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Alex Borstein On 'Mrs. Maisel' And Being Her Family's 'Comic Relief' As A Kid


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry GROSS. The third season of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" just started streaming on Amazon, and this morning, the show was nominated for a Golden Globe for best comedy series. Our guest Alex Borstein won back-to-back Emmys for her performance as Mrs. Maisel's manager. She also won an Emmy for her performance in the Fox animated series "Family Guy" as the mother, Lois. On the HBO series "Getting On," she played a nurse. She got her start on the sketch comedy series "Mad TV." Alex Borstein spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, and they began with a clip from "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."

It's set in the 1950s. Midge Maisel is an affluent, young Jewish housewife in New York's Upper West Side. After helping her husband, a businessman who's an aspiring comic, she takes the mic one night, likes it and soon discovers she's a better comic than he is. Alex Borstein's character is the tough, streetwise Susie Myerson, who recognizes Midge Maisel's talent and becomes her manager.

In this scene from the second season, Midge Maisel's career has gotten some traction, and she's meeting Susie at a diner. Midge Maisel is played by Rachel Brosnahan. The scene begins with Borstein, as Susie, remarking that Midge's success means her phone calls are now being returned.


ALEX BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) These club owners call me back in a flash. Sometimes I hear them yell, take a message. When they hear it's me on the phone, they take the call. That's respect - for me. I mean, look at me. They're respecting me.

RACHEL BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) I'm looking at you.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) Alone, I am a spittoon; with you, I'm a someone.

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) That's not true, Susie. They respect you because they fear you. You're great at what you do.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) Half of them respect me maybe; the other half want to get in your pants.

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) Stop.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) It's going to happen. I mean, look at you - it's like a dollop of whipped cream grew a head.

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) Just don't undercut yourself. That's all I'm saying.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) So you called this lunch. What do you want to talk about?

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) I just wanted to touch base before I go to the Catskills. We leave tomorrow.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) Oh, gosh. It's going to be so nice to have a break. This past year has been tough. Look at this - gigs. My typewriter lost its S. That's why it says -aturday, -unday (ph). You went to college. You can figure it out.

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) These are all in the next two weeks.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) So?

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) I'm going to the Catskills.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) Yeah, you said.

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) So I can't do these. I'm going to the Catskills.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) First one's not until the week after next.

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) But I'm going to the Catskills.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) Yeah, your record's skipping, Missy (ph). Get to the point.

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) I'm going to the Catskills for two months.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) Jeez. I almost did a spit take.

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) Almost? That was a spit take.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) You're going to the Catskills for two months?

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) I told you a million times I was going to the Catskills.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) Yeah, but I figured it was five days, tops, not two [expletive] months.

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) I think you got the guy in back of me, too.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) What the hell do you do up there for two months?

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) Lots of things.

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) What things? You look at a tree. You go to bed. You get up. You look at a tree. You're going to do that for two straight months? What the [expletive] is going on up there?

BROSNAHAN: (As Midge Maisel) There's activities. We go boating. We sunbathe. What do you do for the summer?

BORSTEIN: (As Susie Myerson) I stay here. And I sweat, and I smell like a bum, and I'm miserable, and I want to kill people. And I do that till it gets cold.


And that's our guest Alex Borstein with Rachel Brosnahan in "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." The third season is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Alex Borstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you. Tell us about Susie, this manager. You know, I'm sure you spent a lot of time in comedy clubs. Was there somebody that you kind of drew on for this character?

BORSTEIN: You know, not directly. This character just feels very familiar, regardless of what profession and what world she's working in. It's - you know, she's my grandmother. She's my mother. She's people, like Amy Sherman-Palladino, in my life. There have been, you know, various club owners that you know, you know, throughout the years. But there's no one person. I know Amy, in bringing this to life, she did pull from a, you know, Sue Mengers kind of a character, too. And the women that have risen to the top and especially during that time were pretty few and far between and very recognizable.

DAVIES: This series has really high production values, and the costumes, especially for the women, are like, wow - down to the hat and the gloves. You look pretty different.


