Rachel Brosnahan thought she was bad at comedy until "Maisel" came along

The actress sat down with "Salon Talks" to discuss Midge's corsets, shortcomings, and upping her stand-up game

By Alexandra Clinton
December 5, 2019 11:35PM (UTC)
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Rachel Brosnahan (Photography by Jill Greenberg, jillgreenberg.com. Find out more about Jill's initiative Alreadymade., a mission to hire more female photographers and content creators at alreadymade.org)

Rarely does an actor admit that a role is capable of changing the way they see themselves. When Rachel Brosnahan first took on the role of Midge Maisel in Amazon’s hit comedy “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” it was something she was certain she couldn’t do. Act in a comedy? But she wasn’t funny. In fact, she was told comedy was not her strength as an actress. But an Emmy Award and two Golden Globe Awards later, Brosnahan says she is forever changed by the role she never pictured herself in.

When I ask her to describe the experience of playing the mom-turned-standup comic Midge Maisel on “Salon Talks” this week ahead of the show’s Season 3 premiere, Brosnahan toggles between calling it thrilling, exciting, and pure magic, to admitting that it’s still frightening, intimidating, and even at times, overwhelming.

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Midge’s unwavering confidence for life has rubbed off on nearly every other character in the series, inviting them all to look inward — and even, Brosnahan herself. “I’ve become a lot braver,” she shares. “It seemed liked something I would never, ever do and it feels so different from who I am and what I thought I was good at — although now I have no idea.”

Watch Rachel Brosnahan on “Salon Talks” here, or read a Q&A of our episode below to hear more about what’s in store for Midge and Susie in Season 3, why it’s OK that Midge isn’t the bra-burning feminist Brosnahan wants her to be — yet, and how Brosnahan is putting her own spin on the idea of playing a defining role.

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This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

When we left Midge at the end of Season 2, she was preparing to go on tour after her big secret is revealed that she’s an underground comic. Her worlds begin to converge —between, work, home, comedy, and everything else. What can we can expect for Season 3?
At the end of Season 2, Shy Baldwin, who Midge adores, asks Midge to open for him on tour. And ultimately the goal is to go to Europe, but they're going to start in the U.S., and that's kind of where we pick up Season 3 is the beginning of them hitting road together and figuring out how to do it and feeling each other out. And obviously Susie's involved and there's been a ton of change from Season 2 with the family. Abe has left his job at Bell Labs. He's thrown their whole lives into a tailspin. But this season really follows Midge realizing for the first time that she's not the center of everyone's universe. And that's kind of a hard pill to swallow for her at times. But she matures a lot this season in a way that I don't think we've seen her do quite so much or so fast in Seasons 1 and 2

There's something you said when you accepted your Emmy that stuck with me. You said the show was about Midge, a woman who is “finding her voice anew.” That was so true for Season 1, with Midge coming into her own. Season 2, she’s rubbed off on everyone else in her life and they begin to find their voices. Why do you think Midge had that effect?
Well, she kind of blew up. I say she, but Joel kind of blew up everyone's lives when he left Midge. And then she kind of further blew up everyone's lives when she decided not to go back to him, which is what was expected of her. Abe says to her "You have to go back." And he says, "Let's get back together." And she says, "No, I can't. You left me." And that's pretty progressive for the time. Midge starts pursuing this new career, she's staying out late at night, she's relying on her parents to help take care of her children. And Zelda and the neighbors and Joel, whether they like it or not, they've all been dragged down this new path with her. And as a result, Rose is looking at her life in a new way and wondering whether she's actually as satisfied with the way it's turned out as she thought she was. And likewise Abe, he finally got his dream of working at Bell Labs, but it's not everything that he thought it was going to be. He finds out that his son is doing something completely different from what he thought he was doing.

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Another big reveal.
Yeah, there's just reveals left and right. And Joel is trying to find his way. He's trying to figure out what to do with his life now. Season 2 follows the ripple effect of this giant decision that Midge has made and how it affects everyone else.

What do you admire about Midge and what do you think it is about her that makes her have such a ripple effect on the rest of the people in her life?
I don't know if the effect is always such a positive one. Midge can be pretty self-centered and she's a little bit blind to the plight of those around her, especially where she's maybe contributed to it. But I admire that Midge is unwaveringly confident and that she doesn't know how to do anything at less than 150 percent. She does not know how to do anything halfway and so when she takes a leap in a new direction, she takes the biggest leap you've ever seen. And I think that that's a pretty aspirational quality.

