Rachel Brosnahan has appeared in some of television’s most acclaimed dramas, such as House of Cards and The Blacklist. But in WGN America’s Manhattan, she takes on her most challenging role yet.
Set in New Mexico, Manhattan follows the story surrounding the mission to build the first atomic bomb, and the personal struggles of the scientists and their families involved in this task. Brosnahan plays Abby Isaacs, the wife of scientist Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman), and we spoke exclusively with the actress to find out more about how she became involved with the show, and what we can expect for the rest of season one.
Can you talk a little bit about your path to this role? How you heard of it, what inspired you to take it, and what resonated with you about the show, or about the role itself?
“It was pilot season, when things were coming across your desk, and a lot of it…wasn’t very good [laughs]. And this came across, and I couldn’t put it down. It was the best script I’ve read in a long time, and it was funny because I wasn’t actually sure…I wasn’t actually sure I was going to go in for Abby. I really wanted to go in for Helen. And I called my agent, I was like ‘I really, really want to go in for Helen.’ I’d only seen the first script, and I’m not sure you get entirely a sense of where Abby could go. She’s lost, and I didn’t want her to be an appendix to the storyline. And then I got on the phone with Sam [Shaw] and Tommy [Schlamme], who very quickly explained to me that her journey was so much larger, and just like that, I became very interested. So I’m glad they gave me a shot at it.”
I’ve talked to a few of your co-stars, and one of the things that was predominant in our conversations was how much everyone loves the script, and how much they love working on the show and how passionate they are about the project.
“It’s so hard to express, but it’s the most wonderful ensemble to be a part of. And I think we all took a risk being there, WGN America, who knows – even though everyone’s making wonderful new television, we all fell in love with the script and every single person wants to be there because we’re so incredibly passionate about the project, which has created this incredibly playful atmosphere where we’re discovering new things about our characters and each other. We’re creating a community in Santa Fe and I can’t quite articulate how incredible it feels to be a part of this ensemble.”
Filming in New Mexico, you not only have to deal with the conditions of weather, but also with the fact you guys are kind of off the grid – it’s not like LA or NY where there’s a ton of other things going on.
“It’s impossible to compare our situation to anything that these people went through during that time, but it has helped ground us in even the smallest way, in the way that we also left our families and friends and came here to create this thing and be together. And obviously, we’re not really creating the atomic bomb, we’re just telling a story about it…but it’s been grounding in that way, too. And also it’s an incredible set, which is outside. We’re not shooting on a stage. We’re breathing the air, we’re dealing with the elements as they come…the weather changes every five minutes and we have the luxury of shooting outside and the executives and people who will say ‘just go for it, try it.'”
Did you do a lot of research about the time period or about certain individuals in the time period once you got the role?
“Absolutely. I tried to avoid research specifically about the science of it because Abby doesn’t know anything about it. The less I could know about that stuff, the better. But there are wonderful accounts written by the wives of the scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, and quite a few books that tell their story, and it was so interesting because a lot of them focused more on the day to day. They talk about how they were able to create a community that focused on bettering their lives there, because no one else seemed to be in charge of it except for them. They talk about things water shortages and electrical outages, and that really helped to bring the world to life for me because it’s hard to figure out what the people who weren’t working on the bomb do every day. And that’s what they were trying to figure out too. There’s a lot of drinking and partying [laughs] and it was a strange place and time in our industry, but they all came from different backgrounds. They were highly educated and sort of had to put their careers on hold to be a part of this thing, and there were people like Abby who had no idea what they were in for. They knew that they were there for something important, but they were trying to create a world for themselves and their family.”
Abby is a woman and a wife in the middle of a world where men kind of really do run everything. What do you think is most important about her, or what do you think is the hardest thing for her in adjusting to all of this?
“I think the hardest part is that Abby is faced with the realization, maybe not consciously, that she doesn’t know who she is. She was taught that there was a way for women to behave, and suddenly she’s thrown into a community where her role and her position and who she is and who she wants to be, is challenged. And suddenly she has a job that she doesn’t want because in her opinion, it’s not work. And then because she has to, she kind of finds that she likes it, and what does that mean, and she finds that she’s so much stronger than she ever thought she was, and balanced. But I think that’s an integral part of it.”
And how it working specifically with Ashley [Zuckerman]? I assume you guys have to be pretty close given the rapport that comes across on screen.
“Ashley’s amazing. From the first table read, I was all, ‘oh, this is going to be fun.’ We get along so well. We work differently, but he’s so passionate about what he does, he wants to play and our styles of working go together well. It’s been a blast. I couldn’t imagine anyone else being my husband.”
It’s like having the best of both worlds.
“It totally is! Have your relationship back at home, and then have your set husband that you brings you coffee.” [laughs]
You’ve appeared a number of acclaimed shows like Blacklist and House of Cards. How does your role in Manhattan compare to your other experiences?
“There is some comfort in being a series regular, which is something I have not done before. You have a little more input which is nice. I’ve never played a role like this, the period and the person – Abby is someone who speaks her mind really all the time, and it’s been very challenging and exciting, but I also feel like I’m figuring out how I like to work as an actor and what works for me and what doesn’t work. I’m a little more comfortable approaching something scary at this point.”
So what can you tease about what’s coming up for your character without giving too much away?
“I don’t know if I can say anything! [laughs] Everything changes so quickly, but it’s very reactive, so it’s hard to say anything. Expect a lot of change. The next few episodes, you see Abby maturing into a new Abby in a lot of ways. More happens to Abby in the next few episodes. She becomes a lot less naïve, and that’s the biggest change.”
Manhattan airs Sunday nights at 10/9c on WGN America.