‘Women are expected to make themselves quieter than they are’
Rachel Brosnahan, the star of television’s best-looking comedy, tells Chris Harvey the truth behind the fiction
‘Do you feel like we’re different or the same?” Rachel Brosnahan asks. She’s talking about herself and Miriam “Midge” Maisel, the character she plays in Amazon’s sharp and stylish period comedy The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which is about to return for a second series. The 27-year-old actress has been thinking about it because some of her friends think she’s exactly the same, even though she’s noticed that she can’t recreate some of Midge’s facial expressions when she’s not in character. “I find that I’m using my face in ways that I’ve never used it before,” she says.
The two women certainly seem different to me. Midge has all the confidence that comes with being a product of the affluent Jewish Upper West Side in the late Fifties. She moves through the world bending it to her designs, dressed as if for a Cecil Beaton photo shoot, with a wit so quick and fearless that, when her seemingly perfect life falls apart, she turns her troubles into a hilarious stand-up act. Brosnahan, though, contains opposites: she’s poised and skittery, effusive and guarded; she grew up in the US, but she’s half English, too. Her American father met her mother in Brighton, when they were students. “I really like tea,” she laughs, “and clotted cream.” She can be self-deprecating, she says, which she got from “my entire British side of the family”.
It’s proof of how real Midge seems that we’re talking about a character like this. I can’t be the only viewer who had to Google Mrs Maisel to check whether she had been an actual comedian of the era. In fact, she’s the creation of Amy Sherman-Palladino, of Gilmore Girls fame, whose father was a stand-up in the Fifties. Sherman-Palladino became the first woman to win both writing and directing Emmy Awards for the show in September, when Brosnahan, who was once told she should steer clear of comedy because she wasn’t funny, won the prize for best comedy actress.
It’s proof of Brosnahan’s talent, too, that she is almost unrecognisable from the character she played in House of Cards: call girl Rachel Posner, who met a horrible end in season three. Brosnahan was only supposed to be in two episodes of Netflix’s political drama but showrunner Beau Willimon was so impressed by her that he wrote her character into the series. (She didn’t have any scenes with the show’s lead, Kevin Spacey, she says, nor hear any onset gossip about him.) Now she’s in the UK making a spy film, Ironbark, with Benedict Cumberbatch, set for release next year.
One of the other things everyone knows about Brosnahan is that her aunt was the fashion designer Kate Spade, who committed suicide in June, aged 55. She doesn’t want to talk about the depression that led to Spade’s death – “her personal struggles would be something that she would not want anyone to speak about on her behalf ”.
Had her aunt’s success been inspirational to Brosnahan when she was growing up? “Very much so, but I also wasn’t really aware until I was older, because when you’re a kid you don’t really know what anyone does for a living, so I was surprised at 12 or 13 to learn that she was very successful.”
Brosnahan had an average suburban childhood, she says. She was born in Milwaukee but grew up in affluent Highland Park 25 miles up the coast from Chicago, where her father works in children’s book publishing. She was pushed by her parents to do well at school. When she told them that she wanted to be an actor, they said: “That’s a really crazy idea, how do you plan to accomplish it?” It motivated her to prove that she could.
She paid her dues in smaller parts on television and film, playing the sorceress in 2013’s big budget Gothic fantasy Beautiful Creatures, alongside Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons, but it was House of Cards that really got her noticed. It was Netflix’s first original drama series. Between its filming and release, whenever she found herself in auditions explaining that she had been working on a series for Netflix with Fight Club director David Fincher, “nobody cared, nobody took it very seriously,” she says.
She’s worked on stage, too, culminating in 2016, when she played Desdemona in a New York production of Othello with Daniel Craig and David Oyelowo that got rave reviews.
Brosnahan has also become something of a fashion icon in Mrs Maisel. The opening episode of the second series nods to the colourful Vogue stylings of the Fifties musical Funny Face, with Brosnahan as a modern Audrey Hepburn, as Midge goes to Paris to search for her mother and admire the millinery.
Strangers sometimes come up to Brosnahan in the street dressed like Midge or quoting one of the character’s favourite lines back to her: “Why do we have to pretend we’re not hungry, when we’re hungry?” Are her jokes a little too contemporary for the era? “No,” she says, surprised, “the kind of hypocrisies she is fighting or observing through her stand-up are as old as time.”
Certainly, there are real-life historical models for her character, such as Joan Rivers and Phyllis
‘Do I agree with Midge that “Men like stupid girls”? No! Well, maybe some men…’
FUNNY WOMANRachel Brosnahan as Miriam Maisel, main; and with her co-stars, left