The award-winning actress talks with THR about the sophomore season of Amazon’s critical darling — and how Midge’s estranged husband Joel fits into the picture.
Rachel Brosnahan’s buoyant and nuanced performance as housewife-turned-comedian Miraim “Midge” Maisel was one of the highlights of last year’s TV slate, and has been deservedly lauded since by critics and awards bodies alike.
Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel presents some unique technical challenges for its star, who must deliver lengthy stand-up comedy monologues with spontaneity — since Midge’s style is often stream-of-consciousness and off-the-cuff — and at the lightning speed that creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s world demands. Season two, now streaming on Amazon, gives Brosnahan even more opportunities to shine, as Midge’s new life as a rising, struggling comic scrapes up against her old one as a perfectly content housewife. Featuring extended jaunts in Paris and the Catskills before following Midge and her manager Susie (Alex Borstein) on a multi-state tour, the new episodes see Midge grappling with the realities of the path she’s chosen, and what she may have to give up in order to truly succeed.
Below, Brosnahan speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about Midge’s season two journey; her relationships with Susie, estranged husband Joel (Michael Zegen) and new love interest Benjamin (Zachary Levi); and how the comedy world is impacting her social skills.
Did filming season two feel different from season one, now that you know how successful the show is?
Fortunately, no, it didn’t. It still feels like we’re shooting in a vacuum a little bit, because it’s a really intense show to shoot. We have a lot of pages in a very short period of time, really long hours, and so we do get to escape. We got to dig deeper into almost all the relationships on the show this year, and I’m so fortunate that as Midge, I have relationships on the show with almost every other character. I enjoyed getting to work more with so much of our core ensemble, and to be able to shoot more together. That was one of the biggest differences between season one and two, is that in season two, you get to see a lot more of the whole family, and the whole ensemble together. Those scenes were fun to shoot — crazy, psychotic, but fun, just to get to see each actor and character have moments to shine.
Starting the season in Paris must have been an interesting change of pace.
The Paris scenes were actually the first that we shot, which was very strange! It was all of our same people, but we also had partially a French crew, and it was a bit of a strange note to start the show on for season two, to be somewhere else. But it was a blast — we got to go to Paris and hang out and shoot in beautiful locations and eat 12,000 baguettes!
So the first stand-up scene you shot for this season was the one in Paris, where Midge has a translator?
Yes, which was strange mostly because with the translator, the timing is a little bit different. You really have to wait for that laugh, and it was nerve-wracking, and also most of our audience [in the scene] only spoke French and genuinely had no idea what I was saying without the translator. It was an entirely French background [cast], and we had a French coordinator, so having the French translator was useful!
Was it harder to get back into character because you were in a new location?
The challenge was less getting back to the character in a new location, and more getting back into the character after having had six months away. We’d only shot one season and it was eight episodes, so there’s always that fear that you’ve forgotten how to play them! About halfway through Paris, we were all collectively like, “Oh, we do remember how to do this, we know these people still,” and it was like putting back on a comfy old sweater.
Joel is still a big part of the show this season, and there’s a lingering question of whether he and Midge might give it another shot. What’s your take on that?
The big question at the end of season one is whether or not Midge and Joel are going to get back together, and it’s something that we’ll continue to explore throughout season two. I remember Amy saying to me before we shot the pilot that Midge and Joel have children together, so they’ll never be able to be completely out of each other’s lives. And while there may be various points — as you saw at the end of season one — in which they may feel like they’re back on the same page, almost as quickly one of them will always take a step forward while the other takes a step back, or sideways, or on a diagonal. They will, as is true for so many relationships, continue to just miss each other, perhaps forever.
Episode five ends with an incredible moment where Midge realizes that Abe (Tony Shalhoub) is in the audience halfway through her set, and has to keep going. What was that scene like to film?
