Brosnahan had never performed comedy before strapping on her Maisel corset for the first time. Now, with another Emmy nomination under her belt—and a Golden Globe win—Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new muse has plenty of reasons to smile.
There’s a moment in the second season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel when the title character, a 1950s housewife turned up-and-coming stand-up comic, has to work a new type of room. Until now, she’s peddled her jokes mostly to pals at parties and small crowds at the cramped Gaslight Cafe—manageable groups, filled with friendly and slightly drunk faces. This time, though, she’s up against her biggest audience yet—an awareness that hit Rachel Brosnahan, who embodies Miriam “Midge” Maisel with an almost eerie precision, like a particularly sharp punch line. “As I got up onstage to perform that scene,” she says, “I realized that it was also bigger than anything that I was used to. And then I had the realization that it’s only going to get bigger and bigger—and more and more horrifying.”
Brosnahan is laughing when she tells this story, but she’s at least slightly serious about how scary it is for her to do comedy—even now. That’s because, as she’ll tell you herself, Brosnahan is emphatically not a comedian. She is, however, an actress—old-school, Method-trained, perhaps just the teensiest bit Type A. As a kid, she spent hours crafting a PowerPoint presentation in hopes of persuading her parents to let her get a dog. And as a 28-year-old, she channels that same energy into research. While preparing to play the title character in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s criminally charming comedy, Brosnahan didn’t just immerse herself in the work of Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller and Jean Carroll and Carol Burnett. She also made a habit of attending open mikes, so-called “bringer” shows, where wannabe comics must deliver a certain number of spectators if they want to secure a spot onstage.
Brosnahan didn’t get that dog until right before she went to college, but the care she took for Mrs. Maisel paid off immediately. The series, which Amazon has already renewed through its third season, is delightful, a candy-colored screwball throwback that easily stands out among television’s dour biggest hits (Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, HBO’s Westworld, FX’s dearly departed The Americans). Season One debuted last November 29; less than two weeks later, the series earned two Golden Globe nominations, for best comedy and for Brosnahan’s performance. It won both. At the Emmys, it will compete with 14 nominations, including outstanding comedy series and Brosnahan for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series.
All that, and Brosnahan still hasn’t performed stand-up outside the confines of a soundstage. “I think that would prevent me from ever being able to do this job,” she says. “I’d be so traumatized.” Instead, when she goes to comedy shows, she dedicates herself to being the world’s most supportive spectator. “Having even had a taste of what it’s like,” says Brosnahan, “I am the one laughing the loudest at everybody’s jokes in the back, because I want them to feel seen and heard and encouraged.”
That’s true even when the comedians are practiced and the environs are significantly slicker. Case in point: this breezy June night, when she’s taking a break from Mrs. Maisel’s corsets and tongue-tripping monologues to catch a show at Caveat, a surprisingly roomy basement venue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Once, Midge Maisel may have visited this neighborhood to hunt for Judaica and discounted leather goods; now it’s a yuppie paradise where Russ & Daughters will add a schmear of goat’s-milk cream cheese to your everything bagel for just $4. In her jeans, leather jacket, and subtly chic gold-framed glasses—a far cry from Midge’s nipped waists and full, rustling skirts—Brosnahan fits right in.
“I’m late to every party. But when I arrive, I arrive.”
When comedians Dave Mizzoni and Matt Rogers take the stage, Brosnahan is the first person in the crowd to jump to her feet. (She’s not just being nice; the three of them went to N.Y.U. together, and other friends are in the audience tonight as well.) She laughs gamely and generously as the evening unfolds, even on the occasions when Mizzoni’s and Rogers’s very targeted references—the name of this program is “The Gayme Show,” and its tagline is “Exactly what you think”—whiz right past her.
