Alex Borstein is used to being off to the side, in a writers’ room, or in a recording booth by herself. Yet she’s currently starring on HBO’s Getting On as Dawn, a deluded, oddly sexed-up, earnest, officious, sometimes kind nurse in the geriatric wing of a rundown hospital. For years, she has been an on-camera actor (MADtv, Good Night, and Good Luck, Shameless); a voice actor (Lois on Family Guy); and a writer (Family Guy, Shameless).
Will Scheffer, who with his husband, Mark V. Olsen, adapted Getting On from the BBC original — they were also the creators of Big Love — did not undersell Borstein’s talents in a telephone interview.
“I told Alex at the premiere, I grabbed her and I said: ‘I’ve worked with Ellen Burstyn, I’ve worked with Sissy Spacek, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloë Sevigny. I’ve worked with all these amazing actresses. And I think you’re the most talented actress that I’ve ever worked with.’”
Scheffer continued: “She’s a brilliant talent. I hope this show helps her be seen as that.”
Getting On, which also stars Niecy Nash and Laurie Metcalf, has been under the radar (though Scheffer said, “We’re looking good for our second season.”). The original British series has continued, and this week won best sitcom at the British Comedy Awards. Here, the half-hour comedy is midway through its short run; its fourth episode (of six) airs Sunday night. I met Borstein for coffee recently in Pasadena, where she lives with her husband, Jackson Douglas, and their two small children. We discussed her disbelief over the grieving for Brian on Family Guy; why she wasn’t allowed to be Sookie on Gilmore Girls; and Seth MacFarlane.
And we especially talked about her love of Getting On, about which she said before we even sat down, “It’s just astonishing. I love it. I’m always shocked when anyone likes anything I like.”
You had just had a baby, your second kid, when you auditioned for Getting On. Were you looking for work?
Alex Borstein: I was writing. I was developing for BBC at the time. I got an email a week or two after having the baby about this audition — for the BBC. My first thought was A) I just had a baby, so fuck off and B) how tacky, I’m developing something else for the BBC. If I audition, they’ll think I have no faith in the thing I’m writing. But it turns out they poached me from their own thing, and said, “What about Alex Borstein for Dawn?” We literally went downstairs into the kids’ bedroom, and my husband put me on tape.
I never understand exactly how it works. You have sides from the script, and you just record yourself doing them?
AB: Yes. I was barely holding it together — no sleep, and the breastfeeding. It was really ridiculous on my part. But I was, like, I’ve got to do this. You literally just have the papers in your hand, and my husband had the camera. He was playing the other parts.
When we were shooting the show, I constantly felt like my instincts were wrong on this. We would do a take and I’d be, like, I think I nailed that. And they would run up to me and say, “That’s great. But it’s all wrong. Stop what you’re doing.”
The material is so interesting tonally, and the tone seems hard to achieve. What is a wrong take on it?
AB: There was one scene where I’m talking to Laurie Metcalf’s character. And she’s crushing my dreams in this moment about this raffle. While I’m talking to her, I was getting very upset and having my dreams being crushed. And Mark and Will came onto the set, and they were, like, “Mmm-mmm, mmm-mmm. You’re not upset. You can’t even fathom that’s what’s happening. You’re delusional. When someone’s crushing your dreams, you’re not even aware your dreams are being crushed.” I spent the first couple of minutes going, Fuck, they’re so wrong. They’re going to ruin the show and they don’t know what they’re talking about! Then I do it, and it’s like, Ucch, absolutely. They were absolutely right and I’m an idiot.
I have to ask about the translation scene, which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. How did you do it?
AB: Honestly, you wouldn’t believe how it was shot. The woman playing the part of the Cambodian was really not an actress; I don’t know where they cast her from. Will was laying down under one of the beds telling her when to talk and when not to talk. She had to find what she was going to say, figure out how many times she was going to repeat it, and then no matter what happened between her and Will, Niecy and I had to continue saying whatever she was going to say. And sometimes she would say a little, sometimes she would say a lot. It was never the same twice. So I don’t know how the fuck they pieced it together. It’s a Christmas miracle. And Niecy’s face — there were sometimes when I had to look past her. It was really fun.
How do you feel the show’s been treated by HBO? It’s running at a weird time of year; the finale episode runs a few days after Christmas.
AB: Maybe I’m stupid, or maybe it’s the Dawn in me. But it never dawned on me — like, I read some reviews that said, “It’s too bad they’re burning this off during the holidays.” Maybe I’m just delusional or a dreamer.
I have no idea! They don’t have the same model, and they have only so many Sunday nights.
AB: I don’t know what to think! I don’t know if we’re going to get a second season. I don’t know anything yet.
What are your Family Guy duties these days?
AB: You said “doody.” Thank you, that’s my Family Guy mentality.
We switched just like that.
AB: Misogyny. Bush. Doody. Boobs. I’m not writing on the show anymore. I’m just doing voices; I was just there this morning recording. I was hoping to go back and write again this season. It’s kind of fun, I get to just keep creating new characters. But it was just impossible to figure out how to make that work. For them to get their money’s worth, they need a commitment.
So if you did a Family Guy episode today, when will that actually air?
AB: Nine months. Really a year.
So the episode you did today was for fall 2014?
