'Marvelous Mrs. Maisel': Are Midge & Lenny Meant to Be? Luke Kirby Likes the Mystery (Exclusive)
By Philiana Ng
If there ever was an actor on Amazon’sThe Marvelous Mrs. Maiselwho epitomizes mid-century cool, it’s Luke Kirby. The 42-year-old Ontario native, who plays comedy legend Lenny Bruce and won an Emmy for his performance in 2019, exudes an effortless charm and brooding appeal of a Hollywood leading man from a time long past. And one can’t help but wonder if the lines are somewhat blurred when it comes to where Luke ends and Lenny begins. But on this first Monday in June, Kirby -- like the rest of us spending most of our days at home -- is focusing his energy on something much more mundane: coffee.
“The most exciting part of my day is my coffee,” Kirby says by phone from his New York City home in his unassuming Canadian drawl. “I have so much time to think about things that when I go to bed at night, all I think about is having coffee in the morning, which,” he pauses, “maybe it’s time to reprioritize my life.”
Whatever he believes he needs to rethink in his personal life, his film and television work need no such attention. A character actor by choice, Kirby flew under the radar for much of his career -- taking on varied roles in indie movies, such as a charismatic neighbor who wins Michelle Williams’ heart in Take This Waltz, to critical darlings like TV’s Rectify, where he portrayed a kind-hearted lawyer completely out of his depths. The glitz of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Mrs. Maisel brought Kirby out of relative anonymity, and the character of Lenny, he conjectures, wasn’t meant to become an influential figure in Midge’s life three seasons strong.
As Lenny, Kirby floats in and out of the pristine world of Mrs. Maisel, mainly there to thrust Midge’s narrative forward as an aspiring standup in a time when women were fighting for a place at the table. But when he does appear onscreen, often with a mic in hand and armed with the real-life comedian’s iconic -- and often controversial -- routines, there’s a magical quality in the air that even Kirby can’t deny: “I do think he offers a balm to the show. He does operate at a different pace, which can provide the audience a bit of breathing room for a moment.”
Inhabiting someone as unrestricting and unabashedly blunt as Lenny has been “freeing,” Kirby says, tapping into a side of himself he seldom gets to. “I have found it to be a joy to get to live in that every now and again because of the nature that he has, that free aspect. And, of course, in the realm of make-believe, it’s part of the reason for doing this job -- that you can feel free like a kid feels free in the playground. Lenny certainly offers an added punch to that.”
It’s the fifth episode, “It’s Comedy or Cabbage,” that sets Kirby’s performance apart from the rest of season 3. A retreat from the typical Mrs. Maisel hour, Midge is transported from the concrete jungle of Manhattan to sunny, idyllic Miami, and suddenly, the normal rules don’t apply. There, while on tour with Shy Baldwin, Midge crosses paths again with Lenny, now living out of a Florida hotel room, and things swiftly move from friendship to something more -- potentially.
“When I got the script, a bit of it felt like a departure from what we’ve been doing with Lenny because it was an episode where I wasn’t going to be doing any actual routine from his canon,” Kirby says. “It felt like they were delving deeper into examining the dynamic or relationship or friendship between Midge and Lenny, which gave me a little frisson of excitement.”
In the tension-filled climactic moment, Midge and Lenny spend an alluring evening slow dancing in a sexy, atmospheric Cuban dance club (the move is so strikingly out of character for the seasoned comic that Midge even asks, “You dance?”) and leads to Lenny’s tantalizing invitation for a more-than-friendly nightcap in his room. Whatever mutual flirtation Midge and Lenny engaged in up until that point morphed into sizzling sexual chemistry, even after she classily turns him down -- a decision many viewers were astonished by.
“Anytime you’re asked to dance, as it’s always felt to me, it’s incredibly nerve-wracking because of the potential for embarrassment,” Kirby says of the characters’ rare moment of intimacy. “But also is such an invitation to something that everyone’s sort of wont to do, which is dance. That’s a charm to get to do.” But don’t expect Kirby to dwell much on his individual performance, however revered it is; his personality such that he’d rather marvel over everyone else’s contributions. “My feeling about the episode is, the whole thing to me at this point reflects as a dream. There’s this kind of murky, oozy, beautiful dreamscape that I get to just hold as a memory.”
