Issue 09

The Marvelous Miss Rachel

Golden Globe winner Rachel Brosnahan kills as our new favorite faux comedian

You would be hard-pressed to find a more radical transformation on TV than Rachel Brosnahan’s transition from the scene-stealing, hauntingly dark Rachel Posner on House of Cards to the fast-talking, brisket-making housewife-turned-comedian Midge on Amazon Studios’ The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The new show from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino is total eye candy, a colorful take on late-’50s New York, from the polished Upper West Side to the stylized bohemianism of downtown’s Lenny Bruce–era comedy scene. The 27-year-old Brosnahan is its shining star, lighting up the screen, and Midge, with a performance that practically buzzes. We caught up with Brosnahan, fresh from her Golden Globe win for best actress, on a freezing New York morning to talk about confidence, comedy, and feminism. 

Midge is very confident. Is it challenging to play her?                                                                                                                                  

Playing a woman who is unshakably confident has been the most challenging part of working on this job—particularly a job that, as somebody who’s never done comedy, is outside of my wheelhouse. And it felt like the journey of becoming a stand-up was equally as much about me, learning to find that competence in the performance and in bringing this woman to life. 


I don’t think I’ve seen another character like her. Her confidence is not intimidating or sinister.

 It’s genuinely how she feels, and that’s inspiring, I think, but it also sometimes, for her, comes from a place of privilege, from a fairly naive place, as somebody who has spent most of her life living with a very narrow worldview. And I think maintaining her confidence [when] her husband leaves her, when the rose-colored glasses start to come off…is challenging, but I do believe that she never really does lose it. Because she evolves and she asks questions and she’s comfortable admitting that she doesn’t know things.

 

My initial reaction to her was annoyance, but within seconds, I found her delightful.

 I think it’s so interesting that women and men alike often have that initial reaction to confident women. And that’s why I think we need more women like Midge on TV. To challenge that perception.

 

Did you do any research for the role?  

Researching new projects and new roles is one of my favorite parts of what I do. I tried to immerse myself in the comedy scene of the 1950s, which I was largely unfamiliar with. I looked at Joan Rivers and [Phyllis] Diller and Moms Mabley, Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles. I also spent a lot of time in comedy clubs in New York. I thought it would be interesting to observe how different comedians respond to their successes and their failure[s].

 

Did you learn anything particularly useful?

 The thing that struck me the most is that so much of the success in that early period is about confidence. I was really blown away by how comedians with jokes that would have been really funny, that were very smart and sharp, lost everyone when they showed their cards. You could see that they were nervous. I think comedy audiences aren’t always that kind…. Comedians are so brave—anyone who has ever tried their hand at stand-up comedy, I bow down. 

Did you learn anything particularly useful?

 The thing that struck me the most is that so much of the success in that early period is about confidence. I was really blown away by how comedians with jokes that would have been really funny, that were very smart and sharp, lost everyone when they showed their cards. You could see that they were nervous. I think comedy audiences aren’t always that kind…. Comedians are so brave—anyone who has ever tried their hand at stand-up comedy, I bow down. 

 

But I think you’re brave when you stand onstage and perform Shakespeare!

 I do find theater scary as well. You have one shot to get it right. And I also think part of the intimidation comes from the fact that the actors that I admire the most and that I am most looking to emulate come from the theater. I was privileged enough to be a part of this production of Othello at New York Theatre Workshop. David Oyelowo played Othello. It’s one of the most challenging roles I could possibly imagine an actor taking on, and watching David bring him to life so fully and from such a deep place every single night was monumentally inspiring.

 

What other actors are important to you?

 Frances McDormand is my idol. She’s just electric. I am so in awe of her, and I think she has admitted that as she’s gotten older, she’s become more and more comfortable being unapologetically herself. Emma Thompson is another big one for me, and Viola Davis.

 

The show is such a love letter to the city. What was your experience when you moved from Illinois to New York for college?

 I thought I would run around in a beret and dark lipstick, drinking black coffee, and I really was studying and doing homework all day and eating ramen noodles at night. But I also saw wonderful theater, and that romantic idea of the city has really never gone away.

 

Congratulations on the Golden Globe! What went through your mind when they called your name? 

 I think my whole brain went blank.

 

Do you remember Carol Burnett presenting it to you?

 I remember pointing at her and making some weird sound that was meant to be like “I love you.” I was just trying not to fall, and say the words that I hoped I might say. I forgot to say I love Oprah, I forgot to thank the crew. I forgot to thank my friends and our casting directors.

Where do you keep the award?

 OK, I have to preface this by saying it’s temporary, but it is currently on top of my toilet. There is no such thing as a spare shelf in New York. I’m doing a little bit of construction right now, and it was the only shelf available.

 

Maisel is such a female-centric show, from crew to cast. Do you think Midge would consider herself a feminist?

 That’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot, and I think the answer is no. I think honestly, if you asked [her], she would look horrified and go, “Oh no, I don’t burn my bra.” That was the perception of what it meant to be a feminist then. And I think, unfortunately, for some people that is still the perception. But I think that message is not too dissimilar from quite a few extraordinary women at that time. I think about my grandmother, who I also looked to for some inspiration in creating Midge. My grandmother was a woman who was bold and unafraid to be opinionated but was also a debutante and also loved performing “mother” and “housewife.” And [she] would have scoffed at the idea that she was a feminist. And I think today…you are a feminist because you are active in your pursuit of equality of equity, of shattering the ceiling and challenging the patriarchy.

 

So do you think the show has something to say in today’s discourse?

 Something I’m hearing a lot that resonates with people is this idea that it’s never too late to find your voice. To find a voice you didn’t know you had.

 

Has your thinking about what’s happening in the world, and in your industry, changed lately?

 Absolutely. I think for a long time we were all, every single one of us, complicit to some degree in a culture of silence around issues because they were taboo, because there was a lot of fear surrounding them. And I think the biggest change I hope to see moving forward is that we are united—and this is not just in our industry but in all industries. I feel hopeful about what’s next. There’s still a lot, a lot, a lot of work to do. We need to continue to learn and keep our eyes but especially our ears open and encourage other people to do the same.

Never miss out on an issue!

Subscribe now