Talking to Alex Borstein About Writing Strong Female Characters and Her New HBO Show ‘Getting On’
From Lois Griffin on Family Guy to Miss Swan on MADtv, Alex Borstein has played some memorable TV characters. Though she was always a self-described “smart ass performer” from a young age, she almost nixed a life in show business for a more practical career as a lawyer and later an advertising exec. Now, after her big break on MADtv and years of acting, writing, and producing on all sorts of TV shows and movies, Borstein will be starring in a new HBO series called Getting On, a remake of the hit UK medical comedy of the same name. We caught up with Borstein to discuss the new show, how she helped turn Lois Griffin into a stronger character, and how hemophilia in her family propelled her into comedy.
What were you like as a kid?
I always loved performing, but my parents were very practical, middle-class Jewish people. They told me acting was something I could do later on. They were never going to get me an agent as a kid or anything like that, which is good because I think it’s kind of gross. But I went to theater camp in the summer and in high school, I did all the plays. I was always a performer at heart and a smart ass with a big mouth. Dealing with hemophilia in our family growing up and the constant crisis of that, I used comedy as a way to deal and bring everyone together.
How did you first make the transition from working at an ad agency to performing and writing on an animated series?
In college, I majored in rhetoric thinking I would go into law and then I took the LSATs and realized, oh my god, this is fucking awful. I thought it would be better not to major in theater so that I would have something to fall back on. My rhetoric degree ended up being very helpful in advertising. I got an internship and then figured I will be a copywriter, that will be my path.
About that time, my brother called me up and asked me if I wanted to take an improv class with him at ACME Comedy Theatre, and I said, “Sure.” We then auditioned for the company and both made it, so we did that for a few years. Then we had the opportunity to be in a festival in Austin, Texas, called The Big Stinkin’ International Sketch and Improv Festival. One of the MADtv casting agents was in the audience and they gave us all auditions when we got back to LA. I got really lucky and got on the show. But while I was still in advertising, I was moonlighting and working on Casper and Pinky and The Brain.
What drew you to animation specifically?
I would say sketch comedy drew me to it. When I was at ACME, one of the higher-ups there was in animation, and that’s kind of how I got involved. Animation is very similar to sketch comedy; you have a short amount of time to do something big and ridiculous and funny. Especially with day time animation, you’re writing 11 minute pieces. A 22-minute show is split into shorts, so that was the best training in the world. Anything can happen in sketch comedy and anything can happen in animation, so they’re really evenly matched.
How did you first meet Seth MacFarlane?
Once I was on MADtv, I met this woman, Leslie Small. She was one of the developers of MADtv. She was also doing late night comedy developing for Fox and she was working on Family Guy with Seth at the time. Way back, the first idea was for Seth to do interstitials during MADtv. You know, like how The Tracey Ullman Show is how The Simpsons came to be; they used to just be little pieces between sketches. But that didn’t work out, and Seth ultimately created the show he created. I met him through Leslie and she asked me just as a favor, can you help us with this little animated pilot? I said, “Sure. Of course, I’ll do it.” So I met him and we tinkered with it and the rest is history.
How much of a hand did you have in the evolution of her character?
You know, it’s interesting, when Seth first wrote the show, and he would admit this too, he was 25, I don’t think he’d had any lengthy relationship with any female at that point. Writing female parts on the show was not his strength. The mom and Meg were just kind of there. So I started writing on the show because I did the voice. The voice kind of shaped her attitude a little bit and then as I would record things, I would improvise and add stuff. So I started coming in like one day a week when I wasn’t working on MADtv and writing on the show, hoping to add a little color to Lois. I mean the show is written by some of the smartest, funniest, most capable writers on the planet, I’m not trying insinuate “they couldn’t do it without me” at all. But if you have the person who is actually bringing the character to life in the room, it always helps. I stayed writing for the show for a long, long time and I might be going back as soon as my schedule permits.
What’s the best thing about playing Lois?
My favorite thing about playing Lois is that she isn’t a typical sitcom mom. She’s this dark character with this evil little underbelly that rears its head every once in a while. It’s so much fun to be able to play a woman like that. Even though she’s animated, she’s very real and I love that she’s got a sex life. She’s got fantasies, and she can still have a good time. She also has a soft side and is sometimes the voice of reason on the show. It’s really fun to be able to play a character with so much color to her.
You’re starring in a new series called, Getting On on HBO, can you tell me a little bit about what the show?
You have to know, normally, it’s a chore to have to do press for something, but I am so excited about this project that I’m screaming from the rooftops; I want anyone who will listen to listen. It’s so different from anything I’ve had the opportunity to do before. It’s based on a British show of the same name (Getting On). There’s me, Laurie Metcalf, and Niecy Nash. Laurie plays the doctor, I’m the head nurse, and Niecy plays a new nurse. Mel Rodriguez is also a new nurse on there too. It’s deals with the bizarre inner workings of this motley crew in an all-female geriatric wing in this dumpy hospital. And somehow it’s a comedy. It’s a crazy band of characters taking care of dying women and yet you still find yourself laughing at points. It’s also really bittersweet at times, which is kind of my favorite part of it. I wrote for Shameless for a long time, and I just love being able to have a very real scene and then a funny scene back to back. It’s a tough tone to do. It will be interesting to see how people respond to this show, but it’s just my favorite thing. I feel so lucky. It’s a half an hour, and it’s shot in a very gritty way where it feels like we’re being observed. I think the show is very different.
What’s the cast like?
I’m excited because I think we have this incredible untapped wealth of talent. What’s amazing about the show, in my opinion, is that it’s not stunt cast with a bunch of fancy names for me to drop. Its not like Sophia Loren is going to play an old person, that’s not what it’s about. It’s very real faces and heart. Faces and heart is what this show is about. The producers — they did Big Love — have been amazing at finding these people that can make you laugh in one breath and tear up in another.
Are you writing on the show?
I’m not actually, I’m just an actor. It’s so freeing in so many ways and also confining. It’s a double-edged sword. I feel a lack of power in that I have no say in my character’s future and yet at the same time, it’s really exhilarating to be able to just get the script and show up and make it happen.
You mentioned hemophilia earlier when discussing your childhood and you are very involved with the National Hemophilia Foundation. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
My uncle is a hemophiliac, and my brother is one as well. I am a carrier, and it’s a disease that my kids also deal with. It’s something that has affected my family and I for so long, and I think it’s actually what drove me to comedy as a means to cope during tough times. Hemophilia doesn’t get a lot of attention because it’s still a very rare disease. The amount of people that have it in the United States is very small, so there is really no awareness about bleeding disorders. The problem that hemophiliacs have is that their blood doesn’t clot, if you slam your elbow or your knee, it bleeds internally and it won’t stop until you give yourself a transfusion. My goal is to raise awareness about what hemophilia is, what bleeding disorders are, clear up the confusion that if someone nicks themselves shaving they’re going to die, and also to raise funds of course in hopes of getting better treatment and hopefully one day a cure.
And you’re putting on a variety show to benefit hemophelia on Wednesday in New York. Who’s performing?
It’s going to be myself, Sarah Silverman, Marcus Monroe, music be DJ Hesta Prynn, and many more surprise guests. There will be a variety of music, comedy, a little bit of sketch comedy, and alcohol so you can’t really go wrong with that. It made perfect sense to have a Halloween event and to call it “What’s So Bloody Funny?”, so we’re kind of cashing in on the cheap visual gag of Halloween blood and gore with hemophilia and blood. It’s October 30th at the Highline Ballroom in New York.
Getting On premieres on HBO Sunday, November 24th, at 10pm.
Blair Socci is a writer and standup comedian living in New York City.