It was crazy! Midge is a fast talker anyway, but I have never talked so fast in my entire life. All I can think about when I think about that scene is the days leading up to it, where I drove every single member of our crew insane, running around the set just saying that entire speech over and over and over again, at lighting speed. Susie says early on that it’s the biggest crowd that Midge has ever performed for, and it was also the biggest crowd that I have ever performed for. It was genuinely nerve-wracking, doing stand-up in front of Tony. He’s never been around for any of those scenes — nor has anybody but Alex, and Michael I suppose — and it was petrifying and exhilarating and he was so wonderful. There was something really cathartic about it, to have it all out in the open, for it finally to come out in such a Midge way. Because man, she can’t shut up!
What’s happening in Midge’s mind in that moment?
Midge is one of those people who, when the elephant is in the room, she cannot stop talking about the elephant. About what it looks like, how much it weighs, how it’s standing in the corner, how nobody else is talking about it — she’s a master of observational comedy, and she cannot keep her mouth shut. She just shoots herself in the foot over and over and over.
Zachary Levi’s Benjamin introduces a completely new dynamic for Midge. What does he bring to the show?
His character is so much fun, and such a good foil for Midge. The thing about Benjamin is that he is just as smart as she is, and just as stubborn as she is, and that makes for some very entertaining and frustrating scenes between the two of them. They are both weird, and they’re a funny pair, they both make complete sense, and make no sense at all. Zach is a wonderful actor, he’s so funny, and it was a blast to have him join our crew, we’ve been kind of a tight group for such a long time and it was nice to have some fresh blood.
What does Benjamin represent for Midge?
Joel and Ben couldn’t be more the opposite [of each other]; and on paper, Benjamin is everything that Joel wasn’t, and everything that Abe wanted. Benjamin is a doctor, he’s tall and handsome and traditional. I guess he’s getting married a little bit late, but he is stable and has money, and once they get past their initial tension he treats Midge very well, treats her like a queen, lifts her up. That’s appealing to those around Midge, but also to Midge in some ways. For someone who thought her entire life had imploded, maybe it’s possible to have a second chance at the life she’d always dreamed of with someone like Benjamin.
How does Midge and Susie’s relationship develop this season?
I love their relationship so much. It’s really the core of the show, this budding womance, as Alex lovingly refers to it. They are such an odd couple, and they’ve chosen to link arms and walk down this unbeaten path together, and they’re going to be faced in season two with the reality of what that looks like. They’ve been on this steady uphill climb, but they’ve hit kind of a block in the road as it relates to Sophie Lennon and Harry Drake and the goons, and they’re going to have to overcome this obstacle together. And they sometimes have different ways of doing that. The stakes are a lot higher for Susie, so they butt heads a little bit this season.
It feels like Midge’s privilege, in contrast to Susie really having to hustle, is being emphasized more this season.
I appreciate that this season, Midge is confronted more with her privilege and the idea that she has a safety net to fall back on. Even if she doesn’t always feel that way, it’s there, and that gives her a kind of confidence that Susie has never been afforded the opportunity to have. It’s all or nothing for Susie, this is it. For Midge, there are things that have the potential to pull her off this path, and I think Susie keeps Midge grounded and Midge forces Susie into her feelings a little bit more and embrace the softer side of herself. Midge is interested in the idea of them being friends. To her, that’s what really marks their relationship as something more permanent. Alex said something really interesting that I think is totally true: Susie’s never been afforded the privilege of having friends. She’s just been trying to scrape by, and I think Midge is maybe helping her relax into that idea a little bit more, the idea of having a support system.
Midge gives an incredibly misjudged wedding speech in episode three. Is her stand-up career impacting her ability to socialize in normal life?
Yes, as she says to Susie later on the phone, she’s losing her societal filter. I think it’s happening with the more time she spends with Susie, but also the more time she spends immersed in this world of comedy, where there really are no rules as long as it’s funny. If it’s funny, anything goes, and that isn’t really true in real life! I think the lines are blurring for Midge, and she’s losing track of where the line is. That seemed kind of a foreign idea to me, but a good friend of mine is also a stand-up comic, and she told me she’d had the same experience in real life. Suddenly she found herself, in real life, just grossly offending people with things that she would just sling around backstage when she was doing shows, and she was having trouble keeping those worlds separate. That’s something that Midge is definitely struggling to maintain in season two.