11/21/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Alex Borstein's Not Afraid To Get Ugly In 'Getting On'


Alex Borstein is ready for her next closeup in "Getting On" ... even if it's in unflattering light without makeup.

As the voice behind Lois on "Family Guy" and the actress who brought Ms. Swan to life on "MADtv," Borstein has played a supporting role for most of her career as an actor/writer, but that's all about to change. Borstein now stars opposite "Roseanne's" Laurie Metcalf and "Reno 911!" veteran Niecy Nash in HBO's "Getting On." Borstein's Nurse Dawn is a "terrified little mess" who had "arrested development at age 13," according to the actress.

"Getting On" follows a new tradition of sorts at HBO and is giving viewers a very real comedy.

"Isn’t that shocking? If you give audiences an opportunity to say if they like something that closely resembles themselves, they will. God, it’s so refreshing," Borstein told The Huffington Post in a phone interview. "Niecy, Laurie and I have all done a lot of work. But we’ve never been able to crack this layer so to speak. People refer to me as from that 'MADtv' sketch or she does voices, she does cartoon. For Niecy, it’s like that she’s the 'Reno 911!' lady. And Laurie, everyone remembers as Jackie from 'Roseanne.' We’re given the opportunity to delve into something so different and it’s just amazing."

Below, Borstein speaks candidly about stepping in front of the camera all day every day and watching America's healthcare system become a TV character.

My mother works in a facility like this and I was explaining the show to her. She said, “Why would anybody want to watch what I do everyday?” But it’s clearly more than that.
It’s one of those things that people pretend that they’ll never have to deal with, especially in Los Angeles. Nothing ages and nothing dies. We’ve never even seen a winter. We don’t understand seasons and everyone’s in denial. This is how we all go out. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. It doesn’t matter what your feats or accomplishments have been during your life, you’re going to be this little piece of flesh on a bed one day and you’re going to have to depend on other people taking care of you. I think it’s really important for people to watch. It’s really trying and heartbreaking, but it’s also really funny.

Some people say it’s dementia. Some people say it’s Alzheimer’s, or is it that some people get to a certain age and no longer feel bound or tied to social norms or the rules of society? There’s an abandon and freedom that a lot of people in the last part of their life get that can be really fun and really funny to watch.

Is that what drew you to this show?
You know, I was developing something for the BBC, and I remember reading something: “Oh, the guys from 'Big Love' are developing this show from BBC called 'Getting On.'" I clicked on the YouTube link and watched the original. I was immediately glued and watched the entire pilot of the original. I thought this is so great! I wish I was involved in this. Then I forgot about it.

It wasn’t until after I had my baby that I got an email, “Would you like to audition?” I was like, “I’m not auditioning for anything! I just had a baby!” But I saw the title of it was “Getting On.” I said yes and put myself on tape immediately. After reading the audition lines I was given, I knew it was special. It was the same kind of feeling I had when I first read “Family Guy,” the same like, “This is really different and I haven’t done this before.”

I was confused about getting the tone right, which is really rare. In most auditions -- especially female parts -- it’s like, “I’m the nagging wife. I’m the quirky friend. I’m the fat girl complaining.” It was challenging from the beginning, which is I think why I was obsessed with it.

Dawn has so many layers, you can tell in the first couple episodes. I want to know why she cares so much and why she’s the glue that holds the unit together.
You know why? It’s because in a nutshell Dawn is a mess. She’s a terrified little mess. What she’s most afraid of is being alone and dying alone. She’s so terrified that she’s going to be one of these women with no family that comes in and is possibly a Jane Doe and no one had known she had fallen for six weeks until finally the mailman saw her through the window. She desperately wants to please Laurie Metcalf’s character. She wants to prove that she knows everything to Niecy’s character and she’s desperately trying to find someone to fill a hole in her life, whether it’s a male or female. She really doesn't know how to have a relationship or a friendship. She’s kind of socially mental, you know?

But that must make it kind of fun to play her.
Oh, it’s so much fun. Playing a flawed character is the best, best thing to do. Everyone on the show is flawed. One of the other cool things about Dawn on the other hand is that she really loves her job and she really cares about these women. She doesn’t patronize them and she doesn't talk down to them. She really is good at what she does.

But it seems that no one else thinks so.
I guess I should restate it. What she’s excellent at is caring about these women. She makes constant mistakes. She’s got infections running rampant, but you could look at each one of those things and say, “Is it because they don’t have enough nurses on the floor because they don’t have the finances to really run the floor?” It’s never “her fault,” but a lot of shit happens under her watch.

How does it feel to be in front of the camera every episode all episode after “Family Guy” where we only hear your voice?
It’s been really challenging. When you’re one of three or four characters on the show, you’re in everything. We would shoot an episode in three and a half or four days. We would be off-book immediately. It was really different being in everything. The opportunity to have a full-blown character that you’re following from beginning to end with an arc and a story was so different and new for me and challenging and great.

getting on

As a writer on "Family Guy" and "Shameless," did you work with the writers on this show at all?
That was my first question. I said to my agent, “Do you think would they be open to me writing on the show at all?” and they said, “Oh, we’ll see, we’ll look into it.” I never heard anything back. I assumed no thank you. Mark [Olsen] and Will [Scheffer] really write everything, that’s the wonderful thing about being able to do a small order. They knew exactly where they wanted everything to go and how much of the British series to use. Our healthcare system’s different. But I think the show is so timely in that regard. This is a spotlight.

Our [health] system is really another character in our show. It’s just as flawed as Dawn. Dawn and DiDi and Dr. James are kind of back seat characters to this system that is just so broken and dying.

There’s so much miscommunication between Dr. James and the hospital, and what the patients need and what they want versus what they can get.
We’re this amazing country where anything is possible, but we have a really hard time taking care of the elderly.

I also wanted to talk about the lighting and the makeup. The aesthetic makes it feel much more real.
They definitely knew from day one they wanted it to look very raw and they wanted us to be extremely unpolished. But my character ended up being the one that has flippy-dippy-do hair. My character wears a little mascara and some lip gloss. That’s it.

It looks like she wears a scrub dress kind of thing.
She wears a very antiquated nursing dress. It’s kind of funny. It just felt right that Dawn wants to look like a lady and a princess. I feel like she kind of has arrested development at age 13. Like, if she doesn’t wear this little dress, how will people know she’s a girl?

For the most part we were all delighted not to have to go through hair and makeup. We jokingly said the first day of rehearsal, “We’re going to be on the front of some magazine for women of a certain age talking about how brave we are. The brave ladies of ‘Getting On'!" It’s kind of scary but it’s really freeing to just be yourself.

What would you say to people who would call you “brave” for not wearing makeup on TV?
I mean, on the one hand it’s ridiculous. On the other hand, we know what they’re talking about. If you’re a woman in the business, you’re not supposed to age and when you do start aging you’re supposed to bow out gracefully and start writing children’s books, right? You’re supposed to disappear and do something else. I don't know if brave is the right word. I guess we’re taking a little bit of a chance. Hopefully everyone will love our old, ugly faces.

"Getting On" premieres at 10 p.m. EST on Nov. 24, on HBO.



'Getting On'