It is a bright, windy day in Paris and a maze of cordoned-off streets beside the Seine have been hauled back into the 1950s. Frank Sinatra’s I’ve Got the World on a String blares from the speakers, soundtracking the movements of a very well-behaved donkey, as a crowd of extras pretend to shop. Around them stands the kind of crew you would expect to find on a generously budgeted film. But this is the set of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, Amazon’s stealth-hit comedy about the adventures of a well-to-do Jewish housewife turned outrageous stand-up comedian.
Even in this golden age of TV there aren’t many productions that would be given the green light to film a handful of scenes halfway across the globe, apparently just for the hell of it (after a day on set, it is still not clear why the series needed to temporarily relocate from New York to the French capital). But Mrs Maisel is a triumph of the streaming era. At this year’s Emmys, it took home a staggering seven awards, cementing the reputation of its showrunner, Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, and minting a new star in Rachel Brosnahan, the woman responsible for bringing Miriam “Midge” Maisel to life.
Polite and optimistic
A few months after the filming in Paris has ended, Brosnahan is sitting in a London hotel suite, a vision of polished perkiness with perfectly set waves, a prim floral dress and a tendency to laugh breathlessly after most responses. The 27-year-old is unfailingly polite — concerned I might be hungry and explaining she normally keeps a supply of snacks on her at all times — and fastidiously positive, expressing wild enthusiasm over everything from Enid Blyton books to her high-school drama teachers. She even has the ability to inject something as monstrously depressing as the Brett Kavanaugh hearing — in full swing at the time of our interview — with a large dose of optimism. “I was overcome with all of these conflicting emotions at once,” she says. “Angry and sad, and also inspired and hopeful about the future of our country all at the same time.”
This chirpiness is something Brosnahan has in common with her character — Midge Maisel doesn’t resemble a human woman so much as a walking, talking blizzard of can-do attitude. When we first meet her, she is the platonic ideal of a dutiful mid-20th-century housewife, living up to the standards of the patriarchy with joyful dedication, obsessively measuring her thighs and sneaking out of bed in the early hours to do her make-up so she can trick her husband into thinking she woke up like this. Even after that husband, Joel, turns her life into a cliche by leaving her for his secretary, she reshapes her misfortune into a fulfilling new career as a stand-up comedian, cracking jokes about sex and gender double standards with staggering self-confidence and charisma.
Brosnahan seems a little more cowed by authority than her 1950s alter ego — she is extremely worried, for example, about being “yelled at” if she gives away any spoilers for Mrs Maisel’s second series, available to stream in early December — but the pair share a buoyant optimism that feels like the most American thing on the planet.
Perhaps this is why it is a surprise to discover that Brosnahan is actually half-British. Her mother grew up in Leeds and her parents met at university in Brighton (she isn’t entirely sure how her dad, who hails from Missouri, ended up there). Despite the couple settling near Chicago, the young Brosnahan spent most summers in the UK. It was a childhood shaped by her parents’ tough-love approach to their daughter’s acting ambitions.
“They were extremely supportive and encouraging, but by saying: ‘We’re not going to help you with that.’ Like if I wanted to take a class, my dad would say: ‘OK, well, you should get babysitting so you can pay for that class, and you should take classes because you need to get better at this.’”
It’s a tactic that seemed to pay off quickly: at 17, Brosnahan was acting professionally after scoring a part in the Gary Oldman horror The Unborn. But her breakthrough role — for which she received her first Emmy nomination — came in 2013, when she began playing former sex worker Rachel Posner in House of Cards.
It is on that topic that Brosnahan’s uber-jolly persona begins to falter. Her face drops when I ask whether she is upset about the way the Kevin Spacey scandal has sullied the legacy of House of Cards.
“We never had a scene together. I’d been off the show for a couple of years,” she says, a fact that apparently bears repeating. “I’ve been off the show for quite a while now, since season three,” she explains very slowly, furrowing her eyebrows until she locates a positive angle on this unsavoury topic: the fact that Netflix commissioned a final series to tie up loose ends. “There are so many hard-working, talented, generous people who work on that show who have poured their hearts and souls into it, so I’m thrilled that they got to finish the story the way that they wanted to.”
Spacey is not the only controversial figure she has crossed paths with. In January, headlines proclaimed Brosnahan had said she regretted working with Woody Allen on his 2016 Amazon series A Crisis in Six Scenes, an assumption based on her remarks that the show was “the decision that I have made in my life that is the most inconsistent with everything I stand for and believe in”.
Today she denies that she regretted the role. “I try not to ever use the word ‘regret’ about anything in my life,” she says. “What I said was that, when I looked back, having been a part of this moment, today it’s important to me to make different decisions that better reflect who I am.”
Is she saying she wouldn’t take that part again? “Well, if that same project came to me today, I can’t really ... all I can say is that, moving forward, it’s important to me to be true to who I am now.” She blusters for a bit, but it is clear she is not willing to close that particular door, career-wise.
‘I feel like I’ve read the same part in 1,200 scripts — someone’s girlfriend who is pretty but doesn’t know it.’
For somebody so deeply involved with politics — at the time of our interview, her Instagram page is swarming with calls to her fans in the US to vote in the midterm elections — Brosnahan is very coy about expressing any political views, and can’t even bring herself to say who she votes for (although she heavily implies her loyalties lie with the Democrats).
In the summer, she ended her Emmy speech with what sounded like a rallying feminist cry, encouraging women to make their voices heard on the voting ballot, just like Midge makes her worldview known in Mrs Maisel. But she seems very keen that her comments should not be interpreted as such. “I actually didn’t intend it to be that way,” she says. “I meant it’s about a woman finding her voice, but people are finding their voices — women should vote, but also everyone should vote.”
Brosnahan’s reluctance to express even the mildest of political views — and determination to dodge absolutes — is mirrored in the show in which she stars. In fact, one of the most intriguing and pleasingly nuanced aspects of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel is that it presents a highly ambivalent portrait of female empowerment. There is no feminism with a capital F in Midge’s universe.
“This performance of woman and housewife is something that makes her feel good, it’s very genuine for her,” she explains, echoing the show’s refusal to judge her for taking pleasure in cleaving to society’s demands.
Maisel might be a proto-Joan Rivers in terms of her comedy — mining laughs from the double standards faced by men and women — but it was important to the show’s makers that this was an organic response to her life experiences (namely, her husband rejecting her) rather than anything dogmatic. That might feel both anachronistic and out of step with this cosily privileged and rather self-obsessed character. “She’s not thinking about any of this in a political context — she’s only thinking about it as it applies to her,” Brosnahan explains.
It might not be a box-ticking assemblage of progressive values, but what makes ‘The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’ feel straightforwardly refreshing and progressive is that it portrays a multi-dimensional, contradictory and self-steering female character. It is worth remembering just how rare this remains: Brosnahan admits to being desperate to win the part after becoming frustrated by the one-dimensional characters she is asked to audition for. “I feel like I’ve read the same part in 1,200 scripts - someone’s girlfriend who is pretty but doesn’t know it. There’s not one thing that makes a woman strong or vulnerable or any kind of word you could use to describe her. It’s complicated and we should show that.”
Thanks to the slippery feminism of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, Brosnahan has already ensured she is part of a giant leap in that direction.
Don’t miss it!
‘The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’ season two releases on Amazon Prime Video from December 5.