‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’: Amy Sherman-Palladino Travels to the ’50s for Latest Irrepressible Heroine

Like her dialogue, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s direction comes at rapid speed.

It’s July in Brooklyn, and the “Gilmore Girls” creator is helming episode five of her new Amazon series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which bows on Amazon on Nov. 29.

Almost as soon as she yells, “Action!” she announces: “Go again!”

The set, completely silent seconds ago, is now a cacophony of extras repositioning and hundreds of crew members readjusting heavy equipment. A scant few minutes pass before Sherman-Palladino yells, “Action!” again. The action-reaction cycle repeats four more times before she’s satisfied.

“Rach,” says Sherman-Palladino, “that was perfect.”

“Rach” is “House of Cards” and “Manhattan” alum Rachel Brosnahan, and “Maisel” marks her first leading role in a television series. She plays Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a 1950s Jewish housewife who thinks she has it all: the perfect husband, the perfect children and the perfect, enormous Upper West Side apartment. Then, without warning, her world is turned upside down when her husband announces he’s leaving her. Fueled by feminist rage, pitch-perfect timing and that trademark Sherman-Palladino patter, Midge realizes she’s got skills as a stand-up comic.

Actor Rachel Brosnahan photographed by Celeste Sloman for Variety -Rachel Brosnahan photographed by Celeste Sloman in New York on Novemebr 14, 2017 for Variety.
CREDIT: Celeste Sloman for Variety

Think a splash of Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine” mixed with plenty of Joan Rivers and Mary Tyler Moore. But Midge doesn’t wallow in self-pity; instead, she confidently embraces her newfound potential.

“The story I really wanted to do was about a woman in the 1950s who didn’t hate her life,” explains Sherman-Palladino. “We’ve seen that a lot — a woman, staring out the window drinking her sherry, popping her second olive and smoking her cigarettes. I wanted to do a story about a woman who thought she scored, made it. She has it all and then ‘Bam!’ It all falls apart, and in falling apart she discovers an ambition and a need to speak and a voice that she frankly didn’t know was there.”

Sherman-Palladino was inspired to create the show based on her experiences growing up with her father, a stand-up comic. That Catskills-era humor infects the series, a loving homage to the ’50s as well as the burgeoning comedy scene. It’s a departure from the waspy, Connecticut world of “Gilmore Girls” — and directly drawn from Sherman-Palladino’s upbringing in Los Angeles.

“I grew up listening to Mel Brooks and all of that Jewish rhythm,” she says. “What I love about the Jewish community [I’m from] is that it was very combative and very verbal. Full of debates and ideas.”

As with “Gilmore Girls,” the script is packed with blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em pop culture references: Lenny Bruce is a character in the show. But Sherman-Palladino and her husband, series executive producer Daniel Palladino, are used to throwing a lot at their viewers. “Instead of researching William Shakespeare, they’ll have to Google June Jacobs,” cracks Sherman-Palladino.

Count Brosnahan among the newly educated. “Amy’s an encyclopedia. I don’t know where she learned half this stuff,” says the actress. “There are so many somewhat obscure references from episode to episode I was constantly Googling.”

Brosnahan is surrounded by an all-star cast — from Tony Shalhoub as her father to Alex Borstein as the comedy club manager who takes her under her wing — but credit is also due to Judaism, which plays a key supporting role. The scripts are peppered with jokes about Yom Kippur, brisket and Buchenwald.

Despite the cultural references, Sherman-Palladino says “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not a story about a Jewish girl. “It’s a story about this particular girl who comes from this family,” she explains. “We played into [Jewish culture] because it’s where Midge’s humor is coming from.”

“I wanted to do a story about a woman who thought she made it. She has it all and then ‘Bam!’ It all falls apart, and in falling apart she discovers … a voice she frankly didn’t know was there.”
Amy Sherman-Palladino

Notably, Brosnahan isn’t Jewish. She’s also not a comedian. But Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino didn’t care. “If a stand-up comedian can make you laugh, there’s something in them that’s intelligent, sharp and dark,” he says. “Rachel was able to play that in the audition.”

No matter, notes Brosnahan, who says she grew up well-versed in Jewish culture. “I don’t think I had a friend that wasn’t Jewish,” she says. “And so this felt familiar to me in a lovely way. I have so much love and admiration for the community, the culture, and I love that this show is unabashedly Jewish.”

And there’s more to come: “There’s some real inside humor in here,” she reports. “There’s a really extended joke in one of the later episodes about a mezuzah that I was on the floor about. It’s hilarious.”

