Rachel Brosnahan Is Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants
Lately, Rachel Brosnahan has been thinking a lot about being 13. It's not because she wishes she were literally re-living adolescence — that era "feels like it's not far enough away," she says with a shudder — but because, well, she's a 28-year-old Emmy winner and current Golden Globe nominee balancing a hit TV show (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) that films 14-15 hours a day, six months a year; taking on an upcoming Cold War-set spy drama (Ironbark — that wrapped in December) that she'll be traveling to London soon to film; and executive producing a TV comedy (Femme) about a gay man using dating apps. This era of her life is "exhilarating and terrifying and totally overwhelming," Brosnahan tells me when we meet for afternoon tea at New York’s Peninsula Hotel in October. She's been staying at the hotel while her apartment gets renovated, but this isn't exactly a vacation; as we drink tea and eat mini scones — the sort of lady-of-leisure activity suited to her Maisel character Midge, who you can imagine holding court on this very scene — Brosnahan's makeup artist is waiting in the lobby to prep her for an evening event, and tomorrow, she's heading off to London to begin shooting Ironbark. While she's probably too happy being a workaholic to admit it, I imagine that she might need a break.
Which is one part, I assume, of why teendom is suddenly on her mind. The other part is much bigger than her — it's the conversations that people across the country are having "about the ways that we raise young men versus the ways that we raise young women", she says, to advocate for themselves. An outspoken proponent for causes like Time's Up and social and political activism (see: her Emmys speech about women using their voices to vote), Brosnahan wants the young girls of today to feel as empowered as she did at their age. The actor's teenage self was, she tells me, lucky enough not to feel too confined by society's baked-in pressures and demands with regard to her gender. Ironically, that was because she surrounded herself with men, from her dad to her brother to the guys on her school's wresling team. "I feel like in a way, because of a lot of the male influences in my life, I missed some of those things that keep young women taking up less space and feeling less comfortable taking up space," Brosnahan says now.
Sure, 13-year-old Rachel had insecurities, but for the most part, she remembers things being pretty chill. At her suburban Illinois high school, she moved easily between the theater kids and the band geeks and the athletes. She tried on a lot of hats, not all of which stuck (a Biology class-influenced interest in surgery, she recalls, was fleeting). She was well-liked and friendly and curious and, most of all, confident in her choices. She was herself, fully and joyfully. But being this way "became more challenging as I got older," she says, once she stopped being "blissfully unaware" of how women were supposed to be in the world.
As a teen, Brosnahan says, she wasn't overly worried about how she came off, or how much room she took up. It helped that she spent plenty of time with those wrestling friends (she worked as a certified instructor when she wasn't wrestling or auditioning for plays — she didn't really do downtime, even then), who were comfortable not only taking up space, but "discussing ambition openly, dreaming big and fearlessly — they really believed that they could do anything," she recalls. These guys built her up instead of tearing her down, and gradually, via sheer proximity, Brosnahan made their self-assurance her own. “The thing that I really took away was that the coolest version of yourself is when you are cool being yourself,” she says now, before self-consciously pointing out how cheesy that sounds. All of this reflection "sounds so silly to me now to say out loud, it sounds so obvious and simple," but she still goes on to explain more.
Because, she makes clear, it's not that Brosnahan didn't have female influences in her life. One of the primary figures who inspired the character of Midge Maisel, her late grandmother June, was a single mother of six who was both chic and brassy, a revelation for the '50s. June "was a working woman for a while, she was divorced at a certain point, she was a debutante ... she was pushing boundaries without necessarily realizing that's what she was doing."
When Brosnahan left home for the East Coast after graduation, dividing her time between attending college at New York University and going on auditions, a strong sense of confidence came with her. But, as tends to happen, life took its toll; despite early success with 2010 and 2013 episodes of Gossip Girl and Grey's Anatomy, respectively, among other projects, she still was an aspiring actor in a city full of them, and the pressures of the business, combined with the general anxieties of being a woman and an adult, started wearing away at that confidence.
As Brosnahan moved out of her teens, she found herself more apt to doubt her decisions, especially about work. When she recounts how torn she once was between taking a network TV pilot or a play at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, she sounds as anxious as if she was making the choice all over again: "To have the opportunity to work with this director and this cast [on the play] was monumental, even if it wasn’t necessarily splashy by [Hollywood] standards."
