'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Rachel Brosnahan ('The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel')

Rachel Brosnahan - 2016 EW and People Upfronts - Getty - H 2018
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"I think the show is an optimistic one," says the actress Rachel Brosnahan in reference to Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which last week won best comedy series honors at the Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. Brosnahan, who is 27, also was recognized at those two events with best actress in a comedy series prizes for her portrayal of the show's title character, Midge Maisel, the Jewish wife of a not-very-good amateur comedian in 1950s New York who, when her husband leaves her, ventures into the world of standup herself and proves to be a natural. Asked why The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's eight-episode first season, which was unveiled on Nov. 29, has caught on like wildfire with women and men of all ages, Brosnahan replies, "I think it's because it says that it's never too late to find a voice you didn't know you had, and that, to me, feels most relevant to this very moment in time. As a collective, women are finding a new voice, and I think that's a big part of it."

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Brosnahan was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but raised in Highland Park, Illinois, and began acting in musical theater at a young age. Acting wasn't her only interest — she also was a member of her high school's wrestling team ("I loved it — I wish I could have continued with it") — but acting was her greatest passion, and after graduating from high school, she enrolled at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts with the goal of pursuing it professionally. "Initially, I had no interest at all in screen acting," she says. "I wanted to be a theater actor exclusively." However, she soon landed an agent and began auditioning for jobs outside of school, most of which wound up being for on-camera work. "The film and TV stuff came up initially as something to pay the bills, and also something that would give me a different kind of experience," she says. Brosnahan quickly began booking work — usually small parts on big series — and then, shortly before graduating, at the age of 21, she landed her big break: a small part on a new series coming to Netflix (which still was best known as a DVD-by-mail service).

Brosnahan first auditioned for the part of Zoe Barnes, an ambitious journalist, on House of Cards, but she lost it to Kate Mara. She later was called back to read for the part of Rachel Posner, a high-end call girl, who originally was intended to have only five or so lines in one episode of the show; Brosnahan won the part and, on the basis of her talent, it kept getting expanded. "It was episode by episode," the actress recalls. "Each one was a surprise." In the end, she appeared in seven episodes of the first season; eight episodes of the second; and one unforgettable episode of the third, in which her character — spoiler alert — met a violent end, and for which Brosnahan later received a best guest actress in a drama series Emmy nomination. "I assumed at any given moment that Rachel could be knocked off," she recalls with a chuckle, "and really, she could have been — no one's fate was ever certain on that show."

Fortunately, by the time Brosnahan's House of Cards chapter closed, she already was at work on another show that soon became a critics' darling, if not a ratings magnet: WGN America's Manhattan, a drama series about the people behind The Manhattan Project, which lasted for two seasons (2014-2015). On the set of her first period-piece project, Brosnahan felt right at home. "The further away I can get from my own reality, the more exciting," she says. "I loved working on that show." After Manhattan, Brosnahan starred in her first project for Amazon, and, more specifically, for the legendary writer/director Woody Allen: the six-part limited series Crisis in Six Scenes (she appeared in four installments), which hit the service in 2016. She says now that she regrets doing it in light of the allegations against Allen: "Look, I had a great experience working on that project, but I do have to take this opportunity to say that, for me, I have really struggled with the decision to do that project for a long time. Honestly, it's the decision that I have made in my life that is the most inconsistent with everything I stand for and believe in, both publicly and privately. And while I can't take it back, it's important to me, moving forward, to make decisions that better reflect the things that I value and my worldview."

As Brosnahan began to consider her next steps, she received an invitation to audition for the leading role in a pilot for a new dramedy from Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, whose previous show, Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), Brosnahan, like a whole generation of young women, grew up on. The actress says she "fell in love with this script from the very first page" — but had some concerns. For one thing, she had never performed standup comedy, or done any real comedic acting, things that would be integral to Mrs. Maisel. For another, she wasn't clear whether or not Mrs. Maisel was based on someone who had actually lived. "Initially," Brosnahan says, "I thought that she was inspired by a woman named Jean Carroll, who was the earliest example I could find of a non-vaudevillian female comedienne. I found stuff from her as early as 1955. She was incredibly feminine, and beautiful, and wore a string of pearls and a gorgeous dress, and talked a lot about her family and her husband, and sang a little. And I was so sure, for a while, that that's who inspired Midge. But I came to realize that Midge was inspired by a handful of different women."

(Many assume that the primary inspiration for the character was Joan Rivers, but Brosnahan dismisses that. "Their comedy comes from a completely different place," she explains. "The biggest difference between the two women, for me, is that Joan Rivers was a woman who felt like she never fit in, that she was an ugly duckling, that she was destined to be an old maid. That's what a lot of her sets were about. Midge is somebody who is fully aware that she fit in better than anyone else, that she was the model woman of her time, because she wanted to be and she worked her butt off. She finds her own comedic voice when her whole life falls apart, when she realizes that everything is not as perfect as she thought it was, and that she has a lot of questions that she didn't know she had — about her place in the world, about what it means to be a woman in this world, about what it means to be a woman and a mother and a working-mother. And so that's where they separate, for me.")

One thing that was not a concern for Brosnahan was the "Jewishness" of Mrs. Maisel or Mrs. Maisel. The actress is not Jewish, but, she says, "I grew up deeply immersed in the Jewish community and culture. In Highland Park, Illinois, I was certainly a minority. My dad likes to say that when I was in kindergarten — he didn't tell me this until recently — apparently I came home and said, 'Daddy, what's my Hebrew name?' and was very disappointed to learn that I didn't have one. But I spent a lot of time being welcomed into my Jewish friends' homes, and to services with them, and to holiday celebrations. So when I read this script, despite the fact that I'm a Gentile, it felt familiar."

When it came time for her audition, Brosnahan recalls, with a pained expression, that she was as ill as she had ever been, and asked to reschedule. The Palladinos agreed. By the time the new date arrived, she was still bedridden, but decided she could not miss this opportunity, so she forced herself to get on a cross-country flight and show up in Los Angeles. The actress insists that she looked and felt terrible, but she apparently delivered, because, to her amazement, before returning to New York, she learned that she had won the part. It was an important confidence-booster, Brosnahan recalls with a laugh: "I got a phone call earlier that same day saying that I had lost a part in a movie because they really liked me, they thought I was great, but I just wasn't funny. And then a couple of hours later, I got this call about Maisel, and I was like, very confused."

The pilot moved forward, and went up on Amazon on March 17, 2017. Per Amazon tradition, Amazon Prime subscribers get to vote to determine which pilots get picked up, and shortly thereafter, Mrs. Maisel was picked up for two seasons — a major vote of confidence. The remaining seven episodes of the first season were completed by September and went up on the service on Nov. 29. Just 12 days later, on Dec. 11, the show was nominated for the best comedy series and best actress in a comedy series Golden Globe awards. And on Jan. 7, just 39 days after the first season's unveiling, the show was honored with both of those prizes on national television, further catapulting it into the public's awareness and the larger cultural conversation.

Few could have imagined that a series set in a world before feminism could speak so much to a generation of 21st century women (and men) — but it has. Says Brosnahan, "A lot of period pieces — but especially this show — hold up a mirror to the world that we currently live in. While this [show's story] took place in the 1950s, it highlights a lot of battles that women faced then that we're still dealing with today. One of the ones I think of often is how difficult it was — and is — to be taken seriously for your ambition. People don't like ambitious women — they never have — and especially women who are unapologetically ambitious, like Midge is. And like so many extraordinary women are today."