Luke Kirby is a phenomenal tease.
It’s easy to see how the actor spun a one-episode appearance as comedian Lenny Bruce on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel into a multi-season arc, one that has culminated in Bruce becoming a romantic interest for the titular Miriam Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan) and a runaway fan favorite. Kirby’s ability to recreate Bruce’s legendary rambling stand-up bits makes for a compelling argument, but really it’s Kirby’s knack for delightfully baiting-and-switching, whether on screen or real life, that has cinched his success.
Even on a Zoom call from Savannah—where the 43-year-old actor is on production (“The azaleas are in bloom!”)—Kirby charms, and, like his portrayal of Bruce, he gives you never what you’d expect or need but always leaves you wanting more. Did Kirby actually ask Maisel production to cover his dressing room windows with aluminum foil like Bruce once did? “I’ll never tell.” Does the actor think his television counterpart loves Midge? “Sometimes it’s better not to say things out loud.” Does he mind watching himself on TV? “I’m not going to fight it too hard should it show up in front of my eyeballs. I just may blush a little.”
In honor of Lenny and Midge finally getting blue in a blue room, Kirby chatted with Marie Claire about the season 4 finale, the fated way Lenny Bruce entered his career, and why he considers himself the “fairy godmother” of the Maisel universe.
Marie Claire: Lenny and Midge finally got together! Did it feel as momentous to you, playing Lenny, as it was for fans?
Luke Kirby: [Showrunner and creator] Amy [Sherman-Palladino] and Dan [Palladino] have taken such care in how they evolve [Lenny and Midge’s] relationship. They’re always considering the fact that this guy was a real person. We have this leverage that we get to play with who he was in this realm of fable and make believe, but then we also have to honor who he was and that responsibility has made [Amy and Dan] a lot more considerate in how they evolved their relationship. So, whatever has ever happened with Midge and Lenny has always felt [thought out]. It doesn’t feel like it’s just throwing it out there just because we all said so.
MC: Did you know about Lenny and Midge’s eventual relationship when you were first cast?
LK: It was treated as a one-off when I auditioned for the pilot. I got the sides [audition scripts] for a scene—I think it was for one of Lenny’s bits about airplane glue [that he does] in the pilot. I was able to access that [bit] on YouTube and spent 48 hours just trying to absorb something…but it wasn’t presented as a role that would come back. In reading the pilot, it felt like…Miriam meets this guy who she has a great admiration for, who has a glow of revery to him, and then he would just disappear. How [his role has] moved from season to season has always been a surprise for me. And, for whatever reason, I’ve never felt an eagerness to know or inquire too much about the trajectory.
MC: What was your reaction when you found out about the events of this season’s finale?
LK: Somewhere inside of this season Amy pulled me aside and said, ‘This is where we’re going.’ It sort of always felt like my response would’ve been ‘Yeah.’ Because we’re just tracking the truth of a relationship.
MC: Was any part of you against them coupling up? Because there’s always this concern: What if they get together and it’s a disaster? And then the bubble of the character you built—the mentor persona—pops.
LK: No, not especially. One: The job is just to do what [the writers] tell you. (Laughs) But also if I were the audience—it’s like Moonlighting. Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis always had this tension. They’ve got this thing and how long can that last?—my feeling has always just been: How will you know if you don’t try?’
MC: How familiar were you with Lenny Bruce before you got those sides for the audition?
LK: I learned about him as a kid because of a number of little things…There was a copy of his book How to Talk Dirty and Influence People in the attic of my grandparents’ house. [The stuff] was my Uncle Peter’s that he’d left after college and never came back for it. I loved to go up there as a kid and look around at the junk.
So, I had found this book at a relatively young age and had many times gone over the photos. Then, a little later on I saw the movie Lenny with Dustin Hoffman and was so taken with the beauty of the film. I was already secretly wishing to be an actor. I saw that performance and thought, Wow, I guess I’ll never get to play [Lenny Bruce] because you can’t top what’s in that movie. Years and years go by, and I kind of had moved on from my fascination with him, but then got this audition.
MC: Do you typically listen to the records of Lenny’s performances and try to mimic it exactly or were you doing your own take on his stand up?
LK: Any time I’m doing Lenny’s bits—almost every single one of them that’s been on the show has been sourced from a recording. There’s one I did that was sourced from his book, but they’re almost entirely recordings that are available, which, for me, has just been a really fun experiment to listen to him and go over it and listen to it in his cadence and his rhythm.
You can hear where he snapped his fingers and then adjusted the little words. Trying to find every way, every little tick and ‘hmm’ and ‘uh.’ [I can] get all in there and really try to replicate what he’s doing— because I don’t have a visual most of the time, except for when I did the ‘all alone’ bit on The Steve Allen Show—but trying to imagine what his body would’ve been doing. So, it really has been trying to adhere to [Lenny’s take] as much as I can.
MC: The Carnegie Hall scene in the finale is such a momentous part of Lenny’s career. Tell me about stepping into that.
