Rachel Brosnahan’s story reads like aspiring-actress lore. Her career, up until recently, was comprised of a series of impressive recurring roles—the type of roles that would render her face “recognizable” without making her a household name. There was a memorable multiple-season stint on House of Cards as Rachel Posner, a high-end lady of the night who suffered an unfortunate end, which earned her an Emmy nom. There were two seasons of the critically acclaimed Manhattan and a several-episode role on Blacklist, as well as guest stints on Grey’s Anatomy, Orange Is the New Black and several other hit shows. Then came the big one, the career-changing role: She was cast as Miriam “Midge” Maisel in Amazon’s award-winning The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, co-created by husband-and-wife duo Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino of Gilmore Girls fame. That was when things really took a turn.
As the story goes, Brosnahan was so sick during her audition she could have blacked out. What she does recall involves her sweating profusely and her shoes coming off. “When you don’t feel well or you’re overexhausted, all of your inhibitions fall away,” says Brosnahan, who lives in New York City, where Maisel is shot. “You do some of your most fearless work because you have nothing to lose.” That was clearly a good thing because the now-27-year-old got the role. Adding to the string of good luck, Amazon bought two seasons of the series based solely on the pilot. (It was recently announced the show has been renewed for a third season as well.) And, before many people had even seen the show, Brosnahan was onstage clutching a Golden Globe for best actress in a musical or comedy series (the show, too, won for best television series, musical or comedy). Just like that, Brosnahan was in need of recurring roles no more: She was a bona fide star. “Sometimes the awards stuff can feel awkward and strange,” says Brosnahan when I meet her for breakfast at The London West Hollywood. “The Globes were a nice reminder that [awards shows] are giant commercials in the best way possible. So many people reached out after the Globes saying, ‘I started watching the show,’ which was really encouraging.”
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel centers around a 1950s traditional, Jewish, Upper East Side housewife who discovers her husband—a businessman-by-day and aspiring-stand-up comedian by night—has been lifting his act from Bob Newhart and cheating on her with his secretary. In her anger and shock, Midge takes to the stage herself, proving she’s the one with actual talent. “Midge doesn’t start as a stand-up,” says Brosnahan. “She starts as a really funny woman whose life falls apart. And she’s sharp; she’s smart; she’s single-minded; she’s driven; and she finds her voice through stand-up comedy.” During Midge’s impromptu act, she—in a wine-fueled rage—flashes the crowd, sending her to jail for indecent exposure. Oh, and all of that happens in the pilot. “I get very frustrated by gratuitous nudity; it’s tired and distracts from storytelling, but I appreciated this pilot’s relationship to nudity because I think it’s funny,” says Brosnahan. “It’s not about sex or being sexualized. [Midge was] hitting a bottom she couldn’t have imagined.”
It’s ironic that the show, which premiered in March 2017, is now being watched in the shadow of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. After all, Midge starts off as a Stepford-esque character (one who takes off her makeup after her husband has fallen asleep and wakes up before him to reapply it), but she quickly becomes a self-reliant, strong, outspoken, modern woman. “The show was made before this moment erupted into what it is now, but it affected the way the audience viewed it and added another layer to the story,” says the actress.
Brosnahan is petite and pretty, dressed in a floral silk dress on the morning we meet. Her hair is down, and she’s in full makeup, which feels a bit surprising for 11am on a Sunday. I quickly find out it’s because she has already had to do press for the show that morning. If she’s tired, she doesn’t show it. Her demeanor is warm and down-to-earth, no doubt a reflection of her Midwestern roots (she was raised in Highland Park, Ill., outside Chicago). In high school, Brosnahan was a multihyphenate, both an athlete and a theater kid. She was on the wrestling—yes, wrestling—team and was a snowboarding instructor. But she soon realized performing was what truly had her heart. “I think it was something I always knew, but in high school I realized I never really wanted to do anything else,” says Brosnahan. “I loved performing and storytelling, and they were the only things I had interest in. At that point, I started pursuing it in an active way with an eye toward a future career.” She went on to NYU, landing roles throughout her time in college and yet still graduating because she promised her parents she would. “My dad made a deal with me when acting started to pick up,” she says. “He said, ‘I will cover your college tuition if you graduate. If you don’t graduate, you owe me every cent of tuition I have paid up until that point.’ I’m so grateful he pushed me to graduate because I don’t think I’d be here without such a well-rounded education,” she adds.
