Caroline Aaron Talks All About The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel - Exclusive Interview

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Long before there was the title character of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," there was already a pretty incredible one hanging around New York City: Shirley Maisel. Though she's no stand-up comedian, her love of family and food has often left us in stitches. Yet, it's her incredible spirit that even the Weissmans can't resist being around — or even moving in with.

The latest season of the popular series shows Shirley in a way fans haven't seen her before. By the bedside of her husband Moishe, the emotional state she's found herself in isn't easy. However, we would hate to spoil the season finale or even the part where Shirley gives away the ending of the iconic "Casablanca," so you'll have to see it for yourself.

As for a behind-the-scenes look, we had the unique opportunity to sit down with actress Caroline Aaron to ask her what it's been like stepping into Shirley's shoes — and old-fashioned skirts and hats. In an exclusive interview with The List, the actress discussed the unique relationship she has with her on-screen husband Kevin Pollak, and she also opened up about how playing Shirley has changed her while also teasing what we'll soon be able to see in the fifth and final season of the series.

What it was like filming Season 4

Season 4 has been a really long-awaited one for fans, but for you, too, with the pandemic. What was it like to film that season during a pandemic?

Well, first of all, there were lots of TV shows that had started and then shut down. We were supposed to start [filming] in September, and then they would call and go, "No, we're not starting until October." And then it was going to be November, and then it was, "Let's just wait 'til after the holidays." We were all guessing [when it would happen].

Because this show has so much scope — the beginning of Season 3 was a USO Tour with 800 extras — we knew they wouldn't allow us to do that anymore, because they wanted to keep everybody safe. The protocol was so rigid and so brilliantly executed, not one person went down during the entire shooting of that season. But when we got the first script, and it was at Coney Island, I said, "Okay, they have not changed the scope of the show at all." It was as huge as it always is.

It was frustrating and exciting. It was so exciting to be back, but ... we had to be in masks. They had air filtration systems in these umbrellas that went over us. They put in new air filtration systems in the studios themselves. They did everything to keep us safe. I don't like pandemic acting because, as I like to say, what are the big perks? Craft services, that's gone, so we couldn't eat together. You can't hang around a table opening Tootsie Rolls and talking. That's all over. And companionship [was changed]. Our usual sense of companionship when we would be waiting between setups, we'd [have to now] be far away from each other. We even had these things called hydration stations, and you'd have to walk all the way around the sound stage just to have a sip of water, because that's where you'd be taking your mask off.

We're filming Season 5 now, and it's not quite as rigid as it was in Season 4, but we're certainly not back to being able to hug and kiss each other.

The scenes that were most surprising this season

I know Coney Island was a big one, but were there any other scenes from Season 4 that surprised you the most when you read them in the script?

This is a spoiler alert if you haven't seen Season 4, but it really surprised me that — Well, I fully expected to meet Joel's sweetheart, so that was a surprise! I won't say more than that. And it really surprised me that my husband was ill. 

We're on Season 5 now, and we never know what's coming up. It's like eating your Cracker Jacks, and at the bottom of the box is a surprise, the bottom of that box is our script and our storylines. I used to want to know, and now I don't want to. Now, I like the surprise of each new episode. [It] tells you something new about these characters and about this story, and that's really fun, actually.

When Moishe becomes ill, we see Shirley in more of an emotional state. Did you approach playing her any differently for the finale?

No, not really. It had been set up so well that Shirley's heart is always in her family. So to have any member threatened or in danger in any way I knew would just break her wide open. It's just that she's had, from her point of view, a very charmed life. She has a loving husband and a wonderful child. I say about Shirley, sometimes, she has one foot in the shtetl and one foot in the new world. And this new world of America has been nothing but a blessing as far as she's concerned.

What's it like working with your onscreen husband Kevin Pollak, since this isn't the first project you've done together?

No, it wasn't. I was so excited. I went and had a costume fitting when I got this job, and I said, "Who's my husband?" It's really like an arranged marriage when you're in show business. We didn't know we were going to be together for five years, but I was so excited. And plus, Kevin is an incredibly brilliant stand-up comic, so he's also been able to teach me a lot about this world.

