Like the Upper West Side housewife turned aspiring comedian she plays in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Rachel Brosnahan thinks quickly and talks just as fast. Brosnahan came to the Amazon series, the latest from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, after stints on House of Cards and Manhattan, with little experience in comedy (and absolutely none in stand-up), but a willingness to throw herself wholeheartedly into the demands of an ambitious ‘50s period piece. Talking with Vulture, Brosnahan told the story of how she was sick to the point of being near collapse during her audition, why she loves Midge Maisel’s confidence, and what it’s like to perform comedy for a fake audience.
The first place to start seems to be the accent, because it feels so specific to the character’s world …
That’s funny, everyone keeps saying that. It doesn’t feel like one to me.
It doesn’t feel like an accent?
[Laughs.] No. I did a ton of research, specifically on the comedy scene of this time. The comedy world was unfamiliar to me, so it was fun to dive in. Midge is based on a lot of comics during that time, a lot of female comics, but also, she’s inspired for me by a few different women that I have known and loved. With all of that kind of mashed together, her voice emerged organically. It doesn’t feel like something that I’m putting on. I’m just hoping that it’s consistent.
Which women from your personal life inspired you?
The one I think that I’ve been talking about the most is my dear, sweet, fabulous grandmother June, who is no longer with us, but who was around during this time. I had recently been looking at photos of her wedding. She was bold and brilliant and dressed fabulously, and I think similarly to Midge, really enjoyed performing “woman” during that time.
You talk about performing womanhood, and there’s so much in the show about all the routines Midge goes through to preserve her look — taking off her makeup in the middle of the night and then putting it on in the morning so that Joel doesn’t know, for instance. She feels this pressure to look feminine.
I think, for Midge, it doesn’t feel like a pressure. As a modern audience, we look at it and interpret it that way. But I genuinely think for Midge, she is a model woman of her time and it’s something that she enjoys. That makes her feel complete. It’s not about some external expectation, at least not consciously. It’s something that makes her feel like her, and it gives her great sense of achievement and satisfaction.
It’s almost about winning — being the closest to the ideal woman she can be.
Amy used that word to me about her wedding speech. She has won.
How did you learn to perform stand-up in the show, or at least to perform the scenes where Midge does stand-up?
I can’t claim to ever have done stand-up. Or to know in any way what it’s like to do stand-up, because, for Midge, when she starts doing stand-up it’s really just a prolonged mental breakdown. [Laughs.] It’s not until much later in the season that she does start to hone her natural abilities and figure out how to turn that into stand-up.
I get to fuck it up and try again. There’s an audience that is paid to laugh at my jokes. I’m playing a character while I’m doing stand-up. Real stand-ups, man, they’re playing themselves. I’d be far too terrified.
You talked about doing all this research. What did you learn about the comedic styles of the time?
One of the things that struck me the most was how, specifically at this time, there was a movement in comedy away from vaudeville. Different comedians had various levels of that still in them or were deliberately trying to break that mold. So, I looked at a woman called Jean Carroll. She’s a lesser-known stand-up from the time. She was a little bit more vaudevillian, she sang a little bit, you know. It was very performative. Then, someone like Joan Rivers moved a little bit more into that longform joke-telling. Her jokes were very much about what it was to be a woman at that time. Similarly to Midge, she talked about a lot of subject matter that was really taboo. I looked at Phyllis Diller, [Don] Rickles, you know, that kind of early insult comedy. Bob Newhart.
What is it like working with Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino? They have such a distinctive style; people know Gilmore Girls or Bunheads …
I’ve never seen Bunheads. Don’t tell them.
What’s it like to come into their world?
I’m incredibly honored to have been invited into this very brilliant and somewhat insular world. This comedy thing is very new to me. Amy’s been a huge resource for me; she’s very familiar with this world. Her father was a stand-up comic, and she has been so generous with her time and her advice and her resources.
What was it like to audition? Especially after such dramatic roles in shows like Manhattan and House of Cards.
I have not stopped being terrified. I think I blacked out for the whole audition process, honestly. I have said many times, “I wanna do things that scare me.” I took that very literally and here we are. [Laughs.] But I was searching for something. Comedy was not necessarily the thing that I thought it would be, but I was searching for something that felt scary to me.
The audition process was a lot of dialogue. I auditioned with the wedding monologue, the big breakup scene with Joel, and the final stand-up. I left my first audition feeling like I’d sufficiently ended my career and was thrilled and surprised to be called back in and go out to L.A. to meet Amy and Dan. When I got the call, I thought I had the plague. I was dying of some mysterious illness, and couldn’t get out of bed for ten days or something. I had to cancel my callback with them because I literally couldn’t get out of bed, and I was so worried that they were just gonna move on. So, I rallied and a couple of days later I was like, “I’m gonna go,” and I was a disaster. I was sweating. I was so sick, I couldn’t touch anybody. My feet were sweating so much I had to take my shoes off part of the way through the audition.
I think I had no choice but to let go, you know? Nothing to hold on to.
In the wake of the Louis C.K. scandal, people have talked about how the comedy world can be a toxic boys’ club. Did you gain any insight into that by playing a female comedian?
For me — and maybe Amy feels differently about this — I feel like we haven’t really approached yet in this first season what it’s like for Midge to be a female comedian. So much of the first season is about her finding her voice. So that, as it relates to her as a comedian, will be something that gets further explored later.
Midge had these rose-colored glasses on. She has this trauma and everything shatters around her, so she’s just at the very beginning of even asking these questions about what it means to be a woman and what people expect of her and whether or not that’s okay with her. She’s noticing some hypocrisy in the way that we treat or talk about men and the way that we treat or talk about women. She’s feeling like there’s a double standard, but this is all such new information to her.
Your character in Manhattan was a lesbian, and in House of Cards you played a prostitute. You’ve played a lot of characters who aren’t the typical ingenues or girlfriends. Is that something that you sought out, or just ended up walking into?
Both. Early on, you don’t have the luxury of a lot of choices. Sometimes you’re forced to do things that will advance your career and not necessarily things that fulfill you artistically, but I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of both.
[Midge] is very different from anything I’ve ever played before. When I was trying to put my finger on what that was, I realized I had never read a woman who is so unapologetically confident. Genuinely so. I’ve certainly never played one. That felt important to me, to represent that kind of woman who is more in line with the kinds of women that I know and love. It feels radical in a way that it shouldn’t anymore.
Your role in House of Cards helped launch your career. Have the stories about Kevin Spacey’s alleged sexual harassment and assaults changed your perception of that experience?
Well, the interesting thing about that show as it relates to me is that I never had a scene with Kevin. We’ve only met two or three times, so I have no personal opinion about Kevin that has been changed. My experience on the show was filled with so many joyous firsts. I was straight out of college. To be a part of something with David Fincher and Robin Wright, it was mind-blowing. My work with Michael Kelly, which is who I spent 98 percent of my onscreen time with, has forever changed me. He’s one of the nicest, generous, most supportive people and most talented actors I’ve ever met. Beau Willimon took such a chance on me. For me, there is nothing that could change my personal experience on that show.
I want to ask about Manhattan, which, similar to Maisel, was a detailed period piece. What was it like to be on that show?
It was one of the greatest ensembles I’ve ever had the chance to be part of. So many New York actors. A lot of theater actors. It felt like a team. We shot in Sante Fe, all together, not totally dissimilar from those characters. Brilliant writing. Brilliant directors. Brilliant people at the top. Tommy Schlamme and Sam Shaw. John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams leading us. That gave me the bug for period pieces in a real way. I was such a nerd when it came to researching for that show. I read every book about the wives of Los Alamos. I’ve been very, very lucky.