SAG award-winning actress Caroline Aaron may have built a career out of playing loveable and unforgettable characters, but none can compare to Shirley Maisel in Prime Video’s critically acclaimed series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
According to an article from The List, Aaron couldn’t wait to play the loveable housewife and meddling matriarch. As Joel’s enigmatic Jewish mother who hails from the Upper West Side, Shirley stands firm as a pillar of support for the family and her grandchildren, despite her occasional hijinks.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tackles important issues such as women’s roles at the time, and social justice is deeply rooted in Aaron’s soul. Growing up Jewish in southern Richmond, Virginia, her late mother was prominent civil rights activist Nina Friedman Abady, who walked with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. She also worked full-time to support her three kids. Aaron says her mother is partly the inspiration for Shirley’s character.
Season four of the series premiered earlier this year, and production of the fifth and final season is currently underway. Instinct caught up with Aaron to talk more about her role, why The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is worth the watch, and upcoming projects.
Thank you for taking some time to chat with me, Caroline! Let’s begin by talking about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. For those who have not yet watched, why is this show worth checking out?
I like to call this show a Trojan horse. It’s an effervescent, delightful comedy, but there are some very serious issues inside, and I think that’s what makes it so special. Besides the fact that it has great scope, it’s beautifully designed, production and costume wise, and the cast is extraordinary, but I think the story is what’s so important.
You star as Shirley Maisel, Joel’s enigmatic Jewish mother who hails from the Upper West Side. What has playing this character meant to you?
What it’s meant to me is that everybody seems to have a Shirley in their life in one way or another. It’s either their mother, their aunt, their favorite teacher, or a neighbor, and it’s always somebody that they really love. That’s a very nice experience to have. I’ve played a lot of different characters, but I’ve never played a character that’s this loved by people or reminds people of somebody that they have tremendous fondness for.
That’s how you would say Shirley stands out from all the other characters you have played before?
Oh, absolutely. I get stopped all the time, and people go, oh my God, you remind me so much of my grandmother. Something like that, and I love it.
Is it true that your own mother is a real-life inspiration for playing Shirley?
Yes and no. She was not at all like Shirley because even though she was from the same time period, she was a working mother. I think I was the only kid in school during that time who had a mother that went to work, but I think the ways in which there has been an intersection, or an overlap, is that they’re both fierce in their passions and commitments.
My mother was a civil rights activist, not a stay-at-home mom. My mother’s family was certainly an important part of her life, and she certainly made it an important part of our lives. Family was something to always cherish and protect, but my mother also believed in protecting the citizens of the world.
What else helps you get into character?
Certainly, the clothes. Not only are the costumes the ones that you see, but underneath those costumes, we have to wear the bras, girdles, garter belts, stockings – we can’t cheat (laughs). There’ll be days when I’ll come in and go, do I have to put on the girdle today? I just can’t even imagine that women went through that, and such a short time ago. By the time you put on the shoes, gloves, hats, coats, all those things, and you walk onto those sets, you’re walking into a world. It transforms you, and it really makes me miss my mother.
Why did you initially want to be involved with this show?
Because of Gilmore Girls, which is Amy Sherman-Palladino’s other show. I have a daughter, who was obsessed with Gilmore Girls, and I think she tuned into it during the second round. Not when it was on because she was too young, and every time I’d walk into the living room, she was watching it again. On loop over and over again.
She said, Mom, if the mother and grandmother on this show had a baby, it would be you. I was like, what is this? So, she made me watch it with her, all seven seasons. We watched every single episode and made a deal that I would watch the last episode with her the night before I dropped her off at college, which is the story of Gilmore Girls.
When they called me about this show, I didn’t know much about it, but they said Amy Sherman-Palladino, and I went, I don’t even need to read it. I’m in! This will give me such currency with my college age daughter.
Season four of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel premiered earlier this year. How has the reception been?
It’s been phenomenal. It really has, and because it was our pandemic year. We were making a TV show, as everyone was during a pandemic, so everything had to be adjusted for that. Initially before we came back, I think we all thought the show would get much smaller. It’ll be talking heads because everybody had to be so careful, and this show has such scope.
