Alex Borstein is still flummoxed by that banner night in mid-September. As she recalls the 2018 Emmy Awards, the word “strange” rolls of her tongue frequently. So does “weird.” And “wonderful.”
The 47-year-old actor arrived at the Microsoft Theater already a winner: She had claimed an Emmy at the Creative Arts ceremony a week prior for her voice-over work on Fox’s “Family Guy,” on which she has played Lois Griffin since the show’s debut in 1999. Then Borstein stepped into the spotlight at the main event, winning outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series for playing brash stand-up comic manager Susie Myerson on Amazon Prime Video’s breakout hit “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
“I still don’t really understand it,” says Borstein, whose career was kick-started when she joined the sketch series “MADtv” in 1997. “It’s so weird to all of a sudden have anybody notice.”
Celebrated for its themes of family, identity and feminism, “Mrs. Maisel” ended up grabbing five trophies during the Emmys broadcast, including one for best comedy series. With Season 2 arriving Wednesday on Amazon, the show returns as both a critical darling and a beloved crowd-pleaser. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Set in 1950s New York, the series follows Miriam Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), a quick-witted mother of two who finds catharsis on the stand-up stage after her husband (Michael Zegen) walks out on her. As Miriam’s street-smart manager, Susie must help her client navigate the casual sexism of the era.
“Mrs. Maisel” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino has said she wrote the part of Susie with Borstein, a longtime friend and collaborator, in mind. (Borstein actually played Sookie St. James in the unaired pilot of Sherman-Palladino’s “Gilmore Girls,” but was unavailable because of her “MADtv” contract and gave way to Melissa McCarthy.) Although Borstein steals scene after scene thanks to Susie’s rapid-fire one-liners and unflinching honesty, she balances the character’s coarse exterior with an underlying empathy.
“I love having somebody who is kind of hard but cracks open some of that vulnerability,” says Borstein, who acknowledged Sherman-Palladino had to sell her “pretty aggressively” to Amazon executives before she got the role. “You see that she’s just putting up so much of this exterior.”
While Miriam’s candid style onstage grabs her headlines as a comic to watch, that approach also makes her enemies in the insular New York comedy scene. That leaves Susie to cope with the consequences, which come in the form of goons dispatched by comedy kingmaker Harry Drake (David Paymer) and sleepless nights not knowing who else could come knocking on her door.
All the while, there’s a tension threatening to disrupt the odd-couple dynamic between Miriam, the daughter of well-off Upper West Side parents, and Susie, whose Season 2 storyline explores her isolated upbringing and increasingly dire financial straits.
“Learning a little bit about her family and where she comes from is pretty enlightening,” Borstein says. “If you raise a cat in a warm, cuddly home and another one is feral and has to fend for itself, you’ll have a wild cat and a tame cat. I think that’s how you could best describe her — Susie’s a bit of a feral cat.”
Borstein, who swapped life in Hollywood for a move to Barcelona three years ago, is happy to maintain a low profile. Her next performance will come in the musical “[title of show]” this winter at the Jocular Theatre, a modest, English-speaking venue in Barcelona. She is also writing a play of her own: a 1980s-set family drama partially inspired by her brother’s struggle with hemophilia.
It all adds up to something of a strange path — just the way Borstein wants it.
“I think I got very lucky in having the exact career I think I was made for,” Borstein says. “Being so lucky getting to work and be paid, but live under the radar. That’s just what I assumed I’d always be or always have, and I like it.”