'Marvelous Mrs. Maisel': Alex Borstein on How Season 2 Parallels Her Stand-Up Experience

The Emmy-winning actress talks with THR about why she won't (likely) return to the stage and Midge's professional journey in the Amazon critical favorite.
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[This story contains spoilers from season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.]

As endlessly delightful as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's ebullient title character is, and as perfectly calibrated as Rachel Brosnahan's performance is, Midge is also a lot. Her boundless energy and lightning-speed dialogue might threaten to become exhausting for a viewer, if it weren't for the balancing presence of her manager, Susie (fellow Emmy winner Alex Borstein), whose hard-bitten cynicism keeps Midge grounded. Equally, Midge is the only thing viewers have ever seen Susie truly excited about, ever since the moment in the Amazon pilot in which she saw the potential in her first chaotic, off-the-cuff, open-mic set.

Season two, which is now streaming on Amazon, deepens Susie and Midge's relationship — and offers some glimpses into Susie's past — while also showing its edges start to fray. As Midge's career continues to flourish in gigs both in and out of New York, it becomes clear that the two women are approaching this venture with different stakes.

"Midge can walk away from this decision to do stand-up any time she wants and have a comfortable, happy life," Borstein tells The Hollywood Reporter. "For Susie, it's this or nothing."

Below, Borstein discusses Susie's evolving relationship with Midge, her own experiences with the "lonely, tough" path of stand-up comedy and why she thinks Midge needs to stick with it.

In season two it's clear that there's a real friendship between Midge and Susie, but Susie won't admit it. Why is that?

She's never really had a friend before. She hasn't had the luxury of that, and she's terrified of what it really means to have a friend, and doesn't want to be hurt. She prefers living alone; it's much easier to just take care of herself and have no surprises. I think it's like they're in a new relationship, and Susie's always terrified that Midge is going to run back to her old life and her ex-husband. Susie's always afraid of losing her.

The extent of Midge's privilege, in contrast to Susie really having to struggle and worry about money, felt pronounced this season.

The money is just one example of the differences in their upbringing. Midge has had the luxury of being in a home where she was cared for and looked after and raised, and Susie is more like a wild animal raised by wolves and by herself on the street. If you try to bring a cat from the street home, they tear people up and shit in the house and ruin the furniture, and I think that's really the basic difference between the two of them. She doesn't have a support system. Midge can walk away from this decision to do stand-up any time she wants and have a comfortable happy life, but for Susie it's this or nothing.

Midge deals with some overt sexism at a comedy club early in the season. Did that resonate with any experiences you had as a stand-up?

Yes, I didn't tour, and I wasn't a huge practicing stand-up, but I did a lot of open mics, and one of the reasons I hated doing it was that feeling backstage. It felt very much like a club I wasn't invited to, or wasn't a part of. So it was nice to see Midge stand up and just take her space and own it, and push it down their throats a little bit.

And Susie ends up having to maneuver the spotlight herself because Midge gets bumped to such a late slot that the lighting guy has left…

I remember many times going to do open mics at places and I would just give up. It would be 2 a.m. and there's no crowd left and I'd just be like, "Fuck it, you win, I'm leaving." It's definitely true that if Midge had gone alone — I would always go alone to these things — and I think if she had gone alone, she absolutely would have left. I think with Susie there, they both kind of have to be accountable for each other.

Susie is very funny, in terms of comic timing and one-liners. Does she know she's funny, and does she have any interest in being a comedian herself?

No, she thinks that she's got a funny turn of phrase, she's a smart-ass, she's quick and she's clever, but she's not a performer. It's more like she's an art collector. She's a purveyor of art, but she really can't paint herself. She can be whip quick and lash out, but in terms of crafting something on stage that would tell a story or create a persona, that's not what she's built for.

Susie gets swept up into Midge's old world a lot more this season, particularly when she comes to the Catskills. How were those scenes to play?

It's funny because she goes, but she's kind of sidelined. She's not really invited, and she's not necessarily supposed to be there, so she's definitely an outsider coming into that world. Most of us while we were there at the resort kept thinking of Dirty Dancing, because that's kind of the vibe. It was weird being outside of our norm, and not wearing my usual wardrobe and not being in our usual sets. It was definitely challenging and interesting to see, "OK, do these characters sustain themselves outside of our world?" It was nice to see that they do.

Midge encounters this insane situation in the Catskills where her father, Abe (Tony Shalhoub), shows up during her stand-up set, and she just has to keep going. Did you ever experience a moment of panic like that on stage?

There were definitely nights when I would go down a road, and you're realizing it's not working, but you're not sure how to pull out. There's no eject button, so you think you're going to make it better but you end up making it worse, you just dig the hole deeper. I've had many of those experiences! Stand-up is something that I did, not because that's my craft or my art, I did it because I wanted to get on stage as fast as I could. I was so needy and so desperate to try to perform and get attention that that's why I turned to stand-up, and for me looking back on it, it's a bit of a sad, lonely experience. I much prefer doing sketch comedy with people, or scripted material where you're working with a group and building something, and it feels more lasting. Stand-up feels so ephemeral to me, even though you can shoot it and you can make a stand-up special. It gets used up, it's consumed, and you move past it. Rarely do people now re-watch a stand-up special from 10 years ago, unless it's a classic like Richard Pryor, George Carlin or Steve Martin, but everyone and their mother has a Netflix special now, and I feel like it's just ephemera, it disappears. Most of it's so topical that it doesn't have an evergreen quality to it, so for me, it wasn't satisfying for what I really wanted to do. But it was such a great way to get up and start performing immediately, because you don't have to wait for a play to be written or to be cast in something. No one tells you you're good enough, you just get up and say, "I am. Here I am. Deal with it."

The show also depicts that lonely, tough side of stand-up more this season, and shows Midge struggling with whether it's worth it. Susie obviously wants Midge to stick with it, but do you think she should?

I do think she should stick with it. This character, this is her craft. She is doing something at that time that no one else was doing, she's telling the world about the experience of being a woman and what it means and who she is, and no one was doing that. She's not Lenny Bruce but they're equating that, and she is this very different kind of truth teller of that time, in a woman's body, and she absolutely should be doing it. When I was doing it, I was just trying to get laughs and get attention, and now I can't really see myself doing stand-up again. I'll occasionally do a charity event or something, a little set, but it just has such a different feeling to me now. I'm not the same person and I'm not that needy any more for it. But with Midge, it's very different and it's super important at that time, and her story needs to be told and that perspective does not exist anywhere. It's a must, I think.

Bookmark THR.com/Maisel for more coverage of season two.