That’s not to say he’s unaware of the passion viewers have expressed in the months since the episode dropped in December. Very much the opposite. “That’s what you’re supposed to do,” Kirby agrees. “That’s the point of television.” Though “he's too cool for Twitter,” as Midge herself, Rachel Brosnahan, jokingly wrote in May, Kirby understands the exhilaration viewers felt watching Midge and Lenny get closer -- welcoming the fervent fan engagement because, as he puts it, their relationship “has been surprising” from the start.
“Anytime you get a reaction from anything, it’s great because it means whatever you threw into the cauldron worked that day. But I can also see why people have those feelings and I get it. I think it’s exciting to see two people try and figure one another out, especially when their dynamic involves magnetism,” he contemplates. “When there’s something magnetic between two people, for whatever reason, it’s kind of fascinating to watch. And I love that the writers are doing that with Midge and Lenny.”
While Midge and Lenny have unresolved feelings to tend to in the future, Kirby is content with whatever happens with the pair -- romantic or not. “I do think that in whatever direction it goes, there’s something palpable there. For me, because I have to go back to work at some point with it, I let it all be a mystery and I will just follow the lamp wherever it tells me to follow, you know?”
There’s the looming reality though that Lenny, who died in real life in 1966 at age 40 from a drug overdose in his Hollywood Hills home, is not long for the fictional world of Mrs. Maisel. (Season 3 takes place in 1960.) While the series has barely scratched the surface on his demons -- the show isn’t called Lenny Bruce for a reason -- Kirby, along with Sherman-Palladino and writer-producer Dan Palladino, are well aware of the ticking clock on Lenny’s possible fate.
“It’s always walking that fine line and we really want to be conscientious of two opposing forces,” Kirby assures. “One is we don’t want to stray so far from the human being of Lenny Bruce that we are taking advantage of a legacy for our own merit. The opposing thing is we are well aware we’re not playing a biography that is adhering to chronology. The realm of Mrs. Maisel is playing around with the historical aspect of him as being a fictional character, so we’re not playing a supremely locked-in version.”
“I’ve been having my dalliances. I have my own impression about where he has been throughout the series and in the times he isn’t on the show, which is frequently,” he ponders. “I kind of think he goes back to the historical version and is going through those things. But my sense of the show being what it is, I do think we’re going to have to confront some realities at some point.”
Kirby speaks fondly of the night he won his first Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series in 2019 for his work on Mrs. Maisel, for which he is again a frontrunner this year. “I kind of cherish it in a way,” he says of the memorable evening, quipping, “It’s fun to be invited to parties where they have champagne IVs. As somebody who grew up watching film and television, going to something like that is super surreal and hilarious and goofy, but yeah, very rewarding.”
Though he prefers not to focus on the pageantry of awards and accolades, instead letting the the work fuel his inspiration, Kirby concedes to getting caught up in the “razzle dazzle” of it all when that time of year does come around. “Comedian Dick Gregory said, ‘When a horse wins the Kentucky Derby, do they know?’ In some ways, it would be best to just be the horse and keep going, keep doing what you do. Shortly thereafter, it’s time to get back to the track -- or to the wild open plain would be even better.”
Kirby acknowledges Mrs. Maisel marks a transition in his life, as he grows older and more mature. “I think I’m at an age where the dynamics of the role starts to change. But it all feels exciting when I can allow for that -- if I can see through all of my neuroses and insecurities,” he says. “It’s a bit simplistic to say, but I do feel like the greatest fortune I’ve had, endeavoring to be an actor, is that I’ve gotten to work for so many wonderful writers. My hope is for that to keep evolving and that they will be my lodestar wherever I go.”
For now, Kirby and his fellow co-stars await the green light for production on season 4 -- of which he is blissfully in the dark -- amid a new COVID-19 world. “We are in this strange holding pattern that it seems everybody’s in, but we’re going to figure it out,” he makes clear. “Nobody’s resting on their laurels. Everybody wants and is eager to get back to work.” As questions loom over the safety of sets moving forward, Kirby has one idea that just may work, especially with Midge potentially blacklisted from comedy at the end of season 3. “The next season could take place on a work camp somewhere -- in Siberia. That would be good for us. We could shoot it in isolation.”