Talking to Michael Zegen about the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was a treat because it felt like he really connected with me. He opened up about a particularly unique audition, bonding with co-star Rachel Brosnahan, and spoke about his validating experience winning multiple awards for his very first series regular role in an already impressive career. It was one of my favourite interviews of all-time and a pleasure to conduct (team Joel all the way).
The following is a condensed and edited version of my interview with the fast-talking yet meditative Michael Zegen.
Brief Take: I have to start off by saying that we here at Brief Take were big fans of the movie Becks. When I spoke to Lena Hall, she mentioned that you were auditioning for the part of Joel at the time.
Michael Zegen: She was helping me out with the audition because it was that scene in which I do the stand-up, and it was one in which I succeed, it wasn’t where I bombed. I was on the phone and I was like “How do I hold the phone?” I didn’t know what the right way to do it was. And she was like “why don’t you do it like this?”, and I was like “oh yeah, that looks right”, so the way that I am holding the phone when we’re filming is actually what she told me to do. I just made a fist and put it to my ear, and that’s what ended up being…actually, Amy Sherman-Palladino said that ended up making her laugh, the way that I was holding the phone. So yeah, she definitely had a hand in it.
BT: Plus it sounds like you had incredibly natural chemistry.
MZ: That was the reason that I wanted to be in that movie, which was to sing with Lena Hall. She’s got an incredible voice and I was like “oh yeah, that will be really cool”, and they ended up cutting that. So we don’t really end up singing together. I think that I’m playing guitar but she’s doing most of the singing. It did end up fine, it all worked out. But yeah, I did improvise that scene and I got to play with her, and I love her, she’s so talented. I really didn’t know Lena, other that what I had seen of her on stage, and I saw the movie and I was kind of blown away. I thought it was really good, and I wanted to applaud every time that there was a musical number. Every time she sang a song, I was ready to clap. And the music is so good in that.
BT: This season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was incredible! I really liked the late night baseball scene with you and the actor who plays Archie (three kids!), and was really curious how many takes it required to get that many consecutive balls hit together while also nailing both of your lines.
MZ: If you want to know the truth, there’s some “movie magic” in there, because some of the hits were CGI, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. I mean, I wouldn’t be able to tell if I don’t know any better. It’s just that when the camera is in front of us, we weren’t able to hit a real baseball, so we just faked it. We mimed and then they added a baseball in there. But it was a bunch of takes, for the most part it was just a big scene. Amy (Sherman-Palladino) sent Joel Johnstone (who plays Archie) and me to this baseball clinic, which was on like W. 74th Street or something, and I had no idea that they existed. It was like in the basement of a bank. There’s a batting cage and a pitching cage. So they paid for us to be there for a few hours and rehearse the scene, and take some hits and practice what we were going to do. And it ended up being the last shot of the entire second season. So yeah, we were there until like four in the morning, well we probably wrapped at three, and then had champagne and everything; everybody was there. It was a tough shot but I love those, in which there’s no cuts and if you screw up, it’s back to the beginning. I love that because, I don’t know, it feels like theatre to me. Because you can’t screw up in theatre, and here you can screw up but you know [laughs] it makes you feel like you let everyone down. But as long as you know your lines, I don’t think that anybody cares, they know that a lot of the technical stuff is going to take a while, and these scenes are no different, they do take a while. Like the second episode I think, in which Kevin Pollak and I are walking through the factory, and we had this long scene, and we talk to this person, this scene and open the door, talk to that guy and talk to the person sitting down, and make a left here and a right there and it’s theatre to me. You have to know your lines and listen, also know where you are headed and know your blocking and that factory scene took…we probably got there at seven in the morning and we were done probably like two in the afternoon and maybe got like two good shots. So that’s what it is, and everybody knows it, and as long as you get one, all you need is one. But that baseball scene is really cool, it came out really well. I think Joel Johnstone, he played baseball, not professionally but on his high school team and in college, so he was good. I love baseball in general but I’m not a good player, but he actually can play and he can hit, and he was just hitting some bombs and I was not really doing as well as he was, but the shot came out great.
BT: What are the key elements that you bring to Joel as a craftsman?
MZ: Well, he’s Jewish [laughs} I’m Jewish. There is that.
BT: That is a big part!
MZ: It is a big part because I know where he comes from and there’s a family aspect of it, but to be honest, I don’t know because he’s not really anything like me. So I mean, other than my body, I don’t know what I infuse into him that wasn’t written down, that wasn’t Amy and Dan writing it. To be honest, I didn’t know who this guy is. You read something and you go on instinct, so that’s how I view it. I’m kind of instinctual. I read it and I kind of played it as I thought it should be played. I’m not the kind of actor who speaks to a character journal or something like that. I just read it and go with it, so it’s really a testament to Amy and Dan’s writing. And maybe I had it all wrong because I saw him as the villain, as the antagonist. And that really isn’t how he has turned out to be, necessarily, so maybe I had it all wrong. [laughs]
BT: A common theme in the series, and especially this season with Joel’s arc, are guilt and forgiveness. How do you feel about that?
