On a snowy day in Manhattan, I sit down with Tony Shalhoub at the Whitby Hotel. He looks like the kind of cool dad that every guy hopes to be—a nice sweater with a blazer and an admirable beard. While his soft-spoken demeanor tipped me off that he was probably going to be a nice guy, it was the first thing he says to me confirms it. While I apologize for showing up to the interview soppy wet from the snow, Shalhoub politely stops me: he too wants to apologize because he says he dropped his lunch on his sweater. But there’s no stain or even a wet spot. I’m a wet mess. He’s a white liar.
Along with being a genuinely delightful man, Shalhoub is a Tony winner, an Emmy winner, and a Grammy nominee. He’s currently starring as Abe Weissman on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which dropped its third season on December 6 on Amazon Prime. Shalhoub is still winding down after the massively successful Broadway adaptation of The Band’s Visit, which locked in his first Tony win. When I ask him if he’s taking time for himself during the shooting hiatus for Maisel, I think he and I have different definitions of “time for yourself.” He says he’d like to maybe take on a small play before Season Four begins. Casual.
But that’s what happens when you’re a veteran of the game. After 30 years in the business and two wildly successful television series, Shalhoub isn’t running out of steam. He’s thriving. So, Esquire stole him for a moment to talk about all of it—grueling schedules, living in New York City, and being Bill Murray’s taxi driver.
Justin Kirkland: I wanted to talk with you, of course, about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but also the giant past couple of years that you’ve had.
TS: Oh, God. Yeah, the last couple of years have been incredible. Busy—the Broadway play and Maisel. It’s been a real, just incredibly fertile time. And also, we moved back to New York about three-and-a-half years ago. We’d been in L.A. for years and years. I used to live in New York in the ’80s. I moved back before I got Maisel, so it was just a fabulous coincidence that it came up and is shooting here.
JK: I hate to put you on the spot. Would you call yourself more New York at heart, or more LA?
TS: You know, it’s funny you ask that, because I think a number of years ago I would have said L.A., because I lived there for so long. We raised our kids there, but now it just feels like New York is the place for us again. My wife happens to be from New York, so she’s feeling like she’s home, and right now I have to say I feel like more of a New Yorker.
JK: Being back here, you’re a theater guy at heart. Are you hoping to get back in a production any time soon, coming off The Band’s Visit?
TS: Yeah, I don’t have anything definite, but I’m certainly looking. I have a bit of a hiatus period from Maisel, and I’d love to maybe squeeze in a play, you know, in the winter, early spring.
JK: You guys typically shoot here for Maisel, right?
TS: Oh yeah, well unless we’re on location. Like last year we went to Paris for a few weeks, we went to the Catskills. We, this time we went to Miami for a stint for Season Three. But mostly the sound stages are in Brooklyn, and we shoot on location in the city.
JK: I feel like your character Abe started coming unraveled once he saw Midge doing comedy last season. How is it getting to unwrap the layers of this character?
TS: It’s really interesting, and you know, it’s always a danger, when you do series television. You get sort of locked into a certain kind of character and you’re only playing one or two colors, over and over. It’s the nature of series television, you know? They find a good formula and then you kind of give them what’s familiar and what’s recognizable and what’s expected. The upside of a long running series is you have a long running series. The downside is that you can sometimes get painted into a corner, whereas with this material, it’s totally different. All of these characters seem to be in a constant state of change and discovery and you start to see certain kinds of contradictions emerging. For us, for the actors, it’s endlessly fascinating and challenging, and you couldn’t ask for anything more than that.
JK: You’ve always had complex characters. I loved Monk, but I always saw Monk as a show about grief as opposed to just a procedural.
TS: I’ve been blessed with having fallen in with really talented writers again and again, and Monk was—it was kind of the best of both worlds in the sense that is was a procedural, but it was a comedy, but it wasn’t just a comedy because he lost his wife so we had that whole other side of him. As you say, there’s the exploration of grief, the pushing through the damage that’s been done to this character, the disorder that he struggles with. All of those things living side by side with sometimes really goofy comedic set pieces.
JK: For it to be set in the ’60s, Maisel really does speak to current times. Abe is this bleeding heart radical who is only interested in taking that so far.
TS: Abe will, I think, always have a foot in both worlds. Because when he was younger, he had a fire in his belly and all that, and he’s trying to get in touch with that again. But, he’s lived a long time with all the creature comforts, and so it’s hard to relinquish that. He’s a mass of contradictions, this guy, which you know, makes it endlessly interesting to play.
JK: But still, at the same time I feel like he’s the heart of the show.
TS: Abe is, you know, he struggles… I think he’s kind of an idealist in a way, in the sense, I mean he has high standards. Not just of himself, but of his children—of his daughter certainly. But also of the world. His place in the world. He’s doomed to be disappointed, this man. Because his expectations are lofty and the world, including his family, including his daughter and his son, don’t ever quite match up with his vision of how it’s supposed to be. But I know that maybe we don’t see it yet, but I’m hopeful that down the road we will see him sort of find that moment of joy and of having arrived. I’d like to think that’s out there somewhere.
JK: How do you keep everything straight? I’m assuming there was a little bit of overlap between working on The Band’s Visit and Maisel.
TS: I was going back and forth because we did workshops at The Band’s Visit years before the production but I think if I have the chronology right, it was two years. We did the pilot of Maisel, then maybe the opera run of The Band’s Visit, then we went into the first season of Maisel. Then I did the Broadway run of The Band’s Visit. Then I had to leave that early to do the second season of Maisel. And there was a month overlap where I was doing both. They wanted me to come back into it so I came back into The Band’s Visit and we were shooting at the same time. It was fantastic.
JK: Really? Those are two very different characters.
TS: Completely different characters but it was kind of living the dream as an actor where you’re literally running from one set to another theater. And you’re taking off one costume and literally shedding one character and donning another. And working with all these brilliant people and actors in both venues. I don’t know how long I could have sustained that, but I did it for a better part of a month, I think.
JK: I heard a story about Judi Dench once. She was in a Shakespeare play as a lead character but she was done after the First Act. She would leave that theater, run over, and join the chorus of Les Mis for like a week. Then get dressed again and come back for the final bow just because she wanted the challenge. Which, to an actor, must be an adrenaline rush.
TS: I’ve only done that once before when I lived in New York in the ‘80s and one of my very first movies was a Bill Murray movie called Quick Change. This really crazy movie with Geena Davis and all these people. And it was one of my first movies but I was mostly doing night shoots. I was playing a foreign cabby. I was rehearsing a Broadway—we were the first cast in the Heidi Chronicles—I would rehearse from like eleven in the morning to five or six at night and run out of the rehearsal room, jump in a van for the movie production, and they’d take us out where we were shooting in Queens.
I’d go home when the sun came up at like five o’clock, go to bed for five or six hours, get up, go back to rehearsal, and I would just do this for three weeks or four weeks. It was so fun. I thought, It’s never gonna get better than this. Here I am rehearsing for a Broadway show, and I’m in a movie with all these great people in New York City.
JK: Sounds like a blast.
TS: It was a real blast. And I played a cabbie who spoke, they had me invent like a gibberish language because they wanted it to be like an unidentifiable thing. So I just made up my own dialogue, and it was a really crazy movie.
JK: I was going to finish up by asking you: Do you hope to catch your breath a little bit coming off a big Tony’s win and Maisel?
TS: No. I’d like to do a play or something in the interim before we start up again. But I don’t have anything definite yet.