We'll be doing a table reading or a scene, and there'll be a stand-up comic that's part of the scene, and Kevin will lean over to me and go, "That's a real person, and I know who that is." Because he knows everything about this world. It's like having an extra tutor on the set, even though he is just my husband in the show. [Laughs] It's really been thrilling.

That's so cool. I didn't realize that a lot of these people are real.

They're all real, and they license their material. This is really what they said at the time in the '50s. I found that really fascinating, because Kevin has an encyclopedic knowledge of comedy. He's been doing it since he was like 17-years-old. That's an added bonus for me. But I know they put enormous amounts of research into this show. Everything is so authentic. It really is.

What it's like wearing those intricate costumes

Shirley's always dressed so well, and her hair is always done. How long does it take you to get ready to step into her shoes?

I keep thinking about the women who lived then. Because it's not only what you see, it's what you don't see. Underneath, there's the girdles, the bras, the garter belts, the stockings, all of it. And sometimes, I'll just come in and ask, "Do I have to wear the girdle today?"

For me, it's a costume; for my mother's generation, it was a way of life. I kept thinking these women must have had a lot of bladder infections because who can go to the bathroom with all of that on? It's unbelievable. I like to say that Shirley is always gift-wrapped: Necklace, jewelry, earrings, bracelets. And the costume designer — you hardly need to act, she's so brilliant. Everything is really well researched.

There was a scene in the first season where our heroine, our title character, sets her alarm and gets up early to put on makeup before her husband wakes up. Think about that. That's the way women's lives were — decorative, as opposed to effective, in a certain way. And that was a commandment, and everybody took it really, really seriously.

What I love about the beginning of Season 4 — when they showed me that hat for Coney Island — is that they make everything in this costume shop. Donna [Zakowska, costume designer] hunts all over the world for the clothes. An interesting thing [happened] a couple of seasons ago, when they turned Bergdorf Goodman, one of our most iconic department stores, into "Maisel" for the week. All the windows were all of Maisel's clothes, particularly Rachel [Brosnahan]'s. All of those beautiful swing coats.

And, unbeknownst to me, Donna had created a benefit out of it. She said many years ago in Manhattan, in the Garment District, there used to be glove makers and shoemakers and all of that, but they're not there anymore. She has to go to Europe. It's all been outsourced. So anybody who wanted to buy this coat that she had made, she [used it to] raise money to be able to bring back these artisans to the city.

Watching the show makes me think about how far we've come just as women. It's wild to think about — even outside of just outfits.

I know.

Working on a show set in a different decade

What do you think would surprise people the most about working on a period piece?

The attention to detail — it's exactly what you said. What surprises me is the period of time of the show. Now in Season 5, we're in the early '60s, but that was only 50 years ago. And we're all impatient, as am I, to kick the football down the field even further for women. But you also realize, "Wow. A lot's changed in 50 years." And unfortunately, we may be living through a time where it's trying to change back.

But there has been a lot of change for women in that period of time. I don't know what the quote is exactly, but it's like that great Martin Luther King Jr. quote, "History bends towards justice, slow as it is." And as slow as it's been for women, it's also been whiplash fast. [We're] in a generation [where] women work and get to wear pants. Do you know what I mean? Traditions die hard, so we're really lucky.

Are there any of Shirley's lines that fans refer to the most when they see you?

Oh, yes. There are a couple of them, mostly about food. In Season 3, when I was out on the street yelling, "I have vegetable soup! I have this kind of soup! I have that kind of soup!" From Season 4, it's, "Are your funnel cakes delicious?"

A friend of mine also told me that every time his mother calls, she goes, "Hello. This is Shirley, your mother." That's not her name. [Laughs] But that seems to be one of the memes that people talk about a lot.

When we shot that scene at Coney Island, and it was so complicated on the Wonder Wheel, I was asking all the kids if their funnel cakes were delicious. [Laughs]

Some of the details fans may have missed in 'Maisel'

That's one of my favorite scenes, because I feel like it must have been so hard to choreograph something like that. Right?

It was choreographed. Amy [Sherman-Palladino, the show's creator] taped out two sound stages to resemble Coney Island. It was like rehearsing a dance number, because there are so many people coming and going, and this is sort of insider [info], but it was all in one shot. The camera never cut and picked up someplace else.

