By Tricia Carr | October 13, 2015 | People
House of Cards' Rachel Brosnahan tells us how her life has changed since she played call girl Rachel Posner on the Netflix hit, and what she admires about her character Abby Isaacs on Manhattan.
Rachel Brosnahan at the 67th Emmy Awards.
Rachel Brosnahan might have gotten everyone's attention when she played a pawn in Frank Underwood's sinister plan to get to the White House in House of Cards, and again when she was nominated for an Emmy for her performance, but the 25-year-old actress won't stop at one career-making role—though she's still feeling "completely spoiled" by her run on the show (more on that below).
Tonight Brosnahan reprises her role as Abby Isaacs, wife to head scientist Dr. Charlie Isaacs, in season two of WGN America's Manhattan, a series set in 1940s Los Alamos, New Mexico, where a group of experts are working in secret to build the first nuclear bomb. Add roles on The Blacklist, Black Box, and The Dovekeepers mini-series and a part in Louder Than Bombs, which premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, to Brosnahan's resume, and you'll want to go straight to her IMDb page to find out what she's doing next. (We'll just tell you: She'll star in director Craig Gillespie's The Finest Hours, due out in 2016.)
Here, Brosnahan tells us how she prepared for her roles in House of Cards and Manhattan, what to expect from Abby this season, and why she wants to play characters that aren't always likable...
House of Cards is such a huge hit. How has your life changed since the show?
RACHEL BROSNAHAN: I’ve been completely spoiled for material, certainly. I’m spoiled forevermore from my time on House of Cards. I think people certainly suspected that House of Cards was going to be a great hit, but it’s been crazy and it’s been really cool to be a part of something that pioneered this new wave of television. Netflix now is the kingpin and I think it started with House of Cards. It’s been really, really cool.
Between Orange is the New Black and House of Cards—those seem to be the top two shows that everyone is always talking about on Netflix.
RB: Right? I think so, too. They’ve got so much amazing new content. I just watched all of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and I hear Narcos is really great, and I want to watch Bloodline. There’s so much good TV in general, but Netflix has the majority of it I think. Maybe I’m biased.
Your role in House of Cards and the show in general is so dark. How did you prepare and really get into character?
RB: I was really only supposed to be in one, maybe two, episodes initially, so the preparation for Rachel was mostly on the fly. It developed unexpectedly and I felt like I was learning new things about Rachel every episode versus some other jobs that I’ve done where you know a lot about the character before you start. Nobody knew anything about Rachel before we started; she didn’t exist. [Laughs]. It was a lot of prep on the fly. But I think toward the middle of the second season, when she develops this relationship with Lisa, you get to learn a lot more about who Rachel is as a person and what she wants, and I think that carries through season two and also into season three.
How do you feel about Rachel's fate on House of Cards?
RB: I was devastated, obviously, because I’ve had the most wonderful time working on the show with the incredible cast and the crew. They’re amazing—top notch. I was sad to leave, but I also think it was necessary for this character and also for Michael Kelly’s character—mostly for Doug Stamper. I don’t think that Stamper could move forward unless it ended this way. Also, what awesome material. Reading the script was a dream. I couldn’t have possibly asked for a better way to go out.
The show is always surprising us. We can't wait for the next season.
RB: Me neither. I’ve never been able to watch it as just a fan. I’m so excited for this next season.
Do you binge-watch the show or do you spread it out because you’re watching yourself?
RB: I don’t watch my stuff, so I’ve only ever seen the episodes that I’m not in. One day I’ll go back and watch it all I’m sure, because I do want to see the show, but I can’t do that yet. I can watch season four, though.
Rachel Brosnahan at the 67th Emmy Awards.
Moving on to Manhattan, what drew you to this show?