BORSTEIN: Yeah, most of the women have extravagant costumes. I'm the lucky one, I think. I get flat shoes, no girdle. You know, I'm not forced to wear period underpinnings.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BORSTEIN: I think I am supposed to wear - I do have one vintage bras, but many times I actually sneak my own bra under because it's hidden with a jacket, and they can't see. And Susie's is not extravagant. Her bra is a very sad, little, white, old (laughter) 1950s period piece. But yeah, a lot of times out of laziness I'll keep on my Maidenform and move forward.

DAVIES: You know, as I understand it, you - this was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, who you'd worked with before. And you were living in Barcelona, right? You'd kind of made a move, and then you got this script.

BORSTEIN: She sucked me back in.


BORSTEIN: Yeah, I decided to - I wanted my kids to do, you know, a school year abroad and wanted to have that experience and had just - I had worked on a show called "Getting On," which was the love of my life.


BORSTEIN: And that ended, and it broke my heart. And I was just - I had tried with another project to get it off the ground, and that looked like it was going to happen, and it fell apart. Something with Alan Arkin. And I just kind of gave up. I thought this - I'm just done. I want to enjoy my time and not feel terrible about myself. Let me just go and have this experience. And right then, Amy's like, are you still serious about doing this Spain thing? Because I've written that project I talked to you about, and I'd really like for you to read for this. So I was like, well, go ahead and send it. And then I read it, and I was like, why did I have her send it?


BORSTEIN: Because I loved it, and I couldn't not audition for it. So I auditioned for it.

DAVIES: So what was the audition like?

BORSTEIN: I flew into New York. I brought some clothing that felt like what I kind of envisioned for this character, like a button-down shirt and some brown wool - I don't know if you'd call him dungarees, trousers, some flat kind of men's suit shoes. And they had me read with Rachel. So I met Rachel that day. And it was very warm, and I threw the outfit on and realized, right while I was in the waiting room, I forgot deodorant.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BORSTEIN: Just sweat pit circles, like really awful, awful sweat pits. And I think they actually thought it was kind of charming and very Susie-ish (laughter).

DAVIES: There's a lot of stand-up in the series, I mean, in comedy clubs and in other settings. And, you know, it struck me that that's maybe not the easiest thing to recreate, I mean, kind of the feeling of a comedy club and the spontaneity of a performer and an audience in a scripted drama. Did you feel that way?

BORSTEIN: It's the hardest thing in the world to do. I think we were almost nervous about that. And almost every show or movie I've ever seen about stand-up, just there's something so stiff and so unreal. And I think what Amy nailed was making Midge a type of stand-up that you have not seen before in that era. You know, she's not a Lenny Bruce, but she's stream of consciousness, and she's talking about things she's not supposed to and not doing a character, not - so I think that made it a little bit easier, that she's presenting herself and performing pieces from her life, that that maybe lends itself to reproducing in an easier way.

And Rachel's very, very committed to, I mean, nailing it. She works very, very hard on that material and asks a lot of questions, and Amy guides her a lot, and she tries different things. And we're very lucky that the background players who play our audiences - I mean this - they're really dedicated, and they laugh many, many, many times. We do so many takes, and they're able to give us the feeling that it's very real and give her the feeling that it's very real, that when she's succeeding, it feels real. She's able to have the right tone to follow up a joke with something that's just gone over well. And if you don't have that from the people responding to you, it's hard to pretend.

DAVIES: Yeah, you don't - you take for granted those people that are out there in these chairs (laughter). It's a long day for them. And they...

BORSTEIN: Very long day - in wool, in corsets, in heel - very uncomfortable shoes from the '50s and hats. And it is a tremendous amount of work for them.

DAVIES: Did you do a lot of stand-up when you were younger?

BORSTEIN: I've done some stand-up, you know. Really, I was just so desperate to perform and wanting desperately to just get up on stage and try to do stuff and please that stand-up was a great shortcut to do that. You didn't have to wait for a notice for an audition or try to get a group of people together; you could just go and do. And the first time I did it I was 16 years old, and it was at a bar that - my parents had to come with me because they wouldn't let me in the bar otherwise.


BORSTEIN: It was in the valley in California, and they paid me $20 at a place called Gallaghers (ph). It was in the bottom of the Ramada Inn (laughter).


