The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel star Rachel Brosnahan opens up about being a woman in Hollywood

Lottie Lumsden
·10-min read
Photo credit: Mei Tao
Photo credit: Mei Tao

From Cosmopolitan

Rachel Brosnahan barely has the chance to say hello before her two dogs, Nikki, a pit-bull mix, and Winston, a shiba inu, start barking away in the next room of her New York apartment. “They’re the best,” she smiles, without the slightest hint of irritation.

Photo credit: Mei Tao
Photo credit: Mei Tao

“I’m a crazy dog lady!” Of course, if you follow The Marvelous Mrs Maisel star on Instagram or watched last year’s Emmy Awards – where Brosnahan was nominated for her charismatic portrayal of 1950s housewife turned stand-up comedian Miriam “Midge” Maisel for the third year running – you probably know this already.

Brosnahan, 30, and her actor husband Jason Ralph wore matching custom-made silk pyjamas to the virtual awards ceremony in September. But it was their two dogs, sitting alongside them in pink bow ties, who stole the show.

It was a first foray into dog attire for New York designer – and Michelle Obama’s tailor – Christy Rilling, and the whole thing was, naturally, Brosnahan’s idea. So who had the most fun? “Definitely the dogs,” she quips. “Nikki loves clothes, she really does. She was strutting her stuff.”

When we chat today, it’s a far less glamorous affair. She is make-up-free and dressed in a sweater embroidered with “I Love New York”. Her dark hair, still wet from the shower, is pushed back by a thick hairband.

Like the rest of us, she’s been navigating the global pandemic mostly from home. As a self-confessed introvert she has enjoyed some elements.

“Being alone more has, fortunately, not been a big challenge for me. [But] I’m grappling with the blessing and the curse of technology and 24-hour connection that somehow makes us feel more isolated.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Lockdown frustrations aside, slouching around at home must feel like a refreshing change from her usual work uniform. Because, while Brosnahan has had no shortage of show-stopping vintage dresses and coats to wear since she first brought The Marvelous Mrs Maisel to life in 2017 (for which she has won two Golden Globes and an Emmy), she’s also had the not-so-glamorous undergarments of the period to contend with too.

“That stuff is challenging! It’s a lot of gear. I actually can’t get dressed by myself on the show,” she says. “But the craziest part is that you do get used to it. I remember shooting the first season and constantly being like, “Ugh!” I was pulling at my corset and taking my shoes off after every take.

"Three seasons in, I don’t really notice it any more.”

Does it make her appreciate how good we have it today? “I don’t know that the expectation on how women are supposed to look and present themselves has changed,” she muses.

“We’re not in corsets and pantyhose any more, but the expectations about the shape of a woman’s body – how thin or curvy they’re supposed to be – are still there.”

Photo credit: Mei Tao
Photo credit: Mei Tao

Before winning the role of Midge, Brosnahan starred in a string of films and TV shows, and was nominated for an Emmy in 2015 for her recurring role as former prostitute Rachel Posner in acclaimed political thriller House Of Cards. How does she cope with being in the public eye, just over a decade in (one of her first roles was on The Good Wife in 2010)?

“It doesn’t feel great when I get dressed up for a public event and people talk about how much they hate my outfit or my hair and tag me on Instagram,” she admits.“It can do some knocking to the old confidence, but I feel fortunate that I’ve always been surrounded by people – from my friends to my partner – who are vocal about the fact that I am most beautiful when I look like myself.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

"So the noise from outside is more easily blocked out. But it’s still there. Whether you are seen on a public platform or you’re being seen at your workplace, it’s something women constantly have to contend with. The noise doesn’t ever go away.”

At the time of going to press, production for the fourth series of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is set to begin in January, as long as it is safe to do so. Other recent projects have included The Courier (out on 19th March), opposite Benedict Cumberbatch, and I’m Your Woman, in which she plays the compelling lead role of a woman forced to go on the run with her baby in the 1970s.

It was a step out of her comfort zone for Brosnahan, who also produced the film, having set up her own production company, Scrap Paper Pictures, in January 2020.

“I love diving deeply into a character who feels far away from me, and when I read the script, I was so intrigued by this woman who, I must admit, I didn’t understand at all on first read,” she explains. “I wanted to get my hands dirty.”

Brosnahan’s itching to get back to The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, which is penned by quick-witted Gilmore Girls writer Amy Sherman-Palladino and which, from the sounds of it, constantly keeps her on her toes.

Photo credit: Mei Tao
Photo credit: Mei Tao

“It’s definitely the scariest thing I’ve ever done. It continues to get more terrifying as we go on,” she says. “As someone who had never done comedy before, I justified [the role of Midge] to myself in the beginning by thinking, ‘Midge isn’t a stand-up comedian, she is just a funny lady having a breakdown. I can do that, I’m an actor. I can act this mental breakdown with this great dialogue!’

