Caroline Aaron is currently starring as Shirley Maisel, the boisterous grandmother in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Sitting down with Awards Daily, Aaron talks about Maisel Season 3 in addition to the work she has done over the years with several auteur directors. She also covers what she has learned over the years and why she loves the rehearsal process.
Awards Daily: I read that your own mother was a real life inspiration for Shirley Maisel. What did you take from her?
Caroline Aaron: Well, they couldn’t be more different as people. My mother while I was growing up was the only one who worked. The whole series is about the power of women and, even in the 50s, Shirley is part of the business of her family, which was probably pretty unusual as hilarious as it is. Her job is as chief nurturer of everyone she comes in contact with, and she does it with passion and commitment. And I certainly learned that from my mother for sure.
I grew up in Richmond, Virginia so we are very much in the news at the moment. So I am thinking about my mother a lot, and believe me, I passed by those monuments every day on my way to school. I’m very familiar with what is going on, and it makes me numb. The whole cast has been live-tweeting Season 3, so I am rewatching the episodes from a different perspective trying to remember how everything went down and I have to say they are so remarkable in how Amy (Sherman-Palladino) created a show that is so delightful and yet so subversive. And that is what I think is really fun about it, especially during this time. Seeing movies or shows with crowds you are like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what are those people doing out together? They are too close!’
AD: Yes, I have seen trailers for movies, and then I have to catch myself: no, no, it is a different time and situation.
CA: Exactly, you have to remind yourself, and then it makes you miss it, the sense that we can all be spontaneous with each other. Which we will be again but, boy, is it tough.
AD: You mentioned Amy Sherman-Palladino and, as a fan of hers since Gilmore Girls, I have to ask, what is it like to work with her?
CA: I’ll tell you, when they offered me this part originally, my daughter was so obsessed with Gilmore Girls, and I didn’t really know what it was. And every time I would walk through the living room, she was watching Gilmore Girls over and over on a loop and she kept saying, ‘Mommy, if the grandmother and mother on this show had a baby it would be you.You have to watch it with me.’ So I finally, reluctantly agreed, and then we made a deal that we would watch every episode of Gilmore Girls and watch the last one the night before I dropped her off at college like how Rory was dropped at Yale. And we did that very thing, and I think while she was at college I got this call that Amy Sherman-Palladino wanted to talk to me about just doing one episode of a new series she was thinking of, and I was like ‘I don’t even need to talk to her. The answer is yes.’ Just because of Gilmore Girls, such a wonderful show.
Working with her is very unusual, I think in television it is by its nature an art form by committee. But when you do movies, and I have been very lucky to work with a lot of auteurs where it is their vision no matter what, sink or swim. And that is the way to work with Amy. She is a real visionary, and you just hand yourself over to her and know you are in good hands. She is quite remarkable I think, and I don’t think we have had a voice like that in a really long time. She is an amazing artist, and I have no idea how they will fold in this particular moment in history.
Amy said once, which I really understand that I didn’t even think about this, but for writers with the invention of the cell phone and texting it makes it really hard to tell a story. Because one of the tools of telling a story is having people talk on the phone and that gives the audience information about what is going on. But now everybody is texting and very rarely do we talk live in person with each other. And she said, ‘I am only writing period pieces now, I do not want to deal with that.’ I said, ‘Good for you!’
She wants to write pre-technology when we actually used to communicate in person because how do you tell a story when no one talks to each other, except with your phone? My kids will text me from the other room, and I am, like, ‘Get up and come talk to me!’ I am not responding to text in the same domicile. Just ridiculous.
AD: A great deal of humor from Maisel is the fast talking quips back and forth. What kind of work goes into making those scenes work?
CA: People often ask are we talking fast. I have never ever felt that there is any kind of drive for pace. First of all, everywhere you look on set there is an A+ person and that really helps; there is no such thing as a weak link in this cast. So, it is like being airborne every time you are on set because you are volleying with the best and they always say, if you want to get better at tennis, play with someone better than you. And that’s the way I feel. I am always hitting over the net to someone who is going to return it in an even more spectacular way than I served it, and that is such a comfort.
I have had other experiences that haven’t been quite like this. The way we do the scenes is Amy and Dan (Palladino) have us rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, so it almost feels like we are doing a play. You can rehearse a whole day on a scene, and then shoot it all in one take. By the time that you get to the camera putting it down on film, the audience won’t feel this, but if you were to really break down this show she (Amy) doesn’t do a lot of coverage. You don’t do it over and over except for when you are rehearsing. So, in the old days you used to be able to rehearse movies and television shows. I even did a soap opera a couple of years ago, and I had never done one. And the people who had been on the soap for like forty years said they used to rehearse soap operas, but no one rehearses anymore. You just hit the ground running and hope for the best.
