“I was the Baby Jesus in a live nativity scene when I was an infant, and as I understand it, that was kind of the definitive Baby Jesus,” Tony Shalhoub deadpans in his unmistakable gravel tone. “All other baby Jesuses are compared to mine.”
It’s a joke, of course, but it’s also as close to a boast as Shalhoub will get. On an airless New York City summer afternoon, just days before he’ll receive his second Emmy nomination for his work on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the only telltale sign of his television superstardom is his signature mustache. Clad in a breezy floral button-down (not dissimilar to his “Maisel” character Abe’s Catskills wear), he carries none of the idiosyncratic airs that have made him an emblem of the small screen. In fact, he carries no airs whatsoever.
“I don’t think of myself as having a career—a career is what other people have,” he says, tucked into a booth in a bistro in Manhattan’s Financial District, between forkfuls of steak tartare. “On the inside, I’m either working or I’m not working or I’m wondering if I’m going to work. I’m not thinking of it as a continuum; I’m thinking of it more as a roller coaster.”
If Shalhoub’s life is a boardwalk amusement park, the roller coaster is his work; an enticing draw, to be sure, but just one of many attractions deserving of his time and attention. That his acting career is a priority but not his only one continues to provide balance through the transience of a life in the arts.
“You can’t lose sight of the roller coaster, because when you’re at a high point, there’s a tendency to feel like you’ve made it, and now you’re on the ride. That is complacency—and guess what? It’s gonna go down, inevitably,” he says. “Then, when you get to the bottom, there’s a tendency to fall into despair and surrender to that. At that point, you have to remember: ‘OK, gotta focus on the work. This isn’t going to last forever.’ Then you climb that incline again.”
In other words, whether good or bad, nothing is going to last; it’s that impermanence on which Shalhoub has ridden from his breakout role on “Wings” in the 1990s to the obsessive-compulsive detective on “Monk” in the 2000s—which made his name a household one—and now to the perpetually perturbed father of the titular comedian on Amazon Prime’s mega-hit “Maisel,” robbing every scene he’s in. To date, he’s garnered three Emmy Awards, along with an additional seven nominations.
He’s also had standout roles in films including “Men in Black” and “The Siege,” starring alongside heavyweights like Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, and Denzel Washington, all while amassing a theater résumé that could turn even the most veteran stage actors a green hue; Shalhoub won a long-overdue Tony Award in 2018, after three earlier nominations, for his role in the musical “The Band’s Visit.” It is worth noting that the 2017–18 season was the same year that “Maisel” established itself as the hottest show on television, which is to say that for someone who doesn’t think of himself as having a career, Shalhoub’s is pretty sterling. Also: He is objectively having a moment.
“Someone called it a Shalhoubaissance,” the actor says with amusement and barely detectable relish at the title’s silliness.
None of those roles or accolades or paychecks listed above, however, marked the moment when Shalhoub felt as though he’d made it. “People always ask, ‘Was it “Wings”? ’ ” he says. “No. It was when I had my first gig out of school and I was making $300 a week and I thought, I’ve arrived. God knows we weren’t making a lot of money, but it was our first paying gig, so we thought, Fantastic! We’re doing what we love.
“For me to identify one thing as a ‘break,’ ” he adds, “flies in the face of the roller coaster.”
That roller coaster may be the only rigid ideology to which Shalhoub subscribes; he isn’t devout to any acting method (of either “M” variety), though he has nothing against those actors who are. “Most people need something to anchor themselves, or a structure to work within, if for no other reason than to not drive themselves crazy,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not exactly how I work.”
How does he work, then? Shalhoub would never profess to having divine insight into what clicks for any actor, himself included. “Some of it, I’m not even able to put into words, and it wouldn’t be of any value to anyone because it’s my own subjective kind of Rubik’s Cube,” he says. “It’s not interesting. My process isn’t translatable or describable—I mean, that is, if I have a process, which I’m not sure I do. That’s just a word that people want to believe has some weight.” It’s that exact sort of verbal posturing, Shalhoub reasons, that could become an actor’s Achilles’ heel.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he does not feel famous, despite the fact that he frankly is. (“That’s something on the outside.”) But he is hypersensitive to the perils of ego, which he calls “an essential part” of acting, though “too much of it becomes a liability and a distraction.” Ultimately, Shalhoub believes acting success can only come from pure intent: “You’ve got to kind of keep your eye on the other components of it. Don’t worry about the celebrity of it or the fame or even the money.” If that’s what you’re after, he says, “you’re in this for the wrong reasons.”