Spending 16 hours a day surrounded by Eisenhower-era culture doesn’t leave a person much time to study the complete works of Frankie Grande (Ariana’s brother) or prolific YouTuber and Taylor Swift bestie Todrick Hall—or even to keep up with old co-workers. At one point, an extended riff on the new Ryan Murphy drama, Pose, ends with a pointed crack about series regular Kate Mara. Until she hears the joke, Brosnahan has no idea that Mara—who, like her, was a regular on House of Cards—is appearing on Pose or that Pose has already premiered.
“I don’t have a TV,” she says with a sigh. “I am living in 1957.”
If she woke up one morning and decided to become an expert on the life and times of pop-star-adjacent Instagram stars, though, there’s no question Brosnahan would excel. She may not be as brash as Midge Maisel, who memorably finishes her first impromptu stand-up performance by exposing herself to a crowd of roaring Beatniks, but she’s nearly as self-assured, and every bit as capable. She’s subverted expectations on bigger stages than this one, after all.
“I’m late to every party,” Brosnahan says by way of apology to Mara. “But when I arrive, I arrive.”
Objectively speaking, Brosnahan is being modest. She certainly didn’t arrive late to Hollywood: even before graduating from N.Y.U., in 2012, she was steadily booking bit parts on Gossip Girl, The Good Wife, and In Treatment. The roles were small but professional all the same, as essential to a budding acting career as a one a.m. open-mike slot is to a would-be Sarah Silverman.
“I’ve played Eating Disorder Girl, Girl, Call Girl—many types of girl,” she says, laughing. “That’s my type, all types of girl.” It’s a few hours before “The Gayme Show,” and Brosnahan is picking at a giant slice of carrot cake. Crowds of pastrami-seeking tourists have foiled our original plan to visit Katz’s Delicatessen; instead, we’ve settled into a squishy booth at the self-consciously retro Remedy Diner, a dead ringer for the vintage greasy spoons where Midge Maisel and her curmudgeonly manager, Susie (Alex Borstein), talk set lists over coffee and French fries.
Simple as these starter characters were, Brosnahan was savvy enough to see their value. Being last on the call sheet allowed her to listen, and observe, and take risks in a low-stakes environment before returning to the safe space of N.Y.U.’s Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute—where she could “ask questions, and study, and try to get better. And then try it again.”
As her undergraduate career wound to a close, Brosnahan’s persistence led her to the ultimate “girl” role: a throwaway part in the first two episodes of a new political drama called House of Cards, that of a nameless prostitute. Her handful of lines included uninspiring utterances like “Excuse me” and “I mean, I’m kinky, but I don’t know if I’m the girl you’re looking for.”
Former show-runner Beau Willimon saw potential in Brosnahan’s raw, arresting performance and her immediate chemistry with actor Michael Kelly, who plays pathologically loyal future White House chief of staff Doug Stamper. Soon, he expanded Call Girl into a proper part, one that had an arc and a backstory and a name. One that would, a few years later, earn Brosnahan an Emmy nomination for outstanding guest actress in a drama. Kelly, who received his first Emmy nomination the same year, credits her work with elevating his own.
“I was sitting at the lunch table when Beau said, ‘I think we got to give you a name,’” Kelly recalls.
The one Willimon settled on, funny enough, was “Rachel,” which inspired some mild protest from Brosnahan: “I was like, What?! Why?! That’s so fucked up!”
“Rachel was not afraid to not fall apart. She was not afraid to be angry and to stay tough.”
It was, as was Rachel the character’s sorry existence, which began when she was caught beside a drunk-driving congressman and ended, two seasons later, in a shallow grave somewhere in the New Mexico desert. (No wonder Amy Sherman-Palladino likes to classify Brosnahan’s pre–Mrs. Maisel parts as “the girl that someone’s tied up and thrown in the back of a van.”)