Her manager at the time, Carole Dibo, instilled in Brosnahan "the power of saying no" — she's the main person who convinced the actor to turn down the pilot — and under her guidance, the actor rejected big roles that weren't fulfilling enough and said "yes" to small ones that others doubted. Though she and Dibo stopped working together earlier this year, the two still have a "really good relationship," Brosnahan says; she's realized that having a mentor like that was "something I really feel like I took for granted until I learned how many people, especially women, haven’t had influences like this.”
[Midge] has the kind of faith in her own ability that I think both women and men alike are intimidated by. And I’m certainly one of those people.
Even today, with major success (Mrs. Maisel! That Emmy win! The second Globe nom!) behind her, Brosnahan still fears making the wrong call. She feels so different from the always-on Midge that inhabiting the comedian makes her acutely aware of her less intense approach to life. Midge, she says, "has the kind of faith in her own ability that I think both women and men alike are intimidated by. And I’m certainly one of those people."
Unlike her character, Brosnahan — who, in one moment, teaches me how to properly enjoy afternoon tea, only to spill the steeped water all over the table — is terrified of messing up. "You can’t make it through a long and diverse career without failing enormously. And the higher the stakes get, the scarier that becomes," Brosnahan states matter-of-factly — as if it's a universal truth, despite the fact that the reason it comes up is that we're chatting about how well things are going for her, and how happy that makes her. "I’ve been continually surprised by the kinds of opportunities that have presented themselves and that I’ve been able to be a part of, and now I’m addicted to that feeling," she tells me. No wonder she feels like she has a lot to lose.
Right now, the stakes for Brosnahan are fairly high. Maisel, one of TV's most acclaimed shows, has made her a star; recently, a masseuse even asked her father mid-appointment if he was related to her ("It's moments like that that make [my parents] breathe a sigh of relief and say that NYU tuition was worth it," she says with a dry laugh.) She's the lead actor on a show created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, a boss so notoriously perfectionistic that when I ask Brosnahan if she'd ever suggest an edit to one of the writer's lines, she practically spits out her “Garden of Dreams” herbal tea. On the last day of filming Season 1, Sherman-Palladino told Brosnahan, "Thank you for working as hard as we do,” and she practically glows when she tells me about it now. Her boss is “brilliant,” she says. “I don't think that anything that I could come up with could be better than what she already has.”
Brosnahan loves living up to the challenge of starring on Maisel — "I'm so lucky to be on a show where I want to work myself into the ground for it," she says — but it is a challenge. Hundreds of cast and crew members count on her to show up, set the pace, sit through those 15-hour days without complaint. And embodying Midge — loud, opinionated, bossy, outrageously confident — can't be easy, especially when, minus the fast talking and great vintage fashion, Brosnahan’s real self is far from that reality. She wishes she were more like Midge all the time; she'd love nothing more, she tells me, than to trust herself like the character does, like she herself used to. She wants to be that 13-year-old wrestler again, so blissfully naive about the insecurities and realities of adulthood to come.
I'm at the beginning.
Thankfully, filming Maisel is an automatic confidence booster. There's Sherman-Palladino, a boss and mentor all in one, and also Brosnahan's co-star Alex Borstein, who's as bold and assured as her character Susie, if not nearly as brash. Watching these two women in action, Brosnahan says she is in constant awe; she describes them with near reverence, her voice full of wonder. "They won’t apologize for who they are," she says. "They trust that they are fiercely intelligent and funny — they know how funny they are."
Borstein, in particular, is her go-to person for advice — "Anything from, don’t 'f*ck it up,' to some of the best advice I’ve ever been given in moments when I really needed it, about taking up my own space and not being afraid to ask for what I need and not feeling the need to please everyone else all the time. To not be afraid to be my own advocate."
Of course, confidence comes with age and experience, two things that Brosnahan, for all her success, currently lacks. "That kind of ingrained trust in themselves and sense of innate self-empowerment, I‘m sure it was developed over time," she says of Borstein, who is 47, and Sherman-Palladino, who is 52. She knows she has years to get there — "I'm at the beginning,” she acknowledges — but that doesn’t mean she isn’t anxious about having to wait. Her colleagues' self-assurance, she says, is “something that I really admire and hope that I am able to take a piece of with me from this job.”
