Breakout Star Rachel Brosnahan on People Finally Learning Her Name
At this year's Golden Globes, Rachel Brosnahan did more than take home an award for her role as Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a 1950s Manhattan housewife-turned-aspiring stand-up comic, in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Yes — overnight she actually became a household name. A household name people in households could actually pronounce.
“In the past they’ve said ‘Brushnananhan,’ ‘Brushnahan,’ ‘Branininin.’ Or, you know, just ‘Bleh,’ ” says the actress over a coffee in downtown Brooklyn, near her temporary home while she is filming Season 2 of the hit Amazon series (her Harlem apartment is being renovated). “So now strangers can say my last name. That’s probably the most improbable thing that’s happened since I won.”
Also that storied night, Jeff Bezos, the founder and chairman of Amazon and, basically, her boss, introduced the 27-year-old Brosnahan to the filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
“It was so surreal, the whole thing,” she recalls. “And Steven was Steven. He said, ‘My wife and I love the show. I’ve got to tell you, it’s the best Jewish musical since Fiddler on the Roof.’ ”
Though old chestnuts by Barbra Streisand and Peggy Lee play over the episodes’ end credits, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn’t quite a musical. “I’m not really a singer. Or a dancer,” she admits. But perhaps Steven Spielberg’s proclamation is true in the same way that Brosnahan suggests she’s not much like the fictional Midge offscreen either.
“I wish! I wish I were as sharp as she was,” says Brosnahan. “As she is,” she continues. “Well, was,” she finishes. Indeed, Brosnahan and Midge are both fast-talking dames who know how to deliver a punch line after a breathless and circuitous story.
On the aftereffect of the Golden Globes, Brosnahan adds, “The show won, and people went, ‘What the fuck is that?’ And they went and found it. And then, thankfully, they liked it and told their friends, and their teachers, and their children, and their rabbis, and, you know, here we are.”
Brosnahan may be breaking through in her career now, but she has been working steadily for a decade, since and even during her time as an acting student at NYU. She has appeared on series like Manhattan, about the mission to build the atomic bomb (filmed in Santa Fe, where Brosnahan still likes to escape to on a regular basis), and had a star turn on House of Cards (she was so liked on set there that she became a series regular, until her character was murdered in Season 3). She’s also had on- and off-Broadway stints opposite Bobby Cannavale and Daniel Craig.
A career in the entertainment business wasn’t necessarily predestined for this Chicago teenager, whose family was focused more on fashion and sports. Her aunt was the late handbag designer Kate Spade. (Following Spade’s recent death, Brosnahan described her aunt as “effervescent” in a heartfelt social media post: “She was exceedingly kind, beautifully sensitive, insanely talented, funny as heck, and one of the most generous people I have ever known.”) Her dad, Spade’s brother, was particularly athletic and encouraged his daughter to play lots of team sports.
“Wasn’t always great at the sports, but I played them,” Brosnahan says. That included skiing, snowboarding, basketball, and even high school wrestling, which she fell into because she failed to get cast in her freshman-year production of Beauty and the Beast.
“Didn’t make it. Devastated. Not even in the chorus. Not even a teacup,” she says. (She had better luck in later years with chorus parts in high school productions of Cats and The Scarlet Pimpernel.) “And then some buddies of mine were doing wrestling, and I thought, ‘I’ve always kind of wanted to do it.’ ”
Wrestling appealed to Brosnahan because she considered it a gender-neutral sport, grouped by weight class and individual skill set. That said, Brosnahan never wrestled another girl during her two years on the team. “I wrestled at 112 [pounds], so guys who are 112 are pretty stringy, you know?”
In a surprising turn of the screw, wrestling turned out to be like acting.
It involved a “physical kind of listening,” says Brosnahan. “It was so much about being present in the moment. Listening carefully and responding appropriately. Which, I think, has helped me in every single aspect of this art and this business. I will say that I’m very ambitious, and as I’ve gotten older, I’m not apologetic about it.”
Midge Maisel is ambitious too. “She’s trying to have it all,” says Brosnahan. “And sometimes those things complement each other, and sometimes they’re completely at odds with each other. In the second season we’ll explore the ripple effect of that as well.”
When filming, Brosnahan preps an hour and a half in hair, makeup, and wardrobe to make the period transformation. “I couldn't imagine putting that amount of time into my appearance every single day,” she says. “But really her appearance is an armor, though I don’t think she’s hiding anything or protecting much.”
Offscreen, Brosnahan hopes she’ll “never feel that way. That’s very stressful.” But Midge’s style is starting to rub off on her. “I wear a little less black. I do live in New York, so only a little bit less, though,” she says. “Comfort is key.”
As for makeup, “the more I have to do it for work, the less I want to do it in my real life.” Just a touch of concealer and some sunscreen is all it takes. “This is what I look like, you know?” says Brosnahan, with a Maisel-like cock of the head. “And I feel the best like that.”
It took Brosnahan some time to recognize that Midge’s quest for perfection — constant calisthenics, impeccable hair and makeup even in the middle of the night, the consummate marriage — wasn’t necessarily a burden for her alter ego. “For Midge it’s empowering. It just brings joy to present herself a certain way. It makes her feel good to perform ‘mother’ and ‘housewife’ and ‘woman,’ but it was one of the harder things to wrap my head around.”
Still, one of the best parts of making the show, she says, is that it “feels so far out of my wheelhouse. Playing Midge is many things rolled into one, but it’s been really something.”
Photographer: Tom Allen. Fashion editor: Maryam Malakpour. Hair: Jenny Cho. Makeup: Holly Silius. Manicure: Nettie Davis. Set design: Nelson Pits. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, on newsstands and for digital download Aug. 10.