‘Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Star Alex Borstein on the Job of a Lifetime, Susie’s Sexuality and the Looming End

Photographs by Dan Doperalski

The story goes that Alex Borstein was ready to take a break from Hollywood — literally, to relocate with her two children to Barcelona — when longtime friend Amy Sherman-Palladino sent her a script for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

“I almost throttled her because it was so good,” Borstein says. “I was like, ‘How do I not audition for this?’”

Like a well-timed joke or cosmic bit of fate, both things stuck the landing: “The pilot got picked up and my time in Barcelona got picked up. I loved it so much, I stayed for almost five years.”

Four seasons and two Emmys later, Borstein hasn’t stopped relishing her role on the hit Amazon Prime Video series as Susie Myerson, the tough-shelled and sarcastic manager to 1950s stand-up comedian Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan). “Maisel” is the name on the show’s marquee, but Susie has proven to be a vital asset to its alchemy — a spiky counterbalance to the series’ colorful veneer, with a drive matched only by Midge herself.

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Dan Doperalski for Variety

And there’s still more that Borstein wants to discover about Susie, who stretched her own wings (more clients, a new office) even further in this most recent batch of episodes, before the show concludes with Season 5.

“I want to get to the heart of that artichoke, really. That’s where all the meat and delicious, good stuff is,” says the comedy veteran — whose credits include “MadTV” and voicing Lois Griffin on “Family Guy” — during a morning Zoom conversation in May. “There’s a part of me that wants to see her successful financially and happy and able to relax for once in her life, but there’s another part of me that knows she operates best with a little bit of fear there. I want her to have success, I want her to be perceived as successful. But I want her to always feel a hunger.”

Do you remember what stood out to you about Susie when you first read that script?

I loved that she did not fall into the typical female character categories. She just was a character. She’s not a traditional mother — [though] she’s definitely a caretaker of sorts for Midge — and she’s not a daughter, she’s not a sister and she wasn’t necessarily a wisecracking friend. She’s not just there for the whim of another character, and it was just totally unique. I loved how angry she was, how she was just like a little tank, and I could immediately picture it. I talked to Amy about that recently because I saw some other people’s audition tapes, for a random reason.

That must have been surreal.

When you go in to read for something, or at least for me, I assume, “Well, everyone’s doing it this way, right? This is the character, and this is how I’m doing it and that’s it.” And I was really blown away to see people bringing completely different choices to it — voices and backgrounds and backstories. To me, it just felt like there’s only one way to play this. There was no question.

It sounds like you landed on your portrayal of her fairly quickly, then?

It was very quick. There’s a line that she has, “I don’t mind being alone. I just don’t want to be insignificant.” We’re different creatures, because I do mind being alone, but not wanting to be insignificant, I just connected with [that] so immediately and understood that you move through this life just wanting to make a difference in some way. Even visually, I knew. At the time, I had just seen the musical “Fun Home” and there was this song about the “Ring of Keys,” and I really just felt like this character, everything she owned is right there, literally and figuratively — the key to her place, the key to the Gaslight [Café] and a bottle opener. But I started sending Amy things immediately: “Can she wear a hat? What do you think of bangs? I kind of wanted to wear these pants. Can she wear suspenders and a belt?” It was very, very visual and immediate.

You’ve said there are shades of your grandmother in her as well?

Absolutely. My mom, my grandma. It’s just a survivor, a little battle-ax that you can hit hard enough that they may move underground for a while, but they will pop back up somewhere else. Never stops moving, like a shark — which actually happens when I’m doing her. The crew constantly laughs that I’m pacing back and forth. It’s very Susie.

Susie and Midge’s relationship is one of the most essential parts of the show. How did you and Rachel approach forming that dynamic?

That first audition, I went in, I read, and then they had Rachel come in. So we were thrown in immediately. I had never heard of her. I knew nothing of her. After the fact, I realized, “Oh, ‘House of Cards.’” But I had no preconceived notions of who she was or what she’d be like. And we just were so different that it worked, really. Our pacing was the same, which was perfect for Amy, but our insides were so different, and how we operate as actors is different too. But it really works.

I’m a lot older; she could be my kid in real life. I think, in some ways, that really helped that I felt kind of a mothering sensibility, like I wanted to take this person under my wing and take care of her and grow her and raise a talent. So it just was really natural. There was no retreat or bonding seminar or anything. We just were thrown in and it happened magically.

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Dan Doperalski for Variety

What are those differences? How you work versus how she works?

She’s like a very well-trained, well-oiled machine. She knows exactly what she wants to do with [a scene], and I’m very reactive. I mean, I have an idea, I study, I learn it, but when I get there and she throws something at me, I may react how I react and go with that, because it just seems to work. It’s better for my personality. It’s not a method. It’s just …

More instinctual?

Maybe. Yeah. She’s able to rehearse stuff and figure out her instincts ahead of time without killing it by the time the camera rolls. If I try to do it ahead of time and then get to the set, by the time the cameras are rolling, it’s stale in my head and I have a hard time getting back to that fresh, spontaneous feeling.

Season 4 starts with Midge getting kicked off Shy Baldwin’s tour and ends with her refusing to open for Tony Bennett because she only wants to take jobs where she’s the headliner. For someone like Susie, who is always hustling, that’s not great from a client perspective.

