emmy insider

A Conversation With Rachel Brosnahan About Playing Slutty Secretaries in Our High-School Play

Rachel Brosnahan, not in our play. Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Amazon Studios

Name-dropping is a hideously gauche practice, a transparent and humiliating way to make oneself feel fleetingly interesting by proxy in a world where technology and Glossier have flattened everyone into the exact same person. The whole thing becomes even worse when you begin the sentence with “When I was in high-school theater …” Anyway, I am going to do both right now.

To most people, Rachel Brosnahan is synonymous with Midge Maisel, the crackling wit at the center of Amazon’s runaway hit The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. To me, however, she is synonymous with Slutty Secretary No. 2 in the 2004 Highland Park High School production of STUNTS. (I regret to inform you that this is an acronym for “Student Theatre Under No Teacher Supervision.”) I was, of course, Slutty Secretary No. 1 in the same play, which at the time was reviewed by dozens of local parents as “… great!”

Though Rachel is a couple of years younger than I am, we both attended HPHS at the same time and were in at least one theater production together, possibly more, though the sands of time have softened both of our brains enough that we can’t actually remember, and this interview only served to confuse us both further. Over the years, I’ve watched Rachel with a completely unearned pride as she was murdered on House of Cards, sat proximate to a nuclear bomb on Manhattan, and eventually went on to win Golden Globes and Emmys for her performance as the preternaturally talented Midge Maisel. When she was nominated for an Emmy yet again this year, it occurred to me that it might be amusing for us to stroll sluttishly down memory lane together and discuss the most important role of our youth — and how it shaped her as a professional thespian.

Long time, no chat!
I know, it’s been a minute.

Are you on set right now?
I’m actually coming from having my head cast for something I can’t talk about yet. It was a very interesting experience. I’ve never done that before. Kind of horrifying. [Laughs.]

Full plaster?
Full plaster, full silicone. I had little holes for my nose and eyes. It was really claustrophobic.

I would absolutely never be able to do that. A nightmare. By the way, congrats on the Emmy nom! Where were you when you found out?
I was at the dog park, walking the dog. I spend a good deal of my time there. The dogs were not amused.

Since you’ve already won, does it still feel like a big deal? Or is it kind of icing on the cake at this point?
It’s never not gonna be a big deal. Have you seen my category? It’s insane. I’m still a weirdo about it. But it’s also icing on the cake. We’ve had a really great run, and hopefully this means we’ll get to do it a bit longer.

So a big reason I’m specifically doing this interview is because I told my editor we went to high school together and both played slutty secretaries in one of our school plays.
Oh my God. We did. [Laughs.] I forgot! What a hilarious thing. Urinetown, right?

No, it was the student-written play! STUNTS.
Oh, I thought we were in Urinetown together. Am I insane?

I don’t remember being in Urinetown, but it’s extremely possible that I was and have no memory of it.
I played a slutty secretary twice, then!

So did I, actually. We were typecast.
Yeah, what’s up with that? Let’s talk about that. But how amazing that we went to a high school that had a program like that? That gave students control over their own storytelling at such a young age and trusted us to put on a full production in our pretty substantial high-school theater. What do you remember from it?

I remember my name was Gertrude, and I think you had a similar name.
I think that’s right.

I have this vivid memory of us standing backstage, waiting to go on in these nightgowns. We had to wear, like, sheer nightgowns onstage.
Oh my God, yes, I do remember that.

And I think I was a junior and you were a freshman, right?
Yeah! That was my first STUNTS. That was so overwhelming because I couldn’t believe I was in it. I remember my callback for it. I had to sing “Defying Gravity” and obviously could not. I wasn’t really a singer, and suddenly I was called back at 14 years old and had to get up onstage in front of my peers and sing “Defying Gravity.” It did not go well. But I was just relieved to be in it. Even as a slutty secretary.

High-school Rachel, not in slutty secretary garb. Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Brosnahan

How do you draw on your experience as Slutty Secretary No. 2 in your current role?
[Laughs.] I would no longer use the term slutty secretary, I have to say. But we have one on Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and I get to hate her a lot because my husband cheated on me with her!

Very full circle.
Very full circle. [Laughs.] Oh man. To be totally honest, now I have a much different relationship to that word. We’ve grown a lot since we were calling ourselves and all of our friends casual sluts. Such a terrible word that I could never use now.

I mean, the whole thing is a relic.
I know! I know. It’s so screwed up! I guess maybe that’s how I was inspired: I so despised the word and the term, and I threw all of that toward despising the secretary on the show.

What other plays were you in in high school?
Well, I didn’t make the musical my freshman year. I wasn’t in Beauty and the Beast.

For some reason, I thought we were in that one together, too.
No, I was very sad about it. I started wrestling instead because I didn’t make the musical. I’ve told this story before, but I feel like you’re the first one who can relate to it. I was trying to figure out what to do with that season, that winter. So I joined the wrestling team. And then I was in The Scarlet Pimpernel and Cats and Urinetown, where I played the other slutty secretary.