But House of Cards also offered another education for Brosnahan—taught her the ins and outs of having a significant part on a prestige series at the dawn of the peak-TV era—and gave her an outlet to display the dark side of her sense of humor, if only among her peers when the cameras weren’t rolling. She and Kelly, her most frequent scene partner, grew close enough that even filming her final moments ended up being a blast; scroll back far enough on her Instagram, and you’ll find a sweet snapshot of the two of them contentedly spooning in the dusty hole that will eventually house Call Girl Rachel’s lifeless body.
Then there’s the matter of Fake Rachel’s dead-eyed head, a silicone model designed solely to be buried. “On my phone somewhere, there are some pictures of Michael and Beau and I making out with Rachel’s head,” Brosnahan says, sounding simultaneously sheepish and proud. “It’s really—it’s dark.”
Though she couldn’t have known it at the time, this was also decent practice for Mrs. Maisel—whose surface whimsy conceals more than a hint of bleakness. The series begins at the end of an era for Midge Maisel—née Weissman—who has spent the entirety of her young life meticulously ticking every box on a very strict, self-imposed rubric for feminine success. She’s a Bryn Mawr graduate with an alabaster complexion and a 25-inch waist; she’s given her husband, the feckless but amiable Joel (Michael Zegen), two children, a boy and a girl. She’s secured the community’s most prominent rabbi as a guest for her upcoming Yom Kippur break-fast. If there were any justice, Midge would spend the rest of her days tending to her picture-perfect family, indulgently accompanying Joel on his jaunts to Greenwich Village comedy clubs until the two of them got old and gray and ditched Manhattan for Longboat Key.
And then Joel delivers his sucker punch. “I just don’t want this life, this whole Upper West Side, classic six, best seats in temple,” he tells Midge, after an embarrassing attempt at delivering his own jokes at the Gaslight. Oh, and he’s also been sleeping with his secretary, a skinny shiksa named Penny Pann. Sherman-Palladino and her husband and collaborator, Dan Palladino, asked every actress they considered for Midge to read three scenes in their audition, including the big breakup.
“Most of the actresses, great actresses, came in and broke down—fell apart, as sometimes you will when somebody walks out on your life,” Sherman-Palladino says. “And Rachel was not afraid to not fall apart. She was not afraid to be angry and to stay tough. Because the thing about that scene is it was not there to show her vulnerability. That scene was there to show that pain brought out the comic’s voice.”
Sure enough, shortly after Joel up and leaves—packing his things in Midge’s suitcase, a final insult to injury—Midge ends up back at the Gaslight, sloshed on kosher wine, and wanders onto the stage. Before she knows it, she’s telling a roomful of strangers every sordid detail of her wrecked marriage, but sculpting the story so it sounds amusing rather than pathetic. She heckles one dim-witted audience member; she interrupts her stream of consciousness to talk real estate with another. In the midst of explaining why she made a perfect wife, she announces that there’s no truth to “all that shit they say about Jewish girls in the bedroom᠁ There are French whores standing around the Marais district saying, ‘Did you hear what Midge did to Joel’s balls the other night?’ ” She doesn’t stop until the police show up to book her for public indecency and performing without a cabaret license, and even they can’t keep her from landing one last zinger as she gestures toward her exposed breasts: “You think Bob Newhart’s got a set of these at home? Rickles, maybe!”
The performance is spontaneous and exhilarating and very, very funny, everything that Joel isn’t—and from the moment she grabs the mike, it’s clear that both Midge and the actress playing her are going to be big, bright shining stars.
Sherman-Palladino, still best known as the creator of the fast-talking, culturally omnivorous Gilmore Girls, has no shortage of colorful descriptors for her newest muse. In her eyes, Brosnahan is simply not human: “She’s a space alien, or she’s some sort of magical creature, or—I believe I’ve described her before as a Tolkien character. She’s just, she’s just kind of not of this earth.” Then again, Brosnahan’s appeal as a performer may be even more elemental. “She’s a very smart girl, and she understands things—which is 90 percent of the job.”
