SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from the series finale of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
More than half a decade ago, Rachel Brosnahan stepped in front of a vintage microphone to deliver a standup routine as 1950s Upper West Side housewife-turned-comic Miriam “Midge” Maisel. It was early on in production for the first season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and she was terrified.
“I remember turning to Alex [Borstein, who plays Maisel’s no-nonsense manager Susie Myerson] and going, ‘Please don’t let me suck,’” Brosnahan tells Variety. “’If you see something, say something; like, please, any advice at all, I’ll take it.’ She looked at me and said, ‘I can’t help you. Take up your space, and ask for what you need. And bring this character into the world. Nobody knows who she is but you.’”
In the series finale, titled “Four Minutes,” Brosnahan (who has won Emmy, SAG, Critics Choice and Golden Globe awards for the role) performs one last set — when Midge appears on “The Gordon Ford Show,” the Johnny Carson-esque late-night talk show where she’s working as a writer.
Ford (Reid Scott) begrudgingly breaks his rule that employees can’t be on the show by booking Midge — but not to do her comedy act or for a chat at his desk like regular guests. Instead, he introduces Midge to the live audience as the show’s “resident lady writer,” and cracks jokes about her job while they perch on two high stools. When a frustrated Ford throws to a commercial break in the middle of the bit, leaving four minutes to go, Midge makes a split-second decision.
“I’m thinking about doing something, Susie — something reckless that could go very badly for both of us. It could ruin us. Definitely me; but you by extension,” Midge says, glancing in the direction of a microphone stand like its begging for her to speak into it.
“You started your career by standing on a stage that no one told you to get up on, saying a bunch of shit that no one wanted you to say. So, tits up,” Susie replies, giving Midge their signature salute of encouragement, one last time.
With her parents Abe and Rose (Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle) and ex-husband Joel (Michael Zegen) in the audience, Midge seizes her opportunity to perform on live TV, and delivers an inspired set.
“I want a big life; I want to experience everything. I want to break every single rule there is,” Midge says, bringing the routine to a rousing conclusion. “They say ambition is an unattractive trait in a woman — maybe. But you know what’s really unattractive? Waiting around for something to happen. Staring out a window, thinking the life you should be living is out there somewhere, but not being willing to open the door and go out there and get it, even if someone tells you you can’t.”
The punchline: “Being a coward is only cute in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”
A star is born. Even Ford can’t deny it, dubbing her “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” while Midge (now seated on the couch) beams with pride.
Read on as Brosnahan reflects on working with show creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino on that final monologue and the cast’s tearful last day on set.
What does it feel like when you look back on these five seasons of playing Midge? How has your approach to her changed over these years?
The approach has been the same, because it’s been so by the seat of our pants. It’s been, from day one, kind of bend your knees and ride the wave, and trust this foundation that Amy and Dan have built beneath us. When you have brilliant writing like this, and when you’re surrounded by a cast of this caliber and a crew at the top of their game, it becomes a lot easier to trust fall. In that way, the approach has stayed the same, but it’s been really fun to get to explore these different sides of Midge, especially in this fifth season.
While Midge has always been somebody who’s been confident, it’s been nice to watch her get a little more comfortable with this new stage of her life. More confident in her ability to take up space in a way that feels different from how she used to.
She seems more secure in herself in the sense that she knows she’s funny. She knows she can do this. And she’s really trying to live up to what she says to Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby), “I’m not letting this window get past me.”
He really humbled her at the end of last season, so we find her deeply committed to that promise that she makes to him, and to herself, and to Susie that it’s about the two of them at the end of the day. She owes it to Susie to deliver on the promise she made to her in season one.
Tell me about your conversations with Amy and Dan, and also with Alex, about the idea that this series really is about Midge and Susie at the end of the day. This is a roller coaster of a friendship that they have over decades.
Midge and Susie are the romance at the center of the show. It’s a love story about the two of them. Alex said it earlier, but it’s the way every great rom-com begins. Midge quite literally stumbles into Susie at the Gaslight at a time when her whole life exploded. These are two people who maybe would never have crossed paths, were it not for this fateful night where they met and where Susie saw something in Midge that she couldn’t see in herself.
As we’ve been talking about the show, we’ve realized that both of them started out with worldviews that were as big as their backyards, for different reasons. Midge’s was shrouded in privilege. She carefully crafted and built this perfect life for herself that she’d always dreamed of, and she was satisfied with that. For Susie, it was out of necessity. It was out of survival, looking to what’s right in front of her face and trying to make it to the next day. Because of this relationship, their worlds have gotten bigger, their ambitions have gotten bigger. They’re able to see outside of themselves in brand new ways. It’s one of my favorite love stories, and it’s been really cool to hear that reflected back from our audiences.
What was it like saying that final “Tits Up”?