It’s things like that that make me angry, makes it feel gratuitous
According to her co-stars, she already is. "Rachel has always appeared to have an interminable amount of confidence," says Borstein, over email. The first time the duo met to do a chemistry read, Borstein was impressed by the conviction of Brosnahan, 19 years younger and only a few years out of college. "I just remember feeling at ease with her. We had a natural rhythm together, an absence of trepidation and what felt like an innate sense of trust."
There's ample evidence that Brosnahan is more confident than she seems to think she is, and that she doesn't actually have to wait years for it to shine through. Just take what happened with a project she did a few years back, prior to Maisel. In promotional materials, suggestive scenes of her were used to market the project, and it bothered her enough that she inserted a clause in her nudity rider to prohibit the same mishap from ever happening again. "It’s things like that that make me angry, makes it feel gratuitous," she says.
Brosnahan does not have to worry about situations like that on Maisel, as Sherman-Palladino, she explains, makes sure that nudity on the show is never exploitative. The scene in the pilot where Midge goes topless on-stage, for instance, represents Midge ditching the rules of '50s femininity, rather than acting as a showcase of her sexuality like many topless scenes in history have done. The same sentiment goes for the vaginal bleaching scene, in which Midge runs naked, laughing, through her college courtyard while her female friends watch in hysterics above her. It’s a silly scene, so lighthearted that it’s easy to miss just how revolutionary it is. Midge’s nakedness is completely desexualized, used not to titillate but to show Midge’s bold personality and strong female friendships. Explains Brosnahan now, "We don't need to make [nudity] feel like something shameful, in moments where it’s unique and oddly powerful."
But if a situation like that bad prior one did come up, the actor would stand tall. It helps that she's made a conscious effort to surround herself with people who revel in their own power. Long before Sherman-Palladino and Borstein came into the picture, there was Dibo, as well as actors like Emma Thompson and Frances McDormand, whom Brosnahan worked with on Beautiful Creatures and Olive Kitteridge, respectively. She admires both women greatly — McDormand specifically, she says, has a "fire that runs through her … She is just so unafraid.”
And, of course, there was June. There's a lot about her grandmother that Brosnahan doesn't emulate — like Midge and many other women of her generation, June "would not emerge from the basement of our house without her face on," the actor recalls fondly — but her unabashed power, her unshakable faith in herself? Having that would be the dream. Same for that of Dibo, or of Borstein, or Sherman-Palladino, or McDormand, or, hell, even those 13-year-old boys Brosnahan snowboarded with in middle school.
So she's watching what her co-stars do, all while trying to remind herself that she's still young, she's still learning ("They also trust themselves deeply, which is something that I’m still discovering," she notes of her Maisel colleagues). She's taking control over the situations that do come up, like with the nudity clause, and not letting anything slide. She's listening to the confidence-boosting mantra that Midge and Susie repeat throughout Season 2 — "Tits up" — and taking it to heart. She's looking at the women who inspired the character of Midge (Phyllis Diller, Jean Carroll, Joan Rivers) and those who came before her (Tina Fey, Mary Tyler Moore, Lauren Graham, among many others) and walking in their footsteps.
Being an actor on Maisel, she says, is about "finding the most powerful version of" yourself, each time you walk onto the set. Brosnahan may not have found hers just yet, but she's trying. She's not 13 anymore, but she's set on remembering what it was like.
Correction and Clarification: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the high school sport Brosnahan participated in, and has been corrected to note she participated in wrestling. The article has been further clarified to more accurately describe the promotional materials from a previous project that contained suggestive images of her.
Main Image: Sweater: Peter Pilotto. Pants: Prabal Gurung. Shoes: Tabitha Simmons. Rings: Colette Blackened.
Yellow Suit Look: Suit: Oscar de la Renta. Shoes: Christian Louboutin. Rings: Lady Grey. Ear Pin: Katkim.
Photographer: Lara Jade
Stylists: Jill Lincoln and Jordan Johnson
Hair: Owen Gould at The Wall Group using Oribe
Makeup: Mary Wiles at The Wall Group using CHANEL
Manicure: Elizabeth Garcia using Morgan Taylor