Born in Milwaukee and raised in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Brosnahan was a shy and serious kid who spent much of her time immersed in fantasy—Harry Potter, Roald Dahl, the kiddie adventure novels of Enid Blyton. During the summers, which she spent with her mother’s family in England, she’d work her way through an entire carry-on bag filled with books before replacing them all with new volumes for the trip home.
Her family, she says, tends more toward the athletic than the arty. (They obviously have a creative side as well; one of her father’s sisters was the designer Kate Spade, who died in June.) Brosnahan herself is a snowboarder as well as a former high-school wrestler—a fact that greatly amused Sherman-Palladino—but also fell for acting at an early age: “Something about the transformational process just felt magical, like a lot of those books.”
It’s easy to picture Brosnahan as a thoughtful little bookworm, a Hermione Granger type with a slightly morbid edge. Even now, she speaks with the careful deliberation of someone who values and understands the weight of words; her diction is flawless, with crisply pronounced consonants and no trace of a midwestern twang. “You work with her on set, and then off set you’ll kind of chat with her—and then you’re occasionally reminded that she’s 28 years old,” says Dan Palladino. Sherman-Palladino had a rude awakening along those lines when she told Brosnahan that she resembled a more smiley Tracy Flick: “She’s like, ‘Who’s that?’ I’m like, ‘Election?’ She goes, ‘What?’ And I’m 100. I’ve officially—I just turned 100.”
So perhaps it comes as no surprise that Brosnahan wasn’t the most obvious choice to play Midge, a gregarious macher who speaks as quickly as, well, a woman dreamed up by Amy Sherman-Palladino. David Oyelowo, who played Othello to Brosnahan’s Desdemona in New York Theatre Workshop’s 2016 production, said in an e-mail that his co-star was worried about Mrs. Maisel initially because she didn’t consider herself to be funny. (“She is of course saying this while we’re taking silly selfies backstage just before I had to go onstage and murder her,” he added.) Brosnahan isn’t even Jewish—though Highland Park itself was Jewish enough, she says, that she’s been to “hundreds of Bar Mitzvahs, Bat Mitzvahs. I could maybe Bat Mitzvah you.”
Going into her Mrs. Maisel audition, though, Brosnahan had two things working in her favor. The first was that she’d recently finished playing a Jewish wife and mother with a well-to-do background and an enviable wardrobe on the little-watched but very good WGN America drama Manhattan, set within the desert compound where American scientists raced to design and build the first atomic bomb. Sam Shaw, that show’s creator, remembers that Brosnahan originally wanted to play the role of physicist Helen Prins. She worried that Abby Isaacs, the part she ended up getting, “would become Wife No. 3, like signing on for seven years of making crudités or something,” he says. But while Abby was not the show’s lead, she wasn’t a background character, either. The part gave Brosnahan an opportunity to imbue a woman of a bygone era with real depth, and to learn how to navigate restrictive, period-appropriate shapewear. (“I have learned so much about undergarments,” she says, deadpan. “And I truly don’t understand how anybody survived the 50s.”)
The second thing working in Brosnahan’s favor was that she wanted the part of Midge Maisel. Like, really wanted it, maybe more than anything since her parents got her that dog. Before she read the Mrs. Maisel script, Brosnahan was planning to turn away from TV and toward theater and film. After, there was no question that Midge had to be hers. She’s the kind of character, Brosnahan says, that “I often don’t see represented on television—somebody who is unapologetically confident, who has an innate sense of self-empowerment, who isn’t afraid to pat herself on the back for accomplishing goals. And who’s unapologetically ambitious.” While Midge is charming and lovable, she’s also superficial and flighty and a breathtakingly terrible mother who measures her baby’s forehead when she’s worried it’s getting too big; a flawed, recognizably human person, rather than a plucky proto-feminist who conforms precisely to 21st-century ideals.
