Her role as the irrepressible Shirley Maisel on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was only supposed to last one episode, but fortunately for viewers of the period comedy streaming on Amazon Prime, the producers realized they had someone special in Caroline Aaron. In the recent fourth season, the veteran actress, 69, showed her depth as Shirley tried to set up her divorced son (with hilarious results) and also confronted the possibility of life without her husband, Moishe.
“Home and heart define her in every way,” Caroline tells Closer. “I also like that she always tells the truth as far as she’s concerned. She has plenty of terrible things to say about people, but she doesn’t feel like it’s judgment. She feels like that’s just truth.”
Caroline is currently filming the fifth and final season of the celebrated series about a female stand-up comedian in mid-century New York City.
You grew up in Richmond, Virginia. How did that shape who you are today?
“My mother was widowed very young, so she had to go to work, and the only place she could get a job was at an all-Black university. Through my mother, the Black community became part of my personal community. She was a remarkable woman. She was from that generation of women who were supposed to be more decorative than essential, yet she was doing this incredible work bringing disparate communities together. She would always say, ‘Your responsibility as a Jew is to leave the world a better place than you found it.’”
Were you in touch with your Jewish heritage as a child?
“During that time, there was no cultural Judaism in the South. I never went to a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah. There was no such thing when I was growing up. When I moved to New York, I just could not believe what it was like to live in a place where there was a Jewish community.”
In New York, you studied with the great Stella Adler. What was that like?
“She wanted us to get dressed up for class, not to slouch, and to be articulate. She would always say, ‘You are the ambassadors of the human experience, you cannot look like this.’ Marlon Brando had been a student. She said, ‘Do you know why he was a great actor? Because he didn’t play the godfather like an Italian gangster, he played him like a fallen Caesar.’ Her teaching and what she expected of us actors very much lined up with what my mother expected of her children. I’ve been influenced by very powerful women.”
And you’ve worked with some very famous men. One of your big breaks was in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. How did he influence your acting?
“Woody is truly shy. And as hilarious as he is, he never wants to be caught with the writer walking on stage or on screen with the joke. He wants everything to be very lifelike. If he had his way, women wouldn’t wear makeup, there’d be no artifice. I learned a lot about comedy from him. He is really a master.”
You also did Curb Your Enthusiasm with Larry David. Those episodes are improvised. Was that difficult?
“The first day that I was there, I didn’t have any script. I didn’t have any lines. I couldn’t prepare. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Ted Danson was there that day — he could see that I was really scared. He said, ‘Look, when you do an improv, if 10% of it is usable, that means you’re a genius. Do not put pressure on yourself.’ The real heroes of that show are the camera people because they don’t know where the actors are going to move. It’s almost like they’re a jazz band.”
Is Larry grumpy in real life?
“He’s such a doll. That character, his persona of the curmudgeon, is not at all who he is. He is generous and warm and giving. He will ruin so many takes because if you say something that he thinks is really funny, he’ll just crack up.”
What can you tell us about the final season of Mrs. Maisel?
“The only thing that I can say is that Midge is going to be ascending on her journey as a stand-up. Where she’ll land, I don’t know. She’s going to get some breaks in the final season.”
Are you sorry to see it ending?
“I’m depressed because as every day ticks by, it’s closer to being over. I’ve done this for 30 years. Things end, and then the next thing comes, but this show is in a category by itself.”
Does the cast get along?
“The way that we adore each other is for real, and the way that it feels like a family is for real. I’m not there when Midge is doing stand-up or when she’s having an affair with Lenny Bruce, so when the show comes out, I’m as much an audience member as anyone else. Luke [Kirby], who plays Lenny Bruce, called me after season 4 complimenting me on my performance and vice versa. I was so knocked out by what he did. We’ve all become each other’s fans.”
Do you have a favorite episode?
“In season 4, when we went to Coney Island. That was one of the most fun things we did. We filmed the Wonder Wheel on a soundstage. They built an exact replica of the car. Each one of us got in the car and did the whole scene while the rest of the cast was standing around giving us our lines. That was a really fun time. Whenever we’re all together, it’s really incredibly fun.”
What do you do for fun in real life?
“Writing. I really love writing. I write essays and plays. I’m working on a new play by a playwright named Sandra Tsing Loh. It’s about four women over 50 and what being female means in today’s world. The cast is Marilu Henner, myself, JoBeth Williams and Melanie Mayron. I’ve never done anything before that is just all women. It’s very fun and different.”
Do you have a motto that you live by?
“Tennessee Williams is my favorite playwright, and his very first play, which wasn’t so great, was called The Case of the Crushed Petunias. One character says to another, ‘Do you realize how the dead outnumber the living? To be alive is to be a member of a very special minority.’ When you think about it, it’s true! We’re members of a very special minority, so I try to remind myself of that. I aspire to cherish what I have.”
—Reporting by Amanda Champagne-Meadows
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