January 20, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Rachel Brosnahan tones down ‘Maisel’ instincts for ‘Woman’

As the title character of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” a wealthy 1950s housewife turned stand-up comedian, Rachel Brosnahan has spent the last few years inhabiting the role of a lifetime. She navigates the rhythms of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s screwball dialogue with punch and comic verve, earning an Emmy and two Golden Globes over the show’s three seasons.

Brosnahan’s newest starring role, in Julia Hart’s noirish thriller “I’m Your Woman,” takes her in a decidedly different direction. Currently streaming on Amazon, the movie is a passion project of sorts, and Brosnahan produced it alongside Hart’s husband and writing partner Jordan Horowitz.

The 1970s-set film follows Jean, a gangster’s quiet wife who’s forced to fend for herself (and a newly acquired infant) after one of her husband’s schemes goes haywire. Sent into hiding with a man she barely knows (Arinzé Kene), Jean discovers reserves of fortitude and power.

Brosnahan spoke to The Envelope over a video call from her New York apartment.

In “I’m Your Woman,” the gangster-movie milieu is familiar, but the character you play is not the usual protagonist. How was this character conceived?

Julia and Jordan wrote the script together a number of years ago, right around the time that they had their first child. I came in in spring 2018, and I was so moved by Jean’s journey and also by the conceit of reclaiming this genre through a female lens — [especially] with an extraordinarily talented woman co-writing and directing.

Did you watch older films to get a sense of how to reinvent an old formula?

After our first meeting, Julia sent me away with homework. She asked me to watch the movie “Thief,” by Michael Mann. And it’s so good. Julia and I were both so intrigued by Tuesday Weld’s character. She had a handful of scenes, but they made a huge impact. And then she disappears as soon as the action begins. And I found myself wanting to know what happened to her and what her experience would have been of this moment.

For much of the film, you’re playing a passive character who doesn’t yet understand her own strength. How much of a challenge was it to hold back?

So challenging. I’m not a very passive person. That was actually one of the things that drew me so deeply into the script — I didn’t understand what motivated Jean. I didn’t understand why she wasn’t springing into action sooner and taking control of her own fate. What a gift to finish reading a script and being left with more questions than you have answers.

I had many, many conversations with Julia about how trauma affects women and how the realization that the family you’d always dreamed of having is impossible can lead to a form of PTSD. And that’s where we meet Jean.

What was it like acting alongside the baby? The baby’s presence makes everything seem a little more fraught and desperate.

I’m an actor who loves homework. I like to prepare. Before shooting a scene, it feels important to take a deep breath and center and rediscover the character. And that became impossible … when you’re handed a baby very shortly before a scene begins. And so it forced me to throw out — in what ultimately was a way I’m really grateful for — all of the preconceived notions about how I need to, and like to, work.

I assume you shot the film between seasons of “Mrs. Maisel.” How do you turn off a character like Midge Maisel? Just the speed of the dialogue seems like it would ruin you for other roles.

That was something that I was very nervous about and shared openly with Julia and Jordan as we were preparing to film. We finished shooting the third season of “Mrs. Maisel” while we were in preproduction on “I’m Your Woman.”

I’m grateful to Julia in particular for giving me that space, for recognizing that fear and engaging in constant conversation about it. And also grateful that we had a period of rehearsal, where I could try things on for size and see if they felt right, and catch myself falling into old habits.

It feels so strange, because ramping up to that speed when I started on “Mrs. Maisel” felt like an insurmountable challenge. There wasn’t enough coffee in the world. And then you spend a couple of years in something and it feels almost second nature. So, yeah, it was really important to me, knowing who Jean is and how different she is from a character like Midge, to slow down that internal metronome and to find the voice of someone who uses their voice incredibly judiciously and cautiously.

Do you see any commonalities between Jean and Midge?

They’re both women who embraced the expectations placed on them by society and weren’t necessarily interested in defying those expectations. They were happy exactly as they were. And then their entire lives blew up — for completely different reasons — and they were forced to change and forced to grow. And ultimately both do embrace that change and growth.

But that’s something that I appreciate about these characters. Most people don’t come out of the womb wanting to change things. Most people live fairly ordinary lives and change and grow because that change is thrust upon them. And it’s often a journey they embark on kicking and screaming.