Alex Borstein is the profanely funny comic actor who voices Lois Griffin on “The Family Guy.” She also stars in “Getting On,” the most under-hyped series now airing on HBO, a dark comedy about a down-and-out hospital unit for elderly patients.
In an interview with HuffPost earlier this year, Borstein opened up about parenting, body image, creativity, and life with hemophilia (“it’s like diarrhea of the blood”).
She also described a new phase of her life, divorce. ”If you believe in romance and if you believe in marriage, you also have to believe in divorce,” she said. “It’s like with ‘Getting On,’ a lot of people say, ‘I don’t want to watch that. It’s so dark.’ But you can’t just want to go to weddings and children’s birthday parties. You’ve got to witness it all. We’re just here to witness and believe in both.”
“Getting On” returns for its third season on Sunday, November 8.
Have you had any recent realizations about living a more fulfilling life?
You have to take breaks. That’s what I think I’ve discovered from everything. Take a breather from work. Take a breather from your kids. You can’t try to keep going and sustain everything all at once. That is, I think, the new magic rule I live by.
This trip is the most relaxed I’ve been in like two years. I’ve got a two-year-old kid. And it’s being out here, in a hotel room, solo, laying naked in a bathrobe ordering room service — it’s the most relaxation I’ve had lately. It’s astonishing how you have to take this kind of time.
I get the sense that you’re a more private person than most who have been working in television for 20 years.
I’m definitely not interested in the notoriety side of it. If it gets you a table at a restaurant, it’s nice. But I’m just interested in the play, the fun work. “Getting On” is just the coolest experience ever, and working with people like Laurie Metcalf, that’s the joy. That’s what I love about it. I still get very uncomfortable and flushed on the street if somebody recognizes me or stops me. I don’t know what to say. It’s uncomfortable and strange.
I purposely moved to Pasadena in Los Angeles to not be so centered in it. I didn’t want to be going to restaurants where you know there’s going to be paparazzi. You see all these poor people and the paparazzi won’t leave them alone.
That’s been a good tool, just removing myself and not having to deal with it too much. I don’t want pictures of my kids anywhere. I don’t tweet pictures of my kids. I don’t put them on any social media. I definitely do like to keep some privacy that way. And mostly it’s fear-based; people are crazy.
Fans turn on you on a dime. I mean, I remember, Seth [MacFarlane] and I were signing autographs in front of a premiere for a movie, and people were like, “Oh, oh, Seth, Seth, Seth.” The staff started telling us to get into the theater because the movie’s going to start. One guy says, “Alex, Alex, Alex, just one more.” I’m like, “I’m sorry. I can’t do it.” I handed the pen back and turn around and he darted the pen into the back of my head as hard as he could. “Bitch!” He called me a bitch. And you’re just like, really? Just like on a dime they turn on you. It was mob mentality.
What has surprised you about parenthood?
Being terrible at it. [laughter] No. It’s just 24/7. You don’t really understand the constant-ness of it until it’s too late. [laughter] You have to say that we laughed after I said that!
But yes, I think that was the most surprising part for me — it is just all day, every day. The kids don’t care that you have a script due. They don’t care that you have to learn these lines. They don’t care that you haven’t slept. It also is a welcome surprise how your heart just melts, how you can’t really believe your capacity for love for another human being until you have kids, I think.
Is there anything that you’ve specifically done differently than your own parents?
I think the biggest thing that I do is trying to delay gratification, and letting them feel things. Letting them cry, letting them be upset about things. My parents were wonderful, but there was a lot of, “Come on, now. Stop that. You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re okay.”
For them, it was how they were raised. “Uh oh, she’s crying. Let’s try to fix this, or help her stop crying.” For a long time that made me feel like I should be stronger than to cry, I shouldn’t let anyone see that I feel or emote.
I felt scared to feel things for long, so I’m trying to let my kids feel things and just be upset. If something that upsets them happens, I say, “You go ahead and cry. That’s awesome. Let it out.” Don’t get me wrong. There comes a time where you’re like, “Okay. You’ve been screaming for 10 minutes, I’m closing the door.”
How do you balance the work and parental life?
