September 25, 2018

Alex Borstein and Her ‘Maisel’ Character: ‘We’re Both Like Little Bulldogs’

Actress Alex Borstein plays Susie Myerson, a wannabe stand-up comedy manager on Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the most Jewish new show on TV. The gruff Susie’s sole client is Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a 1950s upper-middle-class Jewish housewife who’s obsessed with planning the perfect Yom Kippur break-the-fast meal until her husband, a failed stand-up comic, dumps her. On a drunken rampage, Midge then takes the stage at her hubby’s comedy club, riffs on their breakup, exposes her breasts and catches Susie’s eye with her ribald act.

The Journal caught up with the 46-year-old Borstein — previously known for her work on TV’s “Family Guy” and “Getting On” — by telephone from her home in Barcelona, Spain.

Jewish Journal: You attended the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. But your parents have very different Jewish backgrounds.

Alex Borstein: My father was raised Orthodox in Atlanta, Ga., and my mother is a child survivor of the Holocaust. She was born in Budapest at the time when they were lining Jews up and shooting them into pits. My grandmother gave my mother in her bassinet to a cousin, who was around 8 or 9, and the girl just walked out of line and kept walking. There were stories of holes in their shoes and lice in their hair, but they got out alive.

None of us would survive now, because we’re all such [wusses]. We’d be shot because my 9-year-old boy would be like, ‘Does anyone have an iPad?’ ”

JJ: You started doing stand-up at 16 in a small club in the Valley, with your parents accompanying you because you were underage. Did your family’s Holocaust background have anything to do with your budding sense of humor?

AB: It’s that old adage of Jews being survivors; you’ve just got to laugh or else you’re going to cry. But we also had these medical dramas going on because my brother is a hemophiliac. It was just kind of wanting to provide comic relief in the emergency room since everyone was so uptight and scared.

“It’s that old adage of Jews being survivors; you’ve just got to laugh or else you’re going to cry.”

JJ: Does Susie remind you of anyone in your own family?

AB: My grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, was very funny, very dark and bitchy. My mother went back to school later in life to get her MSW or MFT psychotherapy degree, one of those f—— series of letters with a bunch of “m’s” in it. They were tough broads who kept reinventing themselves, and there’s a piece of Susie in there.

JJ: Why were you drawn to your character?

AB: She’s ballsy and she’s got a foul mouth but she’s really vulnerable. She has qualities that are considered masculine: She’s ambitious, assertive and not afraid to say “no.” But it’s not that she feels like she was born in the wrong gender … We’re both like little bulldogs and unapologetic in some ways.

JJ: What does Susie think when Midge shows her breasts onstage?

AB: She’s shocked but she also sees it symbolically — that this woman is really willing to expose herself emotionally. Midge tells the truth: She admits that her husband left her, talks about sex and enjoying sex. And Susie admires that kind of raw honesty.

JJ: Why did you move to Barcelona, of all places? After all, the Jews were expelled from Spain back in 1492 and there are only 6,000 Jews in the country today.

AB: Well, some time has passed. (Laughs.) My show “Getting On” was canceled two years ago and it just broke my heart. So I thought I was done with on-camera TV, and I just felt that I would go out gracefully. I always wanted to live abroad so I thought, the time to do it is now. We have a small but lovely Jewish community. My kids and I attend the Atid Reform temple here. And I haven’t encountered any anti-Semitism. Then again, I’m not running around wearing a yarmulke or dancing with a Torah outside.

JJ: Your character on “Mrs. Maisel” is Jewish, even though we don’t know much about her background except that it is quite different from Midge’s. Were the Tribal aspects of the show a draw for you?

AB: They feel very comfortable, like coming home and putting on a pair of sweats. I’ve been on so many shows where they’re like, “It’s time for the Christmas episode.” I have no problem with that, but it’s really nice when you see your own reflection in something on TV.