Leroy McClain (‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’) on finding the ‘physical vocabulary’ of Shy Baldwin [Complete Interview Transcript]

Leroy McClain plays the charismatic crooner Shy Baldwin on Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” The actor won his first SAG Award earlier this year as part of the show’s sprawling ensemble.

McClain recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Susan Wloszczyna about what brought him to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” how his role was a true collaboration and whether he will return for Season 4. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: This is kind of an expected question but I just wonder how did you come to be cast as Shy Baldwin, who’s a popular crooner who gives Mrs. Maisel her big break by going on tour and opening her universe for that season?

Leroy McClain: I had actually just come back into town in New York where I live. I got a notice through my agent that Cindy Tolan wanted to see me for a new role in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” for this superstar crooner and I was like, “Why not?” It was actually a pretty straightforward casting process. Two auditions, one for Cindy Tolan and then one for Amy [Sherman-Palladino] and Dan [Palladino] and I found myself on-set definitely less than a week later. It was pretty straightforward and pretty quick.

GD: Many have speculated about who Shy Baldwin is based on and my first thought was Johnny Mathis. But then I’ve been reading up a little bit and other people think it’s Harry Belafonte and maybe Nat King Cole. Did you do any research on your own or did you just go by what Dan and Amy gave you as far as what they wanted from this character and who he’s supposed to represent from the past, the early ‘60s?

LM: I started with Johnny Mathis. That was one of the touchstones that Amy and Dan as well as Donna Zakowska, the costume designer, wanted me to start from. I went through a very painstaking process of watching as much of Johnny’s performances that I could find, just as a springboard, trying to find a physical vocabulary for who Shy Baldwin would be. I also looked at Nat King Cole as well. Although they were the springboards for the character, Amy and Dan definitely wanted something fresh and unique, a unique individual unto himself. I definitely started by watching a lot of their performances just to build up that physical vocabulary. It was very important for me to nail down how he moves, how he carries himself, how he stands on a stage, just very specific physical vocabulary. That was a lot of fun to be able to build the character from the ground up.

GD: We didn’t get to see you that much in Season 2 but I love you standing by the side of the stage after she forgets to introduce the man who made it all come true for her. That told me a lot about him, the look on your face.

LM: It was a lot of fun to start creating that arc for him, to see who he is, who Shy the professional is, ‘cause when you first meet him in Season 2, it’s very much on a friendship level with Midge, on a very casual level with Midge. They meet in the bathroom, so you can’t get much more up close and personal than that. In the third season, starting from that very moment that you referenced, it was really fun to start showing who Shy is in the professional realm.

GD: I was probably not the only one surprised to learn you didn’t sing. I didn’t look up anything about you ‘cause I didn’t know that much yet but I was very shocked because the lip-syncing is quite phenomenal. I wouldn’t have guessed. Do you know this guy who gave you your voice, Darius de Haas?

LM: Oh yeah. I’ve known Darius. We met actually at an audition around 2008, 2009. I had heard his name so much in the theater community in New York. I was initially a little hesitant when I got the appointment because I knew this guy’s not supposed to be able to carry a tune but he’s gotta be one of the best in the world. I can carry a tune but you’re not gonna confuse me with one of the best singers in the world. I didn’t really know how they were gonna make it work, how it was all gonna come together but two days after I got the official offer to play Shy, I went to a recording session and that’s when I found out that it was Darius. It took all the anxiety away because Darius is such a generous human being and he literally allowed me to sit on a stool a foot away from where he was laying down the track and literally just stare at his face, see how his lips moved, how his face formed the notes that he was hitting because I wanted to really get the lip-syncing down and I approached it a lot like Shakespeare, in a way. When you sit down and you work on a Shakespeare text, where you take the breath so you know how much vocal mileage you have to cover before you take that next breath. I literally would sit and watch where he took his inhalations and marked those.

GD: So you made a breathing script.

LM: Yeah. It was very painstaking but what was so great about working with Darius is that he was such a collaborator as well as far as vocal interpretation of the song. He wanted to make sure that his vocal interpretation lined up with my character arc and character interpretation of where Shy was emotionally in the arc of the season. It was a beautiful symbiotic relationship. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to provide Shy’s silky, magical voice.

GD: We learn about Shy as the episodes continue but it’s from a period where being a Black entertainer and also trying to hide, it is something that gave you more drama to work with. I think it was a less enlightened time so it would be hard on someone like that who had to live up to a standard that probably any white straight singer never had to think about.

LM: Absolutely. It can be easy watching the show from a contemporary standpoint. It can be easy to take for granted the strides that we have made as a society towards not just acceptance but celebration of the LGBTQ community. When you realize the timeframe that we’re dealing with and the immense pressure that Shy is having to deal with, being a closeted Black gay superstar, to find a context for that was critical for me for that to constantly be there in the back of my mind. Because I think that what drives a lot of Shy’s insecurity — I mean he’s definitely got charm and pizzazz for days — but what’s underneath that is this constant gnawing loneliness from just not being able to live his full truth. It’s very important for me to pay respect to that.

GD: You made him have more melancholy because someone who can’t be your full self every day, you have to think about things. You don’t want to have things come out and ruin your career at that time. It lent more drama to who you were and also being very entertaining onstage and everything was great, but there’s something underlying there. I think Sterling K. Brown as your manager protecting you too, it’s hard on both of you probably.