I don’t. People who say they balance it are full of shit. It’s never balanced. One day you fuck up in this way because you’ve done too much of this, and the next day you fuck up in that way. It’s wonderfully imbalanced. And I think that makes life, life. I just do the best I possibly can.
I’m here instead of with them right now. I’m going to Pittsburgh tomorrow to work on a movie and I’m going to try to fly back every weekend to see them. And it’s still not balanced, but it’s going to be the very best I can do and it’s probably going to be good for them in a way. I think having a break from mommy can be a good thing.
Interesting. In what sense?
The more present you are, the more you do things for them. The more you’ll take over, the more you’ll insert yourself into their personalities, insert yourself into their choices.
You remove yourself from the picture and their dad will do more of it that time, or grandma and grandpa will be there, or we’ve got sitters. I think it’s really healthy for them to have time with all these different people and perspectives, and a chance to miss me. When I come back, it’ll be, “Mommy!” It will be very exciting.
Creativity is a big part of your life. How do you try to instill that in your kids?
We chose progressive schools, which basically means you pay a lot of money and they just finger-paint all day, play in the sand, and crap themselves. That was a conscious choice to let them be in a place that let them be kids for a long time.
There’s a lot of creative stuff going on in the house all the time. Literally, almost every other day I move the furniture around just because, fuck it. And I love it. I love messing around with what you think is certain. We live in a loft, so you can change the layout of the place dramatically by moving this here or there, or flipping where the dining room is and living room is. We do a lot of that, which keeps them like, “What?”
We do a lot of art projects. We do a lot of drawing. There’s a lot of singing, a lot of singing, piano lessons, and I’m taking cello lessons, so the kids are around that a lot. There’s no sitting down and forcing them to be that way. It’s just kind of all over, they’re surrounded by it right now.
“The Family Guy” in particular has been an incredible hit. What has been the relationship between financial success and personal fulfillment in your life?
I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been really, really lucky that things have blossomed one after the other. I mean, right now, I’m in a new chapter of my life. I’m going through a divorce [from husband Jackson Douglas], so that’s a little different. But in terms of “MADtv” and then “Family Guy” and “Gilmore Girls,” and then doing little movies here and there, and interesting projects, and a lot of writing, and now “Getting On”.
I’m afraid — I feel like I’m being set up. If I go for a mammogram, I’m like: Something bad is going to happen because things are too wonderful. Everything is blossoming. Please, please let me be healthy because, knock on wood, it feels like it’s all blossomed together.
Of course, when you first come upon the dissolution of a marriage, it feels like a huge catastrophe and a blow. All you can do is say, Okay, this going to lead to something super interesting. What’s next?
So I feel like everything has grown together. The schedule that “Family Guy” has allowed me to be with my kids is tremendous. It’s astonishing. And then “Getting On” we shoot in the summer, a really tight schedule. So I’m around all the time for them, which is rare.
Are there any lessons that you’ve learned from the divorce?
Don’t get married. Is that a good lesson? [laughter] If you believe in romance and if you believe in marriage, you also have to believe in divorce. It’s like with “Getting On,” a lot of people say, “I don’t want to watch that. It’s so dark.” But you can’t just want to go to weddings and children’s birthday parties. You’ve got to witness it all. We’re just here to witness and believe in both.
You have to ride the highs and ride the lows. To know when you’ve done all you can in something and ridden it to the end is important, too. To know, which is hard. It’s hard to see that when you’re in it, but maybe that’s a good thing. You shouldn’t see it immediately because then you do the work, and you work really, really hard for as long as you can.
Are there any books that have had a major impact on your life?
There was a book that haunted me for a long time. It was called “Shoot the Piano Player“. I believe it was made into a film, too. It is really dark, really heavy. It sat with me for so long. I can’t shake the characters.
Steve Martin’s “Cruel Shoes” was huge. All of Steve Martin’s work was a big influence on me and “Cruel Shoes” was just so odd. So bizarre, just his form of comedy, that opened my eyes to what’s possible. It’s a book of blown-out stories that are so weird, absurdist. It was my introduction to that.
In college, when I studied rhetoric, we had to read this book that took me forever to get through. It was by [Jean] Baudrillard and it was called “Simulacra and Simulation,” and that was mind-bending. That kind of cracked opened things that made me realize I barely know anything and nothing is real.