And then for the Wonder Wheel ... Coney Island wasn't open because of the pandemic. But the designers were there, and they changed it into the '50s. It was sort of a dream come true to be able to go to an amusement park and not stand in line, because nobody was there. [Laughs] It was just us, which was really fun.

They built one of the cars from the Wonder Wheel on a soundstage. They built a model to scale. We had to climb way, way, way, way up these back stairs. And we were on a platform when we weren't on camera, so that it would be the right distance to yell at the person below us. They put an enormous amount of work into that. It was really something. And, one at a time, we sat in the car and did our lines. It took two days. I was screaming for two days, "Are your funnel cakes delicious? Petey, are your funnel cakes delicious?" And then everybody else would yell their lines at us. It was really fun, but it was so intricate.

In terms of the details – I was thinking about this today. I was giving the kids popsicles ... and the popsicles that they gave me [had] paper wrappers with one side that had, "Vote for Nixon," and on one side was, "Vote for Kennedy," because I guess, politically, that's what they did then, they used wrappers as opportunities for advertisements.

So everything, even the stuff you don't see — like when we were at Maisel and Roth, my husband's garment center, all the patterns are from the '50s — there is such attention to detail. It is as authentic as it possibly can be to the time period, that you feel like you're stepping back in time.

Just watching it, I feel that. The attention to detail is just incredible. I feel like it'd be phenomenal just to stand on that set and take it all in.

Yeah, it's amazing. [There's] this expression, "auteurs in film." Well, these are auteurs in television too, and everywhere you look, every single person is brilliant at what they do. They let all the cream rise to the top, and then Amy [Palladino-Sherman] and Dan [Palladino] skimmed it all off and enlisted them in this show.

A teaser for Season 5

I know you are filming Season 5 right now. Is there anything at all that you can tease about it?

It's the last season, so this isn't a tease. We're all kind of quietly grieving as we go along, because honestly, we love the show, and we love being together.

A lot of times, it can feel like jail, even though you have to be grateful for a job, but you might think, "When is this over?" This is more, "Please don't ever let this be over. Please don't let this be over."

All I can tell you about Season 5 is that our heroine will not give up on herself. She continues to aspire to be able to be counted among the men as a performer. When you think about stand-up comedy now and the women that we love and admire and make us laugh, who are ruling the airwaves like Amy Poehler or the Oscars this year, which was hosted by three women — but in our story, Midge is the only one. She's the only one, and she will not give up against great odds. I will tell you that you will see her break through the glass ceiling a little bit.

How did you find out it was going to be ending after five seasons?

They told us before we started. The writers, the creators are so brilliant and classy. They don't want to stay too long at the fair. And they knew the story that they wanted to tell. ... They kind of followed their own leads in a way.

They knew the story they wanted to tell, and they told us this was going to be it, but it would be a very big season. Think about this: It's been five seasons, and two of them were pandemic seasons. That's what's so sad. I feel like, can't we just do this until the pandemic's over so we can have fun again and travel again? [Laughs]

The lasting impression that playing Shirley has left on the actress

You've been a part of such iconic films and TV shows over the years, but is there anything that you've learned from playing Shirley?

I've learned a lot from playing Shirley ... and playing a character that is so not judgmental of herself. There is no filter between what she thinks and what she says, which is very freeing. And she really doesn't get stuck on the little things. She is somebody who cherishes life and the people she loves. And I've learned that for myself, from playing Shirley.

I love that. And she's so much fun to watch, too.

So fun.

Because she brings everybody in.

Right. And just [for her], food is love, and love is love. What could be better than that?

What type of project you would love to work on once "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" wraps?

I really want to do a play. I love to go back and forth between camera and theater. I was just working on a new play in California. We had a two-week hiatus, and I went there and did a workshop and it was really fun, too, to do something live.

And also, to tell women's stories. I will say that I feel like we've come a long way, but there are still so many untold stories about women. When I first started [acting], I wasn't even aware of that. I was grateful to be working. I'm doing what I love, how exciting. And then, as time went on, I [wondered] where are the stories about us? They're coming, but it's a slow rollout. "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" really takes its place historically in rolling out women's stories, and I want there to be more.

Season 4 of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" is available to stream now on Prime Video.

This interview has been edited for clarity.