While a television show about the race to film the first atomic bomb may not scream fashion, the 1940s-inspired costumes—complete with housedresses swathed in floral prints, intricately detailed blouses, and menswear-inspired trousers—say otherwise. The show is WGN America’s Manhattan. The setting: Los Alamos, New Mexico. And at the center is the brilliant but flawed scientist Charlie Issacs and his wife, Abby, played by House of Cards star Rachel Brosnahan.
Earlier this summer at the show’s press junket, we sat down with Brosnahan to talk all things Abby, particularly her amazing style, and who and what inspires her real-life look. Hint: Designer Kate Spade plays a big part! Keep reading for our exclusive interview with the actress, and tune into tonight at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT for the season two premiere of Manhattan.
Who What Wear: Season two of Manhattan is here! What are you most excited for audiences to see?
Rachel Brosnahan: I’m really excited for them to see the evolution of these characters as they deal with the fallout from season one. I think season one was such high stakes and so heightened for everybody that season two they have to grapple with all of the decisions they made or didn’t make and the fallout in their personal lives, as well. And I’m excited for people to get to know these characters a little bit better, especially under such dire circumstances. I think season two is even better than season one, and I hope that more people start watching the show—it’s really good.
WWW: What can we expect from Abby in the second season?
RB: I think the biggest difference is that in season one, Abby was very reactive. She arrived there having no idea what was going on and all these things were coming at her, and the train was moving so fast that all she had time to do was react. And in season two, she’s determined to, and does in fact, take a much more active role in her destiny, or her life there, and she wants to be a much more equal partner with Charlie. She demands to know what’s going on, and I think you also see Abby choosing some unconventional ways of trying to regain control of her life.
WWW: Let’s talk about Abby’s style. Has it evolved in the second season?
RB: Yes and no. I think part of Abby being Abby is that her outside reflects what she wants her inside to feel like. I think she feels more in control when she’s got her face on and she’s properly done up. And without that she feels largely out of control of her life. But, at the same time, her relationship with Elodie in season one taught her … Elodie says to her you don’t need all that stuff to be the best you and you’re great aside from that. And I think she really hears that from her, and you’ll see a little bit more of Abby being comfortable being Abby. There are scenes where she’s not wearing any makeup and she hasn’t done her hair, and that’s a big deal.
WWW: Abby had so many standout looks in the first season. Is there a look from season two you really loved?
RB: Yeah! There’s this top and skirt that [costume designer] Alonzo [Wilson] made and very quickly for a Seder scene. We have a scene at a Seder, and Alonzo has said that the detailing at the top was inspired by a menorah. His attention to detail is absolutely incredible, and we repeat that outfit once more with this fabulous hat in another scene later on. That is definitely my standout outfit from this season.
WWW: Did you ever get to collaborate with Wilson on Abby’s look at all?
RB: We’ve certainly had discussions about Abby’s look, but Alonzo is so brilliant that everything he brings to me teaches me something new about Abby, which is more than you could ever ask for as an actor. I don’t think I’ve ever said to Alonzo, “No, I don’t want to wear that.” Everything he brings up is amazing, and he works so hard and he honestly knows these characters better than we do sometimes. The clothes that we put on help inform where we are at so greatly. But Alonzo is also not precious. You know the characters have been living in the dust and in the desert and their clothes are deteriorating a little bit, the ones that they came with, so they might be missing a button here and there, but that’s important to the story as well. We couldn’t possibly be luckier having Alonzo.
WWW: If you could steal any piece from her wardrobe, what would it be and why?
RB: Let me think. There are a couple of housedresses that she wears that are incredible and that you could throw a sweater over and some booties and wear around New York City in two seconds. They’re amazing. I would steal a few of those, I think.
WWW: The show is set in the ’40s. Is there a particular decade that resonates best with your own style?
RB: You know, my personal style is ever changing. I tend to like what I like, and I don’t really know what I like until I see it. As long as it’s comfortable and speaks to me, I’ve got it on, so I think all of them influence my style or have at one point or another. I’m very interested in experimenting with my fashion and with fashion in general, and so, mine is so ever-changing that I think they’ll all get in there at some point.
WWW: Of all the characters you’ve played, whose style is most similar to your own?