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One of the things that is very apparent as the show builds with each season is that “Mrs. Maisel” exists in its own universe, even as the show plays with different settings. We might be New York City, or the Catskills, even a little bit of Paris. Now Midge and Susie are taking on the world. As an actor, can you share what it’s like to learn your character and know where she's comfortable, but then be like flung into all these different places?

Alex [Borstein]said something really smart in an interview the other day. She said that the real test of how well you know a character is whether or not you can take them on the road. Obviously on our show they're literally going on the road doing comedy, but on other shows, you know sometimes they pluck these characters out of their little bubble and put them other places and suddenly the show feels really strange. But it's been really comforting to know that we feel like we know these characters well enough that we can take them to Paris and the Catskills and in this season, Vegas and Miami, and they're still the same people no matter where you take them. It's been really exciting to take them on the road. And we really did travel to Miami this season, which is wild.

Miami in 1960, I’m looking forward to the pastels.
Oh my God. The patterns . . . the hats, forget about it. The hats are insane. We actually built Vegas in Queens, which was a different kind of adventure. But yeah, while they're growing and changing, at the core they are who they are. Amy and Dan Palladino, through their brilliant writing, have crafted these characters so carefully. And three years in, I think we feel like all we have to do is make sure we know our lines and are well-prepared. We put on the hair and makeup and wardrobe and show up and just live in them. That's been really satisfying, although we're still constantly challenged. When we think we have a handle on the thing, they throw us a giant curve ball.

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Right, you can't mention an Amy Sherman-Palladino show without talking about the dialogue and its speed and rhythm. It must've been difficult for you diving into that Season 1, but now that we’re at Season 3, has it gotten any easier?
Sometimes. Amy is fond of sending these middle-of-the-night texts that are very cryptic and strange. Last season, Marin [Hinkle] got a text that said, "Do you speak French?" before we started the season. She texted me asking, "Can you ride a bike? Could you play ping-pong?" And I was like, what is happening? This season she texted me and goes, "Oh by the way, there's a scene and you're going to perform for 850 people." And I was like, what? And so she definitely keeps us on our toes. Even when we read the first episode this year, it was a bunch of really great scenes that take place on a USO tour. And at the end of the table read, after we'd read the whole thing out loud, she goes, "Oh, and by the way, those first four scenes, that's just one shot. So we're going to rehearse, rehearse." And we were like, "Oh my God." But it's been so thrilling. As an actor, you never get the chance to be comfortable and that's kind of a dream.

Does it remind you of doing theater?
Absolutely. We so often joke that we feel like we're doing a play a day without rehearsal. We often don't get a chance to rehearse. We're kind of figuring it out on the day and there's so much choreography between the background actors and the camera operator and us. And it's wild. And when it's magic, it feels like nothing else. You can't capture that feeling, but when it's not working, you just feel like you're drowning.

Do those experiences create a close bond with cast members?
We really have to trust each other. We feel like we're doing daily trust falls and playing ping-pong all the time. We're hitting the ball back and forth and knowing that we're going to keep the volley going.

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How has the show grown your acting and challenged you?
In what ways haven't I grown? I mean, doing this show and this job were beyond my wildest dreams. I'd never done comedy and I never thought I would. I didn't really think it was a strength of mine. I was often told it was not a strength of mine and I don't know that I pictured myself in the period. I mean it's been so beyond my wildest expectations at every single turn. I have become, although it's still frightening every day, which is exciting. I've become a lot braver as an actor. This is something that I was pretty certain I couldn't do. Get up in front of all these people and do stand-up having never done comedy at all.

Being around these other actors who are so experienced and so funny and so talented pushes me to be better every day. I've learned so much from them about how to be both in front of and behind the camera. I’ve learned a lot about leadership on set from Tony Shalhoub, who was on “Monk” for eight years as an actor and a producer, and from Alex, who's been doing this for such a long time and so beautifully, both in the recording booth on “Family Guy” and a whole lot of other stuff in front of the camera too. Marin and Michael, too, it's been a really special experience that I don't feel like I'll be able to fully grasp or articulate for another 10 to 15 years. We're still in the center of it.

