An award-winning actor and producer whose career is skyrocketing, Rachel Brosnahan is best known for starring in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Here, she dishes on why Midge Maisel isn’t a feminist, how she manages acting as an introvert, and why mid-century women had a hard time peeing
Rachel Brosnahan exudes total composure. She hasn’t missed a beat in our conversation since we hopped on the phone, and her gracious answers contain almost zero filler—no ums or likes; she doesn’t even swear. She’s speaking to me while in the backseat of a car that’s bringing her back to her N.Y.C. apartment following our BUST photo shoot. Even thanking the driver and huffing and puffing up multiple flights of stairs when she arrives at her fifth-floor walkup doesn’t slow her roll. But once she settles in, a pointed look from Winston, her Shiba Inu, stops her dead. “My dog is staring at me very intently,” she says, halting midway through a sentence. “Are you OK?” she asks him slowly, with a weirded out laugh, before working to regain her train of thought.
You’d think she’d be used to this kind of scrutiny by now, though it usually comes from humans. All eyes have been on the 30-year-old actor since her bright-eyed, quick-quipping, bawdy-joke-telling star turn as ’50s-housewife-turned-rising-comic Miriam “Midge” Maisel in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which will be returning to Amazon Prime for its fourth season at the end of the year. The show, the latest from girl culture goddess Amy Sherman-Palladino (see: Gilmore Girls, Bunheads) is a sugar-coated, candy-colored trip through mid-century Upper West Side Jewish culture, downtown underground comedy (even the grime has a pleasant glow), and the challenges facing a woman actively shunning the main roles she’s expected to play—namely wife, mother, and homemaker—to pursue her dream.
Watching Midge navigate daily life and pursue comedy after her marriage blows up is like seeing a baby feminist blossom. “Why do we have to pretend to be stupid when we’re not stupid? Why do we have to pretend to be helpless when we’re not helpless? Why do we have to pretend we’re not hungry when we’re hungry?” she says, in Season 1. But Midge is still lightyears away from burning her bra, and she definitely doesn’t identify as a feminist. Brosnahan (who, for the record, definitely does) laughs in agreement, “No way,” she says. “One of the things that I was always interested in about Midge is that she’s a woman who wasn’t interested in change. She felt like she was fully cooked. She had achieved all of her goals and dreams and, through no fault of her own, her life got completely exploded, and she was forced to reinvent herself. So few women come out of the womb wanting to break the glass ceiling and change the world. And that’s OK. But so many women end up with strange and unexpected paths toward making an impact and creating change.”
Since its debut in 2017, Mrs. Maisel has grown to major pop cultural proportions—it’s third season averaged more than 3 million views in its first seven days, not including mobile phones, tablets, or laptops. The show has spawned an N.Y.C. tour that includes stops at Midge’s kosher Greenwich Village butcher, and McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village (which actually acts as a stand-in for the now-shuttered Cedar Tavern on the show, since McSorley’s didn’t allow women patrons until legally forced to in 1970). “Tits up,” the good-natured command Midge’s surly manager Susie, played brilliantly by Alex Borstein, gives before every performance can now be found on everything from wine tumblers to cross-stitch kits to artfully designed poster prints in millennial color palettes. Pre-pandemic, Amazon even hosted a “Maisel Day” in Los Angeles, where thousands of fans—many of whom dolled up for the occasion in full-skirted sundresses, finger waves, and an expertly applied red lip—swarmed various diners, delis, and coffee shops serving up 1959-era discounts, like 99-cent sandwiches and 30-cent malts.
As far as characters go, Midge is a total catch—funny, flawed, an unabashed star. But it was a part the industry had told Brosnahan she wasn’t well suited for. Up until Mrs. Maisel, her auditions for comic roles had always led to rejection. “My agents would tell me that the feedback was that it went well, they just didn’t think I was very funny. And it wasn’t something that I found offensive because I was really young and just getting started. I just acknowledged that I had received it enough times that it was probably true,” she says. “When this role came up, I remember running lines with one of my best friends who’s a casting director and she was like, ‘Wow, this script is so great.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but it’s comedy, I’m probably not gonna get it.’ And she was like, ‘You’re probably not gonna get it but we’ll have fun doing it anyway.’” But she did get it, despite suffering from a terrible flu the day she had to audition by delivering five minutes of stand-up comedy to a handful of people in a cold room—circumstances that could undo even the most seasoned comic.
