Her youth in Highland Park readied Rachel Brosnahan for ‘The Dovekeepers’
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Rachel Brosnahan has spent a lot of time lately dwelling in the past.
The actress from Highland Park recently wrapped filming on Disney’s “The Finest Hours,” a Coast Guard thriller set in the ’50s.
She returns to New Mexico next month to shoot the sophomore season of “Manhattan,” WGN America’s period drama about the secretive race in the ’40s to build the atomic bomb.
Brosnahan went way back in time — rewind two millennia — for “The Dovekeepers,” a new miniseries from the husband-and-wife team of reality TV guru Mark Burnett (“The Bible”) and Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”). It airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday on CBS.
Inspired by Alice Hoffman’s 2011 best-selling historical fiction novel of the same name, “The Dovekeepers” tells the infamous tale of the siege of Masada, the Judean Desert mountaintop fortress where more than 900 Jews reportedly took their own lives rather than be captured by Roman soldiers.
Brosnahan plays Yael, a devout dovekeeper and one of the few survivors of the bloody event. The dramatic story of Masada, a top tourist site in Israel, remains deeply symbolic to Jews around the world.
“Growing up in the North Shore of Chicago with its heavily Jewish population, I was very familiar with a lot of those stories,” said Brosnahan, who isn’t Jewish — or particularly religious in general.
“I’ve spent more time in a temple than I ever have in a church,” she said during a sit-down at the TV critics’ winter press tour. “I spent so many Shabbat dinners with friends. I’ve probably been to 150 bar mitzvahs. A lot of my friends have been on Birthright [trips to Israel]. So this was a cool project to be a part of.”
There’ve been no shortage of cool projects for the 20-something actress who politely declines to give her age. (“I will say this: The Internet has it wrong,” she noted. “I get a lot of ‘Happy Birthday’ wishes on the wrong day.”)
The New York University alum logged three seasons as former call girl Rachel Posner on Netflix’s Emmy-nominated “House of Cards.” She worked alongside Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson in the 2013 film “Beautiful Creatures” and made her Broadway debut two years ago in a revival of Clifford Odets’ play “The Big Knife.”
If a recent series has the word “black” in the title, she’s probably been in it. Guest gigs include the NBC hit “The Blacklist,” ABC’s short-lived “Black Box” and Netflix’s buzzy “Orange Is the New Black.”
“My first professional show was at Steppenwolf and it completely changed my life,” she said, referring to her critically acclaimed performance in the Chicago theater company’s 2009 production of “Up.” “That was the first moment when I decided I have to do this forever.”
While at Highland Park High School, the oldest of three children divided her time between theater and sports. Winter weekends were spent on any number of Wisconsin ski hills, where the certified snowboarding instructor would teach other kids how to carve.
The petite actress lights up when talking about her two years on the school’s wrestling team, a position she had to give up because it ate into her acting schedule.
“The thing about wrestling is it doesn’t really matter what gender you are,” she said. “You’re wrestling against someone who’s the same weight as you. They might be stronger physically. You might be quicker. It’s a lot about listening and responding to what someone else is doing; it’s like improv. I wish I could’ve kept going with it because I absolutely loved it.”
When it comes to winning moves, channeling that competitive energy and discipline into acting just might be her best one yet.
“Coming out of drama school and having a year like last year …” she said, getting a little choked up. “I got to do this for real. I got to spend a whole year acting. That’s so insane in the most wonderful way.”