Kirby recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Susan Wloszczyna about his research process for playing Bruce, his big moments with Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) in Season 3 and whether he will be back for the fourth season. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Last year you won a Guest Actor Emmy and you beat out the likes of Robert De Niro and Matt Damon on “SNL.” When I watched your acceptance speech, you seemed rather calm about it. Or was that just an act?
Luke Kirby: I think it was likely an act. My adrenal glands have a tendency to lean towards a more laconic, lethargic tone. So yeah, I think sitting there for the two hours that it took to get to that category, all the blood had been drawn from my body and was up in my brain. I mean, I was slamming my hands down on my thighs, just trying to get a pulse. So that’s probably all it was. I was restarting my heartbeat.
GD: And where do you keep your trophy?
LK: On our dining room table. But only for a year. I didn’t want to do the immediate humble thing of tucking it away somewhere hidden. I really wanted to sort of do the opposite of that and really show it off. But of course, now we can’t have any guests over. So it’s sort of a moot point. It’s more of a fruit stand.
GD: Well, I’m sure you brushed up on your Lenny crash course when you first got the role but I was intrigued by the way you played him. He’s a little rougher in the first season than he is as the show goes on. But you’re so very different than Dustin Hoffman in “Lenny” because that more focused on him trying to defend himself and he had a lot more drug use and abusive things. And I think this is not exactly a fantasy version, but it’s a different take to him. And I wonder, did you ever see that movie?
LK: Oh yeah, sure. I saw it as a teenager. I kind of had a little dalliance with Lenny Bruce in high school and “Lenny,” the movie, was one of my first ins to him, and I just adore it. I just sopped it up. I just was so compelled by Dustin Hoffman’s performance and Valerie Perrine and the movie itself is really beautifully composed, so I was familiar with it and moving into “Mrs. Maisel,” I wasn’t sure at the beginning what it was going to be, how much Lenny Bruce was going to be involved in the storyline and sort of felt like because we were taking liberties with history because of her story, that really he wanted to exist more in the realm of fable or like I’ve said, like a fairy godmother is sort of his role. This person who appears at moments in Midge’s life that are remarkable. And so I kind of went with that and in some ways, it opened up a lot of possibilities because I didn’t sort of feel the pressure of having to play strictly the historic Lenny Bruce or adhere to the timeline of his life. I’ve been able to dance around a little bit more, which I think is why in the first season, he has a sort of rougher aspect. And in some ways, by the end of the second season, when you see him doing “Steve Allen,” we’ve kind of reverted back in time in a way to where he was at prior to the massive controversy and litigation that he had to endure
GD: And then Kitty Bruce’s daughter visited the set in the first season?
LK: She came in on the second season. Yeah, she sort of appeared magically. I didn’t really know that that was in the cards. I heard whispers of it potentially happening, but I didn’t know that it was going to be that day. So I was already on set and then I heard that she was there and bolstered myself and went out to meet her, and she’s just a really lovely person and has been incredibly encouraging and supportive of this endeavor.
GD: But yeah, I mean, you won for the episode where you sing “All Alone” and, you make a funny but in a heartbreaking way. I probably teared up a little bit.
LK: Yeah, yeah. It’s a beautiful piece. I mean, I encountered that “Steve Allen” clip in preparation for the first season, because I perform Lenny’s airplane glue bit that he did on “Steve Allen.” So I kind of had familiarized myself with it but found this song that I found to be really… it is poetry and feels very real. And if you know anything about Lenny’s love history, it’s that he had a true love in Honey Bruce and that at the time they had split. It has a lot of punch and then you see him perform in a way that he’s such a charming performer and so dynamic and he has great capacity for silliness, too. But what he commits to in that song is a side of Lenny Bruce that I don’t think people saw very often, and it’s quite beautiful. I mean, I recommend anybody go and watch it, because it’s a really striking piece and it’s moving. You’re right. I teared up a bit, too.
GD: But now, your Lenny shows up in two episodes of Season 3, correct?
LK: Yes. I think you’re right. Let’s go with that.
GD: We’ll go with that. You get to do stuff with Midge’s dad because she tells him about the act so he’s intrigued because it’s about being an advocate for free speech and he ends up at the Gaslight to catch your act and stands up for your rights as you pull out your Playboy centerfold and the cops arrest Abe and Lenny. So in the first season, Midge bails you out. And then now Rose bails both of you out. There’s a lot of bailing out in “Maisel.”
LK: Yes, yes. Lenny and the Maisels, they like to meet up at the prison. One has to wonder when the next time they’ll be there together.