LM: Absolutely. Exploring that relationship with Sterling with regards to Reggie and Shy was another critical piece but such an enjoyable piece. Sterling is such a generous and amazing person to work with. So much was conveyed that we discovered from a non-spoken vocabulary. I think a lot of the clues for them, for Sterling and I is what would happen in the gestures, in the looks, in the stares. So much is unspoken because it has to be, given Shy’s position and the nature of who he is. it’s so wonderful to work with somebody like Sterling to be able to define the parameters of their relationship. I didn’t even know in Season 2 when I was introduced that there would be a Reggie figure so it was such a delight to be able to play off Sterling and to have that add another layer of complexity to Shy. It’s so great to explore that.

GD: And I also liked you and Rachel [Brosnahan] when you get beat up and that was very tender that she used her makeup to help you out and get yourself back to your pretty self again.

LM: Rachel, I can’t say enough about what a great ambassador she is for the show. I still remember I was so incredibly nervous my first day on-set in Season 2, which was the bathroom scene where Shy and Midge meet, and she was so welcoming and so kind that all the hesitation melted away. What’s so great about getting to join such a solid, ready-made ensemble is being able to work with people like Rachel, to craft the nature of Shy and Midge’s relationship. I think it’s a beautifully complicated one. I think that scene that you reference on the boat, I think it’s my favorite one.

GD: I was hoping it was gonna be because it was a special moment, and then things get worse from there.

LM: We filmed in Miami. We were down in Miami for two weeks and that was the very last scene that we shot in Miami and it was about one or two in the morning. It was dramatic for a lot of reasons. I think the exhaustion helped for the poignancy of that scene. I loved that scene, even when we read it at the table read. It really, really got to me.

GD: I’ve spoken to Marin [Hinkle] and Michael [Zegen] and they feel like every episode is like a film, because the production values, just the first episode alone, that would break anybody else’s bank. They go all-out and it’s wonderful to see on TV. I’m sure you enjoyed wearing your outfits.

LM: I remember when we showed up to film the first scene of the USO. It’s hard not to feel like an absolute rockstar when you’ve got 900 enthusiastic, beaming background actors chanting and cheering for you and you’ve got the Rockettes performing, you’ve got an amazing band behind you, you’ve got Midge doing her standup. We spent a week out there on the USO alone. I was a kid in the candy store. Everywhere you’d look there was some detail. Nothing was spared as far as attention to detail. Hats off to Bill Groom, our production designer, Amy and Dan, they’re fearless. I love working in an environment like that, just absolute fearlessness.

GD: You got to be part of the ensemble that won the SAG Ensemble award.

LM: I wasn’t able to make it to the actual ceremony ‘cause I was down filming in Atlanta but I did get to watch it from my hotel room and I did get to embarrassingly scream at the top of my lungs (laughs).

GD: As long as you didn’t scare anyone.

LM: I don’t know, it was a pretty large hotel but I’m sure there were a few heads that were turned that night. I just think it was a well-earned award for everybody in the ensemble. I know it’s a cliche to say but it’s like a family. It truly is like a family and getting to go show up and go to work every day with these amazing talents, it’s a dream come true.

GD: You are in a big movie coming up, “Respect.” I got to go to the “Dreamgirls” set and I interviewed Jennifer [Hudson] in the day so I know what you’re up against wit that.

LM: Jennifer is just an absolute class act and I can’t wait for people to see the film. We shot for three months down in Atlanta. It was great to go from “Maisel” directly to “Respect,” which covers a good chunk of time but I remember the very first scene we filmed took place in 1960, which is exactly the same year as Season 3 of “Maisel” takes place. I couldn’t have asked for a better project to step into right after wrapping the season.

GD: I forgot to say it’s about Aretha Franklin and her family and you play her pastor, brother Cecil.

LM: Her pastor, brother, manager, Cecil Franklin.

GD: Do you get to sing?

LM: Actually we all have younger versions of ourselves ‘cause the film spans such a large chunk of time. The younger Cecil does sing but when I pick up playing the mature Cecil, we’ll say, he’s college-age and he starts moving more in the managerial route, even though Cecil was a fantastic singer, as were all the siblings in the Franklin family. Cecil decided he was gonna take basically his father’s track and go down being a pastor and being a manager, which is exactly the same role that our dad followed, who’s played by Forest Whitaker in the film.

GD: That’s not bad.

LM: No! To get to work with Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker and Mary J. Blige, Marlon Wayans, it’s a fantastic cast and it was just a blast to literally step inside Aretha’s catalog. Just to hear that music and just to be around that, we even got to meet her family, some of Aretha’s family that’s still living. They came to set and they were there a lot. Just to hear the firsthand stories of what it was like in that household, it’s priceless.

GD: That’s coming out around Christmas.

LM: It was originally supposed to be in early-ish October but now it’s got a Christmas Day release.

GD: That makes sense. I have one last question for you. Given the way things ended between you and Mrs. Maisel, are you gonna be on the next season?

LM: What’s so fun about “Maisel” is that nobody except for Amy and Dan really know anything. That goes right up until just before shooting begins. Nobody knows for sure but all I would say is that I love portraying Shy and I would not be upset if he continues to be a part of Midge’s life in some way.

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