Big Issue Vendor

Mrs Maisel star Rachel Brosnahan: Meeting my homeless peers changed my life

Rachel Brosnahan, star of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, on her new film I'm Your Woman, Amazon's big new comedy special, and the youth homelessness charity that changed her life

Rachel Brosnahan has become one of the biggest names in the acting world thanks to her starring role in The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, for which she has won two Golden Globes and an Emmy. 

But it was not winning the role of Midge Maisel or the phenomenal success of the hit series that turned her world upside down. It was a pre-fame sleep out with a US youth homelessness charity back in 2012. 

Brosnahan has been working with Covenant House, a pan-American organisation providing shelter, food and support to young people experiencing homelessness, ever since. 

Support The Big Issue and our vendors this Christmas by signing up for a subscription

“At 23 years oldI was sitting across the table from my peers who were experiencing homelessness and it felt wildly unfair,” she saysPaid shelter, food and clean clothes and the opportunities for a brighter future should be a right and not a privilege. 

What was supposed to be a one-night charity Sleep Out alongside her Broadway co-workers has since turned into a long-term commitment.  

I’ve been profoundly moved and changed by working with Covenant House the last eight years and getting to spend time with these brilliant, brilliant young people who are experiencing and overcoming homelessness,” Brosnahan continues. 

“They are our future. They are so much more than just their circumstance. They are our future teachers and doctors and lawyers and mothers and fathers and so much more. And it’s important that we support them.”  

When she calls The Big IssueBrosnahan is driving home for Christmas – midway between Los Angeles and New York“We are in a Campervan, somewhere in the middle of Indiana, I think, she says. “I’m looking at a cornfield. Or a wheat field. Some kind of very large field.” 

It’s nice to report that, even from far away, she knows about our work: “I have heard about The Big Issue and I am so in awe of the work that you guys do,” she says.

In the years since her first Sleep Out for Covenant House, Brosnahan has become rather famous. The roles got bigger – a troubled waitress in HBO’s classy adaptation of Olive Kitteridge, then, as Rachel Posner – a pivotal player in House Of Cards killed by the President’s righthand man. But The Marvellous Mrs Maisel truly established her as a lead actor.

“It’s a huge privilege that is one of the potential side effects of this job that I love,” says Brosnahan. “It has amplified my voice and it’s really important if you have a platform, you do something with it.

“These platforms are so powerful and you have a choice every day how you use it. I’m grateful to share mine with Covenant House. 

The industry power that comes with winning major awards and starring in a global hit mean Brosnahan can also help make major projects happen. She is calling, mid-roadtrip, to promote new film I’m Your Woman, which she produced and stars in.

It’s a 1970s gangster film with a twist – when the gangster goes on the run, the camera follows his wife, Jean, played by Brosnahan, who is left holding a young baby that isn’t hers and a large bag of cash.

I was so moved by this script, but didn’t understand her at all,” says Brosnahan 

“I love that we swing the lens on to the underrepresented and underserved characters in these stories we’re so familiar with and that we love dearly. These are stories that happen on the fringes of traditional 1970s thrillers, or not at all.” 

It is a story of reinvention, of finding your voice, of becoming.

“We get to watch someone coming into their own and discovering a strength inside them frame by frame by frame,” says BrosnahanShe doesn’t become an overnight badass.” 

We are ready to heal through collective laughter from this utter shitstorm of a year 

Brosnahan also threw her producing power behind a huge comedy special for Amazon Prime called Yearly Departed – putting together a fitting send-off for the year 2020, featuring Tiffany Haddish, Sarah Silverman and many more.

It is, she says, “a roster of brilliant female comedians, and we are ready to heal through collective laughter from this utter shitstorm of a year,” says Brosnahan, who performs as a heightened version of herself. 

Due to Covid restrictions, the eulogies – for it takes place in a funeral parlour and the comics take turns to bid good f***ing riddance to 2020 – are delivered without an audience. Surely any stand-up comic’s worst nightmare?  

“We shot it in such a strange time and there’s some really impressive technical feats involved – a lot of it was shot without anyone in the same room,” says Brosnahan. 

“It’s a testament to these brilliant women that they could be as funny as they are with absolute silence coming from the room in front of them.”

So what are Brosnahan’s takeaways from 2020? She casts her mind back to New York City’s first lockdown back in March, and a visit to Covenant House.  

“I remember talking to [the organisation’s president] Kevin Ryan about how more than 90 percent of Covenant House New York residents had lost their jobs,” she says.

“Schools had shut and so many young people who had worked incredibly hard to begin to make their way out of homelessness, who had worked their way out of Covenant House and had stable housing in college dorms, suddenly found themselves having to return. It was devastating.

Because it is so important to break the cycle of homelessness before it becomes the cycle of adult homelessness, which is so much more difficult to work your way out of. 

But I have been so encouraged by the support, from people I know and love and strangers on the internet, who have rallied behind these young people during this incredibly scary and precarious time.

“That’s been one of the biggest lights in so much darkness. I have been reminded of how many people there are out there who want to help and do good – and who have used this moment to expand their hearts and their minds.”

Brosnahan has a busy 2021 aheadShooting begins on The Marvellous Mrs Maisel season 4 in January. 

“I’m very excited to get the family back together again,” she says. “It’s the longest we’ve been apart since we started the show and we miss each other.”

New movie The Courier, with Benedict Cumberbatch – “just brilliant, couldn’t be lovelier, and as a half-Brit, that was the first time I’d ever worked in the UK” – comes out in early 2021. And Brosnahan returns to the UK to try out her British accent in an adaptation of Beth Leary’s hit novel, The Switch later in the year 

She is, she says, looking ahead with hope in her heart.

“I certainly feel more hopeful today than I did a few weeks ago!” she says. “And I do feel hopeful, I feel like people are ready for big and long lasting change.

“And I draw so much of that hope from the young people at Covenant House. I have never experienced a place that is full of as much hope – we should be drawing on those young people for inspiration. 

I’m Your Woman and Yearly Departed are out now on Amazon Prime