What’s some life advice you wish you’d been given 10 years ago?
Childbirth changes everything. Bodywise, as a woman, when you realize what your body is actually designed to do, it’s such a fucking weight off of your shoulders. Just realize, like, it’s perfect. Your body is perfect and it doesn’t matter, a chunk here and a fat here and a cellulite here and your stomach this or that. That shit is just such a waste of time. That’s one of my things I hate, is that I wasted so much time thinking that way, thinking that I was so imperfect. That would be the biggest bit of advice: do not waste that time.
Also, to actors, I would say, “Don’t pay a lot for headshots.” That’s always my advice. They don’t matter. The photo just needs to look like you. Take a bunch of classes and don’t spend time writing to working actors asking them how they did it, because 9 times out of 10, if you’re the person asking those questions, you’re not the person that’s got chutzpah to make it happen.
I find that to be true. The people that say, “How do you get into voiceover work?” You figure it out. I did. I don’t even know how I did it now. When I was doing it, people would take demo reel classes and end up with a demo. You had a tape, a cassette tape. [laughter] Now people can just do things on their phone. I don’t even know what the hell the advice would be now. My advice is don’t ask people for advice. [laughter]
Memories are important to happiness. Do you do anything to retain your memories? Keep a journal, anything like that?
I do. I keep several journals because I fall in love with a new blank book and start one, so I have a whole bunch of started journals.
They usually start off just trying to document the day so that I remember things with the kids when they’re little, remember things they’ve said. Then they usually turn into emotional quandaries and questioning and philosophical things that I can’t answer, and then I get frustrated and give up.
Then I open my computer and get back to work on a script and then I get stuck on that and I go back to the journal, and I kind of bounce back and forth.
I also do a lot of the photo books, basically photo journals. That’s really fun to do now because there’s always a camera with you. I just place a picture there and then ruminate on it. Meditate on it. You can write next to it sometimes.
I do ones where they’re all little Fuji Polaroid photos. I’ll put it in the corners and I’ll write in silver marker next to them. I also do digital one on the Mac, the iPhoto books, and it’s fun.
Have you been thinking more about the fragility of life since working on “Getting On”?
Definitely. It makes you realize how short it is. The women that work on the set with us are in their 70s, 80s, some 90s, and they’ll all tell you, [snaps fingers], “It’s just a snap. It happens so fast.” They’ve been doing theater.
The woman who plays Birdy on our show was Millie on the Dick Van Dyke Show. She says like, “Oh, it was yesterday that I was doing that.” She told me: “I was you, on that show.” I realize how quick it is.
I’m curious what it’s like for older actors who are cast as characters on the cusp of death. Do you sense that it’s difficult for them at all?
I think a lot of them aren’t in a position to choose if they want to work. They need to keep their health insurance. They take what they get, period.
But with “Getting On,” we’ve heard time and time again that they’re so happy that these are real parts, that they’re actual human beings. It’s not just an old woman there to say, “Where’s the beef?” [laughter]. Or “I’d hit that!” Just some dumb stuff.
They’re so happy to be playing these fully realized characters and showing the reality of aging. So the women that are there are thrilled to be there.
Has filming spurred any emotional experiences for you?
In the pilot, a woman passes. She expires. I’m holding her hand and the character dies and I have to place her teeth in her mouth. They got a woman who had no teeth and I actually had to put her teeth back in her mouth. The whole thing was just so surreal and so disturbing, and reminiscent.
I had been through it with my grandmother a few years before. I was close with her. She was a Holocaust survivor, escaped, came to the States with nothing to her name, with a daughter, and made it work and survived. She was a fighter and she was funny. Really, the Miss Swan character that I do is a direct rip-off of her; it’s just stolen. So her death was very hard, and really after the fact I realized how hard it was on me losing her. That was a real blow. That messed me up for a long time.
Did you learn anything from coping with that loss?
I just ate a lot. So that’s a good coping mechanism. [laughter] I immediately, after she passed, felt like, “What the fuck am I waiting for? Why don’t I start a family?” That was definitely — I knew I always wanted to have kids, but her passing made me really realize what I could possibly be missing.