BORSTEIN: And, you know, my material was about parents and school and teachers. And I'm sure - maybe it was a little bit cute. I don't know how great it was. But the six people in the audience were very kind. And it's funny, I made $20, and I think that was maybe the only money I ever made. After that, every, like, open mic was - you know, no one ever paid me again, really.

DAVIES: Wow. Do you remember any of your jokes?

BORSTEIN: I remember talking about the toilet paper (laughter) in the bathrooms. The junior high bathrooms were - in an effort to save paper and be economical, they looked like teeny-tiny squares that came out as a single piece instead of a roll of toilet paper. And I was comparing the size of the paper to the size of my ass...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BORSTEIN: ...And making jokes about how this - from the little math that I understood, this does not seem to work. I didn't say it was funny, folks. I said I did it at 16.


BORSTEIN: Most of it was family. Most of it was me impersonating my grandmother or talking about my parents or - that was the bulk of my material. I'm actually - come full circle, though. I'm doing stand-up again now.

DAVIES: Oh, are - really?

BORSTEIN: Which is - yeah.

DAVIES: And what made you want to do that?

BORSTEIN: You know, I met two really special people in Barcelona, or Barcelona (laughter).

DAVIES: Right.

BORSTEIN: And they're musicians, and they're dear, dear friends - Salva and Eric. And the three of us started working together, performing together, and then I started writing material.

DAVIES: You know, I remember Susie Essman, I think, saying on our show once before about that - you know, stand-up is, like, a really aggressive thing. You've just got to be tough. Do you feel that way?

BORSTEIN: I do, and I don't even think it's necessarily while you're on the stage doing it; it's everything around it. It's getting ready to do it. It's waiting till 2:00 in the morning to get a slot to go on. It's being heckled. It's drunk people. It's fighting noise of people talking. It's - in that way, it's - even before you're up there performing, it's very hard. It's an uphill push.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Alex Borstein. She's co-stars in the series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." The third season is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime. We'll continue our conversation after a quick break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and we're speaking with actress and comedian Alex Borstein. She co-stars in the series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." The third season is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

You grew up in the suburbs in Illinois and then moved to the L.A. area for high school. Were you always a cut-up? Were you always making jokes as a kid?

BORSTEIN: You know, I was always the comic relief in the family. I think, you know, you get a role at a very early age, and that's kind of what you're stuck with. And that was my role. We were always kind of a funny family. But specifically, I would kind of try to ease tensions a lot of the time.

DAVIES: Now, you were the youngest of three, right?


DAVIES: And your brother is a hemophiliac?

BORSTEIN: Yes, one of them.

DAVIES: You were not. You carry the gene, but not - but you don't have the disorder. Is that right?

BORSTEIN: Yeah. You know, it's interesting. When I grew up, women - even if you had a low level of clotting factor, which I do, they just called us low-level symptomatic carriers. We were a carrier. But now I have a daughter who has the same, you know, factor level as me, and now she's actually in the category - they call her a mild hemophiliac. So, yeah. But growing up, I was always just called a symptomatic carrier and really never had any issues. I never had to be treated for it. But my brother, you know, lived the life of a hemophiliac. My uncle as well.

And so that was something that I think I provided a lot of comic relief - you know, making him laugh, you know, when he had to be, you know, hospitalized for long periods of time. Or if he was in a wheelchair, we would have a wheelchair races in the hospital corridors. We - at one point, he had a - was in a wheelchair, and we tied a rope to the back of his wheelchair and to the garage door handle and thought that would be hilarious to open the garage and close the garage and have it pull him up and down the driveway, which of course ended up - it was not a good idea, folks. I'm going to go ahead and say don't do that.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Don't do this. Don't try this at home. So what happened? Did it spill him out of the chair?

BORSTEIN: Of course, it...

DAVIES: Right.

BORSTEIN: He spilled out of the chair. It - you know, when the thing went up, you know, it was disastrous. He rolled down, and then it yanked back when it went higher, and he poured out onto the cement driveway (laughter). And we were in a lot of trouble. But I think he laughed his ass off, so it was worth it. It was worth the injury.