But as the show has gone on, Midge has had to become much more technically accomplished. She is a stand-up now and the audiences keep getting bigger, so I’m nervous all the time.”

Could Brosnahan imagine doing stand-up herself?

“I would not fare well,” she laughs. “I have a whole new respect for stand-up comedians; I don’t know how they do what they do. I became an actor so I didn’t have to be myself all the time.

"Being a stand-up, you are putting your whole self on the line for a laugh. When it works, I imagine there is no greater high, but when it doesn’t... I would just want to crawl into a hole and die.”

It sounds like she’s better suited to sitting in the audience. “I’m easily entertained, so I’m the best person to have in the audience!” she says. “I love a good fart joke. Nothing makes me laugh more than farts.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

"But I also like comedy that is more stream of consciousness, like [1950s US stand-up] Lenny Bruce. Comedians like that are wildly intimidating, hilarious and leave you thinking for a long time afterwards. They are some of the smartest people in the world.”

Brosnahan’s favourite line in the show is from season two when Midge is mocked by male hecklers. “Comedy is fuelled by oppression, by the lack of power, by sadness and disappointment, by abandonment and humiliation,” she says.

“Now, who the hell does that describe more than women? Judging by those standards, only women should be funny.”

And yet women are still criticised today for not being funny. “I wish the phrase had been eliminated from our vocabulary, but unfortunately it’s still used,” sighs Brosnahan.

“It’s ludicrous! Where does that even come from? There are so many funny women, there have always been funny women. Comedy is a tool of the disenfranchised and that line captures that so brilliantly.”

Photo credit: Mei Tao
Photo credit: Mei Tao

As a woman working in Hollywood, Brosnahan can relate to the discrimination Midge regularly encounters embarking on a comedy career in a male-dominated industry. “I definitely have felt that I haven’t been taken as seriously as my male counterparts,” she says.

“They can call out an elephant in the room or an issue in the workplace and they’re not labelled ‘difficult’ or ‘bossy’ in the same way that so many women I know have been. I’ve met women who I had heard through the grapevine were ‘difficult’ but then recognised in real time that the reason they were labelled that was because they weren’t afraid to say what they meant.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Raised in Chicago, alongside her two young siblings, by parents who worked in children’s publishing, Brosnahan embarked on a full-time acting career after graduating from The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York in 2012. She has always been ambitious.

“I feel like I’ve been 30 since I was 12,” she jokes. “I think ambition and society’s expectations of what women are are often at odds with each other. ‘Ambitious’ is kind of a dirty word when women say it about themselves. I’m learning to own that more as I get older.”

Aside from a brief spell in high school teaching snowboarding to kids (“I come from a really athletic family and used to love extreme sports – now I’m afraid of breaking my face!”), there was never a Plan B. “I realised a) I didn’t have any other qualifying skills and b) I’d never wanted to do anything else,” she explains.

“My parents were horrified, but said as long as I went to school and studied the craft, they would be supportive – and they were.”

Brosnahan is proud to have had the same small circle of friends for many years. How would they describe her? “Loyal, passionate – they have been very patient when I’m passionately angry about something – and honest,” she says.

“I get really anxious about lying. I’d rather confront a problem head-on than sweep it under the rug.”

What makes her passionately angry? “There’s so much unkindness in the world right now and I feel like it has become acceptable – and sometimes even trendy – to be mean-spirited, and that makes me angry and upset,” she says.

“I just think there is so much negativity. We’re confronting mammoth issues and there is so much to contend with that unkindness and blatant disregard for other people makes me so angry.”

It’s no surprise her favourite mantra is “Be kind to everyone because you never know what kind of weight someone is carrying.”

“A small act of kindness can change the course of someone’s day – or even their life. It’s about recognising the power in small actions.” As for women, continues Brosnahan, with a speech that deserves Midge’s microphone, “I hope we can continue to recognise that we’re stronger together and that it’s a patriarchal fallacy that there is only room for one woman at the table.

“We have been taught over so many years that we have to push each other aside or step on each other to rise to the top, and that there isn’t room for all of us,” she continues.

“I firmly believe that we can make room for all of us, but we do have to recognise that we have that ability, and that is one of the biggest challenges facing women today.”

Brilliantly loyal, certainly passionate and definitely honest. But let’s not forget, marvellous. Mrs Maisel would be proud.

Photo credit: Mei Tao
Photo credit: Mei Tao

You can watch series 1-3 of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel on Amazon Prime; The Courier is out on 19th March.

Cosmopolitan UK's March issue is out on 28th January and available for purchase online and via Readly. You can also SUBSCRIBE HERE or read on Apple News+. Find our podcast 'All The Way With...' on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and the Acast app.

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