December 13, 2018

Michael Zegen’s Jewish World in ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

Editors note: This article contains spoilers regarding season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. 

Michael Zegen has played good guys (“Rescue Me,” “Girls”), a gangster (“Boardwalk Empire”) and a zombie (“The Walking Dead”), but in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” he has his juiciest — and most personal — role to date.

In the Emmy-winning, 1950s-set series, now streaming its second season on Amazon Prime Video, Zegen plays Miriam “Midge” Maisel’s (Rachel Brosnahan) estranged husband, Joel, whose extramarital indiscretion fueled her quest for independence via a career in stand-up comedy. This season, audiences will see a newly assertive side of Joel as he takes charge of his family’s dress company and claps back at Catskills gossips.

“He’s trying to find his own career path because nothing else has worked out. He’s being a responsible adult. That’s where he’s headed. Hopefully, he keeps it up,” Zegen told the Journal. “I love the fact that he’s not just a one-note villain or antagonist. He’s got a lot of depth to him. He’s real and he’s funny. That’s why I love playing him. When I first read the script, I knew that it was something I had to do. I knew this guy and how to play him. And I’m really fortunate that they chose me to do it.”

The fact that the show reflects the Jewish experience was another lure. “It really hits home for me,” Zegen said. “Even though I’m not from the 1950s, I understood this world. I come from a family of Jews and Holocaust survivors and it’s important to tell these stories. The show is about a Jewish family, but it’s universal. The fact that so many people of different ethnicities have fallen in love with it is incredibly important to me.”

Several episodes are set in a summer resort in the Catskill Mountains, and while Zegen hadn’t been there previously, “my mother spent summers in the Catskills and told me about it,” he said. “We have home videos and it looks exactly like the place we filmed at.”

The series’ family dinner scenes and depictions of holiday traditions are quite familiar to Zegen, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Ridgewood, N.J. 

As the grandson of Ukrainian and Polish Holocaust survivors on his mother’s side, Zegen “grew up learning about the Holocaust. My grandma told me many stories about escaping. It was ingrained in my head from a very early age never to let something like that happen again, and that it’s important to pass on our traditions,” he said. “Whether I go to temple or not, I still celebrate the holidays.” This year, he’ll be in Berlin for Hanukkah, as the “Mrs. Maisel” cast is in Europe on a promotional tour.

“The show is about a Jewish family, but it’s universal. The fact that so many people of different ethnicities have fallen in love with it is incredibly important to me.” ­ — Michael Zegen

This season, Joel and Midge navigate the parameters of their relationship as a separated couple and parents of two young children. “I think there’s a lot of love between them but I don’t quite know if they’re right for each other,” Zegen said. 

He’s surprised when fans tell him they want the Maisels to get back together. “[Joel] wronged her in a way that was incredibly hurtful and he never said, ‘I’m sorry.’ It’s up to her whether she forgives him or not,” Zegen said. “But I don’t think she should.” 

Complicating matters this season is a new love interest for Midge, a Jewish doctor named Ben [Zachary Levi]. “Once Joel finds out she’s dating somebody else, I don’t think he’s

going to be very happy about it. Despite the fact that he told her he can’t be with her, it’s still going to hurt,” Zegen said.

Zegen doesn’t worry about the new episodes after such a successful and acclaimed first season. “Of course, there was a little fear that there would be a sophomore slump but from the moment we got the first script for this season, we knew it would be awesome and we’re in good hands,” Zegen said. “I have so much faith and trust in Amy and Dan [Palladino], the creators. They know what they’re doing.”

He credited the writing, the “visually dazzling” sets and costumes and his fellow actors for making “Maisel” magical. “Everybody involved is exceptional,” he said. “We enjoy being around each other and hopefully you can see that when you’re watching the show.”

Despite a severe case of stage fright at his bar mitzvah, Zegen conquered his fears and began acting in school plays. Since launching his career in 2002 with multiple appearances on “The Late Show With David Letterman” as Dwight the Troubled Teen, he has appeared in the movies “Brooklyn,” “Frances Ha” and “The Seagull,” TV series “Girls” and “The Good Wife,” and “Bad Jews” off-Broadway.

“I’d love to do more theater but it’s such a huge commitment, so it has to be something really worthwhile,” he said. “And also, with the series, it’s very difficult to time it out right.” 

His wish list includes playing Groucho Marx and writing and producing his own projects. “I’ve been working on a script. Hopefully, one of these days, I’ll get something made,” he said. 

Zegen was eager to hear what audiences think of the new “Maisel” episodes. “I feel like this season is even better than the last,” he said. “And I hope that Season 3 will be as good or even better than Season 2.”


“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.