It’s not a great thing, but a lot of times, people hire managers to be more selective than they would be themselves. You hire a manager because you want them to think long-term and shape your career, whereas a frantic actor would be like, “I’ll take anything,” because you’re operating out of fear and fear alone. And in some weird way, that incident with Midge, maybe that really helped her not continue to do stand-up comedy for crowds that would, perhaps, alter what her material would be or how she would continue to grow. Money-wise, it’s insane — you don’t say no to opening for Tony Bennett. But in other ways, to have someone with that much poise say, “I know my value. I know my work. I know what I want to be, and maybe this is a better avenue,” it’s interesting.

It’s interesting to look at it that way, because there’s also that argument between Midge and Lenny (Luke Kirby) in the finale where he says she’s afraid of failing.

Definitely. You can’t obviously start [off] headlining. But Susie is not a seasoned manager, and maybe a seasoned manager would’ve been more particular, whereas she might have been a little bit wrong in the beginning to just say yes to anything and everything. But I think Lenny is correct that there’s a fear of self-imploding again, a fear of saying the wrong thing and, “Well, if it’s my show and my show only, there’s no one to offend.”

So, what does that mean for Susie? She’s growing her business, she has other clients now and her own office.

This is the family she’s curating. She has her sister, but in terms of feeling like there’s a center, she’s creating this family she’s never had, taking on other clients and bringing these children into her home. And Midge is at this place where she’s ready to figure out what the next step is and where she’s going to go, and Susie has to let go to some degree to be able to let that happen.

What makes it fun is Susie’s the last person you’d imagine as a motherly type. She can’t stand people. They’re the bane of her existence. She hates people’s quirks. She hates these idiosyncrasies, but that’s what makes these talented people talented. If they were easy and if they were, quote-unquote, “normal,” I don’t think she’d take them on as clients. She wants difficult rescue dogs. She’s going to paper-train them, unless it kills her.

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Alex Borstein as Susie in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Amazon Prime Video

There’s a scene this season where Midge takes Susie to a lesbian bar, which is the first time the show has addressed what her sexuality might be.

Amy put Midge almost in our “Maisel” audience’s shoes and was like, “So … what’s the deal?” I think it was a great way to broach it. And I love Susie’s reaction of, “None of your fucking business.” This is an era when it was not something anyone would talk about, share, want to share or feel like it was anyone’s business — I mean, sexuality in general, across the board. Look at Midge and Imogene’s [Bailey De Young] friendship. There’s not a lot of sexuality that’s talked about between the two of them. It’s not something that was broached. So, I thought it was a really great way that Amy dealt with that, having Midge take it on and feel like it was her business.

The scene with Jackie’s funeral and the eulogy Susie gave for him was just so tremendous. What was that like to shoot following Brian Tarantina’s death?

That was a really hard day. I’ll probably get choked up thinking about it, but I lost a dear friend that Amy also knew, and she knew of that loss. While I knew Brian for years, we were never very social off screen. He was part of the “Maisel” and “Gilmore Girls” family, but at the same time, Amy knew I was going through the loss that I was, and so much of that encapsulated my feelings for this other person. It was very hard to shoot, it was so much dialogue and I was terrified.

I said to Amy, “Can we have a Teleprompter?” She was like, “No, we don’t use Teleprompters. You can’t use a Teleprompter and act.” And I was like, “I just don’t know.” So, she said, “OK. We will rent a Teleprompter and we will have it,” and they kept it downstairs, and we didn’t need it. She was right. There was no possible way you could do that with a Teleprompter or cards or anything. It had to flow. I was very, very lucky to have some days before [we shot it]. She gave me that monologue with some prepping, but it was so hard. And Amy, really, all praise to her, those words were so good and so real. Just even thinking about it now, I react. It’s visceral. It was so well-written, and it was brutal, but I’m happy people have responded to it.

You’ve been playing Susie now for four seasons. You’ve won two Emmys for it. How has this whole experience impacted you?

It’s been huge. In all honesty, it’s been really hard. It’s been a very fucking hard show. Part of that is the material is so hard. It demands a lot of me. I’ve stretched in ways I haven’t before. The memorization has to be word-perfect. Being away from my children has been really, really hard, and trying to figure out how to make that work has been really, really hard. And there’s a difference in visibility. As an actor, people know who I am a bit now, and I’d always been very under the radar before. I’d worked for a long time, but this is different. There’s a lot of visibility with the show here and abroad. So that’s been a big change. I’m excited to see if it translates into any interesting opportunities.

I’ve been so lucky with this show and “Family Guy” — I’m not looking to just sign on to things just to sign on to things. But there’s a movie I’ve written that I want to do. There’s a book that I’m working on. I’m doing a stand-up special, and those are the kind of things that I feel excited about. It’s afforded me those opportunities.

When did you find out that Season 5 of “Maisel” is going to be the last one?

We were told before we started shooting. I can’t remember if it was before Season 4 rolled out or not, but we were given a heads-up before we came back to work. And that’s always hard. That’s like going on a cruise with your boyfriend and you’ve decided to break up. It’s a little bit like, “Well, we’ll have fun and still have lots of filthy sex and eat all we want,” but it’s weird to know the future.