DAVIES: Do you think seeing the difficulties your brothers faced and spending as much time as you did in medical settings and hospitals - I'm wondering how that affected you. Did it - your sense of, I don't know, security.

BORSTEIN: I don't know. I mean, definitely seeing the fragility of life, definitely seeing that one mutation of one gene can completely change the course of your health or a person's destiny or - I think that was always something that stayed with me. And I've - as a result, I've been very, very active in the hemophilia community. When I was pregnant with my first child, I knew that it was a boy, and I was terrified that he was going to be a hemophiliac. I was terrified. And what that would mean and would I be able to handle it? And I've since stayed very active. I reached out to the community at that point and talked to a lot of moms of hemophiliacs to try to figure out what kind of life - what is this going to mean for me now? Because I knew what it was like for my brother growing up, but it's changed. Treatment is very different now. My brother, you know, lost so many friends to HIV because the product was tainted. It was a blood derivative, and a lot of it was contaminated and still distributed within the community.

DAVIES: You mean hemophiliacs who were treated with blood treatments that were contaminated?

BORSTEIN: That's right. The Factor VIII treatment required for hemophilia - well, if you have Hemophilia A - was tainted. There was a lot of hepatitis C and HIV. And so many people died. So many people were lost. And we lived with that fear. We were very lucky. For some reason, my brother was spared and did not contract HIV. But it was very tenuous and very scary. That was always kind of a wait.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Alex Borstein. She co-stars in the series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" as Susie Myerson. The third season is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Your grandmother was Hungarian - right? - and a Holocaust survivor as a kid. And you went to Hebrew school, too, right? So you had a lot of sounds in your head. Did you develop characters out of all that?

BORSTEIN: Yeah, I think - you know, I worked on a show called "Mad TV." And one of the other actors, Will Sasso, he grew up with a second language in his house, and I think having that lends itself to impersonations, voices, character development. I think it's something that has a hand in pointing you in that direction. So, yeah, I - having different languages and ways to shape your mouth, I think it absolutely helped push me in that direction.

DAVIES: Do you have a character from your childhood that you remember or can share with us?

BORSTEIN: I mean, my grandmother was, you know, someone that I impersonated all my life. She then became, you know, a character I ended up doing on Mad - I was doing in live theater before, that was first called the Other Gabor, and then she became Ms. Swan. And so that was - you know, why you eat so much candy?

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BORSTEIN: Have a candy. Here - eat the candy. I make for you cake. Why you eat cake? You fat, too fat. There was a lot of that.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Right.

BORSTEIN: There was a lot of - I mean, I watched a lot of - you know, Latka on "Taxi" was major for me to watch something like that and Jonathan Winters. There are a lot of things that became little voices in my head.

DAVIES: So I know you went to college in San Francisco and got involved in a lot of comedy and sketch comedy groups and, in 1997, joined "Mad TV," which you would have been, like, 26 years old, right? I mean...

BORSTEIN: Yeah, I was a young'n (ph), I think.


BORSTEIN: I mean, now I feel like that's not young. Like, you see these fetuses starting in television now. But I...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BORSTEIN: At the time, I felt like I was young.

DAVIES: There was just some great performers there. I mean, my kids and I just loved that show. Will Sasso, you mentioned, Debra Wilson, Nicole Sullivan, Phil LaMarr and other people went on to great careers.

BORSTEIN: Yeah. Was it - it was a pretty intense experience. It was a really amazing boot camp kind of experience.

DAVIES: Well, I guess it was out of that that you got the role on "Family Guy," the animated series, which has been a huge hit and is on - what? - like, 18 seasons now. You met Seth MacFarlane on "Mad TV." Is that right? And then he came up with this...

BORSTEIN: Yeah. You know, "Mad TV" was a late-night Fox program. And at the time, a woman named Leslie Collins-Small (ph) was in charge of development for late night. And she was working with Seth, trying to develop this brilliant animated piece that he had done as a thesis project. And at first, they were going to do it as interstitials on "Mad TV," kind of like "The Simpsons" was born out of "The Tracey Ullman Show." And thankfully, Seth was so wise to not give up the rights and do that. I think they wanted him to sign everything over. And he didn't, and they ended up, you know, making a pilot.

