Like the character she plays on Amazon’s “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Rachel Brosnahan has proved herself to have hidden talents. Previously known for her dramatic work on series like “House of Cards” and “Manhattan,” Brosnahan is showing off a deft gift for comedy as the ’50s-era housewife-turned-standup. That’s what earned her a Golden Globe trophy as best actress in a comedy for the first season (as well as a series prize), and made her a frontrunner in the Emmy race.
During a break in production on season two, she talks with Variety about why a period piece is relevant today, being told she “wasn’t funny” — and the surprising injury she sustained on set.
For a show that’s set in the 50s, it feels so relevant now. What is it about that showrunners Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino are doing that makes the show feel so timely?
I think that the scenes surrounding some of the battles that women faced then are still very relevant today. And then women being considered secondary citizens or this idea of women not being funny or having to fit a certain mold and apologize for their ambitions. Those are all things that women still face today and I think that those ideas have never not been relevant and Amy and Dan have managed to bring them to life with a fresh eye. But also, the story at its core is about a woman finding the voice that she didn’t know she had. And that’s also something that’s happening all over the country and all over the world, right now.
I was just reading an interview where you were saying that you were once told that you weren’t funny.
This is gonna be the thing that ends up on my tombstone, “Was once told, not funny.”
Thank you, Internet.
I don’t know how to say this in a way that totally makes sense, but it became something that was just understood. When you’re really young and you’re figuring out who you are and what your strengths are, the feedback that was given regarding my auditions, enough times, was kind of “She’s just not funny. Not really for sitcoms.” And so I guess I mostly stopped going into that stuff and focused on other strengths. And so when the show came across my desk, I was very nervous about the idea of even approaching comedy. Because I felt like that was something that I’d internalized, but not in a negative way. But now I’m kicking myself for limiting myself in that way earlier. Because this has been such a fulfilling, learning process and an important one.
I do think it took someone visionary to look at you and your body of work and be like, “Yes, she’s perfect for this and yes, she can do this.” Do you feel that?
I don’t know what they were thinking. But, yes, it was a leap for sure and one that I’m eternally grateful that all the powers involved took.
Are there things you didn’t get to do in the first season that you want to do in the second?
Something I’m looking forward to exploring more in the second season is the tension between Midge’s three very distinct and different worlds. She’s a mother and a daughter and a, possibly, wife/ex-wife, as it left off in the first season. She’s a working woman now. She has a job that she loves and she’s also a budding stand-up and none of those worlds really gel together. Though I’m looking forward to watching her try to balance and I think that the more invested she becomes in each of the three, particularly the work and the stand-up, the harder that juggling will become. I’m looking forward to seeing how that unfolds.
What have you learned from the experience of making the first season?
I feel like I learned to be braver in the first season than maybe I’ve ever felt. Midge is an extremely empowered and confident and pretty fearless woman and finding that on a daily basis is not always easy. And I feel like, hopefully, I’ve absorbed some of those things myself, moving into season two. There’s both less and more pressure going into season two, right? We know what it is, we’re so grateful that people responded to the show but also now we want to make sure that this season’s even better than the last one.
Do you feel that pressure?
A little bit, but it’s motivating. It’s a nice kind of pressure. The pressure that only comes from feeling that people responded to the art that we’re putting out into the world. And though we don’t want to let them down, but we also don’t wanna let ourselves down and I feel good about what we’ve done so far and we’re excited to keep pushing those boundaries.
Now that the showrunners have seen what you can do, is more coming?
I’m sure it’s going to get more challenging in ways that I couldn’t possibly imagine, in some of the weirdest ways. I’ve already sustained an injury from an unexpected stunt.
Well, I can’t say much without giving everything away but it involved a rolling chair and some choreography. Took a little tumble, so I’m learning new skills. Again without giving anything away, we finished last season and I got this text from Amy going “Can you ride a bike?” And heard that [co-star] Marin [Hinkle] got a text from Amy going, “Can you speak French?” So they’re definitely going to keep challenging us in season two. I’m thinking they just like to watch us suffer a little bit.
You just mentioned you were just at a costume fitting. How much does that inform the show? Does that help you get into character?
Enormously. But the ability to transform so completely with costumes and hair and makeup makes my job easier. There’s less pretending involved. I can look in the mirror and see someone very different from myself and those are my favorite kind of characters, the ones that feel furthest from me. Midge’s outward appearance is very important to her and I think that it’s something the attention paid to her appearance and the way she is presenting herself to the world is part of what makes her feel empowered. So the costumes are huge and Donna Zakowska, our costume designer, is absolutely brilliant and her attention to detail continues to astound me. The creations and the places that she looks for inspiration, I’m blown away every time I step foot in the new fittings.
The awards consideration, the fact that you’re getting all this buzz, what does all that mean to you?
It’s such a lovely feeling to know that everybody’s hard work and literal blood, sweat and tears has been recognized. The awards stuff is great but actually feels less important than the fact that it feels like the show has touched such a wide variety of people. That’s what makes us feel the best. And awards stuff is great because it means that, hopefully, we get to keep going. That we get to have a job for a little bit longer and a job we love, at that. And it’s obviously an honor but the coolest part has been to hear from young women, especially, but also older men who couldn’t say that they were essentially coerced into watching the show by their wives or daughters and have fallen in love with it, as well. It’s nice to know that people love it as much as we do. That feels like the greatest reward.
Are you recognized more because of this role?
In New York, that’s not as much of a thing as it is in say, Los Angeles, so if people are recognizing me, I may not always know it. But I also look very different in my real life when I’m walking the dog up in Harlem, you know? So it’s not been something that feels like an enormous shift. The question I keep getting asked is, “How has your life changed?” And it feels like that’s a funny question because at the core, I feel like it hasn’t. But strangers can say my last name now, which has been very exciting. That’s never happened to me before.
Is there a moment you’re proudest of when you look back over the first season?
There’s a set in episode seven. It’s been fondly referred to as the epic take-down of Sophie Lennon and that set, in discussions with Amy and Dan was kind of being talked about as a place where Midge really comes into her own as a comedian. Really is able to combine her impulsiveness and her stream of consciousness style with a more polished understanding of what it means to, say, interact with an audience or to have certain pieces prepared and then she naturally goes off the rails. But i was the first time where I noticed I felt more comfortable stepping onto the stage and I was able to kind of clock how much I had learned about the more technical side of doing this form of comedy. I remember looking out at the audience and feeling, so distinctly, like we were in it together and it was the first time I really went into one feeling like it was gonna be okay. It was a place where I really felt that parallel journey between Midge and myself. And it was a very cool moment.
Is there one moment where you feel like you really owned this, that the part really became you?
No. But I think if I ever really reach that point, I’m not working hard enough.