On The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the Amazon series set in the Upper West Side of the 1950s, Tony Shalhoub plays Abe Weissman, the eponymous main character’s comically uptight and curmudgeonly dad. When Shalhoub wanders into the Upper West Side restaurant where we’re meeting for lunch, not far from where he actually lives, he looks every part your quintessential present-day dad: He's wearing an open parka, quarter-zip sweater, light blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers. His facial hair is trimmed into the neat beard that, when he debuted it earlier this year, inspired such takes as “Who Gave Tony Shalhoub Permission to Look This Hot with a Beard?”
This wave of internet thirst came along with the most recent chapter of his career, a Shalhoubaissance—if you will, and which I did—during which he's won an Emmy for Maisel and a Tony for his role in the Broadway adaptation of The Band’s Visit. Before that, Shalhoub spent decades carving out a niche for himself as a reliable character actor in beloved cult films like Big Night and Galaxy Quest and in sitcoms like Wings and Monk. (Has anyone ever not been delighted to see him appear onscreen?)
Though his résumé is impressively varied, Shalhoub is at his best playing men who are futilely clinging to any semblance of control—there’s Abe, struggling to maintain his authority as his family’s patriarch; the obsessive-compulsive detective Adrian Monk in Monk; the dogmatic Italian chef Primo in Big Night. “I mean, I am a control freak, I won't lie to you,” Shalhoub admits good-naturedly, as he dissects his crab cake eggs Benedict, Hollandaise sauce on the side, so that he can eat each component separately.
Ahead of Maisel’s third season premiere, Shalhoub talked to GQ about what we can expect for his character, how he’s avoided getting typecast, and what he thought about all the attention on his beard.
GQ: When we met briefly earlier this year, I kept telling myself, "Do not bring up that he looks exactly like my uncle Ramses." And of course, that was the first thing I blurted out.
Shalhoub: I remember that, yeah. [Laughing]
So this is Maisel’s third season. What can we expect from Abe? He’s evolved so much since the beginning of the series, but even just over the course of the last few episodes of season two we saw a drastic change.
Yeah, that's what's wonderful about these writers. They keep shifting the ground under your feet, which for an actor in a series is always a good thing. The only downside of being on a series is that you can get locked into a narrow range in terms of your character. And with Maisel, it seems like not just for Abe, but for all of us, they keep broadening this sphere and the universe that these people move in.
I can't really say a lot about season three because of spoilers and so forth. But I can say that Abe goes through some big changes and has to reevaluate his life—where he's been and how he's viewed the world and himself in the world. And that causes him to do some deep exploration there in the attempt to reinvent himself.
Secondary to Midge, I feel like Abe has the most fleshed-out character arc. I was wondering if—
That's because of your uncle.
Ha, maybe. Although, actually, Abe reminds me a lot of my dad.
That's interesting, because he reminds me of my dad, too, in a lot of ways.
I was going to ask you if you draw parts of him from any father figures you know.
I draw from my dad and also because when I was young, it was in this period. And so I could easily relate to how men and fathers navigated the world and their children. And finding that balance between being the patriarch and having authority and wanting your children to be autonomous and stand up for themselves, my dad was like that.
You grew up ninth of ten children in a Lebanese-American family in Wisconsin. When did you realize you wanted to be an actor? Did your family dynamic lead you toward that path at all?
I think it was part of our dynamic. There were a lot of us, so we always had a built-in audience. And we found ourselves entertaining each other. We didn't have a television for maybe the first eight or ten years of my life. I think my father, he didn't want that in the house. He finally broke down.
Did he like it once he broke down?
No, because before we had television, when he would come home from work we would all just run to him and swarm him. And then, after we got TV, he would come home from work and we were just glued to the set. He felt like, “It's over for me.” And so I'm not sure he was a fan.
Over the course of your career—and I think this is rare for any actor, but especially for actors with an Arab background—you’ve avoided getting typecast. Is that something that you consciously went out of your way to avoid?
Well, yeah. At a certain point I did. And part of it is a function of having been trained in the theater, and when I was at the Yale drama school, the main emphasis of that program was on playing characters and transforming and not necessarily always playing things as close to your own type.
I was what you would call a character actor at a very early stage in my career, as opposed to a leading man.
Were there any attempts early in your film and TV career to pigeonhole you into that space? Were you getting sent roles for, say, a terrorist cab driver or anything?
Well, I did do a role when I was living in New York in the ’80s and I was doing a lot of theater, but I was just starting to audition for film and television roles. The series The Equalizer, which was an hour-long drama. And I did play a terrorist on that show. And then I realized that once I had done that, I didn't need to revisit that. I didn't need to refine it or perfect it.
So after that I did make the effort to sort of sidestep those roles. But you know for actors it's not always easy, because sometimes those are the only opportunities you get. And it's a little bit of a roll of the dice to see whether that's what you're going to be known for, if that's going to stick.
You make your best choices, and then sometimes you just have to go with it because we want to work and we want to have opportunities to show what we can do. And we have to eat. He said, as he shovels food in his mouth.