“So few women come out of the womb wanting to break the glass ceiling and change the world. But so many end up with strange and unexpected paths toward making an impact and creating change.”
Landing the role came with its own challenges, including imposter syndrome. “It was tough, that first season in particular. I was surrounded by so many brilliant and experienced comedians and was highly intimidated and found myself wondering on many days, Who thought this was a good idea? And Who let me do this? I had no choice but to put my head down and do the work and hope that people bought it.” People bought it. In 2018, after the show’s first season, Brosnahan won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Series Musical or Comedy, and was presented with the statue by none other than Carol Burnett. She won the same award again the following year beating out icons of funny Candice Bergen and Debra Messing (she thanked the show’s “matriarchy” in her speech). In fact, she gathered trophies like Midge collects jaunty hats, including an Emmy and a Screen Actors Guild award; she swears she keeps a couple on the toilet because of her cramped city living quarters.
When we chat, the show had just begun costume fittings for its much-delayed (thanks COVID) fourth season, and I ask Brosnahan about the rumor that she had been the victim of some sort of corset-related injury. “I feel like it got a little bit blown out of proportion, as things tend to do in the press,” she says. “Our modern bodies are not accustomed to wearing corsets for that many hours a day, and I think between the corsets and the fast talking, I wasn’t breathing deeply enough.” Apparently, as challenging as the societal restrictions were for women in Midge’s day, the clothing restrictions took things to a whole other level. “Between the corsets and the girdles, the straps that held up your stockings and the clothes that did not necessarily fit as well as Midge’s do, it was very restrictive—and hard to pee. Much dehydration. And if we are to believe what the movies told us about what 1950s housewives were like, there was a lot of drinking, and not a lot of water,” Brosnahan says, laughing.
Brosnahan grew up in Highland Park, IL, a suburb of Chicago. Her mom stayed home to raise Brosnahan and her younger brother and sister, while her dad worked in children’s publishing (the next branch on her family tree shows that the late designer Kate Spade was Brosnahan’s aunt). Her family was athletic and she grew up a veritable Sporty Spice, playing lacrosse, becoming a certified snowboarding instructor, and joining her high school’s wrestling team (it’s worth a Google image search). “It was technically a co-ed team, they didn’t have any gender restrictions. There was one other girl on the team my freshman year, and then my sophomore year I was the only girl,” Brosnahan says. “But the cool thing about wrestling is that it’s done by weight class so there’s really nothing about it that needs to be gender exclusive. You weigh the same as the person you’re wrestling, and you have different skillsets. Someone might be faster than the other person, someone might be stronger, someone might be more flexible, someone may be able to hold their base for longer.”
She loved wrestling, but not as much as she loved acting, which started as a twinkle in her five-year-old eye on stage in kindergarten plays, then solidified on a junior high school trip to see a downtown Chicago production of Les Misérables. “It was in this massive theater—at least it felt massive, I was also kind of small at the time—but I just remember that being the first time that I ever felt how magical theater could be. I felt like I was in kind of a magical fever dream. The music was overwhelming in the most wonderful way, the costumes were incredible,” she says. “And Les Misérables is long, too. It just went on and on and I was on the edge of my seat. There was a little boy in the musical and I remember being like, Where did they get that little boy? Is this something that I could do? I think I wanna do it.” Doing a few high school musicals revealed singing and dancing were not her strong suits, but she wasn’t giving up on acting. “At some point I realized that A) this was the only thing I’m interested in, but also that B) I had no other quantifiable skills, so it was really my only choice,” she says with a laugh.
“Our modern bodies are not accustomed to wearing corsets for that many hours a day.”
