Interview: Michael Zegen's Leading Role in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

November 28, 2017 1:00 PM

Everybody knows actor Michael Zegen. Ok, you might not know Zegen personally. But you’ve seen him around. He’s got the kind of face that makes you want to ask “Do I know you from somewhere?” And sure enough, during his TWELV photo shoot in a West Village park, a construction worker approached him to ascertain the conditions of their prior acquaintance. Zegen hears the question so often nowadays, that he’s devised a method of instantly sussing out the television viewing habits of the inquirer so as to provide the precise answer that he or she is looking for. Boardwalk Empire Zegen replied, as the construction worker squealed in delight.

Sure, many people know Zegen from his role as the young Bugsy Siegel on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, but you’ve also seen him in The Walking Dead, Girls, How to Make it in America, Happyish, and Rescue Me. Or if you’re a theatre-goer, perhaps you remember him as ‘Marco’ in Ivo Van Hove’s Tony-winning production of A View From the Bridge on Broadway. Not to mention his appearances on the silver screen in John Crowley’s Oscar-nominated Brooklyn, Greg Mottola’s Adventureland, and Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock. And if your memory is really good, you might recall a young Zegen from his recurring role as ‘Dwight the Troubled Teen’ on more than 50 episodes of The Late Show with David Letterman

But I suspect that after Zegen’s next project drops, people will stop asking where they’ve seen him before, because they’ll already know. Zegen is starring opposite Rachael Brosnahan (House of Cards) in the new Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel which you can accommodate into your binge-viewing regimen beginning November 29th. The show, which is firmly ensconced in the nascent New York stand-up scene of the 1950s, is about a Jewish housewife (Brosnahan) whose seemingly perfect life is eclipsed by conflict in her marriage to an aspiring comedian (Zegen). Her outsized charisma and natural comedic ability enable her to find her voice and forge her own path as a stand-up. The cast is fortified by stellar contributions from Tony Shaloub, best known as the lead on the comedic mystery series Monk, and Alex Borstein, who played Montez’s wife on Workaholics, and was a featured cast member of MADtv.

It’s not hard to understand why the series was picked up for a second season before the premiere of its first. The premise and milieu are irresistible. The script is crisp and elegant, the acting is effervescent, and the direction is breezy and bright, just what you’d expect from Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, the husband and wife team known for their work on Gilmore Girls. Zegen said he knew the show would be a hit from the moment he saw the pilot script. He was reading the role of Mr. Maisel to help a friend prepare for an audition, but the minute they finished running lines, he called his agent and said “I need to be in this.” He then “memorized the shit out of it,” and voila, three callbacks later, he was Joel Maisel.

There are a couple of things about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel that got Zegen’s attention. First of all, it’s funny. “When I read the script, it made me laugh out loud,” says Zegen, who admits to being so picky about the roles he takes that he’d rather have downtime between jobs than work with a script that doesn’t make him scream “I need to be in this.” Secondly, Zegen has a thing for New York in the 1950s. As it happens, he had been working on a script of his own about the storied New York comedy scene just before the ‘Maisel’ script fell on his lap, so he was already a huge fan of Lenny Bruce and other Greenwich Village stand-ups. Thirdly, Zegen is partial to pretty much anything with cool cars and interesting costumes. “I love period pieces,” said Zegen, referencing his work on Boardwalk Empire, noting that ‘Maisel’ and ‘Boardwalk’ use the same production designer (Bill Groom) and director of photography (Eric Moynier).

Zegen insists that he is not a method actor, but credits his success to meticulous preparation (“I KNOW my lines.”), his ability to adapt to the actors around him, and his general tenacity. He lives by the mantra “anything is possible, you just have to do the work to make it happen,” a philosophy he attributes to his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who arrived in New York penniless and without a full command of the English language, but parlayed a job as a short-order cook into a career as a restauranteur. Similarly, Zegen’s acting career was many years in the making. As a child, he attended drama classes and performed in regional theatre, but his parents discouraged him from pursuing acting professionally at a young age because “child actors don’t traditionally live long, happy lives.”

Zegen majored in drama at Skidmore College in Upstate New York, but he wasn’t exactly a standout performer. In fact, he didn’t get cast in most of the college productions. “I wasn’t even chosen to join the improv comedy group,” he recalls. Undaunted, he and a few friends created their own comedy group. They started out performing for a few friends, and before too long, they were packing a theatre with over 400 seats. “That was my first lesson in ‘making it happen’.” After graduation, Zegen moved to New York City and began auditioning for roles while working at his father’s law firm. “My parents suggested I give it two years and then maybe consider law school or becoming a teacher.”

Fifteen years later, Zegen has emerged as one of the most promising character actors in television and film. And he’s just getting started. He counts The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel as one of his favorite roles thus far, and after Season Two wraps, there are lots of possibilities on the horizon. He wants to continue working with legendary directors, and places the Coen Brothers and Steven Spielberg at the top of his wish list. He has fond recollections of his time on Broadway (“There’s nothing like the immediate gratification of a live audience, it’s a high unlike any other.”), and wouldn’t mind doing more live theatre at some point. He also has aspirations to write a script of his own one of these days. But regardless of which direction the road leads, one thing is certain. The marvelous Mr. Zegen is going to “do the work and make it happen.” His turns as young Bugsy and Mr. Maisel are memorable, but Michael Zegen himself is unforgettable.

 

 

WRITTEN BY KAREN FRAGALA-SMITH

 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHIAKI KATO

EDITOR: HOLLIS DE LANEY

 

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