It's interesting to be in this lead role as you are, but to be learning and listening constantly from everyone else.
Yeah, I kind of feel like I'm looking at it from the outside, and also just trying to be present in the middle of this crazy whirlwind. I am already and will be forever changed for having worked on this job.

Leading up to the first season of the show, you researched young comics because Midge was going to be going through that experience. Have you continued to research comedy as Midge has grown as a comic?
Not as much as I'd like. I would love to have more time to still be going to those more amateur comedy nights. Michael Zegen and I went together to a lot of open mics and just wanted to watch how people responded when they succeeded, either because they expected to or unexpectedly, and how they responded when they failed, which sometimes hurt in my guts. It's tough to watch. But I've mostly now been watching Netflix specials because we've been really, really busy.

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Do you see comics differently now?
Completely. I had respect for stand-ups before because it felt so far away. But now I'm just, I am in awe. I am bowing down, I'm on my knees. I mean it's one of the hardest art forms I can imagine. You have to go up and be yourself and you're writing your own material. You're putting yourself and sometimes your experience in the world on the line for a laugh. That rollercoaster is something I'm not sure I could handle. I really admire those who can. That is tough.

Frequently, we have comedians stop by this show, “Salon Talks,” and they often talk about writing their own material and accessing their own pain. When you rehearse Midge’s acts do you have any insight into where her comedy comes from?
Initially, I think it did come from kind of a dark place. The first time she stumbled on stage was because her husband walked out on her and left her and her children for his secretary. She got s**t-faced and wandered on stage and had kind of a prolonged mental breakdown in front of an audience. It was intoxicating in a different way, and a lot of her early stuff is less structured joke telling and more stream of consciousness, totally emotionally based in whatever she's experiencing in the moment. So when she's having frustrating moments with her family or friends or at work or with her kids, she uses it to fuel her sets that are mostly on the fly.

But the biggest difference between that version of Midge and this season is that now she's a slightly more seasoned comic. She's hitting the road, she's performing for different audiences. A lot of people who don't know her, who don't come from New York, who have never been to the Gaslight, who don't know what a B. Altman is, who don't have anything in common with her. And so her own experience has to be better crafted. She needs to become a technically better comedian. That was really intimidating in approaching Season 3.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” at least in my eyes, doesn’t generalize about people or about the era, but it does leave little nods for the audience that add commentary. There's a nod to women not having the same opportunities as men, and Rose, your mother in the show, really touches on that. During a joke in Season 2, Midge talks about pregnancy while she's performing and she gets kicked off the stage. As you prepared for Season 3, were there any nods you picked up on about women, or for this season in particular, about race?
Well naturally going on tour with Shy Baldwin, Midge is going to have a little bit of a lesson in the differences between the way that she moves to the world and the way that someone like Shy moves to the world. And the way that she moves through the world is very different from the way that other black men moved through the world at that time. He's a mega star and that's different. Obviously it's a comedy and it's a little bit of a fantasy so we're not diving incredibly deep into that conversation, but definitely it's broached in Season 3.

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We do talk a lot in small ways about sexism both within the comedy world and also at home and in society at large. I love the little moments that expose that. Like they introduced the idea early on in the show that Joel has never seen Midge without makeup on and that he doesn't know that she helped him unbutton her corset or that she would have red marks from her corset because she always powdered them. He never saw any kind of imperfection.

And I also love — there's a small moment that rarely gets talked about because it goes by so fast. But Midge and Susie go to a party and Midge is late, and Susie's been riding up and down the elevator waiting for her because she doesn't want to go in alone. And she's mad at Midge and goes on a tirade about all the things she's learned about all the people in the building while she's been riding up and down the elevator. And she talks about how this old guy grabbed this girl's ass and Midge's response is, "Oh, I hope she did nothing to deserve that." Which speaks to a very different time than the one we're living in. Although people still are, and many women still are of that school of thought. I love those tiny, very smart moments that Amy and Dan have peppered throughout the show.

One thing they've done really successfully with this character and with the show is showing that the learning process and someone growing and opening their eyes isn't always as fast as we'd like it to be. Midge takes a couple steps forward and a few steps back and all the characters do. I want her to be a bra-burning feminist far faster than I think she's going to get there. And it's been interesting to follow her along that journey and I appreciate them holding her back.