The beginning of season three, we had 800 extras for a USO tour, so they weren’t going to let you do that now. You weren’t going to have 800 people on a set during a pandemic, so we had no idea what they were cooking up. When we got the first episode and it was at Coney Island, I went, they certainly have not backed off in any way. The scope of the show is so huge and wonderful in that sense.
The series was renewed for a fifth and final season. Do you have any idea where Shirley’s story will go?
I have no idea. I keep saying, how are they going to land this plane? We’re in the middle of shooting now, and we’ve shot the first three episodes, but I still can’t tell. It really is like a Crackerjack surprise. Every time we get a script, it’s like, oh, that’s going to happen! I have no idea what they’re going to do with these characters as they go along, and now because we’ve been doing it for five seasons, I don’t want to know. I used to. I’d go, come on, I need to know what’s going to happen, so I’ll know how to play it. Now, I like the surprise.
You have quite an extensive resume of TV, film, and theater credits. Has acting always been your passion?
Always. For summer camp, I had a choice between climbing a mountain or being in a bunk show. My mother always blamed it on camp. She was like, I should’ve never sent you to that camp (laughs). I really didn’t want to climb a mountain and I really loved being in plays. I went to college and majored in performing arts, so I knew this was something I always wanted to do, but you never know if you’re going to get to do it.
This is an uncertain profession, and I don’t think any of us like to live with that uncertainty. I had a professor in college who once said, if this is what you choose to do, you have to balance the pleasure versus pain principle. So, for all the pain that you go through, all the rejection, all the dot, dot, dot, I don’t know where I’m going to be next, once you do it, it must bring you so much pleasure that it’s worth it. And it does, so I’ve been very lucky.
One of your upcoming projects is the Israeli/U.S. Henry Winkler-starring crossover comedy Chanshi. What can you tell us about this?
This is a wonderful series. It’s a 10-episode arc, and Henry and I both went to Tel Aviv to shoot for eight days. I’ve never been to Israel, and it’s the story of the leading lady. She wrote it and starred in it. She comes from a very Orthodox community in Brooklyn, and she had an arranged engagement. She went to Israel, fell in love, and became secular. I play her stepmother, while Henry plays her father, and we go to Israel to collect her and bring her home and back to her community.
Being Jewish yourself, do you find it easier to play Jewish roles?
I don’t think so. To me, it just comes down to the writing. What makes a role easy to play is great writing. When I teach acting, I always say to the kids first, land a part and make a list. That’s what I do. Where are we the same and where are we different? Where we’re different is where I have to do my work to fill in to take a walk in somebody else’s shoes.
In that sense, understanding what being Jewish is and what some of the references are, but because I’m from the south, this sort of cultural Judaism that exists in the show and that certainly exists in New York was never part of my experience. I didn’t even know what it was. Like, when they would say New York Jew, I went, I wonder what that means.
I recently read Mel Brooks’ biography, and he said he didn’t know what any of the holidays meant. He’d never been inside a synagogue. He said, I just wake up in the morning and go, I’m a Jew! So, his whole relationship to Judaism is completely cultural, and my whole relationship to Judaism is content oriented rather than form oriented because I just didn’t have that growing up.
What are some future goals you hope to accomplish with your career?
I’ve started writing, and it’s very exciting to me. I’ve written three plays that had been optioned, so that’s what I would like to do next in terms of diversifying my career. Some of my plays were done on Zoom, but that was very unsatisfying. Hopefully we will move forward with those, and I wrote plays not for me to be in, but because I’ve been in so many plays along the way, there are certain stories about women that I think are still not being told. I was recently in Los Angeles working on a new play with three other women, and that was very exciting. So, I think I would like to get back to the theater after this.
Before we wrap up, are there any other upcoming projects or anything else you’d like to mention or plug?
I would just like to say that this new play that I’m working on with these women, it’s called Mad Women of the West, and hopefully it will be in California soon!