The last things that she said — anything that mattered had to do with her children and her grandchildren. There was no thought of anything else. No celebration of her triumphs in her career or anything. All that mattered was the family she started and the people she cared for and they cared about her.
This is always in your face. You hear it and you see greeting cards. You see commercials. You go to weddings. You know that. You know it. But it really hit home and made me realize, “What am I doing? I’ve got to hurry up.”
I’ve heard you talk about growing up with some hardships, having hemophilia and other things that led you to comedy.
The reality is, in the grand scheme of things, I did not have hardships. I had a cakey, easy, wonderful life. I’ve got two parents that have cared for me, been housed, been fed — way too well. [laughter] My parents had jobs. We were lucky enough to have medical insurance and stuff, and there’s a lot of people who don’t. So really, I mean the hemophilia was something to deal with, but I’d hardly say a hardship.
I do try to instill this with my kids, the value of things. It’s something that I try to do a lot. My son is starting to get a sense that everything is disposable. It really bothered me. I want him to understand that you can’t just always get what you want. So I’ve been trying to lay that on him a little heavier, that you can’t. If he wants something, I say, “Let’s go home and we’ll save up our money and we’ll come back and get it, if you still want it.”
I’m terrified for him to just grow up thinking he can get anything he wants. And of course it’s always the easier route, shut your kid up in the store and just get him the candy that he wants, but you pay the price later.
So I make him do chores every day and time-outs when he’s acting like a dick. I try to have consequences to his actions and to delay his gratification. That’s the biggest thing I’m trying to do, delayed gratification.
I wanted to ask a bit more about hemophilia because I know it’s something you’ve been very focused on.
Hemophilia is like diarrhea of the blood. [laughter] If you get injured — not so much a shaving cut or a scrape, but more internal bleeding, like if you’re playing basketball and you jam your finger — it’s not just going to go away. It’s going to swell and swell. There’s going to be internal bleeding, and if you don’t deal with it, the joints will be damaged permanently.
So people with hemophilia are missing the clotting factors in their blood. The one that’s in our family is hemophilia A, and there’s also hemophilia B, and there’s Von Willebrand’s disease.
They have different clotting factors you can take — you inject, give yourself transfusions, and it will help your body coagulate and clot and stop the bleeding, but it’s really expensive. It’s one of the most expensive diseases in the world. And because it’s such a small number of people have it, it’s not as cost effective to develop treatments for as something that’s prevalent.
A lot of kids growing up with hemophilia now are having such a different experience than my brother did or my uncle did back when treatments weren’t as streamlined. A lot of the products then were tainted, there was a bad batch in the 80s not being screened for hepatitis and HIV. A huge population was killed with tainted product. There’s amazing documentaries on this, and the industries knew that it was tainted and still let it out. It’s really awful.
But now things are really different. Everything is screened really well. A lot of the treatments now are not even made from human blood. They’re derived in different ways, so it’s much safer. It’s incredible what they’ve done.
But there’s still no cure, and people in countries that don’t have access, and even within the United States, many don’t have access to the treatment — for them, it’s horrendous. It’s still a really, really serious, terrible, debilitating problem, living with a bleeding disorder.
I’ve been trying to be really active with the National Hemophilia Foundation to help get the word out. It’s funny, foundations and disorders and diseases, unfortunately they have to be branded. Like “Stand Up for Cancer” and “Autism Speaks”. So these things are branded and people start learning about it and when it becomes part of the public consciousness, people start caring more, people will donate more. Education is key, so that’s what I wanted to do.
I’ve been doing a comedy show for them I produce every Halloween called “What’s So Bloody Funny?” — get it? We do it in New York every year to benefit NHF, and really the hope is just to get awareness out there.
Hemophilia is mainly expressed in boys. The second I became pregnant with my son, I was terrified. I went to the National Hemophilia Foundation website and started getting involved in chat rooms with other moms and finding out, what will I really be dealing with?
It was so different from when my brother was a kid. I could talk to my mom and my dad about how they dealt with it, but it was so different that I wanted to know now. And NHF was so helpful and it was such a great organization. My son ended up not being a hemophiliac and I felt like I dodged a bullet. But I wanted to help out. And then low and behold, my daughter is one.
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