While he can state explicitly the reasons performers shouldn’t dedicate themselves to a life in acting, he’s more reluctant to say why they should. Admittedly, no one can say for sure why Shalhoub is in this, least of all him, though he doesn’t deny the mystical lure of acting’s unknown. “I think, in some ways, that’s why people choose this: because they prefer it to the known, the stable, the life where it’s all mapped out and you’re going to be doing the same thing for 30 years,” he says. “This is sort of a ‘pick your poison’ [situation].”
It certainly wasn’t clear it would be his life’s work when he was an undergrad student at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, where he describes himself as having been “a little bit in the wind.” It wasn’t even solidified when he was accepted to the Yale School of Drama, one of the country’s most prestigious acting institutions, where he ended up “totally by happenstance”—and which was the only graduate program to which he applied. “I mean, that was really stupid,” he tenderly admonishes his past self. It only became clear to him that this acting thing could actually be viable when he got his first job out of Yale, at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That job instilled in Shalhoub what’s become the healthy foundation of his longstanding career in show biz.
“We were a company of actors, and it was great, because sometimes you would have a leading part in a play and sometimes you were the second and sometimes you were just a glorified extra,” he recalls. “There was a sense of sharing the limelight and supporting one another, avoiding burnout, and setting your ego aside. It was [about] trying to look at it as a long game: ‘We’re gonna do so many plays. We’re gonna share the love.’ That’s a really good way to work.”
That he had a holistic outlook before matters of stardom, family, and life’s general complications entered the equation has not only been crucial to his work, it’s deepened his perspective on the responsibilities outside of it.
“For me, when I get too hyperfocused on one aspect of my life, that’s when things start to get wonky. But if you balance it out and give things equal attention—or strive to,” he pauses. “Some people focus too much on money, for example, and lose sight of other valuable priorities. On the other hand, you can’t not think about money, because then you’ll wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, what happened to all of my money?’ You have to put [acting] in its proper place in your life. Same with your health and your relationships and your family. You have to be devoted and you have to be all in, but somehow you have to compartmentalize and not let it consume you.”
Shalhoub readily acknowledges that is much easier said than done. “It’s all designed to plunge you into the abyss,” he admits of the industry; that he says this with a gently sardonic smile exemplifies his entire worldview. “You can’t avoid fear of the void or deny it. It just lives in you. But it’s not necessarily the worst thing, because if you can look at it as a motivator, it’s one of the elements that incentivizes and can move you further.”
When asked how he has been able to avoid becoming paralyzed by fear, he’s quiet for a moment before thoughtfully picking his words. “I was told very early on by this teacher I had for a very short time, I can barely remember his face,” he says. “He just said, ‘Persevere.’ In a way, that’s the whole thing. Show up and keep showing up and don’t worry about all the other stuff.”
“The other stuff” can very easily become obtrusive, though, and muddy both the highs and lows of any job. “We get anxious about ‘What if this [project] doesn’t go?’ or, on the other side, ‘What if this goes and I’m stuck for eight years in this thing that I don’t really love?’ ” Shalhoub says before once again making his case for being the most charming person alive. “Actors, I think, are the only people who complain when they’re working and complain when they’re not working.”
But on this Friday in July, Shalhoub has no complaints; he’s riding his roller coaster until the wheels fall off.
“I just assume that, hey, one day, this moment, this flare, this whatever-you-want-to-call-it will be extinguished and I will go back into the void,” he muses. “But as I’ve said before, the void, there’s nothing wrong with it as long as you can not be terrified of it. You can embrace the nothingness.”
He gathers himself to head back into the afternoon, into the oppressive humidity, into the weekend, and then into the week. Into so many places and so many things—but certainly not into nothingness at all.
This story originally appeared in the August 22 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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Photographed by Chad Griffith on July 12 in NYC;
Grooming by Erin Anderson.