What has been the biggest surprise in your career so far?
I've learned over time not to have expectations.
Was it because of the Heartburn incident?
Oh, Heartburn. I'd forgotten about that. Yeah, Heartburn was one of those things where it came at a time in my career where all of a sudden I was working with pretty major heroes. With Mike Nichols, with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, and I was certain that that was going to move me to “the next level.” And as it happened, I was cut out of it. But then that happened again and again in my life. Over the course of a number of years, it didn't seem so bad because it was a recurring theme.
But you know, then there's other things like most indie movies—you don't know with indie movies if they're going to have a long life. Like Big Night, it was really held up and I think highly regarded even now, 23 years later. Barton Fink, which was one of my first movies.
Galaxy Quest, even.
Galaxy Quest, of course. You never really know. And there are other jobs that come up that you tend to think, "Well, this has all the elements of a long-running hit." Like I did a series after Wings but before Monk, a sitcom called Stark Raving Mad. And I loved working with Neil Patrick Harris and Eddie McClintock and a really great group of writers. And when they just canceled it after one season, it was a bit of a wake-up call. And it wasn't like people weren't watching the show. People were. And I think that year we won the People's Choice Award for best new show.
So, it wasn't like we were under the radar. I don't know. I'm still not quite sure what happened there. But it took me a while to get over that.
What was that emotional reaction like?
That was the one time in my career where I felt like I'd gotten fired. Although everyone says if you haven't gotten fired, you haven't really been in the film business. But when you're one of the leads, it's hard not to take that personally.
And especially because we were having such a blast doing it... You just have to keep your ego in check; that's really what the lesson is.
One commonality I’ve noticed in your role as Adrian Monk, as Abe Weissman, as Primo in Big Night, is that they're men who are trying their hardest to keep a grasp of control and not necessarily being successful. When you read those scripts, is that something you personally relate to?
I mean I am a control freak, I won't lie to you. But I don't look for those things. That's not why I've seized the role. It's more of, how does the voice of the character strike me in terms of the authentic component of that person and how complex is that person? How well-rounded is that person? Are the character's strengths and weaknesses or flaws interesting and not just a cliché?
When you say you're a control freak, what in particular do you feel like you need to control?
Maybe that's a result of growing up in a chaotic-like family. I guess it's a struggle for having some kind of self-determination. I think control freaks are just not good at handling stress. And to me, stress is caused by not having your expectations met. If everyone could just release their expectations, or lower their expectations, then the overall stress level of the population would go down. So, I don't know that I handle stress well, so I kind of get out in front of it. I delude myself into thinking that I can actually prevent, if something bad was going wrong, from happening on my watch. And, of course, I can't. So, it adds to my story.
When you won the Tony for The Band's Visit, you thanked your father and you also brought up immigrants at a time when there was very heavy anti-immigrant sentiment. It was seen as a political statement.
Yeah. That's so interesting because I honestly did not intend it as a political statement.
Well, that was what I wanted to ask you...
I really didn't. I mean, I know that people were reading that into it. Of course, I wanted to highlight the immigrant experience, but only in the sense that it took a lot of sacrifice and struggle for all of us to get where we are in this large room on this glamorous night. And also I thought, in an indirect way, it related to the story of the play.
Not that they were immigrants, but that they were foreigners having to overcome language barriers and cultural barriers and a fraught, tense history. And make connections. And that's why I brought up my father in this. He came over, he didn't speak the language, didn't really have a lot of money or resources other than their own courage and their own inner strength and their sense of adventure. And in a really deep way, their sense of belief in this country.
So, that's all. It was really just a nod to that. Let's take a second to not lose sight of all of the things that came before us and all of the good that's come out of it and all of the lessons they were trying to impress.
I want to talk about Big Night briefly, which is also an immigrant story and one of my favorite movies. First of all, I rewatched it recently and I realized that the woman in the starch scene plays Joel's mother in Maisel, which I didn't—
Caroline Aaron. I've known Caroline for...since I first moved to New York.
She's been antagonizing you on screen since Big Night!
Wait until you see season three. Oh, my God. And she's a dear friend, too. I'm so glad that she is on the show and she's a regular and we get to work together again.
Do you think you could make a timpano?
You know, with a little practice I probably could. [Stanley Tucci’s] mother gave us lessons. She was an extraordinary cook, they all are. And I think given the time and all the ingredients, I might be able to figure it out.
When you debuted your beard on the Golden Globes red carpet, the internet lost its mind a little bit. Do you know about this?
I think I was wearing the white tuxedo, too, I think. Yeah. So the internet...what happened on the internet?
It went viral.
Oh, went viral. Yeah.
Did you see the BuzzFeed article?
I think someone sent that to me. Was that the snazzy zaddy thing?
Yeah. I have no idea what a snazzy zaddy is. I had to have a millennial explain what that meant to me. They explained it in other words that I didn't understand.
This interview has been edited and condensed.