AB: That’s why doing interviews about Family Guy is so difficult. They say, “What can you tell me about what’s coming?” And I’m so fucked up; I’m not sure what I’m allowed to talk about. We just had the episode where Brian was killed off.
I was going to ask about that.
AB: Good lord! How are human beings still functioning when the reaction that I’ve seen to a talking cartoon dog’s death is — there’s been more outrage than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. The hate mail I’m getting on Twitter. Oh my god, it’s insane! Like, the responses I’m getting are, “Bring back Brian, you bitch!” Wait a minute!
That’s a humanitarian right there.
AB: “Brian better show up again next week, you fucking cunt!” It was insane. Really angry. And at me Like, dying. God bless America.
You started as the voice of Lois. At what point did you become a writer on the show?
AB: I was working on MADtv. I met the woman who was developing Family Guy with Seth MacFarlane because she had also developed MADtv, Leslie Kolins Small. She hooked us up. I did his pilot for him. He was a 25-year-old who had written what he thought a mom and daughter would sound like, and it was a 25 year-old male’s perception. There just wasn’t that much there; he readily admits they were the least developed characters. After it got picked up and it was a show, I was in the booth and one of the writer-producers Chris Sheridan was there, and I improvised something. Just fucking around. And he laughed, and Seth laughed. And he said after that record session, “Would you ever consider writing on the show?” Are you kidding, I would love it. I was still doing MADtv, but we worked out a deal so after the table read I would go to Family Guy on Monday afternoons and consult as a writer.
What were those early days like there?
AB: Those days were magical. We were all so young, and no one had kids yet. In those days, it was such a family experience, going from 11 in the morning to 11 at night. With some of the funniest people I’ve ever worked with. Just the brains in the room: so smart and twisted and different. You were always chasing each other. It made you smarter and it made you quicker. Definitely more jaded and darker. It was like comedy school, man. It still is. It’s still just the funniest fucking people. And so smart. They keep finding new stories, and new ways to tell old stories.
What’s it been like to watch Seth MacFarlane’s ascension?
AB: It’s been kind of astonishing. It feels like a sibling. It’s probably how Eric Roberts feels; I’m the Eric Roberts of the MacFarlane family. I should show you this fucking picture of Seth and I from the very first record. For some reason we both have terrible bowl cuts. We’re just these idiots. Now he’s like a styled movie star. He’s the smartest, funniest person I’ve ever met. He’s got a different brain from the rest of us. He’s like an Amadeus.
With Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls, you were the original Sookie, the part that Melissa McCarthy ended up taking over because MADtv wouldn’t let you out of your contract.
AB: I wanted to do both. They wouldn’t share me.
Was it a coincidence that Jackson Douglas, your husband, played Jackson on the show?
AB: One of our showrunners was Dan Palladino — he was a phenomenal Family Guy showrunner. He at one point said to me, “You know, Alex, you should read my wife’s pilot.” I was, like, “Why? It’s just going to depress me. I didn’t write it.” I read it and loved it. He said, “Could you audition for this?”
We shot the pilot in this tiny town called Markham near Toronto, Canada. My husband was there because we were traveling together. Dan and Amy, his wife, Amy Sherman-Palladino, we became friends. We had a blast and just laughed our asses off. They found Jackson to be quirky and interesting, and our relationship to be funny. They ended up writing him in as Sookie’s love interest.
So you had the freedom to go and do this pilot, but then what happened that stopped you from being on the show?
AB: I was loving MADtv, and thought there’s got to be a way to do both things. And Amy said, “Let me call them, I know we can work this out. I will shoot Sunday through Thursday so I can shoot you Sunday.” I was so hopeful. Everyone was leading me to believe it was possible. The exec producer at MADtv at the time was, like, “Yeah, yeah, there’s no reason we can’t make this work.” What I didn’t know was the emails behind my back were, like, “Absolutely not.” I think it was a Fox-WB thing. So it kind of blew up. Very disappointing. But now I feel — I’m not mystical or anything. But it worked out really fucking well. I wouldn’t have been that comfortable with Jackson and I — they had them getting married and having kids. I don’t think I would have wanted to do that on screen with my real-life husband. And Melissa is fucking amazing. And the two of them got along. I think it was better. And there were all these opportunities I wouldn’t have had. I got to do Good Night, and Good Luck, and it was the coolest. It’s all good. At the time it sucked! I was so pissed. And then going back to MADtv, I was a petulant teenager.
Did you feel they were out to get you?
AB: These fuckers! How dare they value me! How dare they want me to stay on a show that I signed a contract to stay on! A little bit of an asshole. I was. It just hurt.
Who would you want to work with?
AB: I think Lena Dunham’s brilliant. Vince Gilligan — Breaking Bad, I know it’s boring to say now, but it’s brilliant. He’s a genius. But I don’t feel like I need to work with him; I just want to watch what he does next. Here’s the scary thing: Right now, I feel like I could just be done. I feel like I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do. I’d love to have something I’m writing go. But Getting On is just the pinnacle. For me, it’s exactly what I’ve always wanted. I don’t care if it leads to movies. This is just perfection. Good material. Incredible people I’m working with. There’s no drama, there’s no bullshit. It’s just cool. Isn’t that sad? I’m done. I can just retire.
Wow. No more aspirations.
AB: Isn’t that weird? What do I do?
This interview has been edited and condensed.