You have to have some patience with your character.
Yeah, it feels like a more realistic journey from someone who not only was a product of their time, but willfully embraced and enjoyed and even felt empowered by some of the things that were so restrictive for women in general. But for others in her world and so it feels even though, like I said, there's an element of fantasy to the show, it feels fairly realistic —that slow progress.

It’s a human journey. On a totally different note, we have to talk about Midge's style. Her sense of style is impeccable. What has Midge taught you about fashion?
Midge has made me grateful that women are no longer expected to wear corsets and petticoats and girdles and all the gear.

All the accoutrements, is that a part of your wardrobe for the show?
Oh yeah, it helps me get into character. It changes the way I walk and the way I carry myself. That was actually our brilliant, brilliant costume designer Donna Zakowska’s idea when we started the show was to make sure that I was corseted because it changes the shape of my body to a much more period shape and that kind of long-waisted thing that those beautiful clothes highlight, but it completely changes the way I walk and carry myself and my posture and even the way I talk because I can't breathe that well.

It’s funny you mention that because sometimes when Midge is delivering a very long line, you can see that your diaphragm is sucked in and pushed up and I had just assumed you were winded.
Both! I start sweating. It's not the cutest I've ever been. But the heels and the . . . I mean it takes so long to pee. I have a whole new respect for the generation of women that walked through the world that way every day.

What sets Amy Sherman-Palladino’s television shows apart is the fans and their investment. Even with "Gilmore Girls," we saw years later that fans begged to bring the show back. Have fans done anything wild for you, or what have you enjoyed from the "Maisel"-obsessed?
I have been so surprised and encouraged by the response to the show. I mean when I first read the script, I was like, it's about a woman in the 1950s who becomes a stand-up comedian in New York, is there a really a broad audience for this? Who's going to watch this show? And I've been so astonished by how many different ways people have in. I mean, Halloween blew us away. Alex and I, particularly. The number of Susie and Midge costumes we saw. I love everyone making their own “Tits up” mugs and buttons and sweaters and hats. The fans have grabbed onto such funny pieces of the show.

That experience must have been different and new for you as an actor.
It's never something I've experienced. Tony and I were talking this morning about the love for the romper and how the romper's become its own character in the show in the fandom. And the plunger, Susie's plunger. Alex has people ask her to sign plungers when she's out and about. It's pretty wild. Our fans are amazing. They've been so respectful and they come dressed up to our various talks and events and they're amazing. Their love for the Sherman-Palladino universe is really dedicated.

I've loved women who have made their own versions of Midge’s monologues and put them online. I mean that's a lot of commitment. That seems crazy to me. And this amazing drag queen’s, too. That was pretty cool.

People always talk about defining roles and the fact that if you're playing one that it can indeed define you as an actor in this business. What do you think about the idea of being defined by this role?
I get asked that a fair amount these days because this is the thing that I think most people know me from. In my head, it seems like this could never define me because it seems so foreign to me. It seemed like something I would never ever do and it feels so different from who I am and what I thought I was good at. Although now I have no idea. It's all very confusing. But I just want to keep doing things that I've never done before. And hopefully that means that every role that follows this is an opportunity to be defined by that for a minute and then I can move on to something else. I've been so lucky, in the span of a larger career, that I’ve been able to do so many different things, and I just hope that that continues. But if this was the end, I'd be pleased in a way.

The exposure you’ve gotten from Maisel has been huge. On the opposite side of things, does it make you at all want to work behind the scenes in Hollywood and produce?Absolutely. I've always wanted to produce. I'm actually producing and starring in my first film right now. It's called “I'm Your Woman,” also with Amazon Studios. I definitely want to be a part of the development of projects that I'm passionate about and lifting up other artists because they're amazing and they deserve a platform that has nothing to do with me, or, you know, something that I'm not in. I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to do more of that.

There’s a different sense of access when you've been on a show that really takes over.
Yeah, you get a spotlight shone in your direction and it feels like a really exciting opportunity to help share that with other people who might not have that opportunity yet. It's a cool moment. I'm looking forward to figuring out how to do something with it outside of just this.


Alexandra Clinton

Alexandra (Lexie) Clinton is the Executive Producer of SalonTV. She produces all of Salon’s video series, including “Salon Talks,” “Salon Stage,” and “Salon 5 with D. Watkins.”

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