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Ingénue Rising

NS gets up close and personal with actress and Highland Park native, Rachel Brosnahan, while she models looks for our spring fashion feature.

Dress, $2,670, by Lanvin, shoes, $995, by Valentino, earrings, $4,260, by Etername, ring, $3,560, by Irene Neuwirth, all at Neapolitan

Painting by René Romero Schuler; dress, $650, by Carven at Chalk Boutique in Evanston, 847.424.0011. Necklace, $1,395, by Dior at Neapolitan.

Paintings by Costel Iarca and René Romero Schuler; jersey dress, $465, by Rosancela Rocha at Lake Forest Shop, Lake Forest, 847.234.0548

If her last few roles are any indication, it’s clear that this up-and-coming actress possesses a range that defies typecasting. Take one part innocence juxtaposed with a maturity that defies her age. Throw in the ability to play an evil witch in Beautiful Creatures one moment and a vulnerable call girl in the Netflix series House of Cards the next. Imagine being equally convincing as a transgender sex-change patient in a recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy or as a “wannabe actress with a fondness for the bottle” onstage in her upcoming Broadway play, The Big Knife. All at the young age of 22.

Meet Rachel Brosnahan (her given name, not a stage name) whose star is on a trajectory to the moon. She grew up in Highland Park after moving here from Milwaukee at age four with her parents and younger brother and sister, whom she “adores.” She attended Wayne Thomas Elementary School, Northwood Junior High School and graduated from Highland Park High School in 2008, which she describes as “a melting pot” she enjoyed. Highland Park’s diverse demographic profile is comprised of families from Highwood’s largely Latino and Italian American community, Fort Sheridan’s military families and Highland Park’s predominantly Jewish population.

And, while the young actress was active in theater and musicals in her teen years, Brosnahan recounts her experience as a member of the high school wrestling team for two years as among her formative experiences. “There’s something so technical about wrestling,” explains the petite size zero. (Wrestling? Seriously?) “It’s a win-lose scenario,” she says. “And the Highland Park High School theater program is such a community. I was in Scarlet Pimpernel, Cats and Urinetown, which was a part of the Stunts collaborative student-run theater program.”

“But Rachel wasn’t the top theater kid in high school,” says Carole Dibo, Brosnahan’s manager as well as director and founder of the Actors Training Center at the Wilmette Theatre, a professional training ground for young actors where Brosnahan cut some of her acting teeth. “It’s not about who you are in junior high or high school,” says Dibo, who met Brosnahan when the then-16-year-old actress took an acting class with her at a downtown studio. “She stood out from the crowd then,” she recalls. “She was always an old soul.”

Dibo is referring to the maturity that belies Brosnahan’s age, her ability to shift seamlessly from talking about something quite serious one moment (like the impact her role in The Diary of Anne Frank had on her) to guffawing at the memory of her singing ability, (“I can carry a tune if you really need me to, but it was for the good of mankind that I realized I really can’t sing!”) that offers a glimpse into her range as an actress. Add to that the occasional goofy face she makes and her characteristic self-deprecating humor (“It was terrifying!”) and that’s Brosnahan—the girl next door.

Yet, forays in wrestling and other activities like horseback riding aside, she knew early on that acting was the thing she wanted to do most. Brosnahan counts her role as Margot in The Diary of Anne Frank as helping solidify this for her. “It was challenging and moving,” says Brosnahan. “I remember being onstage in that play… it was very silent, and feeling the life in that small space. Sinking into the character at the beginning was powerful—to tap into the real people and ask them permission, in a way, to do so.”

Her parents, on the other hand, were not so sure about her career aspirations. “Nobody wants their 14-year-old to come home and say, ‘I want to be an actress,’” she says. But they’ve been supportive of her from the beginning, even when she skipped her calculus final exam senior year of high school to audition for her first on-screen role in the big budget horror film, The Unborn, in 2009. “They’ve been amazing, incredible,” says Brosnahan. And, when she got accepted to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts at Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, they thought, “Maybe this can work,” she recalls. Brosnahan graduated in December 2012 (after only three-and-a-half years) and now shares the Lee Strasberg pedigree with notable alumni including Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, Scarlett Johansson, Alec Baldwin and Angelina Jolie. 

Click here to read more of "Ingénue Rising" in the digital edition of NS!