That’s catnip for a determined young actress—and for a viewing audience beaten down by a news cycle of ever mounting tragedy and violence, not to mention a TV landscape dominated by dreariness. Even the comedies sharing Emmy space with Mrs. Maisel (Atlanta, Barry) are as likely to punch viewers in the gut as they are to make them laugh. “It’s a pretty shit time to be alive, and this show’s like a little ant moving a rubber-tree plant,” says Alex Borstein, who plays Susie, the wannabe agent who persuades Midge to pursue showbiz in a serious way. “You want to see these two people succeed. It’s a breath of fresh air.”
That was especially true in November, when the series debuted its full first season just as the #MeToo movement was reaching its zenith. It was a moment when every Twitter refresh seemed to expose a new, horrifying story of sexual misconduct. And then came Mrs. Maisel, a burst of cleansing light—colorful, fast-paced, sunny as an old-fashioned musical, but without anyone breaking into song. Ironically, it’s one of the only female-oriented shows that was green-lighted by former Amazon Studios head Roy Price before he resigned last October, after being accused of sexual harassment himself. (Price has not commented on the allegations.) Though there’s some darkness at its core, Mrs. Maisel is, above all, the jubilant story of a talented woman who works hard, triumphing over the odds and her mediocre loser of a husband. It is, as Brosnahan points out, partly a fantasy. But what a fantasy.
It’s impossible to know to what extent Mrs. Maisel’s exultant reception has been affected by fortuitous timing. Brosnahan grows more thoughtful than usual when asked whether she believes it was, noting that the show’s story would be inspiring no matter the surrounding context. But possibly, she continues, Mrs. Maisel had an even greater impact because it debuted at a time when “we’re talking about women finding voices they didn’t know they had,” and—her words coming faster now, and more emphatically—“young people finding voices they didn’t know they had. This is a theme of the moment.”
Brosnahan has given a lot of thought to The Moment and, more specifically, to its momentum—how her industry, and all industries, can parlay this surge of righteous anger into lasting change. Though she’s never been a particularly active social-media user, she’s backed away from Twitter, she says, “because it just feels like we’re all shouting into a vacuum, and I’m trying to focus more on taking those active statements out of Twitter and into the real world.”
As her star rises, Brosnahan has also found herself being more careful about the things she posts online—for practical reasons, as well as the understandable desire to keep her private life private. “As somebody who’s always felt like a pretty open book, I find myself being very protective of whatever the elusive real me is,” she says. Famous performers sometimes become celebrities first and actors second, a fate that would have robbed Brosnahan of her prized ability to disappear fully into a role. (That said, she does have a very cute Instagram largely devoted to her dogs: a Shiba Inu named Winston and a pit bull named Nikki.)
Brosnahan doesn’t just hope to keep her on-screen options open. She’d love to do another play in the near-ish future, to produce, to direct. She wants to see and make more stories that focus on the nuances of female friendship, like one of her current favorite shows, Issa Rae’s Insecure. She’s already developing a pilot with a couple of friends, one that focuses on young people in politics. Brosnahan doesn’t plan to star in the show, but perhaps it’ll be a stepping-stone to the next phase in her career—just as those “girl” parts led to House of Cards led to Manhattan led to Mrs. Maisel.
As of now, Brosnahan’s success hasn’t had a hugely measurable impact on her day-to-day life. She can walk her dogs in broad daylight without being swarmed; she can laugh at a comedian’s joke about Oprah without anyone around her recognizing that she actually knows Oprah. (Or at least said hello to Oprah from the stage after winning a Golden Globe.) The biggest shift, she says, is that people finally know how to pronounce “Brosnahan.” But if she keeps climbing the way Mrs. Maisel’s heroine certainly will, all this could change as well.
Remember, she admires Midge for being unapologetically ambitious. And when asked if she’d describe herself the same way, Brosnahan doesn’t hesitate: “Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah!” Then, after a brief, perfectly timed beat, the TV comedian turns to the magazine reporter and nails another punch line: “How about you?”
Source: Vanity Fair