Rachel Brosnahan apologizes for politely stabbing little pieces of her salad as she talks about starting her second year as Abby Isaacs on WGN America’s Manhattan.
It’s been a busy day for Brosnahan. Actually, it’s been a busy couple of years.
Besides Manhattan, which returns Tuesday, Oct. 13 at 9 p.m. ET, she’s broken out in the film “Beautiful Creatures,” had a long run on The Blacklist, starred in The Dovekeepers, appeared in the hits Orange is the New Black, Olive Kitteridge and Grey’s Anatomy and scored an Emmy nomination as Rachel Posner on House of Cards.
Not bad for an actress who just turned 25 in April.
“The last couple of years have been fantastically crazy,” says Brosnahan (top). “They’ve taught me to find peace with the chaos.”
In a general sense, that’s also the mission for Abby Isaacs. She’s among a group of men and women who were relocated to Los Alamos, N.M., during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.
In this ultra-classified enterprise, Abby isn’t a mastermind. She’s just married to someone who is: Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zukerman, right), a whiz kid and physics genius who is rising to star status inside a brilliant and massively competitive group.
The Abby we first meet seems perfectly happy to be a mid-20th century housewife, tending to the home and the kids while she supports a sometimes-preoccupied husband whose work she feels no need to understand.
But once it became clear during season one that the goal of this mission was saving the world, Abby and most of the other women found it impossible to act as if this were just another routine job relocation.
“Before, I don’t think Abby thought much about the world,” says Brosnahan. “Or saving the world. Women were not encouraged to ask questions or look too closely at what was going on.
“But this was also a time when we had Rosie the Riveter, who was told she had to work if we were going to win the war. She was told to get in there and she did. She was ferocious.”
The Abby Isaacs we first met would not be called ferocious. But as the rules and the times changed, so does she.
“Women were getting an expanded role in the partnership,” says Brosnahan. “In season two, you’ll see a lot of Abby starting to ask some of the questions.
“She also has discovered she has a personal connection to the war, and she finds herself in a situation for which she has no framework. There are no rational solutions.”
This multi-layered dilemma helps explain why Brosnahan was drawn to Abby Isaacs in the first place.
“It’s awesome to play three-dimensional women who are dealing with life as it comes at them,” she says, adding that younger female characters aren’t always written that way.
“I’m attracted to intelligent, complex women,” Brosnahan says. “And women often aren’t portrayed that way at younger ages. I usually play older characters, even though I don’t think I look older than I am.”
She definitely played older with Rachel Posner (right) on House of Cards, who was nominally the same age as Brosnahan, but had been around the block more than a few times.
At the end of season three, Posner was apparently murdered by Doug Stumper (Michael Kelley), the violent conclusion of a violent relationship between the two.
That wasn’t art imitating life. Brosnahan says one of the things she misses most about House of Cards is “running lines with Michael. He was so great.
“The whole show was the most incredible experience. I can’t believe how fortunate I’ve been to have gotten roles like that.”
It’s not all fortune, of course. She trained for years and studied at NYU, which she says “educated me as a person and an actress.”
Still, NYU trains a lot of actors who haven’t yet gotten a first break.
“I went to school with a lot of really talented actors whose names you haven’t heard yet who are out there fighting the good fight every day,” Brosnahan says. “If you’re talented, your chance will come.”
Hers just perhaps came sooner.
“It’s a lot of stars aligning,” she says after another forkful of lettuce, “that I’m not waitressing.”