Rachel Brosnahan is making herself comfortable—literally. In this month’s I’m Your Woman, a crime drama set in the 1970s, the star of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel ditches the corsets and high heels of her impeccably coiffed ’50s funny lady for the mustard-colored sweaters and groovy denim threads of a more casual era. “I didn’t even wear very much makeup,” she admits, happily. “It felt great to shed that high-maintenance flair.”
In the movie—which premieres December 11 on Amazon Prime and was cowritten by its director, Julia Hart (Fast Color), and her husband, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz—Brosnahan plays Jean, a Pittsburgh housewife whose scofflaw husband brings home a baby and then disappears, forcing her to go on the run with a new infant son. “As a woman who doesn’t have children and hasn’t necessarily asked myself some of the questions about motherhood that Jean finds herself asking, I felt immediately connected to this character,” says the actress, who turned 30 earlier this year.
I’m Your Woman also sees Brosnahan stepping into the role of producer, as it’s the first release from her production company, Scrap Paper Pictures, which she founded last year. She has spent most of her time while on lockdown trying to develop projects via Zoom calls with the company’s head of development, Paige Simpson. “I have not been making sourdough,” she jokes from a cabin in Santa Fe, where she is working on Yearly Departed, an all-female comedy special hosted by Phoebe Robinson that Brosnahan calls “a satirical funeral for the year 2020.” (It streams this month, also on Amazon Prime.) Here, she chats with us about working with infants, how Cats killed her wrestling career, and what the future holds for Midge Maisel.
I’m Your Woman is that rare film in which it’s impossible to guess where the story is going or what it will ultimately be about. How would you describe it?
The elevator pitch is that it’s a film about a woman whose husband has committed some pretty heinous crimes, and she comes into contact with a family that changes the course of her life. At the core, it’s about a woman realizing her own capability. It’s a capability that was always there but that she had never explored, and she was feeling quite vulnerable and insecure—certainly when it came to motherhood.
The baby, Harry, is an important character. What level of professionalism did the infant twins who played him bring to your scenes together?
There was definitely a little bit of puking. And sometimes they fell asleep in the middle of scenes, which was a continuity nightmare. Very unprofessional to fall asleep on set [laughs]. They were amazing. Babies aren’t acting, they’re just existing. I was worried at first I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart, but they have totally different personalities. One of them was very emotional and cried a little bit more easily, and the other one was chill. And we needed both things in this film, so we tried to schedule scenes around them. They kept us honest. It felt like there was less room for error. It required an incredible amount of preparedness and flexibility. I did feel the pressure to be on in every single take.
Speaking of performing at a young age, what made you want to become an actor when you were growing up in Highland Park, Illinois?
It was in my bones. I was a very imaginative kid. I grew up reading a lot of fantasy books, like The Lord of the Rings and Roald Dahl’s The Witches. I could always entertain myself, because I would sit around for hours and imagine all kinds of things, like what it would be like if I woke up one day and I could suddenly turn invisible. What would I do? I think I was looking for an outlet for that creativity. I couldn’t dance. I couldn’t sing. I couldn’t draw. Acting was the only thing left.
You also joined the wrestling team in high school, which sounds like a left turn for an aspiring thespian.
In the winter of my freshman year of high school, I auditioned for the musical and, devastatingly, I did not make it. So I was looking for something to do with that time, and a bunch of my buddies had wrestled in junior high. At that age, you want to do anything your friends think is cool. And it was so much fun. It beat the s *** out of my body, but I ended every day feeling strong and accomplished. I loved how improvisational it was. It was all about reading how somebody else was using their body and trying to get one step ahead of them. I loved that it was a team sport, but also an individual sport. I would have done it for longer, but then I did make [the cast] of the next musical, Cats.
“Strong and accomplished” sounds like a good description of Midge Maisel, whereas Jean in I’m Your Woman starts out very timid. Now that so many people identify you with Midge, do you look for roles that are the opposite of her?
That’s always been my approach to looking for new projects, even from an earlier time, when I had less choice. I’ve always tried to play roles that feel different from anything else I’ve ever tried to do. It’s strange that Maisel is what most people know me from, when initially that role was one of those choices. I had spent the previous couple of years on shows like House of Cards and Manhattan and was looking for something that felt different. Now, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the norm, and I feel a healthy pressure to continue to challenge ideas of what I am or am not capable of.
When you accepted the Emmy for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series in 2018, you said one of the things you loved about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was that it was about “a woman who’s finding her voice anew”—which could be said of Jean, too. What have you learned from these characters?
At this point, they’ve given me more questions than answers, which is healthy. I’m 30. I’m still figuring out who I am. Empathizing with all the different women that I crawl inside of to play, and discovering who they are and what makes them tick, forces me to look at my own life in greater detail. I’m asking questions about myself and who I am. I admire how much Jean lives in the moment, whether or not it’s always her choice. And I would love to have one one-hundredth of Midge’s confidence.
By now you’ve gotten used to playing a successful comedian. Who always leaves you laughing?
I’m an Ali Wong fangirl. I watched Baby Cobra what feels like 100 times before starting The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Your career spans a little more than a decade, but in that time you’ve gone from unnamed roles—one of which expanded into a three-season arc on House of Cards—to winning multiple awards. What prompted your desire to start producing?
I’d heard about moving into producing from other actors that I admire a great deal. David Oyelowo, in particular, sparked the idea during a production of Othello that we did together in 2016. He spoke so highly of being involved in the process from an early stage and ultimately having more control over the types of projects that you have access to and the kinds of people that you want to collaborate with.
You’ve worked with Maisel creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and now Julia Hart. Do you make it a goal to seek out female writers and directors?
Now that I have the privilege of having more choice in the kinds of roles that I play and the kinds of projects that are available to me, continuing to work with women is extremely important. It’s just a different energy, and not all the same energy. But, ultimately, I’m just looking to work with bold and dynamic storytellers—with men and women who have stories to tell and haven’t yet been given space.
Among the stories you have told there have been several period pieces: Maisel, Manhattan , I’m Your Woman , and the forthcoming film The Courier, which is set during the Cold War. What’s been your favorite era, and what time period would you like to tackle next?
Well, for the fashion alone, definitely the ’50s and ’60s. The costumes by the brilliant Donna Zakowska on Maisel are some of the most exquisite pieces of art, and, even though they’re uncomfortable at times, they’re so gorgeous. But I would love to go into the future. We’ve done a lot of looking backward. I’m ready to look forward.
Speaking of which, have Amy and her husband, writer-director Dan Palladino, told you how far into the future they want Maisel to go?
All I know is that they always said that Midge will end up on Johnny Carson’s couch. I once asked Amy about Midge’s relationship with [her ex-husband] Joel, and if she could talk to me about how it would unfold. And she said you won’t ever see this on the show, but Midge will ultimately become wildly successful. She’ll live in a Park Avenue penthouse with 12 poodles, but she will look back on the day before Joel left her as the happiest day of her life. She comes so far and she’s learned a lot, but nothing will ever be as good as the day before everything blew up.
Next Up: Michael J. Fox the Eternal Optimist