‘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

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‘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

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