And she - one of our press events, she said, hey, you know - Leslie said to me, do you - you do voices, right? And I was like, I'll do anything you want. What do you got? I'm doing this animated thing with this guy, Seth, and maybe you can help us do this pilot presentation. So one Saturday afternoon, I went to a studio in Santa Monica, Calif. And we met, and I took a look at the drawing. And at the same time, I was doing a character onstage at the ACME Comedy Theatre, where most of my characters were born.

I was doing a sketch called Magic Man, written by Jeff Lewis, and I played this mother with red hair, coincidentally. And her son had come home to say he doesn't want to be a stockbroker anymore; he wants to be a magician. And she said, oh, OK. Well, that's fine and wonderful. But what about the stockbroker job? Like, no, Mom. I'm not - I'm leaving that. I want to be a magician. OK, good. But yeah - but you're still going to be a stockbroker, right?

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BORSTEIN: And, you know, I did that voice for Seth, and he was like, I like that. He's like, maybe it's a little too slow; maybe you could speed it up. And that voice is actually also based on a Hungarian relative, on my cousin who lives in Long Island.


BORSTEIN: So, yeah, that was kind of born out of - everything was just ripped off of my family, basically. I just am a thief.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview Alex Borstein recorded with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. Borstein co-stars in the series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." The third season just started streaming on Amazon. After a break, she'll talk about finding the voices for her characters on the animated series "Family Guy," about why she thinks her looks prevented her from getting an agent earlier in her career and why the cancellation of her HBO series "Getting On" led her to leave the country. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with actor and comedian Alex Borstein. She's earned two Emmy awards for her performance in the hit series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." Its third season just started streaming on Amazon. And this morning, the show was nominated for a Golden Globe for best comedy series. When they left off, she was talking about doing voice work for the animated series "Family Guy."

DAVIES: Let's just hear a clip here. This is from Season 2, when Lois, your character, and Peter, her husband, run against each other for the schoolboard because of something stupid Peter got angry about. And this is at their debate. And we'll hear you as Lois. But first, we'll hear Peter, played by Seth MacFarlane, speaking about why people should not vote for his wife, Lois.


SETH MACFARLANE: (As Peter) They deserve a school board president who doesn't leave their feminine ointments in the fridge next to the mustard. That was the worst hot dog I ever ate.


BORSTEIN: (As Lois) Peter.

MACFARLANE: (As Peter) Yeah, she flosses in bed. She snores like a wildebeest.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Thank you, Mr. Griffin. We now move on to...

MACFARLANE: (As Peter) Wait a second, blow dryer. I'm not done yet. She freed Willie Horton. She nailed Donna Rice.

BORSTEIN: (As Lois) Peter, that's enough.

MACFARLANE: (As Peter) Eats babies.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, chanting) Peter. Peter. Peter. Peter.

BORSTEIN: (As Lois) Just a minute. Listen to me, please.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, chanting) Peter.

BORSTEIN: (As Lois) This election is about our children's future. So ask yourself, what kind of future will it be if you elect a man who has never taught a student or even been to a PTA meeting? This is a man who believes the plural of goose is sheep. I'm the right person for the job. Vote for me.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, chanting) Lois. Lois. Lois.

DAVIES: And that's our guest, Alex Borstein. Thanks to her cousin in Long Island doing the voice...

BORSTEIN: That's - it's - you know what's amazing is in animation - and this is true of almost every show that's ever been made. The voices get higher and faster as the years go on. And it's so true. I listened to that. And it's - it sounds so much slower and such - at such a lower pitch. It's really interesting.

DAVIES: Why does that happen?

BORSTEIN: I don't know. Seth is the one who said that that's a truth. And I started noticing it even with "The Flintstones" and "The Jetsons." You can really hear the change from the first year to the last.

DAVIES: Now, you did Lois and a lot of other voices. Do you have a favorite, more obscure voice that you can share with us?

BORSTEIN: There's this librarian that's always been really fun to do that...

(As librarian) She's just very - she thinks she's very clever. And she tells some jokes (laughter) that - they're not even jokes. But (laughter) she's so taken by them. And I (laughter) just can't get enough.

Just that kind of woman.

