By Seth Plattner
Photos by Christian Högstedt
When I first meet Michael Zegen, he's standing sleek in a Bonobos tuxedo that, with its tapered trousers and fitted jacket, is a far cry from the boxy, baggy suits he's often seen in, pants practically pulled up to his nipples, as a 1950s midtown business executive on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In short order, the Amazon series has become renowned for its sartorial flair: vintage designer pieces, pillbox hats, classic coats. But Zegen is hardly itching to borrow style notes from his character, Joel Maisel, husband (kind of) to the titular Miriam "Midge" Maisel who, after learning of Joel's affair, embarks on a stand-up comedy career to save herself from the housewife life she's hitherto been perfectly, painstakingly subjected to. "Our costume department is incredible," Zegen says, "and they do so much research to bring this world to life. But I'm more of a T-shirt and jeans kind of guy."
Indeed, when we finally sit down to chat, he's wearing dark grey jeans and striped grey and black long sleeved tee. Even so, he's eager to show off a new pair of black wing-tipped shoes he recently acquired in Milan at the premiere for Maisel season 2, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. "I've gotten more into the fancy stuff these days," Zegen says, "and I'm starting to know what I like. I was trying to find something kind of special for the premiere, and I was looking around going, no, no, no—then I saw these in the window I knew they were it."
He admits they were pricey, but the dude has reason to treat himself. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is beyond bonafide as a TV hit. The show racked up 2018 Emmy's for writing and directing for Maisel showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino and also garnered a Best Actress statue for the series lead, Rachel Brosnahan. Fans undeniably adore Brosnahan for her portrayal of a whip-smart woman who's taking her life into her own hands, but it's Zegen who adds a humanized layer to the series. It’s a role he’s comfortable in, “I am this guy,” he thought, even at his first audition.
Which is not to say Zegen considers himself a louse who would so easily cast aside his wife and children for his secretary. "I just knew I could play him," says Zegen, who, while helping a friend prepare her own audition for Midge, realized that he had to go out for Joel. "I don't know why. I've always been instinctual when it comes to the roles I want to play. And Joel, he's kind of a dick. He's kind of an asshole. He made a huge mistake. But he's trying to rectify it while also dealing with this immense amount of guilt. He's also trying to find some sort of ultimate passion in his life, so he's grounded in a way that people understand and I just find that fascinating to play."
Zegen got bit by the acting bug early. At age 8 to be exact, when, as he tells it, "my parents took me to see Les Miserables on Broadway, and there was this little kid playing Gavroche. I just remember watching him thinking, 'Yeah. Yeah, I can do that.'" Before long, Zegen—who grew up as the middle child of a teacher and lawyer in Ridgewood, New Jersey—was in acting class where "it was me and, like, 20 girls," he says. "It's not like I would have known what to do with them," he continues, "but it was great because I always got the male lead. There was no competition." What's more, Zegen perhaps gained a foundation that's seemed to serve him well in his career: not shying from female-dominated worlds, be they acting classes or TV shows written by, for, and about women.
Sure, he’s done plenty of exemplary work in male-leaning projects. After graduating with a theater degree from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, he landed his first acting gig as Dwight the Troubled Teen on The Late Show With David Letterman. From there, he went on to play opposite Dennis Leary in FX's Rescue Me before scoring recurring roles in big cable dramas like HBO's Boardwalk Empire and AMC's The Walking Dead. In 2015, he made his Broadway debut opposite Mark Strong in Ivo van Hove's award-winning adaptation of A View From The Bridge. But it wasn't until meeting the women of Maisel that Zegen's professional stroll turned into a full-blown stride. "Rachel is so giving as a performer," he says of his onscreen wife, "and Amy Sherman-Palladino—she deserves every bit of the respect and accolades she’s earned. She's one of the most talented people I have ever worked with. I have and will continue to follow her blindly."
Smart man, considering how that dedication is continuing to pay off. Along with, of course, a third season of Maisel, Zegen has an upcoming role in a yet-to-be-disclosed feature film, as well as his own aspirations behind the camera. "I want to produce my own stuff—movies and TV shows," he says. "I'd like to be the lead in a movie one day. I haven't done that. I've played major characters but I want to be the focal point. Not just because of my ego but just to see what that's like. It's scary but it's something I'd like to accomplish. But it's about doing good projects. And continuing to work with women! Because they run the world, right?"
Seth Plattner is a writer and editor at Architectural Digest. Elsewhere, his work has appeared in ELLE, Glamour, and Men's Health. He lives in New York City, loves karaoke, and, no joke, is a triplet.