MZ: Well in terms of Joel, you know, he is the catalyst for everything. None of this would have happened had he not had this massive blow-up–cheating on her and quitting his job, and I guess that happened later on. But I mean his stealing his act on stage, none of this would have happened for Midge had he not had this self-destructive moment happen to him in his life. I think that he just always carries this guilt, especially in this episode 7 when he says “I want to be forgiven”. I really feel like he can’t get rid of his guilt, but he cheated on her, and despite the fact that she’s gone on to have this illustrious career, or will have this illustrious career, it’s certainly happening for her, I think part of him wishes that it didn’t, part of him is just like: “I wish everything was the same”. He’s ruined his life, he’s gone on to have this amazing life, but in fact, he ruined hers too. The guilt is never going to leave. I think that he’s always going to feel guilty, he always feels like he owes her.
BT: What is something that comes from your dynamic and interaction with Rachel Brosnahan?
MZ: She’s just at the top of her game, you know, and any time you get a scene with her you gotta bring it. So I think it just heightens my performance. I didn’t really know her all that well. I knew her, but we really weren’t like besties or anything like that, we had just done a few meetings together, so certainly getting to know her helped try to formulate this relationship that we have in the show. I remember when I first got the part, I texted her and was like “let’s hang out”, and we ended up hanging out multiple times for hours on end and getting to know each other, finding out everything about each other. I’ve been in situations in which you have a part, and you act with somebody, and you’re supposed to be in love with them or supposed to be best friends or whatever, and you don’t know the first thing about this person and it makes it difficult. So I was really thankful that she was aware of that too and definitely wanted to get to know me better. She’s so incredible and so funny and so talented, so every time I get to work with her is just a joy because I really feel like she makes my performance better. Everybody is absolutely incredible on the show, but our characters have so much history together that there’s so much going into it, that I really feel alive when I’m doing a scene with her.
BT: What was your experience like winning the Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series?
MZ: It was awesome! [laughs] I think that the Golden Globe, that was the first award that we won, and that was so incredible because we had really just come out of the gate. I don’t even think that our show was a month old at that point. And we won, and so it was like “oh wait, this is really good and people really do dig it.” Obviously we got nominated and that was really cool, and it was like “holy crap!”, you know? But the second we won and just continued to win, and the Emmys, it doesn’t get bigger than that if you’re TV. It’s validating. But I feel like we knew what we had, or at least I did. When I read the first script I said, “this is something that’s going to be up for awards”, and I didn’t even know what it was going to look like! I mean, that’s a whole other element to it, because the show looks beautiful. It’s visually stunning. I had worked on Boardwalk Empire prior to this and it’s all the same people from that, and that show looked beautiful. So Bill Groom is our production designer, and he was the production designer on Boardwalk Empire, so it’s almost like Boardwalk, but set in the fifties and a lot less violent, you know? [laughs] But I think it’s well-deserved in my opinion. I mean, obviously I’m biased, but I think it deserved it. There are a lot of good shows out there, but I really feel like this is the best. [laughs] And I say this, and I watched it, you know, I just finished it myself. And I watched it, although I don’t like watching myself. It’s tough. But I’m able to have this opinion, you know, regardless of me. And I still enjoy it, there’s something to be said about that, I can enjoy a show even though I’m on it, which is so painful. [laughs] But it’s true, I love it. It’s such a good show, and it’s so funny, and I laugh out loud. I was by myself watching it on my computer, and laughing out loud in a hotel room, and that’s…not a lot of shows do that. For me, at least.
BT: Where does Mrs. Maisel fit in your acting journey and where do you hope to go from here?
MZ: Well, it’s been a journey. I’ve been on some really good shows, really good shows. I was on The Walking Dead, I was on Girls, I did some really cool things, and Rescue Me, I can’t forget Rescue Me. I did something like 40-something episodes of that, and learned so much from great actors like Denis Leary, just in terms of hitting your mark and just technical stuff. It’s been a journey! And I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, a lot of people don’t know that. I’ve been doing this for a long time and this is the first time that I’ve ever been a regular on a series. I think that was maybe a subconscious kind of choice because I feel like I’ve been holding out for the right one. One hundred per cent I believe that this is the right one. It’s a great character, and yeah, you know he’s a polarizing character. Fifty per cent of people who watch it hate him, and fifty per cent love him and I wouldn’t have it any other way. To be somebody that everybody likes, it’s nice, but it’s probably a little boring. So yeah, I really feel like I’ve held out for the right one and I’m really curious to see where he goes. Because every episode another layer is pulled off, and I think that is so genius. People who hated him are now coming around, and they’re like “oh, he’s not that bad and I kind of like him now”. I’ve had so many people come up to me and be like “I hated you and now I kind of like you”. And it’s cool, it feels like I’m playing a trick on them. So I think that this is the right one and I couldn’t be happier.
BT: Well, you’ve got sixty grand and a club in your future, so who knows?
MZ: It will be more fun than hanging out in a plastics company, or even in the garment district, so yeah, I’m excited for that.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel seasons one and two can be currently streamed on Amazon Prime Video