‘Mrs. Maisel’ actresses battle restraints on women — then and now

Share via

Fans of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,Amy Sherman-Palladino’s intoxicating, award-winning TV show about a 1950s housewife launching a standup-comedy career, are used to seeing Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein and Marin Hinkle inhabit a deliciously retro, candy-colored world filled with figure-enhancing frocks and perfect prewar apartments. Each is contained and restrained within the proscribed bonds of her role in the world.

So seeing these actresses (who play, respectively, Miriam “Midge” Maisel; Midge’s manager, Susie Myerson; and Midge’s mother, Rose Weissman) sitting together on a leather couch, loosely clad in muted hues and playfully posing for photos in an industrial-chic Brooklyn studio can create a sense of cognitive dissonance.

At its core, “Maisel,” its third season due soon on Amazon, is about women finding their voices, and on this summer Saturday, the Emmy-nominated actresses seem pleased to share theirs in an uncorseted conversation about how far we as a society have come — and still have to go.


Do you feel like your characters are coming into their own?

Brosnahan: Midge starts out a model 1950s housewife, straight out of Woman’s Day. That doesn’t go away. But she’s learning women face discrimination. The rose-colored glasses have come off, largely thanks to her relationship with Susie.

Borstein: You’re welcome. It was also different for Jewish women in the ’50s and ’60s. In my family, the Jewish women ran everything. My grandmother ran the business. They had a kosher store in Atlanta. She swung chickens over her head. These women have always had a voice. Rose runs the ... house.

Hinkle: I’m finding my voice in a way that mirrors Rose. I’ve been on television for decades; I can count the times I’ve been directed by women on one hand. Working with Amy and these two women has been life-changing.

Do you think the show resonates especially right now?

Borstein: People like the optimism. It’s pretty colors, pretty clothes, pretty face. She’s winning most of the time. People want that break.


Brosnahan: But the nostalgia factor also sometimes makes me nervous. Some people love watching a strong, outspoken woman on television but want it to stay out of real life. If I express an opinion on social media, I’m told to sit down and stick to acting.

Did you do research for the roles?

Borstein: I didn’t. I’m naturally angry so it was easy to find Susie.

Hinkle: I got a lot from Donna Zakowska, our costume designer, who has an exquisite array of period photos, because Rose pays attention to the mores of the time.

I assume the costumes are period-specific down to the undergarments.

Borstein: They’re supposed to be, but I cheat.

Brosnahan: Alex gets to be so comfortable. In pants.

Borstein: Except it’s a leather jacket, wool pants, wool hat, boots …

Brosnahan: In the middle of summer. In Miami.

Borstein: Other than that, I’m comfortable.

Hinkle: Rachel’s clothes are the tightest, with the most corsety things.

Brosnahan: It took us a minute to find the right corset. It was about changing the placement of my waist. In the 1950s the trend was very long-waisted. They built bras for me to create that shape. Rose says Midge starts everything with an accessory. To me, that attention to clothes would feel like a burden, but it makes Midge feel powerful.

Have we evolved past the idea that women can’t be funny?


Hinkle: I just watched Ellen DeGeneres, in her 20s, doing stand-up on Johnny Carson [in 1986]. She’s so funny. And didn’t Carson not always ask comedians over to the couch? So he motions her over — it had to be the man saying it was OK — and they talk about how much harder doing comedy is for a woman. It’s crazy we’re still having that conversation. We haven’t come far enough.

But now Ellen has her own show. And on our show, Amy and Dan [her collaborator and husband Dan Palladino] are bringing forth a whole community of women. I get to call all my female friends and say, “Go for this role.” That is so rare. Think of the “Law & Orders,” the “CSIs,” all these procedural shows that had, like, one [female] scientist or boss or sexy lady.

Borstein: Before, New York actresses just had to wait until someone was being raped on “SVU.”

Brosnahan: The first six years of my career, I was murdered 12 ways to Sunday. I can’t tell you the number of shows I auditioned for where the whole thing was about me crying. Because I was afraid or sad or had been raped or was about to be murdered, because someone broke up with me. I learned how to cry and die a million different ways. As a result, comedy was so terrifying — the idea of playing this woman who is so self-assured it almost didn’t feel real.

Have you experienced a double standard in terms of appearance, which the show underscores, in this industry?

Hinkle: I’ve never spoken about this, but when I started out, I didn’t get an agent right away. There was a lot of talk about bone structure and whether I should change the nose. I’d get a callback and be told, “Someone needs to take you shopping for something that shows the body.” Then they’d want higher [hemlines] and higher heels. And they would put in my dressing room — would they do this with you guys? — chicken-liver type of …

Brosnahan: ... “Cutlets.”

Hinkle: To make the breasts go up higher.

What? To put in your bra?


Borstein: They’re silicone, so it looks like raw chicken.

Hinkle: I was playing the less attractive sister or the humiliated ex-wife, not the pretty girl. But I still needed as much attractiveness as possible. Our culture’s emphasis on this stuff is frustrating.

Brosnahan: Frances McDormand told me the most beautiful thing. She said, “I’m an actor and a woman who’s happy with myself. My face is a road map to my life. Every laugh I’ve laughed, smile I’ve smiled, and time I’ve cried or been angry or frustrated is written on my face, and it’s so important as an actor playing women with different experiences that you can use it to map out somebody’s life.”

Do you think we’re making progress there?

Brosnahan: We might be going backward, with so many new ways to alter your appearance.

Borstein: I don’t know. There’s a lot of ugly women on TV. I think we’ve come a long way. I’m working.

Brosnahan: Oh, shut up.

Do you feel a responsibility to the next generation of women?

Brosnahan: The most important thing we can do is allow them to be hopeful. Maybe they can change things. We have to strive to change things in the biggest ways we can dream of. Otherwise, what’s the ... point?