for the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival
What happens to Rachel? It's a question any House of Cards fan knows all too well. The breakout star of Netflix’s highly addictive and devilishly pointed hit political farce drama, actress Rachel Brosnahan, indeed made quite an impression as the call girl everyone worried about—conveniently they share a moniker.
Since her debut on the series, the young ingénue on the rise has already enjoyed a celebrated place at the table with some of Hollywood’s most lauded names. She can currently be seen headlining Woody Allen’s new Amazon series, Crisis in Six Scenes. This fall she’ll star on Broadway opposite Daniel Craig as Desdemona in William Shakespeare’s Othello, directed by Tony winner Sam Gold.
We sat down with the actress to talk theater chops, binge-watching vices, and what it’s really like to banter with the likes of Woody Allen. Adorably charming and delightfully modest, the Illinois native is every bit the deserving girl next door on the rise.
MYDOMAINE: I’m so excited to talk to you about my very two favorite things: Shakespeare and Woody Allen!
RACHEL BROSNAHAN: Those are my favorite things too!
MD: We’ll get to them both. You’ve been working with some formidable talent in Hollywood. Did you study acting in school?
RB: Yes, I went to the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute, which is one of the smaller acting schools they have at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. I loved it there. The goal was always theater. Growing up, I enjoyed watching movies, but I didn’t really connect movies to a career. When I thought about being an actress, I only ever thought about being on stage.
NYU is a very stage theater–based program. At Strasberg specifically, we had a few classes of on-camera acting. I kind of fell into the television path. Right after school, things started to pick up, which was very fortunate. I didn’t have to go back to my waitressing job! I’m so happy and honored to do both. You get to stretch your muscles. It’s so much scarier to be on stage than it is to be on camera.
MD: I would imagine stepping immediately from an intimate television set back to the stage might highlight some key differences between the two modalities. Was there anything that became brighter or more distinctive for you after having stepped into a separate world?
RB: Oh, yes. I think I brought more from my experience in theater to film and television than the other way around. I’ve always loved being on stage, and I’m a little horrified by the idea that people are actually watching me at the same time. There’s something comforting about being on a film and TV set where you can pretend that it’s not happening and that no one is ever going to see it. Which is largely how I spend my days: Pretending like this is it and it will never go anywhere past here. Obviously, you can’t do that with theater.
There’s nothing like a live audience. It changes the show so drastically from night to night. The audience is a character in the play. They give you new ideas. They offer, in their own way, a new view of any given scene. They may laugh at something you don’t think is funny. It heightens your awareness.
MD: You’ve got three television series coming up, first—Woody Allen’s much anticipated Amazon series Crisis in Six Scenes, followed by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and, of course, previously House of Cards. They’re all streaming online.
RB: I have a new home at Amazon.
MD: You’re the queen of binge-watch shows after this.
RB: I’ll take it. Put that on a sash and crown for me.
MD: Let’s start with Woody Allen’s Crisis in Six Scenes. The show has been pretty shrouded in mystery. What can you tell us about your character?
RB: Her name is Ellie, and that is all I can tell you. No, just kidding!
MD: That’s more than the internet!
RB: Yeah, right? She’s engaged to John Magaro’s character, Alan. Woody and Elaine May’s characters, Sidney and Kay, introduced the two of them. Alan is staying with Sidney and Kay for the summer. His fiancé, Ellie, is very well-spoken. She’s very well-educated, smart, and well-dressed. They compare her to Grace Kelly at some point. She’s very opinionated. She comes to learn, as I think they all do a little bit in this series, that her worldview is much more limited than she had previously thought. That’s a challenge for all of the characters.
MD: It’s Allen’s first time being back on camera since 2012’s To Rome With Love. Did you have any scenes together?
RB: Yes, I know. That’s part of what makes the project so exciting. It is a joy to get to see him act again because he is so brilliant. I have a few scenes with him. Without giving anything away, I will say—you get to see a lot of Woody in this. It was so surreal to get to sit across from him at a table and watch him do his thing.
MD: What was the most remarkable thing about working with him?
RB: Maybe this sounds terrible, but I think it’s always surprising when people are so kind. Not that they aren’t generally. I’ve worked almost exclusively with incredibly kind people. You hear so many horror stories, though, and you think perhaps that somebody with a career that prolific—maybe they don’t have to be kind anymore. He is. He is incredibly kind and so generous. He genuinely wanted to make sure that everybody was having a good time. It was inspiring to see how much he loved to work after all this time. He has to work. It fuels him. He hires people who love to work. That set was the best. He hires so many of the same people over and over again. It feels like a real community. Some of the cast is on their fifth Woody Allen production.
MD: In Amazon’s forthcoming series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, you’ll be starring as a standup comic in the ’50s.
RB: Well, she’s on a new adventure. My character, Midge, is a housewife turned standup comic in the ’50s.
MD: Have you been in improv training for the show?
RB: No, I’m terrified. It’s my worst nightmare. I have the most respect for and I am completely in awe of stand-up comedians. Luckily, my character, Midge, has not always been a comic, so we’re going to learn together.
MD: Gillian Jacobs was telling us the same thing. She was somewhat terrified preparing for her role as an improv comic in Don’t Think Twice.