But for Maisel we get to rehearse, when we get a new scene they have us all sit in a circle looking into each other’s eyes and read the material, just read it, let it hit the air, see what impulses come up from each actor within the scene. Then they start to block it and then we rehearse it and rehearse it until it feels good, seeing if we should move it here or move it there. By the time they actually shoot it, I feel like we are living in that moment completely. So it is very different from many television shows that I have done where we get to the set you have all your lines learned, the director says you stand here, you stand up here, and your own creative process is hijacked by time and money. But not in this case. Here, everyone comes to the table with something and it is wonderful.
AD: It sounds like a great experience overall. The fun you are having comes across on screen.
CA: Isn’t it so fun? isn’t everyone so wonderful? Even when I am watching it to do these live tweets for Amazon, I become like an audience member. I love this show. I wish we hadn’t gotten stopped in our tracks, but we will get back on the train. I know we will!
AD: I am very excited to see what season four brings. I personally thought season three was the best yet.
CA: So did Amy, she felt the same way. After season one when they won more prizes than anyone has any right to have. I was talking to Amy and Dan and said, ‘Isn’t this scary for you guys?’ I mean they are starting with the blank page, and now they have to outdo themselves. Dan said, ‘No, we are not scared. We are just going to keep making the show.’ And that is what we do. I think it all comes from their imaginations and they are very committed to it. But I am so curious because when Amy read the article on my mother she said, ‘You know, we are getting into the sixties and Jews were very instrumental in the civil rights movement in the south where you are from.’ I was surprised since very few people knew, especially since the show is so New York-centric, and southern Jews have a different cultural population than what we think of New York Jews from the fifties.
So they (Amy and Dan) are well read, well schooled and just brilliant brilliant brilliant. We all pinch ourselves everyday going ‘We are in the cool kids club and we didn’t even know it!’ I just thought it was another job, even with all the collective work that is represented by the regulars on this show. I said to Tony (Shalhoub) who I have been very close to for a very long time, ‘Tony, did you know that this show was going to be this kind of hit?’ He said, ‘No, not at all.’
None of us had ever been in this kind of hit, ever! And who would have thought because it is so specific. When I first read the script I thought, ‘Well, New Yorkers will like it. Jews will like it. That is a lot of people.’ But it has captured the hearts of people all over the world. We went to Italy last year for the press, and they liked it. In India they like it. In China they like it, and I am going, ‘Why? Why do you like it?’ But it has hit a nerve, which is amazing.
AD: Well, and they are still front runners to win a bunch of Emmys this year as well.
CA: I know. I know it’s amazing, and they really should. The design element, all the clothes are made from scratch and that brilliant costume designer Donna (Zakowska). Everywhere you look everything is so authentically period. In Moishe’s company, even the threads, the patterns, things the camera may or may not race by are all from the fifties. Everything conspires to have you believe that you are going back in time, down to our underwear. There will be days that are really long, and I will say, ‘Do I have to put on the girdle?’ And they will be, ‘Yes, you do.’ They are absolutely right. We are authentically in that period of time, and they do everything to make that true.
AD: You mentioned in your career working with some big name directors. Has that influenced your acting in any way?
CA: I think that it has, because, I know that this sounds like hyperbole, but when you work with geniuses you learn. I have been so lucky. I worked many times with the great Mike Nichols, who is probably the best director I have ever had the honor of working with. He taught me so much. Woody Allen taught me a lot about comedy. I will give you an example about what Woody told me one time that I thought was so interesting. I was in a Broadway play that he wrote, and I’ve been in several of his films and he taught me how comedy works differently in those two mediums, which I would never have known. We were on the set of Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Woody wrote a new line spontaneously for a big party scene where we run into each other and I ask, ‘How are you?’ He says, ‘The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty. That’s how I am.’ So it was a big party scene and when he said the line all the waiters stopped, people who were drinking cocktails kept the glasses frozen on the way to take a sip. And Woody was, like, ‘No, no, no. Everybody has to keep moving. I want somebody to cross in front of the camera while I am saying it. If everything stops when you say a one liner on film it’s like the writer walked on screen with you, and you have to do something to mitigate that. But on stage, if someone moves when you have a one liner, you kill the laugh. You have to find a reason to be still.’
So I am doing this Broadway play where my husband and I are having terrible problems, and we are talking to a therapist and my line is ‘Tell him what you gave me for my birthday last year.’ And the husband doesn’t say anything, and then my line is, ‘He gave me a bracelet inscribed with the words Do Not Resuscitate.’ So at that moment there were ten people on stage, and everyone had to find a moment to be still because if someone went down to tie their shoe or get a napkin, it would have absolutely killed the laugh. If he had been filming that he would have had everything be incredibly chaotic and active. So, you know, you learn from the masters. Who doesn’t?