LK: I bought that album the first time I went to Los Angeles. I was 23 or 24, and I went to Amoeba Records, and I found this double disc of Lenny’s Carnegie Hall. I just listened to it driving around LA in a Mustang convertible—really bizarre thing to do.
The Carnegie Hall concert [which took place in February 1961] is really a great story. It was at midnight; it was during a snowstorm. There was talk that it would be canceled. Lenny opens the bit—this isn’t in the finale—but he opens the bit talking about how hard he had to fight to get a flight into the city during an ice and snowstorm. You can feel so much in that recording. You can feel the presence of a generation. You can feel his excitement. You can feel the looseness of his performance.
MC: Did you guys try and replicate it as best as possible? Film at midnight, during a snowstorm?
LK: We did fly in some snow. But, no. We shot it in the middle of the summer…He clearly was so enamored with the venue, which I was, too. It was insane, to get to be in that space [at Carnegie Hall] and feel those vibes…The first time I stood out there and started saying the stuff it was such a wild trip to go, This is exactly where it happened. You get caught up in the feeling.
MC: Have you ever or since getting cast as Lenny tried to do standup, just to put yourself in his shoes?
LK: No. I mean, what would I say? Maybe I will now. I’ve dallied with a live audience enough to kind of know what it feels like: like you’re going to be eaten by 300 or 400 people. Stand up does strike me as a pretty terrifying occupation…Being on stage in any kind of capacity is really vulnerable and yet by the time things are wrapping up, you do not want to leave.
MC: We have to talk about the sex scene and that very blue room—
LK: Lenny Bruce evidently used to have his rooms painted blue when he was staying somewhere for a stretch. It was a color called “Doofy Blue.”
MC: Was there any pressure going into filming that scene, that you had to get it right?
LK: There probably was a feeling of, Here we go. I hope we do it justice. That’s part of the challenge of this work is that you can fall into the trap of obsessing about the what-could-have-beens but at the same time, you just have to have it be a leap of faith that that moment was what it was meant to be in that moment.
MC: Do you follow the online chatter about fans wanting more screen time with your character and crushing on your version of Lenny?
LK: Rachel [Brosnahan] will sometimes say, ‘Do you know what they’re saying?’ And I go like, ‘What? Who?’ So I’m aware of it. I don’t know explicitly what they’re saying… It’s nice to be liked. It beats the alternative.
MC: Do you have a favorite moment or scene between Lenny and Midge?
LK: The first thing [Rachel and I] shot together: Midge and Lenny in the taxi together. It’s the smallest moment. But because of my admiration and history with Lenny Bruce, I wanted it to be of value and respectful. It feels like that moment actually launches the whole [Lenny-Midge thing] into what it is. Bob Dylan has this song called ‘Lenny Bruce,’ and in it he says, ‘I rode with him in a taxi once, but only for a mile and a half. It seemed like it took a couple of months.’
MC: There’s a brief moment in the finale when Midge stumbles across Lenny’s drugs. How much did the tragic end of his life influence the way you played the character?
LK: The thing that happened for me, and in revisiting Lenny as a man at an older age, is that I really found myself responding to the love that he had for his daughter, the love that he seemed to actually have for people. And this trap that he got caught up in legally was born out of a wish for a loving, human world. He had experienced the war and had seen trauma…He was compelled by, as he said, ‘It’s fun to say a poem in front of people.’ And that’s the reason he did it…as opposed to the ‘rebel outlaw.’ All of that stuff was more perception. I just wanted it to feel like Lenny was rooted in something based in relationship, and more based in love and human yearning. He’s just a man as opposed to a prophet.
MC: What can you tell me about the fifth and final season, which has already started filming? Anything else you hope comes out of his character’s arc?
LK: I would like to see him have a little happy. It doesn’t have to be an ending, but I’d like to see him be happy, if only for an instant…maybe see him dance one more time, that’d be good.
In my mind, he has always existed as a fairy godmother. He is this real-life person who lives almost in the realm of fable. He’s not quite of the Maisel universe either; he moves in a mysterious way through the show. So, in that regard I feel like Amy and Dan will do what needs to be done with him. If we had been doing a biopic, I would have a lot stronger feelings about what story we would need to tell.
MC: It’s safe to assume, based on how Lenny’s life ended, that he and Midge aren’t endgame. Are you Team Get-Back-Together-With-Joel?
LK: I’ve told everyone, ‘I’m Team Benjamin.’ (Laughs) She needs a doctor. She’ll live half her life on the road—she can do whatever she wants out there—and then she can go back to security.
MC: What else do you think Lenny hopes for Miriam, in your capacity as her “fairy godmother,” as you said?
LK: I think Lenny has clear wishes for her. That’s clear at the end of this season. On a deeper level, the show is about the choice to suppress your own voice or to let it out. But there are so many other forces that are trying to suppress the voice. So, I think Lenny’s wish for Miriam is that that does not happen…and I sort of share that wish. I want her to have the greatest adventure she can have as she tries to find her way home. But she’s only in the beginning of it.
MC: Do you think Lenny loves Miriam or do you think it’s all show business to him?
LK: I have a strong feeling about [that], but sometimes it’s better not to say things out loud.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.