DAVIES: (Laughter) You know, it's such a different process. I mean, you've done standup, and you've done sketch. And then this - I gather you spend a lot of time in the studio by yourself, right? - I mean, without the other actors there, right?

BORSTEIN: Oh, yeah, a lot of it. In the beginning, we tried to do stuff together. Seth and I would do a lot together. But then as everyone's schedules changed, it became almost impossible. So, you know, everyone started working more and more and moving and our lives changing, so we do a lot of stuff solo. But we'll, sometimes, be on the line where we can, you know, do some - riff off of each other with someone long distance, but a lot of it's solitary.

DAVIES: And you were involved in writing the series, too, over the years, right? So I guess there's some collaboration there.

BORSTEIN: Yeah, actually, you know, that's how I came into the Palladino fold was through "Family Guy." One of our writers was Dan Palladino, and then he rose in the ranks and started running the show. He was running the writers room, and he was my boss as a writer. And he was the person that came to me and said, you know, you should read the script my wife wrote. It's called the "Gilmore Girls." And that's kind of how he met the Palladinos.

DAVIES: Right. And Amy Sherman-Palladino is the creator of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." And yeah, I mean, you were - you landed a role on the "Gilmore Girls," right? You were Sookie, right?

BORSTEIN: Yeah. Yeah. I auditioned for Sookie, and we shot the pilot in Canada. And then I couldn't do it because of my contract with Mad TV.

DAVIES: Oh. It's odd that they would have let you shoot the pilot without - you know, without getting the go-ahead to appear on the series.

BORSTEIN: Well, you know, every year, the way it works, you don't know if a show's going to come back for quite a while. It's - things are always on the bubble. Mad TV - every year, we were waiting to hear. And while you're waiting, you want to cover your own butt. So you go out, and you audition for things in second position, they call it. So a lot of things will take you in second position because they're banking on the other thing folding. They're just willing to take that chance. And they thought they were going to try to work it out. They thought, you know, I think we're going to be able to do this. We'll have you work on Sundays and Mondays on "Gilmore" (ph), and then you'll do Mad TV the rest of the week. And then it just became - I think it was kind of a tiny war between Warner Brothers and Fox, and they didn't want to share anybody.

DAVIES: Yeah; well, nice to be appreciated anyway.

BORSTEIN: (Laughter).

DAVIES: So did you have to figure all this out? Do you have an agent who really knows the business, your own Susie Myerson, who could guide you through this stuff?

BORSTEIN: No, I didn't have an agent at the time.

DAVIES: Really? Wow.

BORSTEIN: Yeah. It took me - I was on Mad TV for five years, and I was not able to get an agent until I left.

DAVIES: Not able - no one wanted to represent you or...

BORSTEIN: That is correct.

DAVIES: That's shocking. Is it the different...


DAVIES: The business was different back then.

BORSTEIN: No, I think I just didn't - everyone just was like, what is she going to be able to do? She's this short, pudgy thing. And how are we going to cast her? No one wants to look at that. So I think it was just not - I was not seen as a horse that was going to place, so I could not get representation to save my life (laughter).

DAVIES: Wow. So you had to work the phones and negotiate your own contracts.

BORSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, Mad TV happened because I got myself into a comedy festival in Austin, Texas, where casting people were. And they saw me, and that's how I got that audition. And then "Family Guy" happened because the woman who worked on Mad TV was developing with Seth, knew me personally and brought me in. And then "Gilmore Girls" happened because of Dan working on "Family Guy." And, really, everything has been just one piece after that. After - on "Gilmore Girls," I met a producer named Gavin Polone, who then was - you know, signed me on to develop a pilot with him as a producer. And at that point, an agency was - a lawyer was like, hey, will you take her on? - because she's doing this pilot. And they took me on, and that ended up kind of being a disaster because they didn't really want to represent me. They were kind of doing it as a favor to this lawyer and, you know...


BORSTEIN: ...Got the paperwork done for me. And then that was kind of the last I ever heard from them.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Alex Borstein. We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Alex Borstein. She co-stars in the series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." Season 3 is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Well, I want to talk about "Getting On," the HBO series that you did, I guess, for three seasons. I mean, this is just a terrific series. And I'm - I recommend it to listeners. You can - it's available on demand.