I was not a good actor, so I deserved no role other than Slutty Secretary, but I did have a sense that our theater program was rather … political. Did you get that sense?
I have vague memories of feeling like there was a core group that was definitely in all of the things. And mostly I was in the ensemble. I can’t really sing or dance, so I don’t know that I should have had a different role. [Laughs.] My senior year, though, I was in The Diary of Anne Frank as Margot Frank. But there was definitely a core group, and in the end, that was motivating for me — not ever having the part in the school play that I wanted. That led me to seek additional training outside of school. I took a class in downtown Chicago and went to drama school. On the first day at NYU, our teacher said, “I know you were all the stars of your high-school theater program, but I want you to know that this is not the place for that ego.” And I was like, Well, that won’t be a problem! [Laughs.] 

But I still feel like I learned so much because our high-school theater program was so well funded. We had great teachers, great productions, and they took real risks. I can’t remember whether they did it or not, but there was this big fight for us to do Equus. Remember?

I can’t remember what happened either …
But I appreciate that they fought for it! That’s pretty risqué. We received a really decent theater training in high school. When I went on to become an actor, I’d learned so much in high school already. And then we had Focus on the Arts, where they made every student take time out of class to learn from real working professionals in the arts. That’s unheard of. We were really lucky.

Have you been asked back to present at Focus?
Yeah, but I haven’t been able to go yet. But I really hope to one day.

I remember reading that your parents didn’t want you to be an actor. When were they like, “Okay, this is fine.”
To be fair, what parents do want their kids to become actors? [Laughs.] It’s such an uncertain profession, signing up for a lifetime of rejection and uncertainty. No parent wants that for their child. They weren’t the biggest fan of that idea, but they’ve always been really supportive. I don’t think they believed it was real until after the first Golden Globe that I probably wasn’t gonna be moving back into their basement anytime soon.

To be honest, I think the real moment my dad realized I was having success is when his massage therapist said to him that he saw House of Cards. My dad was so surprised that anyone else in the world had seen anything I’d done. [Laughs.] That was the first time he really believed I was doing okay.

What do you make of the line of criticism that Midge is too perfect to be real, that she’s sort of a superhero?
There’s definitely a fantasy element to the show. It’s not 100 percent reality at all times. But I think she’s far from perfect, personally. I think she’s tried to be perfect her entire life and is becoming more comfortable with the other side of things. She’s not a perfect comedian, a perfect friend, a perfect mother or daughter or sister. Those are the things I’m most interested in as I work to bring her to life. The picture-perfect image of her world and herself is being constantly challenged. That feels pretty real to me, even if the ways she does it in are more related to fantasy.

You aren’t Jewish, but you’ve said before you took inspiration for Midge from growing up around so many Jewish people in Highland Park. Which part of Midge is based on me?
[Laughs loudly.] Oh my God. I definitely borrowed some things from people, specifically from one of my good friends’ mothers growing up. The part where Midge measures her baby’s head, I had some experience to draw upon from my friend’s mom. Growing up in Highland Park meant having exposure to and a thorough education about Judaism and its culture and community and history — we learned so much about that in school. I’m not sure you have that same level of Jewish education in other parts of the country.

But there are so many things about Midge that are really different from me. She’s a mother. She’s a stand-up comedian. She’s Jewish. All of these things are so different from who I am. And I want to be able to play them truthfully and authentically. But I realized through this process that the people I knew the least about and found the most intimidating were stand-up comedians. It was so unbelievably far from me, so that’s where I focused most of my efforts and research.

The Jewishness of our town means we all went to 800 Bat Mitzvahs. What was the weirdest Bar or Bat Mitzvah theme you remember attending?
The weirdest was somebody who had no theme, like, Forget about it. We’re not making the effort. It was a little bit strange and directionless. What about you?

Hmm. I went to one with a Russian pop star.
What? That’s so weird! I did not have anything that crazy. All of mine were like “Skateboarding.” Or “Under the Sea.” Or “Candyland.”

Do you still have any of the million sweatpants we got as giveaways with the person’s name printed on the butt?
I have so many pairs of Bar Mitzvah sweatpants. They’re really, really comfortable.

What’s it like for you to go back home now? Are people hounding you in Port Clinton Square?
I don’t make it home very often, unfortunately. I usually meet up with my family in New York. It’s changed a lot. I hardly recognize downtown Highland Park. I’m just relieved Michael’s is still there.

Me too. What’s been the most surprising part of fame for you?
That people become objects. Sometimes on set, people throw phones up in our faces like we’re not real people. It’s less about my own experience and more just that’s where we’re at culturally — that having evidence that you saw something is that crucial. And sometimes they don’t even say anything at all; they just throw a camera in your face. It’s so odd.

For me, this is a really funny and random and cool thing to be interviewing you in this capacity so many years later. What’s it like for you to be on the other end of a conversation like this?
[Laughs.] I love it. It’s so cool. We’re both doing something we love, and we started from a similar place. I’m so proud to be talking to you right now. It’s really cool that you’re a working journalist. How do you feel?

That’s so nice. I’m just happy we’re both famous actors. I love to tell people about our shared theater past. You give me some street cred.
[Laughs.] I’m happy to be of service.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

A Conversation With Rachel Brosnahan About Our School Play