RB: I should talk to her and ask her how she did it! It’s only marginally less scary in that I don’t have to write the jokes. I have a script. If someone threw me up on stage and said “do this” at an actual stand-up club, I would be mortified.
MD: At a comedy club, the audiences are somewhat inebriated. There’s a two-drink minimum. That could reasonably help.
RB: We should tell everyone before they watch the show to have an entire bottle of wine. There’s a four-drink minimum. That’s what we need.
MD: You’re shooting two back-to-back period drop-in productions. If you could take the ’60s or the ’50s, which would you choose?
RB: Work-wise, I am excited to be in both. Personally, I would take the ’60s. The birth of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement clash is so amazing. We’re still benefiting from all the work that those men and women did at that time.
MD: Tell us how your role, arguably your big break, as Rachel in House of Cards came along.
RB: House of Cards is the story every actor hopes will happen, but doesn’t believe will ever actually happen. It actually happened to me. I was supposed to be just in the pilot—possibly one other episode. I had a few lines in the pilot, but that was all I was guaranteed. Then they brought me back. Then they brought me back again and again. Then we were in the third season. Being on a show of that caliber straight out of school—“dream” doesn’t even begin to cover it. I got to cut my teeth among the best. It was a crash course in brilliant acting. Just sitting in a room at a table read with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, both whom I have deeply admired for so long, was thrilling. Beau Willimon’s writing is flawless. All you can do is show up and try to tell the truth. I have been spoiled forever is the end of that story!
MD: How cloak-and-dagger were the producers along the way with your scenes? Did you know if your character was coming back?
RB: I think nobody knew at the beginning. The first season, it was episode by episode. The second season, Beau pulled me into the writer’s room before they started shooting and said, “We’re going to bring you in for eight episodes.” That was exciting to not have to be so on the edge of my seat the whole season. Rachel has such a beautiful storyline.
MD: Are there any shows you binge-watch?
RB: I am no longer embarrassed to admit this. I am a Survivor superfan. I’m hardcore. I have seen every season of Survivor.
MD: That is remarkable. How many seasons are there?
RB: Thirty-two seasons. I am obsessed with that show. Mostly because I think it makes me a better actor. They are acting better than anybody has ever acted in their life. They need a host of Oscars for these performances. Everyone on that show is playing a social game. Obviously, reality TV is manipulated to a degree. On a slightly more serious note, I love the show because you don’t often get to see people from all over the country, from different backgrounds and circumstances, on one show. I think it is genius. That’s why it’s been around so long.
I am not at all ashamed to admit I also recently binge-watched all of Nurse Jackie. Edie Falco is a revelation on that show. She’s so good. I could watch her read the dictionary. I’m really late to that party, but it was worth it.
MD: What was the biggest surprise for you upon transitioning from art school to a career in the creative arts?
RB: One of the biggest surprises was—and they tell you this, but it doesn’t ring true until you see it first hand—everybody says, “Everyone has a different path. Find your own.” That really is true. I’ve watched people go about this business and reach similar or separate places all in completely different ways. I’ve been given such good advice. My senior year of college, I did a film called Beautiful Creatures. Jeremy Irons was in it, and we had lunch one day. I couldn’t leave this lunch without asking Jeremy Irons if he had advice. He told me the most beautiful thing. He said, “You have a gem in your pocket. You are the only one who has it. Hold onto it for dear life.” That inspired me so much. You have to pay attention to what makes you happy and what satisfies you creatively. It’s all about balance. It’s hard to find things that pay the bills, satisfy you creatively, and advance your career all at the same time. That’s a difficult and constant challenge. You have to listen to yourself.
MD: Do you think there’s anything they can’t teach you in art school? At some point, do you just have to get your hands dirty and learn in the field?
RB: I think that’s the thing they can’t teach you. They can’t teach you to protect that thing that is you. So much of this business feels like everyone telling you to do something different. That if you were a little more this or you looked a little more that, you could get what you want. Everybody has a different idea of how to go about getting what you want. Ultimately, I have to think that in your gut, you know what’s right. Pay close attention.
MD: You’re constantly traveling for work. Got any travel hacks we need to know about?
RB: Nobody should take travel hacks from me! I need help. My biggest hack is to try not to check a bag. You don’t need that many clothes. Fit it into a carry-on. Wear layers. You won’t lose your baggage, and you get everywhere faster. It also forces you to realize you don’t need as much stuff as you think you do. I bring a big wallet; otherwise I lose my boarding pass. Drink a lot of water, and sit in an aisle. That’s all I’ve got.
MD: Final question: If you could cherry-pick one quality from one of your characters, what would it be?
RB: That’s such a good question. I would steal Rachel’s resilience. I am not sure I’ve met many people as resilient as Rachel. Resilience with a sense of optimism, that is. She never lost hope that things would get better. She knew it. On the show, she’s the only one like that. I think that’s a beautiful quality. Living in New York, it’s sometimes hard to hold on to. It’s something that I try to practice every day, and I think I learned that from playing that role. We grew up together.
Catch Rachel Brosnahan in Crisis in Six Scenes streaming now on Amazon. She can next be seen on the big screen in Ian Olds’s Burn Country alongside James Franco and Melissa Leo on December 9.