Let's listen to a scene here. This is set in a geriatric extended care unit of a hospital. It's kind of a struggling hospital. And you're a nurse who cares for these elderly women. And the series, it's about the work and the relationships among you and a doctor - who is played brilliantly by Laurie Metcalf - and the patients and the other staff. And here is a scene from the first episode, where you're sitting with a new nurse, who's played by Niecy Nash. You're eating a salad and talking about the job and the hospital, which, you know, is kind of struggling. Let's listen.


BORSTEIN: (As Dawn) Dr. Ribaldi (ph), he was a great director of medicine. He was really handsome, too. He got canned over the bad infections report. And then they've been interviewing for that position for, like, three months. Everyone says that we're dragging the rest of the medical center down, which we're not. Plus, people say that extended care is boring, which it is not. It is totally where the action is. We could use some testosterone in this unit, though. I'll tell you that. So why did you get into nursing? And what did you do before?

NIECY NASH: (As Didi) It's a long story.

BORSTEIN: (As Dawn) I talk too much. (Laughter).

NASH: (As Didi, laughter) Uh-uh. No, no. Me and my husband...

BORSTEIN: (As Dawn) All it takes is a little getting used to. I mean, I cried, like, every day on the way home from work my first two months.

NASH: (As Didi) For what?

BORSTEIN: (As Dawn) I don't know - because I take my job really seriously. You know? I mean, maybe I care too much 'cause there's nothing more important to me than taking care of these women here - you know, these elderly women who are alone and have no one else and are entrusted to my care. And we work just as hard as anyone in that hospital over there, maybe even 10 times as hard. You know, I've almost been fired twice for cleanliness infractions.

DAVIES: That's our guest Alex Borstein with Niecy Nash in the HBO series "Getting On."

Just talk a little bit about your character and what makes this thing work in such a compelling way.

BORSTEIN: That was really, really something to listen to. I haven't heard that in so long, and there's so many memories in that project. That - this was one of the - my favorite things I've ever done in my life. The whole experience was just remarkable.

And it was so dark. And the show is about dying women - elderly women and how they're just thrown away, really - the elderly in our society. And the health care system is just a mess. And yet, it was so funny. And there was so much comedy to be mined out of this. And it was just an amazing - an amazing project.

That monologue - that piece was my audition. And I had just had a baby. I was in Seattle, Wash. And I was - I put myself on tape - on video to do this audition. And I was such a hormonal mess. I was so - I mean, I looked exhausted and was on the verge of - and just broke down doing that piece. And it's - you know, it's really just post-partum insanity is what got me that part (laughter). So funny to listen to now.

But yeah, the - Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, the guys who created that show, they recrafted it after the British series of the same name. And they were just remarkable. They had gone through losing both of their parents and were so - both of their moms in the very recent past at that time. And so they were wanting desperately to tell that story, and they did it so well.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, so the scene that we just heard was pretty much the audition script that you read?

BORSTEIN: Yeah, that was my audition piece.

DAVIES: Wow. You know...

BORSTEIN: Isn't that funny?

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean - well, what strikes me is that - I mean, you know, we think of you as a comedic actress, and you're really funny. And - but this really requires some dramatic acting chops. Did that feel comfortable? Did you train for it?

BORSTEIN: No, it did not feel comfortable. And I think that's why it was exciting - like, the challenge of - I hadn't done anything like this before and had no idea if I could even do it. I just loved how desperate this woman was and sad and vulnerable and (laughter) willing to sell herself short for any kind of connection with another human being. And you know, when she's talking in that piece, she's talking about herself and the fear she has of dying alone and who's going to take care of her. And it's - it was just so compelling, I couldn't not audition for it.

DAVIES: You know, there are the main actors, and then the set is populated with these patients - these elderly women, who add some real comedy to it with their expressions. They're watching these crazy fights go on among the staff, and their expressions are just hilarious. And you know, I assume that these are older actors. And I'm wondering kind of what your interactions with them are like and whether it kind of made you think about the passage of time and said, gosh, maybe that's me in 30 years.

