‘Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Star Rachel Brosnahan Plays an Inspiring ’60s Woman in This True Story

Rachel Brosnahan plays an inspiring ’50s woman in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Midge (Brosnahan) breaks into the male-dominated world of stand-up comedy in Amazon’s award-winning hit show. In her new role, Brosnahan moves forward to the ’60s and plays another inspiring woman with a very different job.

Rachel Brosnahan
Rachel Brosnahan | Mat Hayward/GC Images

Ironbark stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Greville Wynne, a real-life British businessman who became a spy with Russian agent Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), code name Ironbark. Brosnahan plays CIA agent Emily Donovan, who recruits Wynne. Brosnahan and the Ironbark filmmakers spoke about the film’s true story at the Sundance Film Festival premiere. Cumberbatch was away in New Zealand filming another movie. 

Rachel Brosnahan thought ‘Ironbark’ was another ‘Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a historical drama, based on the real world of the past but an original fiction. When Brosnahan read Ironbark, she was surprised to learn the true story.

“When I first read the script, I actually didn’t know that it was based on a true story,” Brosnahan said. “Then learning it was a true story can’t believe that we don’t talk about the relationship between these two men more and this extraordinary thing that they did. Obviously drawn into the first page, just loved every single second of it.”

Rachel Brosnahan’s character in ‘Ironbark’ wasn’t real

Screenwriter Tom O’Connor revealed there was no Emily Donovan. Brosnahan plays an amalgam of real CIA agents, none of whom were actually women. 

“It was unusual for a woman to have that prominent a role as a CIA officer,” O’Connor said. “That was a decision made. It just felt like it’s too much a bunch of guys.”

Tom O'Connor, Merab Ninidze, Dominic Cooke, and Rachel Brosnahan at Sundance
L-R: Tom O’Connor, Merab Ninidze, Dominic Cooke, and Rachel Brosnahan | by George Pimentel/Getty Images

Creating a female CIA agent character allowed O’Connor to explore the gender dynamics of the ’60s, just like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel examines sexism in the entertainment industry in the ’50s.

“I think one thing it really brought to us is a sense of OK, if she was a woman in the ’60s operating in this incredibly misogynistic, incredibly patriarchal milieu, how would she have to maneuver? How would she have to operate? A lot of the things you see about her clever manipulation of the men, especially the MI-6 officers, really came out of that. It sort of added this whole dimension that wouldn’t have existed had it just been a bunch of guys. That was a creative choice that led to a whole bunch of really interesting things that Rachel brought to the character.”

Tom O’Connor, Ironbark Sundance Film Festival Q&A, 1/24/2020

There was a real female spy who didn’t fit into ‘Ironbark’

Director Dominic Cooke revealed they did uncover a female spy in their research, but she didn’t fit into the Greville Wynne story.

“There was actually a woman who passed a lot of stuff over who was based in Moscow,” Cooke said. “There was a woman who was absolutely central to the story, but we couldn’t really focus on that side of the story because it’s a whole other dimension. We wanted to focus on this relationship.”

Rachel Brosnahan champions women’s stories

Brosnahan has made a good career championing women’s historical stories. Even before The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, she played a woman involved with the Manhattan Project in Manhattan. Now, add Ironbark to her resume.

Rachel Brosnahan
Rachel Brosnahan | Cindy Ord/Getty Images

“There are so many contributions from women, by women during this time and certainly to this effort that aren’t spoken about in history books,” Brosnahan said. “Maybe not in this exact position, but it felt important to acknowledge their contributions as well. If there was, in fact, a woman in this position, it wouldn’t be easy for her. It would be a unique set of challenges that she faced occupying that job.”