Brosnahan did graduate, but those initial roles led to bigger roles, and, finally, to her current much-buzzed-about Golden Globe-winning role. “The show is very theatrical,” she says. “It’s like shooting a miniplay a day. We do a lot of scenes where the camera is doing a dance with us. It’s heavily choreographed. I lost about 15 pounds shooting the first season, and I think it was just from the repetition of the walking and talking at such a fast pace.”
While Brosnahan plays a woman aspiring to be a successful stand-up, she harbors no secret desire to become one herself. “I have so much respect and admiration for stand-up comedians,” she says. “It makes me want to crawl into a hole. It takes a particular breed of brilliant masochist, and I’m happy to cheer them on from the sidelines.” Yet, playing a stand-up on TV has also given her a small glimpse into the difficult career choice’s appeal. “Toward the end of the season, I began to notice the difference between when the audience was laughing because they had to and when they were laughing because I made them laugh. I understood for the first time that thrill. It certainly would never make me want to go try stand-up myself, but I’m looking forward to doing more of it on the show.”
Beyond the incredible cast of characters that make up the show, including Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle as Midge’s parents, and Michael Zegen as her philandering husband, there is another major character that cannot be ignored: the clothes. “[Costume designer] Donna Zakowska’s process is so thorough,” says Brosnahan. “She pours through vintage magazines and looks for inspiration from Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and other fashion icons of the time. Donna is a real storyteller through the clothes.” According to the actress, approximately 85 to 90 percent of Midge’s costumes in the first season are built from scratch. “I knew I wasn’t allowed because we had a second season, but, one day, I am going to steal all of those clothes,” she says with a laugh.
Off camera, Brosnahan is far more casual when it comes to clothes, an unsurprising reaction to how formal her character is. “Comfort is key in my personal style,” she says. “The more I work, the more I go the other way in my real life. I’m someone who lives mostly in jeans and T-shirts.” When Brosnahan took home the Golden Globe she was in Vionnet. “I love discovering new young designers,” she says. “I just like to have fun with style. I’m learning a lot about designers I didn’t know before.”
Our breakfast meeting comes right before Brosnahan begins shooting the show’s second season, which she says will continue to dive into Midge’s evolution as an independent woman. “In season two, we will be further exploring the tension between her separate worlds: her life as a mother, a housewife, a daughter; and her life as a new working woman; and her life as an emerging stand-up comedian,” says Brosnahan. “I look forward to exploring all of the ways her different realities bump up against each other.”
As Brosnahan’s character evolves, so too does the woman playing the role. She hopes the industry she’s in follows suit. “I feel hopeful about the future, not only about the industry, but also the country,” she says. “I’m hopeful that women are empowered in a new way and that this is a historic moment we won’t look back from. But this is not the first—we are building on something that many generations of women before us started a long time ago.”
First Image: Satin one-shoulder pleated-waist sash top, $1,895, by Brandon Maxwell at Neiman Marcus, Fashion Valley; flora sheer faceted crystal mesh pencil skirt with dangling faceted crystals, $4,595, similar styles at cushnieetochs.com; Raissa black satin 100 mm pump, $1,195, at christianlouboutin.com
Digitech: Chris Rice | Photo assistants: Chris Johnson and Christian Ern | Styling assistants: Caroline Ward and Richard Polio | Hair by Peter Butler for Leonor Greyl at traceymattingly.com | Makeup by Lisa Aharon at Starworks Artists using Chanel Les Beiges