Oh, man, hard. Alex and I couldn’t even look at each other that day. We shot that scene on the last day. We came in for rehearsal early in the morning, and we literally couldn’t look at each other. I was looking at Alex’s forehead and she was looking at my chin or something. We just blocked it out for the crew, and tried to save it for when we had to shoot that final piece together.
It was emotional for everyone. But it was really special because we got to close out the chapter together with almost every part of the family, and almost everyone who had been there on the show over multiple seasons. We had to land the plane together, have our big feelings together and say goodbye to this thing that has changed all our lives. It was the perfect way to end.
It really cracks the audience’s hearts open, because as you’re performing that final four minutes, we’re also seeing the growth, and memories from the series rush back. When did Amy and Dan tell you that this would be how things end?
They didn’t really. We got the script for the final episode probably the day before the table read. The script showed up in our inboxes, and we read it and all kind of texted each other like, “Holy shit, they did it!” And what a gift to all of us.
Then, one of the greatest gifts that Amy gave to me was to let me choose what the last moment we shot would be. So, the very last shot we did was of Midge on the couch when Gordon Ford says, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Now, I’m gonna cry. It was very emotional.
How did that moment evolve from script to set? Because yes, it is already kind of perfect, but then you have to be in the moment and hear those words come from Gordon’s mouth.
There was no acting necessary. I looked out into the audience and Marin is crying, Caroline [Aaron, as Midge’s ex-mother-in-law Shirley] is crying, and Alex is crying — I couldn’t even look at Alex. Reid was such an amazing partner for that moment — shout out to him — because he was also a part of a show that went seven seasons, “Veep.” He knows what it’s like to close out a chapter this big. He was so generous that entire week, but especially that day, and especially in that moment.
How did performing that four minutes stack up against all the other incredible standup runs you’ve had to do on that show? Was it high-anxiety, or did you feel very settled into it?
I felt settled into it in a way that I really wasn’t expecting, because it kept changing. Amy wanted it, rightfully, to be the perfect final set for Midge to go out on, so she was tweaking and tweaking it until about 48 hours before we shot it. So, I sat there with the script, feeling very intimidated about learning this volume of material with 48 hours to go. But I’ve always felt immensely supported by this cast and crew — and I realize what a rare gift that is — but I have never felt more a part of a team in that moment, in the hours that we spent shooting that scene.
I couldn’t help but reflect on one of the first sets that I ever shot, where I was so petrified, heading into this show, having no experience in comedy, not really knowing anything about the world and being surrounded by giants like Alex, Tony, Marin and Michael, who have so much experience. I remember turning to Alex during one of the earliest sets in the first season, and going, “Please don’t let me suck.” Like if you see something, say something; like, please, any advice at all, I’ll take it. And she looked at me and said, “I can’t help you. Take up your space, and ask for what you need. And bring this character into the world. Nobody knows who she is but you.”
I just was so struck by how far we’ve come, and so grateful for how far I’ve come from those earliest sets to the very end. It was really special, and just a wild experience.
What a life lesson: “Take up your space, and ask for what you need.” I mean, it’s what Midge learns. It sounds like it’s what you learned on this series as well.
Absolutely, yes. And I feel so lucky to have been able to work with folks who helped me learn that lesson for so many years.
Now not to be vain, but I have to ask about the dress that Midge chose to wear, because it is also perfect. Did you have any hand in selecting it? Might it be in your closet at this moment?
It really is such a beautiful dress. It’s not in my closet. I think that dress is gonna go on tour. I wish. Maybe one day.
One of many best parts about being on this show has been collaborating with Donna Zakowska, our brilliant costume designer. And Donna has taught me so much about Midge and her journey through her clothes. Midge is someone who puts a lot of thought into the way that she presents to the world, and leads with that in many regards. That’s something that Donna brilliantly crafted for her — Donna is a beautiful storyteller — and that costume came out of Donna’s brain and was the perfect thing to end on. I was happy to trust fall into Donna’s capable hands for five seasons on the show.
As you mentioned, you chose the final shot to be Midge hearing “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Why?
It was a scene that everyone was in. We all got to do it together. But it was one of those moments where, when we read it at the table read, it was really emotional. It just felt like the perfect button on the end of this marvelous chapter, if you will. Forgive me for that [pun].
I was thinking I should’ve been working “marvelous” in more often.
I know, it’s terrible. But it’s the first and only time we ever hear it on this series, and it just felt like in that moment, everything came full circle.
What did you do immediately after Amy said, “That’s a wrap.”
Amy kept shooting, actually. We just kept going, and I kept wondering if there was something wrong or if she wasn’t getting what she needed. Then later, someone said, “I just don’t think she was quite ready to let go, so she kept calling for another take.” And we’d do it again. And we’d do it again. Then I think it got late. There was no more time. We all just cried. They popped some pink confetti in perfect “Maisel” fashion, we all had a toast together, and then we all went home.
This interview has been edited and condensed.