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Actresses Are Not Horses

Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Photos Getty/Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic

Alex Borstein on ‘Mrs. Maisel,’ Speaking Up, and Stepping Out of Line

By Kevin Fallon

After Alex Borstein finished her acceptance speech for winning Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series at this year’s Emmy Awards—her second in a row for playing talent manager Susie Myerson on Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—she ran backstage and threw up. 

Part of the problem, she guesses, was that she hadn’t eaten that much that day and had just taken a shot of whiskey in the audience with her date, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, who hired her to voice Lois Griffin on the animated series 20 years ago. Mostly, though, she was overcome. 

She was overcome by the win, sure. She was so certain that Olivia Colman was going to take the trophy for her performance in Fleabag that she begged Amazon to let her stay home in Barcelona, where she lives with her kids when she’s not working. She had her turn last year and celebrated memorably, stripping off her dress’ shrug on the way to the podium and doing a shimmy before admitting from the microphone stand, “I went without the bra” and using the platform to advocate for women sitting on public restroom toilet seats: “If you sit, we can all sit.” 

More than the shock of a repeat victory, she was overcome by what she decided to share on stage. 

On the flight from Barcelona to Los Angeles, she thought she should at least think about what she wanted to say on the chance she should win. Then she thought about the topic that’s dominated nearly every interview and conversation about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which premieres season three of 1950s housewife Midge Maisel’s (Rachel Brosnahan) unlikely journey to becoming a stand-up comedian on Friday. 

“So many of these questions we get in the press are, ‘People are happy to see these women with strength. Finally we have strong women. Do you think women are getting stronger? And Elizabeth Warren! And strength!” Borstein says. “And I’m like, these women have always been in our lives, some even more so than today.” 

So on stage she thanked Mrs. Maisel creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, the women in her cast and crew, and her mother and grandmother, who are both immigrants and Holocaust survivors. Then she told the story, the story that meant so much it made her puke. 

Her grandmother was in line to be shot into the Danube River by an Arrow Cross soldier in Budapest during World War II and asked, “What happens if I step out of line?” The soldier said, “I won’t have the heart to shoot you, but somebody will.” She survived, eventually crossing the border into Austria and making her way to the United States. “And for that I am here and my children are here,” Borstein emotionally said at the end of her speech, thrusting her Emmy in the air to applause. “So step out of line, ladies! Step out of line!”

It not only became the most memorable speech of the night, but an instant viral rally cry. Borstein was initially nervous that she had shared too much about her family. But its impact astonished her. 

“I had no idea what effect it would have, that it would become like a T-shirt and a hashtag,” she says. “It was crazy to wake up to that and be turned into some kind of a bizarre phenomenon about ‘step out of line, ladies.’” 

It’s funny for her to think about now. As a longtime comedy writer and performer who got her start on the sketch show MADtv and, prior to Mrs. Maisel was probably best known for Family Guy, oversharing wasn’t so much a fear as a job requirement. The experience of telling her grandmother’s story opened her eyes to the reach of Mrs. Maisel and the platform she has to say things—not just funny things, but real things.

She’s considering it all now on the eve of another season premiere in a hotel room in New York City, staring out the suite’s picturesque window as snow falls outside. She straightens her posture and grins as she crowns herself “a queen in the hotel,” admiring the beauty of the snow but shielded from its wet chill. It’s a perch to which she never expected to ascend now, at age 48, after several decades of searching for characters of substance in an industry that often describes such roles, as she’d later explain, “the same way that a horse would be.” 

There are points to make about, yes, being a woman in comedy, though she once told The Daily Beast that finding new ways to talk about that particular phenomenon was “like asking a dog how it feels to be a dog.” She tells stories about the chances she’s had to take, what she’s learned about what she’s willing to live with and what she’s willing to live without, and what it really means to be bold. She stands up and acts out each anecdote all over the room, like we’re in some sort of sketch-comedy snow globe.

Once we start talking about her grandmother and that Emmys story, it’s hard to get off the topic, especially since the overarching message reverberates so deeply not only in Mrs. Maisel, but in her career and life. 

She doesn’t remember the first time her grandmother told the story, because “it was constant.” There are two types of Holocaust survivors, she says—those who never want to talk about it and those for whom every day is a reminder of the experience, leading to a preoccupation with memory, gratitude, survivor’s guilt, and a resulting, relentless dialogue about it. 

“It permeates who you are,” Borstein says. “It’s stamped in your DNA, and the DNA of generations to come.” She contemplates that statement in terms of her own life. “I’m comedic, but there’s a darkness. Some of that I think is part of that stamp.” 

It goes without saying that she’s aware that she’s never been faced with something with the gravity of a gun to the back of her head—though she says it anyway—but she’d like to think that she’s inherited the instinct to be bold. 

“I stopped someone from cutting in front of me at the passport line, does that count? It’s like, we’re all about to board, lady. We’re all running late. Get back in line. Now is not your time to step out of line, bitch. Get back!”

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