RB: I think what drew me to the project was the script. The script came across my desk and I couldn’t put it down. I read it so quickly. I loved all of the characters. I think I initially called my agent and thought, I want to play Charlie, and they said no, and then I said, I want to play Helen, and they said, Nobody wants to see you do that. I wasn’t initially sure about this character, actually. I loved the script. I thought it was incredibly well-written and I was fascinated by the subject matter, but I was concerned about the idea of playing a 1940s housewife. I was worried that that could so easily make me an appendage to a more interesting male character. Very quickly those fears were squashed by [director] Tommy Schlamme and [creator] Sam Shaw. They explained a little bit about where this character was going and that she’s not only three-dimensional and complex, but she also plays around with her own sense of power on The Hill and she gets this job at the switchboard and she becomes privy to some secrets—some game-changing secrets—and she becomes a real player in this crazy game of building the atomic bomb. It was really exciting, then, to play a different kind of 1940s housewife than we’ve seen many times on television. She’s more than what she appears.
What quality do you admire about your character?
RB: Her resilience, I think. Abby, perhaps, was the most shocked arriving at Los Alamos, at least compared to the other women on the show. The other two main women are both scientists and they’re dealing with their own struggles. Helen is a female scientist working on the project and trying to prove herself, and Liza was a very well-respected scientist who comes to The Hill not as a scientist but as a housewife, and that’s very complicated and confusing for her. For Abby, she comes following her husband and she has absolutely no idea what they’re doing there and learns that everything she’s ever expected from her life isn’t possible here. She has to get a job, which is completely unthinkable to someone like Abby. She doesn’t want that life.
The 1940s was a really interesting time for women because there was a shortage of men—they were all abroad in the war. Women were either willingly or unwillingly asked to take on men's roles to fill the gap. Abby finds she relishes this newfound responsibility and that it forces her to ask a lot of questions about the way she’s seen her life mapped out. She’s incredibly resilient. She falls on her face over and over again and picks herself back up and tries to learn from her mistakes and sometimes makes the same ones again.
How do you mentally transport yourself back in time to the 1940s?
RB: The thing is, there’s actually no pretending when it comes to the set that we’re working on. It's unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They built an entire town in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We have hundreds of extras walking around at any given time, decked out in 1940s gear. Every set is just done to perfection. Every square inch is covered, every drawer you open is filled with pieces of history, and the attention to detail on the set, the costumes, the hair and makeup—there’s so little pretending, which has spoiled us greatly.
What can we expect from Abby in season two?
RB: This entire season is dealing with the fallout of everything that happens in season one. They’re dealing with the fallout of all this moral ambiguity of building this weapon of mass destruction in the likes of which the world has never seen before and what that means for the people affected by it, both on this end and on the other end. It’s created wedges in relationships, and I think in season two, for a lot of characters, but you definitely see Abby going at it largely alone. She’s feeling very isolated and she is searching for aid in some unlikely places. It’s hard to say much without giving spoilers, but she makes some unlikely friends on The Hill in season two.
You also see a little bit of something we explored with Abby in season one, with her connection, or lack of connection to her faith. That’s something you’ll see her asking questions about—her faith—and also her relationship to the atrocities that were happening in Europe—the Holocaust. She has family there. You’ll see her looking deeper into that, but you’ll also see her requesting to play a much more active role in her life and in her partnership and in her time there.
Rachel Brosnahan at the 2015 Global Citizen Festival in New York.
All of the roles you’ve played seem very well-rounded. How do you choose to take a role?
RB: It's important to me that the women I’m playing are real people. That sounds really simple, but it’s not always the case. With large roles or small roles or anything in between, just that they’re representative of real women and not perpetuating negative stereotypes. I’ve been really lucky to be able to play some of these women who are allowed to wear many hats and who are sometimes unlikable. That’s been one of the most fun things about playing both Rachel and Abby—they’re both not always likable. It’s been a huge privilege to represent women like that that don’t often get to be seen on television.
What actors do you look up to?
RB: Oh gosh, there are new ones ever yday, but certainly Francis McDormand and Emma Thompson. I have grown to love and admire Michael Kelly from House of Cards. They’re amazing and they choose such incredible projects. They bring such a life force to everything they get their hands on. I certainly strive to emulate a lot of things about them in my own career.
Photography courtesy of Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for TNT LA; Frazer Harrison/Getty Images; Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Global Citizen