BORSTEIN: Oh, yeah. We had a lot of people on the set - women on the set who, you know, had worked - this one worked with Sinatra, and this one was in "Gypsy." And this one - you know, June Squibb had been in "Gypsy" - you know, a stage version. It's - it was phenomenal to meet these women and listen to what they had to say and watch them work and - and also to see, like - oh, this is the future. Like - you know, Laurie and Niecy and I would all be like, this is going to be us. Like, we're going to all be in the beds in the background one day. And I hope that we are, you know, still as sharp and as graceful as these ladies is kind of what we would talk about every day.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, the other thing that struck me about it is that I think all of the scenes take place in the hospital. I mean, there are these - it's about their lives. And there are references that to things that happen elsewhere, like, you know, dating and sex and all that stuff. But it's really in the workplace. And there's - I'm wondering kind of what that added to the performances and the feel of it all.

BORSTEIN: It was magic. I mean, I think that's probably one of the things I loved about it. It was so contained. There were no lighting changes. Very rarely would they have to adjust anything. So we shot - you know, we shot for 12 hours a day, and it was nonstop. We didn't - we never sat. There was no, like, chairs set up with your - with a book or knitting needles in the corner 'cause you never stopped. You did not rest. You're in every scene. Even if you're not in the forefront, you're in the background. And we moved like lightning. We had 3 1/2 days to shoot an episode, which is tiny. I think we have 12 on "Maisel." Most shows have five or seven. And we had 3 1/2 And it was - we moved so quickly, and I loved it. It felt real. I think it helped all of our performances to feel like we were nurses on duty doing a 12-hour shift. And you could not rest and you could not get off your feet. And you were very happy to be wearing nursing clogs because that's the only way you could get through the day.

DAVIES: Right. Yeah, I have two sisters who are hospital nurses. And yeah, it is an intense and busy profession. Yeah.

BORSTEIN: It's brutal. And you're making decisions that are life and death, very often. So it was - I mean, I'd been in a lot of hospitals my whole life with my brother and in and out. But to see it from the other side is really - it's really something.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, what's interesting about - you know, you - this is a character that was - is really complex. I mean, she is committed, but she's very vulnerable and, you know, confused at times. And when it was canceled, it was a real bummer for you. That's when you moved to Barcelona? Is that right?

BORSTEIN: Oh, it broke my heart. It was the hardest thing. I mean, really, it really was the big heartbreak in my life. Yeah, I felt like I was just kind of coming into my own. I had just found something that felt right. And then it was gone. And it was hard because it was - critically, it was received very well. We were really doing well. And I would hear such positive things from so many people. But it was not - it was dark. And I think a lot of people - HBO, I think, was worried that, like, who wants to watch a show about dying? - dying women when they had things like "Entourage" and "Game Of Thrones" that were these big, shiny pieces. You know, so it was just - I think it was a weird time for it. But I also feel so grateful to have had three seasons at all and gotten the experience.

DAVIES: Is celebrity appealing and fun? I mean, do you enjoy people approaching you in the airport and on the street?

BORSTEIN: I'm not really good at it. I'm not good at it. I still have a really crap self-image. And I think I still live in, like, a middle-school mentality in my head. So if anyone's looking at me, I assume it's 'cause they are making fun of me. If anyone's whispering, I assume it's because they're saying terrible things. So it's - I get very paranoid and strange about it. And my face will turn red, and I get very uncomfortable. And I think I come off 9 times out of 10 as very aloof. But I just - I'm uncomfortable with it. It's strange.

DAVIES: So maybe Barcelona's an advantage in that way.

BORSTEIN: Yeah. The thing - I always say what I love most about Barcelona is I am - I feel very - I get to be anonymous there, but I feel very visible and alive and seen and taken in well. And whereas when I'm here, I feel very invisible in some ways. Or if people are looking at me, it's probably for the wrong reasons and nervous about it. I know it makes no sense. But that's why I'm an actor. We're all nuts, right?

DAVIES: (Laughter). Alex Borstein, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

BORSTEIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Alex Borstein spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. She's won two Emmys for her performance in the series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." And the show is nominated for a Golden Globe for best comedy series. The third season is now streaming on Amazon. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.