She enrolled at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and immediately starting landing small roles, including one-offs on Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife, and Orange is the New Black, plus the stereotypical, nondescript characters most young women actors have to cut their teeth on. She played “Girl” on an episode of Gossip Girl, “Eating Disorder Girl” on In Treatment, and then, by being preternaturally good at what she does, parlayed her one-ep appearance as “Call Girl” on House of Cards into a role with an actual name (Rachel Posner) and two seasons’ worth of storyline. Of course, her character was unceremoniously murdered for knowing too much, but Brosnahan’s path to stardom had already been laid. Her next role, on Manhattan, as the wife of a physicist working on the atomic bomb, was a harbinger, both in time period and talent, of the “marvelous” big break to come. This spring, she’ll add another plucky woman from a bygone era to her list of increasingly feminist characters. In The Courier, out on VOD April 20th, she plays a screen version of the real life Emily Donovan, “a young and hungry CIA agent in the 1960s,” who, along with a man named Greville Wynne (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), helped bring an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
One obstacle she had to overcome as an actor, Brosnahan explains, is being an introvert. “I was a little bit of a shy and serious kid. I was more comfortable having a few close friends who I really trusted, rather than having a large group,” she says. “I struggled with the realization that the rehearsal process was my favorite part of the play—that I almost wanted to just rehearse forever and never put the play up in front of an audience. [Even now,] when making a film or television project, I have to pretend like no one’s ever gonna see it, because otherwise I just get crushed under the weight of that pressure to deliver.”
That trick must’ve worked for her most recent project, because she certainly delivers. In I’m Your Woman, a ’70s-set crime drama that came out in December, she plays Jean, the quiet, blond, shiksa flipside to flamboyant, fast-talking Midge. (“Lots of coffee. So much coffee,” is how Brosnahan explains that internal metronome acceleration.) Whereas Midge starts her journey of transformation with uncanny confidence, Jean’s growth is a slow and devastating burn. It’s the mob movie we’ve seen a million times, in a way we’ve never seen it before, thanks to director Julia Hart, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Hart wondered whatever happens to the wives and girlfriends who get so little screen time in classic gangster movies, so she flipped the script. At the beginning of I’m Your Woman, something goes sideways in Jean’s husband’s world of organized crime, and she’s forced to go on the run with her newly adopted baby (also a product of some likely nefarious dealings). Slowly, we see Jean go from anguished and exhausted with zero agency to, spoiler alert, kind of a badass. “I love stories about ordinary women; they have my heart,” Brosnahan says. “We have libraries filled with movies about ordinary men questioning their lives, their choices, and going on journeys toward redemption or growth or change. But we don’t even have a back room filled with these same women and their journeys yet.”
“We have libraries filled with movies about ordinary men questioning their lives, But we don’t even have a back room filled with ordinary women and their journeys yet.”
I’m Your Woman marks Brosnahan’s first producing credit. Producing allows her to “fall more and more in love” with a project, but it also gives her a say in which projects we get to fall in love with by getting them made in the first place. Yearly Departed, the second project she helped bring to fruition under her production company, Scrap Paper Pictures, is a fake-funeral comedy special that features a dream list of funny women eulogizing some of the things we said goodbye to in 2020. Natasha Rothwell mourns TV cops, Sarah Silverman skewers Making America Great Again, and Patti Harrison roasts rich girl Instagram influencers. Brosnahan, or, as host Phoebe Robinson calls her, “Rachey Bros Bros,” eulogizes pants, in a Midge Maisel-worthy rant (“they have these cute little pockets that were perfect for holding tiny things like our tampon and our paychecks”). It was an all-female cast, unusual in itself, but it was nearly an all-female team behind the camera, too. “Women just bring a different perspective. We’re so accustomed to looking around the room and seeing only one or two other women in a sea of men,” she says. “And not to devalue those projects, they’re wonderful, too. It’s just somehow, when it’s reversed, it feels radical and different in a way that it shouldn’t anymore.”
An all-woman production team is something that the character Brosnahan plays on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel couldn’t have imagined in her wildest dreams. Nevertheless, the character’s struggles seem strangely relevant today. “The show continues to comment on how far we’ve come, but also how far we have yet to go. You know, women can open a credit card account without their husband’s permission and have a bank account and have a job other than being a secretary, and that wasn’t necessarily true in the 1950s, but there are still a lot of expectations placed on women,” Brosnahan says. “And people still say that women aren’t funny.”
By Lisa Butterworth
Photography by Jill Greenberg
Styling by Eliza Yerry for Jill + Jordan @ The Wall Group
Makeup by Mary Wiles @ Forward
Hair by Owen Gould
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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