How The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Alex Borstein Turned Her Spunk Into Success
"I learned at an early age that I wasn’t going to get by on my looks."
Every onscreen performance that you see by a woman is the product of a breakdown. Not the kind of breakdown you might be thinking of (but not altogether different either). When a TV show or film is looking for an actress to fill a part, a “character breakdown” is sent out to casting agents. The breakdown describes the project, the character, and the type of actress that might fit the bill. Actresses rarely see the breakdowns themselves, as they are meant for talent and casting agents’ eyes only. They are written in a code that one slowly learns to decipher after a few years in the business. Some examples:
JANE: a woman who doesn’t know how beautiful she is = young and hot but with natural tits
ANIKA: a confident woman in the boardroom and the bedroom = young and hot, fake tits OK
HELEN: a spirited woman = fat and normal-looking OK, age open (not too fat)
STELLA: an admirably spunky gal = fat and normal-looking OK, age open (but not over 50)
Over the years I began to notice that most female characters of substance were described much in the same way that a horse would be.
When InStyle asked if I would be interested in writing about being a “spirited and admirably spunky” woman who gets to play an equally spirited and spunky character, I immediately finished chomping my hay, took a shit on the racetrack, and sat down to write.
Here’s the thing: Being spirited and spunky isn’t a choice. I learned at an early age that I wasn’t going to get by on my looks and that if I wanted to be heard, I had to be loud first and then make damn well sure I actually had something to say. My grandmother taught me this lesson. Her exact words in her very choppy, heavily accented English were, “You are not so beautiful the girl, so you better to be smart.” (She also said that getting crapped on by a bird was good luck, so I stood under trees for way too many hours as a child.)
She was almost right. I wasn’t a classically beautiful girl, but I followed her advice and got classically smart. Smart enough to know that beauty wasn’t a constant. It’s a fluid reality that comes and goes. Sometimes it’s visible to others on the outside; sometimes it emanates from the inside. And sometimes you have to make yourself feel beautiful to be beautiful. I realized I could do that through fashion, and that was the seed that began my latest endeavor, called Henabee’s. It’s a set of detachable sleeves I created to make the sleeveless dresses of the world conform to me. Instead of complaining that designers weren’t catering to me, I decided to change their designs.
In my Emmys acceptance speech I spoke about how my grandmother stepped out of line when she was about to be shot by an Arrow Cross soldier in Budapest during the Holocaust and how her determination and audacity became a blueprint for how I would live my life. And it has. But it isn’t lost on me that I get to operate from a position of privilege. The lines I’ve been stuck in were not along the banks of the Danube River, and no one has ever pointed a rifle at my back. That being said, I’ve tried each day to recognize that my being here is a gift from my grandmother and to always be bold and create my own opportunities. And it is with great purpose that I use the word “bold” and not “fearless.” To me, being fearless is to ignore the truth. Fear is a mechanism for survival.
I am not without fear, but I am bold. I take chances, not risks. Chance carries with it hope and possibility. My grandmother stepped out of line because she believed there might be someone who would see her humanity and not shoot. She took that chance. She got lucky.
I feel incredibly lucky to be here and even luckier to have made a steady career in a business that most people only dream about. Getting the opportunity to bring the character of Susie Myerson on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to life is the ultimate prize for this “spirited” horse. It’s my triple crown: a tough, driven woman who at once craves and fears success. She wants to be something. She wants to affect someone. She wants. She wants. She wants. And a woman who wants something can be the most interesting creature on the planet.
We step out of line because we want something. We make noise because we aren’t being heard. We demand things for ourselves because no one is going to hand us anything.
Step out of line.
Borstein stars in Season 3 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, premiering on December 6 on Amazon Prime Video.
For more stories like this, pick up the December issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Nov. 22.