January 28, 2020

Caroline Aaron on Playing Shirley Maisel: She’s a Liberated Woman for the Times

Caroline Aaron; Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

As Shirley Maisel, the loud and overbearing Jewish mother of Joel and former mother-in-law of the titular standup comedian in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Caroline Aaron isn’t one to hold back. But when asked for details about the third season of the hit Amazon Prime series, which begins streaming on Dec. 6, there wasn’t a lot she was allowed to tell the Journal. So before getting into our interview, and without spoiling plot points under embargo, here’s what we can reveal, based on viewing the first five episodes.

As the opening act for singer Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain), Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) hits the road with her manager, Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein), performing in a USO show and in Miami and Las Vegas. Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”) recurs as Baldwin’s manager and Liza Weil (who had a major role in the creators’ earlier production of “Gilmore Girls”) plays a band member that Midge befriends. 

Midge gets a little closer to a male friend, but she and her ex, Joel (Michael Zegen), are still very much in each other’s lives — and not only because he takes care of their kids while she’s away. Joel begins a new venture, a nightclub, but gets a big surprise after he signs the lease. 

Susie takes on a new client and may live to regret it. Midge’s father, Abe Weissman (Tony Shalhoub), becomes involved in social activism and we learn the source of his wife Rose’s (Marin Hinkle) family wealth. The upwardly mobile Shirley and Moishe Maisel (Kevin Pollak) have moved to a big house in Queens and changing circumstances put a strain on their relationship with the Weissmans. 

Aaron described the season as “funny and important and sexy and musical,” giving credit to the “single vision” of husband-and-wife creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino and the “A+ quality” creative team. She acknowledged that the accolades and honors the series has received raised the bar, “but Dan says that we just keep doing what we’ve been doing. The heavy lifting is on them,” she said. “I’m just glad I got invited to the party.” 

Asked if she thinks Shirley plays into Jewish mother stereotypes, Aaron said her character “is a liberated woman for the times (the 1950s). She’s part of the family business; a participant in every way. She and Moishe are devoted parents but want to belong and climb, which is both an archetype and true. People always tell me that Shirley reminds them of someone they love, so there must be something authentic about her.” She added that the character “says everything to Joel that I would like to say to my son but can’t get away with.” 

Aaron channels a loud, unfiltered cousin of her mother’s in playing Shirley, but her real-life inspiration was her own mother. She was a civil rights activist and Alabama-born Hungarian Jew who worked full time to support her three kids after Aaron’s father, a Lebanese Jew, passed away. “She taught me responsibility and gave me permission to follow what I wanted to do with my life. She also made it clear we had to leave the world a better place than we found it. I’m so grateful to have had her as a role model,” Aaron said.

Kevin Pollak, Caroline Aaron

Kevin Pollak, Caroline Aaron; Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios.

Raised in Richmond, Va., in a community with few Jews and one synagogue, Aaron said she had no idea there was “cultural Judaism” or what brisket was, and she didn’t have a good bagel until she moved to New York in 1980. “For me, the content — understanding what Judaism was about — was the only way by which I could identify myself,” she said. But her family did celebrate the secular aspects of Christmas because Aaron’s mother didn’t want them to feel left out or resentful and turn away from Judaism. 

As an adult, Aaron “had to figure out what being Jewish meant to me. I love the ritual, the tradition and being part of a community.” She lived in Los Angeles for 24 years and belonged to Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where her children became bar and bat mitzvahs. She and her real estate broker husband, who met in New York and married in 1981, have relocated there for “Mrs. Maisel.”

“I go wherever the job is,” Aaron said, noting that acting has been a “longstanding passion” since her summer camp days. “I knew it was a risky thing to do but I really loved it. It has sent me down so many different pathways, walking in other people’s shoes.” Starting out in the New York theater, Aaron was studying with Uta Hagen when director Mike Nichols saw her perform a scene and cast her in the film “Heartburn.” She segued to “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and three other Woody Allen films, amassing 100-plus film and television credits.

Early on, Aaron worked hard to lose her Southern accent and played down her Jewish identity out of concern she’d be typecast and her opportunities would be limited. Now she has found her greatest success playing a Jewish role. “ ‘Maisel’ is everybody’s big break, no matter how much work we’ve done individually and collectively,” she said. “No one knew it would be this big of a hit. It’s once in a lifetime.”

Aaron’s future goals include returning to the theater as a playwright and an actor. She would especially like to resurrect her Southern drawl in a Tennessee Williams play. “I’m interested in the arts, whether it’s onstage or in music or painting,” she said. “These things we create bear witness to the time we’re living in after we’re all gone.”

Season Three of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” begins streaming Dec. 6 on Amazon Prime.