filming the second season of the Golden Globe-winning “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” in which he plays Midge’s husband, Joel. But he also has a big-screen appearance on the docket, playing Mikhail in a star-studded adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”
The Jewish family dynamic is a major theme in “Mrs. Maisel.” How does coming from one yourself inform how you approach those scenes?
It’s certainly something that I understand and something I connect with, so that was part of the reason why I wanted the show so badly — I knew that world. It’s not something I want to get typecast with. I’d like to branch out a little bit, but when it’s something this good, it really doesn’t matter.
How do you keep your composure during serious scenes while Rachel Brosnahan throws funny one-liners?
The whole environment is funny. You try to stay in the zone and just try to break yourself off from everybody. I do remember [the day of the breakup scene] Rachel and I didn’t really talk to each other. Even between takes, I remember looking at her, and she was just sort of across the room doing her own thing, and I was doing my own thing and trying not to break that focus.
What research did you conduct into the standup comedy scene in preparation to play Joel?
Rachel and I went to a bunch of standup comedy shows. But I had known about Lenny Bruce because I had seen a play called “Lenny” years and years ago. I was fascinated with him, and actually that was another big reason I wanted to be a part of this. Other than that, I didn’t really know who the big comics of the time were, so I did a little research into that. I watched some of the Bob Newhart footage that my character steals. I went into one of those YouTube holes where I was looking at different standup comics of the day, and it was leading me to the next one and I couldn’t stop.
How did you work with the writers to make the character of Joel villainous yet sympathetic?
I knew from the first few episodes that people were going to hate him. He’s kind of a jerk and obviously it starts off with him leaving, so right off the bat, I was at a disadvantage. But it’s so interesting how many people have told me, “At first I hated you, and then I kind of loved you.” I never asked for that. It’s just in the writing, and I guess that was the plan from the get-go. I think we’re going to see more of Joel’s redemption through the seasons. I don’t think he’s as bad a guy as they made him out to be right off the bat. I think he was just going through some tough times.
What do you hope for Joel in Season 2?
A continuation of his redemption, perhaps. I have no idea — but I think that’s where we’re going. I just want him to find something that he’s good at because right now I think there’s this cloud of mystery over what Joel is going to do with his life. So I want him to find that and to be happy.
“The Seagull” releases May 11. What drew you to the project?
Clearly the caliber of the cast involved. I knew that Annette Bening was doing it. I knew that Elisabeth Moss was in it, and Saoirse Ronan. I almost didn’t audition for it because I didn’t think I was gonna get it. Sometimes I’m my own worst enemy in that regard. But I went in anyway, and I could tell immediately that they liked me. I was thrilled when I found out. And then filming it was so much fun, I even have panic attacks about the fact that I almost didn’t go in.
“The Seagull,” like “Mrs. Maisel,” is a period piece. How did the process of getting in character for late-1800s Russia differ?
It’s not as big as “Mrs. Maisel.” This was a beautiful set, but it was just there. They found this estate in upstate New York. It had Russian statues outside. Maybe it was a retreat for the Communist Party back in the day — I have no idea. We had Ann Roth, who is a huge, big time costume designer. I’m a big believer in costumes and hair and props, and so those things put me in that world. I don’t know anything about 1898 Russia, and we’re speaking English, so I think there’s a fantastical element to it as well.
Things You Didn’t Know About Michael Zegen
AGE: 39 BORN: New Jersey FAVORITE ICE CREAM: Dippin’ Dots FIRST ROLE HE AUDITIONED FOR: Tiny Tim GUILTY PLEASURE TV SHOW: “The Curse of Oak Island” FIRST MOVIE SEEN IN THEATERS: “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” HIDDEN TALENT: Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon champ