Rachel Brosnahan laughed when asked if growing up in Highland Park had helped “a nice Irish-American girl like you” channel the title character in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the series that premieres Wednesday on Amazon Prime Video.
“When I read the script, it seemed so familiar to me. I think that was a huge part of having grown up in Highland Park. I had been so welcomed into the Jewish culture and community. I certainly went to many, many seders, bat mitzvahs and bar mitzvahs. I could probably bar mitzvah you at this point,” the actress kidded this reporter.
In the late 1950s, Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Brosnahan) is a happy upper-middle-class Jewish housewife living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. When her husband unexpectedly leaves her, she discovers she has an innate gift as a stand-up comic — definitely a rarity for a woman in 1958.
“It was unlike anything I had done before,” said Brosnahan. “Stand-up comedy is not a world I’m familiar with. The idea of doing this was absolutely horrifying and exhilarating at the same time.”
Even though she grew up in Highland Park and frequently made trips downtown, Chicago’s world of improv comedy was not on the budding actress’ radar. “I mean, I love Second City, but I didn’t grow up going to it. But to prepare for this role I tapped into my true research nerd self — and loved transporting myself into this comedy world of the 1950s on New York’s Lower East Side.
“I studied tapes of Lenny Bruce and especially Jean Carroll, a female comic from that era that not everybody knows about. She was amazing, a true pioneer for women who were stand-up comics,” said the actress, who added that watching old routines of Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller and even Don Rickles from that period was also a big help to her.
The series also zeroes in on the role of women in the late 1950s. “If we’ve done our job correctly with this show, a modern audience will recognize how much has changed, but ironically how much has not changed. The series mirrors battles we’re still fighting today, like the question of what it means to be a woman.
“Look, as we are talking, yet more examples of inappropriate sexual behavior by powerful men continue to come out in entertainment, politics and I’m sure we soon will see examples from the corporate world as well. On top of all that, society today is just as polarizing as it was back then.”
Unlike her character, Brosnahan is no whiz in the kitchen. “If you think I appeared to be a great cook in the show, then I’m the best actress in the world,” she quipped. “I am not a good cook — just don’t have the patience for it.” However, the actress shared a cute personal anecdote from filming “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
“Over the years, I’ve done a lot of really dark projects,” said Brosnahan, specifically noting the untimely end of her character Rachel Posner on “House of Cards.”
“My parents have been frequently traumatized by watching me die over and over again. So, they were just thrilled to learn that this was a comedy. After watching the pilot, my dad tracked down and then mailed me a pink Pyrex casserole that was totally identical to the one we have in the pilot, in which I make Midge’s famous brisket.
“He included a note that said, ‘Please learn to cook something! Pyrex makes it easy!’ ”
The other lead female character on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which Amazon has already re-upped for a second season, is a comedy club manager portrayed by Alex Borstein, who also has Highland Park roots. Though she moved to Los Angeles when young, Borstein was born at Highland Park Hospital. She and Brosnahan had never met, but while shooting the series developed what Borstein calls a “womance,” her female take on “two dudes being pals and having a bromance.”
As for Chicago, Borstein admitted, “I do miss the place. Over the years, I’ve always tried to come back at least once a year to see a Bears game,” said the lifelong fan. Now that she lives in Barcelona, that is a bit more difficult. However, no matter the team’s challenges, Borstein remains loyal. “I love my Bears no matter what. I go back to thinking about how I got hooked on them thanks to Walter Payton and Gale Sayers. I’ll always have an affinity for that team.”