The fourth season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” begins, in some ways, in a callback to the show’s first episode: Miriam “Midge” Maisel, once a perfect young wife and mother from New York City, reeling from a huge setback and ending up in a comedy club in a state of undress. Back in 2017’s Season 1, the blow was that her husband, Joel, was leaving her, which spurred her to spew out her rage in a standup comedy routine. Now, in the fourth season, her standup career has taken a huge hit because she’s been fired as the opening act of a massive worldwide tour.
Five years have elapsed since “House of Cards” vet Rachel Brosnahan was cast as Midge Maisel in Amazon’s period comedy from Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino, years in which Brosnahan has won one Emmy and been nominated for two others. Midway through the filming of the fifth and final season, Brosnahan drafted Michael Zegen, who plays Joel on the series, to interview her for this issue. – SP
MICHAEL ZEGEN We see a different side of Midge this season, a bit more unhinged and unapologetic. Did you approach her differently?
RACHEL BROSNAHAN (Laughs) She’s definitely a little unhinged and very unapologetic. In a lot of ways, it felt like returning to a Midge that we met in Season 1, but with the history behind her of the last couple of seasons. Midge in Season 1 would get up routinely wasted and stoned and do comedy sets straight from the heart and the depths of her mind, and she didn’t know why she would have to apologize. Now she knows. She’s been booted off Shy Baldwin’s tour for opening her big mouth. And she’s digging her heels in. She’s committing to her voice, unfiltered, being her superpower. I don’t know that I approach that differently, but it’s been exciting to grow with her.
It’s also hard to approach it when we get the scripts at the last minute and we don’t really know what the overall arc is necessarily gonna be.
Well, as you know, I usually pin Amy down and pour Irish coffee down her throat and get her to spill the beans on some of what’s ahead. She gave a little bit in advance of last season. But it definitely keeps you in the moment.
“Maisel” is a comedy, but there are some very dramatic and even heavy moments for Midge, especially this season. How do you find the balance, and how closely do you work with Amy and Dan on determining what the tone of each scene will be?
I work really closely with Amy and Dan on figuring out exactly what their intentions were behind every scene. They have all the answers, and one of them will often say a single sentence in passing that feels like it unlocks entire chunks of the script or the season for me. I usually come in with a little notebook and ask them 20,000 questions before every episode.
That’s very different than me, but that’s OK.
I don’t know if I ever told you this, but as someone who comes from drama, when I first read the pilot, I didn’t know what to expect. I had seen (Sherman-Palladino’s) “Gilmore Girls,” but I really wasn’t sure what the tone of the show was. All I saw was a woman who was getting divorced and having a mental breakdown on a stage. I thought tonally the show was more like “Nurse Jackie,” and I said, “Oh, this is why they’re interested in me. They need a dramatic actress to do this.” And then of course I arrived on set, and Amy was like, “It’s a comedy, you know?”
What is your process like as soon as you receive a script, assuming you have time for a process?
I panic. (Laughs) And I don’t sleep for days at a time. I wish I was kidding. No, I have worked with a coach for many, many years, the brilliant Ted Sluberski, who has continued to crack this character open for me over and over again. And we are panic partners. I send him a script and we dig in together so that I feel like I have at least a foundation to stand on.
I’ve always noticed that you’ve got these little color-coded tabs in your script. What are those, and should I be ashamed that I don’t do the same?
No! She’s Type A! They’re marking scenes that I’m in, and the colors correlate to how difficult they’re gonna be for me to learn.
No way, really?
Yeah. So red is like, “Oh f–k, you need to spend some time with this.” And blue is like, “You could probably, if you had to, get away with learning this dialogue the night before.”
Was there anything this season that felt especially daunting, that needed one of those red tabs?
Most of my scripts are just filled with red. (Laughs) The opening monologue from this season was intimidating, because it opens on a very dramatic moment: Midge and Susie have just been left on the tarmac (after being fired from the Shy Baldwin tour), and we’re living in the immediate aftermath. Midge is shocked and devastated and angry, and then she somehow loses her clothes and is alternating between laughing, crying, getting pissed, yelling and punching Susie. So it just felt really important to know those lines upside down and backward before we could even hope to play with them.
Midge has romantic interests throughout the show, but those romances don’t define her in the way that they do on other series. What’s it like to play a female character who isn’t defined by her romantic ties?
It’s the dream. I think so many women in so many series of years past have been defined by which male lead they are interacting with, whether that’s romantically or otherwise. And it was really exciting to play a character who started herself feeling fairly defined by the relationship that she was in. It was her choice: She wanted to get married, she wanted to be the most perfect housewife that ever lived, she wanted to be a mom with three kids before 30. And when her dream blew up, she redefined herself and discovered that in fact, she has this whole other life, this inner life that she didn’t know existed, or she didn’t know how to wield.
Midge’s flaws seem to be especially apparent this season. What’s it like to play a complex and flawed character, and how do you find truth in those moments?
I love playing a character who f—ed up so profoundly and openly and blatantly. (Laughs) I’m frustrated with her sometimes in the way that you might get frustrated with a friend or relative who puts their foot in their mouth or can’t get outta their own way, but it’s been really fun to play someone who’s so single-minded in both her successes and her failures. But I’d also love to see her grow and get out of her own way every once in a while.
What do you hope audiences take away from Season 5?
That’s a great question. I guess that it’s not the end of something, that it’s just the beginning of a brand-new chapter.
We’ll be shooting our last episode in October, which is going to be sad. At the table read today, I was just looking around the room, thinking about how special this show is and these people are.
I can’t even think about it. Every time I think about it too much, I get all weepy. I grew up on this show. I was 26 when we started this, and everything in my life has changed while we’ve been working on this together.