Brosnahan says she was drawn by the chance to play someone so confident, as well as to work with a female creator. The experience, she says, has changed her profoundly. “I had never really done comedy, let alone stand-up,” she says. “And man, I don’t know how those guys do it. It’s one of the bravest things I can possibly imagine. I will never be that brave.”

Navigating Palladino’s famously tongue-twisting scripts was hard enough, let alone the extended stand-up routines. “Definitely not like anything else I’ve ever worked on,” says Brosnahan. “It’s more words than you think possible to speak. And faster than you can imagine your mouth can move.”

Back on set on the first floor of the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center, Brosnahan whispers to Sherman-Palladino about where to enter the frame. Once an old bank, the colossal stone building now plays host to the countless New York City film productions in need of stage space. For “Maisel,” the building’s ground floor, with 22-foot ceilings, has been transformed into B. Altman department store — Midge’s place of employment as she tries to support herself post-divorce. Adorned with Christmas decorations, the store is strikingly similar to modern-day Bloomingdale’s, except that all the props are from the 1950s, and all the extras are wearing period hats and attire.

Brosnahan stands at the store’s makeup counter as Sherman-Palladino directs her to try a take in “teacher mode”: She wants the actress to treat her client like a student who can’t spell — or, in this case, can’t apply eye makeup.

The quick interaction between the assertive director and the inquisitive, eager-to-please young actress captures perfectly what Sherman-Palladino is hoping to see on-screen. The director nods approvingly as Brosnahan sails through the makeup lesson.

Attention to period detail was key to the Palladinos, who applaud Amazon for affording them the budget to accommodate those telling touches. Re-creating New York in the ’50s means not just expensive costumes but also plenty of digital magic: “We had to remove a lot of bike lanes,” jokes Daniel Palladino.

Amazon’s recent creative struggles may have garnered headlines — content chief Roy Price was forced out in October — but the Palladinos have nothing but praise for the streamer, who they say supported their vision through every step of the process.

Soon after the show’s 57-minute pilot, written and directed by Sherman-Palladino, was released online March 16 to rave reviews, Amazon ordered two seasons — the first multi-season order for a new series in the company’s history.

“Gilmore Girls” alum Alex Borstein, right (with Rachel Brosnahan), reunited with Amy Sherman-Palladino to play comedy club manager Susie Borstein.
MGM/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock; willson: Photofest

The duo worried Amazon wouldn’t approve of Brosnahan’s casting, thinking it would want a bigger-name star. “We were ready for a fight,” remembers Sherman-Palladino. “I was thinking, ‘How quickly are you going to go down? Will you fall on your sword? Are you happy to let the project die?’ Those are the decisions you have to make when you’re going into the casting process.”

After a martini, the couple called Amazon execs — and instead of a brawl, they quickly discovered the company was on their side. Small wonder, then, that they inked an overall deal with the streamer.

Now they say they’d never go back to broadcast. “No, no, no,” says Palladino. “Was that clear enough?” And while they may not know where the series ends, they’ve plotted out Midge’s journey for at least four seasons.

That begs the question of the fate of “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life,” which premiered last year on Netflix. Fans warmly embraced the limited series, which answered the questions of the original series, but left the door somewhat open with a few pointed cliffhangers.

In March, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, hinted that there may be more “Gilmore Girls” coming, telling the U.K. Press Assn. that there have been “very preliminary” discussions with the husband-wife team about producing more installments of the franchise. But given the duo’s overall Amazon deal, a return to Stars Hollow for the competition seems a remote possibility.

“I actually wrote [‘Mrs. Maisel’] before we did the ‘Gilmore Girls’ movies,” says Sherman-Palladino. “I wrote it, and then Netflix called and said, ‘Hey, here’s a check. Come work with us for a year,’ so it was tabled. When ‘Gilmore’ got done, we went ahead with ‘Maisel.’ The world changes in a year. All I can say is it’s a story about a woman finding her voice in a time when women weren’t really supposed to have a voice. Oddly enough, that’s apparently something we’re still going through now.”

Taking a break from Lorelai and Rory Gilmore doesn’t seem to bother Sherman-Palladino. She’s ready to sink her nails into all things Midge.

“The late ’50s was a transitional time in comedy,” she says. “It’s a rich arena to explore, and it’s a great vehicle to show a woman and the constant pull between the desire for that life that was comfortable and fun and easy and this other life that is going to be hard and harder. She’s thinking, ‘Maybe there will be a doctor who can take me away from this — or I can open for Carson.’”

Debra Birnbaum contributed to this story.

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