GD: But I’ve actually been to the Fountain Blue Hotel. It doesn’t look as good as it does onscreen. Is that where you filmed all that?
LK: I’m trying to remember. The scene where we are walking together at the end of the night at the motel, that was in Miami. The rest of it, I think, took place in some magical realm. But I was down in Miami in that sort of sweltering heat. Yeah, from what I remember, I think it was just that motel scene that we shot there. But I did get to go and visit the Fountain Blue and yes, time has had its way with it.
GD: This is 1960, you know, people were different. People were dressed up all the time, cocktail dresses, suits, no T-shirts and all that. And also, they seemed more educated, sophisticated, or else they were putting on acts. I don’t know. But I grew up during the ‘60s so it’s very real to me but in a lovely way to see this recreated all the time. But you stop by to give her a boost in her career, check out how she’s doing. But then it leads to something more there. I just wanted to say too, the whole “Miami After Dark,” I remember watching Hugh Hefner, “Playboy Penthouse” or something and then there was also “Playboy After Dark.” That whole thing I just was delighted by and just watching you two banter like that on TV was great, alongside Zsa Zsa Gabor and Bella Abzug. That’s quite a pair.
LK: What a reference. People should Google Bella Abzug. Yeah, that was super fun. I also had familiarized myself with “Playboy After Dark,” which is also on YouTube and worth a watch. And it’s so peculiar. The most striking thing about that clip now when you watch it is, yes, they’re all sort of dressed up and they look great. But the newness of television, the medium of it is so new and they’re so clearly trying to riff in a way that in some ways I don’t know that the medium allows and there’s a sort of self-awareness to them that’s a little discomforting and sort of endearing as well at the same time. I’ve thought about, Lenny obviously didn’t have the kind of trajectory into television that a lot of people of that time did. Obviously, he didn’t have the time to move further with it. But I kind of always wonder if the whole thing didn’t make him a little bit uneasy. Something about the confines of working in that realm and the commerce that surrounds it, just maybe rubbed him in a way that he just couldn’t get past. Because he was so free on stage that having to sort of adhere to a time-frame might have thrown him off, but I loved doing it. It was great fun.
GD: Now, as you say, you walk along the water and it’s romantic and you dance together, you and Midge, and all that. It seemed destined to me over three seasons this was gonna come at some point, but she turns you down. Do you think she did the right thing?
LK: I think I have to plead the fifth on the right or wrong of that. My sense of those things is that in situations like that, the odds are always 50/50. So it could go well and it could go poorly. I have my own hunch of how it might go. But you have to honor her choice, certainly. And I haven’t really investigated the nitty-gritty of why she would do that, but they do have such a lovely bond in a way, in a way that’s rare with friendship that kind of dances in the realm of the romantic. So I understand the desire to keep pulling at the magnet as opposed to just throwing it all away in one night, in a not entirely becoming motel room. It might just be about set and setting.
GD: Right. Well that bed was right there. It was a little obvious. Maybe if they had a regular hotel room.
LK: They need to have an elevator ride up, right?
LK: Just to ease the tension.
GD: Right. But we knew that was going to come. So tell me your best story, not a long one, about working with the likes of Amy and Dan Palladino.
LK: Well, the way this whole thing came about feels so charmed and kind of magical. I don’t know where they came from. I mean, I know where they came from but their dedication is just so incredible with this show. They’re pulling rabbits out of a hat all the time, it seems. But what I do know, because I get to see behind the scenes is that they just work so incredibly hard and impeccably and that they raise their bar to a standard that they require everyone on the crew to come to and that’s why you see Bill Groom doing such immaculate work and Donna [Zakowska], our wardrobe designer, just doing the most incredible stuff. And the actors who are working in the background, even, just do incredible work. To have these people sitting in a room for 12 hours a day in a smoke-filled room laughing over and over and over again at what surely would become a very tiresome comedy is just amazing. So yeah, my story is that they are just amazing and I’m happy to be in their orbit.
GD: And I have one last question. Will you be on for Season 4?
LK: I don’t know. I just don’t know.
GD: I need more Lenny in my life.
LK: I think that would be nice, too. Yeah, we’re at a funny time right now. I mean, I know the plan is to come back. So we’re just gonna have to wait and see. Tune in. Such a curious time to sort of be thinking about it. It’s hard not to, obviously, because everybody wants to understandably get to work. But we’re also seeing the severity of the situation and wanting to get that figured out first. But I have a hunch.
GD: Good. I like that hunch. Well, thank you for your time and it was lovely to talk to you. I enjoy you so much on the show. I watched “Rectify” too.
LK: Oh, fantastic. A great, great piece of television. Yeah, so proud to have been part of that also.