So I would say it has had a tremendous influence over my acting. Then it is also like those old trust exercises that you used to do in acting class where you have to jump off the table and believe that your classmates were going to catch you. As an actor you are placing yourself in someone else’s hands in a sense. When you are lucky enough to work with the people I have worked with, it also reinforces your ability to trust and stop watching yourself and turn yourself over to a great director. To know that if you careen off the highway they will get you back on. So you can try anything. You are much freer in that way. When you are not with a great director or don’t have great material and you have to be your third eye – you have to be the director and the actor – it is not as spontaneous and open. So, I have been lucky because, boy, have I worked with some great directors!
AD: I was looking over your filmography, and saw that you did some voice work for Fallout 4. How did that come about?
CA: I’m always doing things to raise my stock in my children’s eyes is all I can say. Nothing makes me more crazy than the endless video game playing. I just don’t get it. It came about from just going to an audition for a voice over, but I had no idea how video games were done. They are so complicated and so amazing. I would say my technology acumen is not that great, so it was really fun to learn how to do that. You are basically acting to a cartoon. It’s very symbiotic because sometimes they draw it to you, and sometimes you watch the little creature and act on that. I don’t know if that is common because I only did the one.
AD: You touched on that you have done a lot of acting in both movies and television. Is there a difference in how you approach these mediums?
CA: I wouldn’t say it is the medium but more on the time. When Mike Nichols did a movie, he rehearsed but nobody can afford that anymore so it becomes really fast. You get hired and start filming the next day. I’ll go to a premiere and meet someone and say, ‘I had no idea we were in the same movie.’ In the old days they used to put you together to rehearse so you would get a sense of the whole. I would say that I don’t learn my lines when I am working on a play, they learn themselves. I describe it like when you dip a photograph in chemicals, and you pull it out each time and the image becomes clearer and clearer. That is what the rehearsal process is like.
When working on a television show, I come to the set memorized, which I do not like to do because you come invested in how you are going to say it and acting is what happens between people: acting is reacting. So when you plan it out by yourself until you get to the set and meet the other people, you’re in danger of falling in love with your own decisions instead of being open to the live moment. In television, I always come to the set memorized, and in films, it just depends. In a movie, you can spend ten hours on one page, so by the time you are done you have spent so much time in that circumstance or that scene and it keeps changing and getting deeper, so the pressure is not the same. Television is very, very, very fast. It is the fastest of the three, then film, and then in theater you have the luxury of discovering it over a period of time. Those are the instinctual differences that I use.
AD: Is there any advice you give people who want to jump into acting?
CA: Yes, it’s advice I give myself, which is acting is the subject of everything. Be well read, and watch as many great people as you can, go to museums, look at paintings, and be an observer. I was in LA for twenty four years, and then I moved back to New York to do Maisel and I was excited to go back to New York. I had started my career in New York, and I really missed public transportation, the great people watching opportunities that you never get in LA because you are all inside your cars. I take the subway now in New York, and all I see is the top of everyone’s head. I can’t see what newspaper or book they are reading, who they might be with, because everyone is on a screen and that is so disappointing.
I was teaching acting in LA, and I gave my kids an assignment (one I also give myself), which is to be unplugged for two hours–no phone, no TV, no Internet, no nothing. Because I feel that the biggest tool you need as an actor is to be a good observer of the human condition and, if you always have your head down looking at your phone, you are going to miss people. And when I gave them that assignment I would say ten percent could pull it off but ninety percent would say, ‘I couldn’t do it, I caved.’ I would say ‘It wasn’t two weeks, it was two hours.’ They couldn’t stay disconnected.
So I would say, first and foremost, be a good observer of everything around you. Standing in line at Starbucks, be a good eavesdropper because you really are a detective as an actor about people. You have to really notice them, and it’s hard to notice people if all you are noticing is your own Instagram. As an artist, if you have to define things for yourself, how are you going to know what it feels like to be x, y or z if you don’t look at people? When I was working on Shirley, I was not a housewife. My mother wasn’t a housewife. It is not part of my language. So I would look at people in grocery stores and see who they are shopping for. Are they feeding a family? Are they just feeding themselves? How do they pick out fruit? It may seem insignificant, but it is like building a toolbox. I have no idea what Dan and Amy are going to write, but when they do write something I go, I know how to do that. I saw this woman do this or do that. So that is my advice to young actors: spoil yourself by getting really involved with the human condition. It is pretty interesting.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 3 is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.