RB: I think Rachel Posner on House of Cards, definitely. It was really easy. I mean that’s what’s most similar to my day-to-day style, I think. Like that’s how I feel the most comfortable, certainly. But I also like to play around. For work, I wear things that I would never wear in my real life, but it’s really fun to play dress-up.
WWW: Your stylist Josh Liebman said that you are such a New Yorker in the way your dress. What do you think he meant by that?
RB: I don’t know. [Laughs.] I guess I like being comfortable, but I like wearing comfortable pieces that are interesting, you know? We walk a lot in New York, we have to walk everywhere, and the weather is unpredictable, so I layer a lot. And I like to wear a lot of black; I like to add some edge to my softer pieces.
WWW: What was your most recent fashion purchase/discovery?
RB: I just bought an amazing sweater jacket from Rag & Bone that is a little oversized and so warm and so comfortable. I’m about to go to Canada, and I’m pretty sure I’m never going to take it off.
WWW: Kate Spade is your aunt! Do you ever go to her for style advice?
RB: I don’t know that Katie has given me fashion advice. You know, the thing is I didn’t even know that Katie was involved in fashion until I was a little bit older. She’s just family, you know; our families were very close and she’s just so laid back and easygoing, but she has amazing style. When I was younger, Aunt Katy would send me all sorts of stuff from her line, like shoes and bags and things. I think having those as I was younger influenced my style a lot getting older, having access to amazing shoes and bags and learning how to accessorize and experiment. I loved that all the stuff that she did with Kate Spade was basic, but with a twist, and I think that’s very representative of how I feel most comfortable in my personal life as well.
WWW: What’s your favorite design of hers?
RB: I’ve had them since I was about 16, but I have this incredible pair of green suede shoes with a crystal buckle. They’re so amazing and they’re really special, but they actually look really great with a T-shirt and jeans. They make an outfit stand out that way. I wear them all the time; I love them. They’re really comfortable, too. You can walk all around New York in them and not want to kill yourself.
Shop new shoe styles at Kate Spade New York today.
WWW: Who are your fashion heroes?
RB: Currently, I love Emma Stone and Naomi Watts. I also really love Kiernan Shipka. Everything she puts on is so interesting and cool. I want everything that she’s ever put on her body. I love her style—it’s really fun, but it always looks so well put together. But on the other end, I also love Cate Blanchett. She’s so classic and glamorous and beautiful. I also really love Evan Rachel Wood. She wears a lot of really amazing menswear.
WWW: You recently attended the Emmys. Do you have any pre or post–red carpet rituals?
RB: I mean, I should be healthier in my general life, but I don’t really change anything prior to that kind of thing. But I tend to be eating like doughnuts and bacon in my hair-and-makeup chair in the morning. And then afterwards you have to go to In-N-Out—it’s a tradition. Everyone’s in the line in their cars sitting in the In-N-Out drive-through. And then if you don’t want to wait you have to like run inside without your shoes on, pick it up, and then take it back to your car.
WWW: How do you go about picking your look for the red carpet?
RB: I work with a stylist. I also like to have a couple … you know for press or whatever we’re doing that we need clothes for, I like to have a couple things on hand in my own closet that I can wear. But for larger events, I work with a stylist, Josh Liebman. Josh and I are on the same page, and I think he has really good taste, so we’ve had a lot of fun working together in the last couple of years.
WWW: You recently changed your hair color! What prompted the new look?
RB: Well I’m a blonde naturally, and I haven’t been in a very long time because of work. I started working with dark hair, and once you start something with one color you have to stick with it for a while; especially working on House of Cards, I needed to keep it the same color. I’ve been curious about going back to blond, but I’ve had a lot of color put on my hair, so when it was stripped of the color, underneath there was this red that looks totally different in different lights. In person it looks strawberry blond, but in the light it looks red. My sister’s hair is naturally that color, so I was like let’s stop here on the way to possibly going lighter and hang out for a minute. It’s been really fun. Like I said, I like to change my look and experiment. My sister is mad that I stole her hair color, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
WWW: Can you tell me a little about the projects you have coming up?
RB: I have a small role in a movie called The Finest Hour that will come out early 2016, which is a coastguard movie set in the 1950s. I play a townie; she’s got a lot of big sweaters because it’s really cold. And then I have Louder Than Bombs, which is Joachim Trier’s new film with Jesse Eisenberg and Isabelle Huppert and Gabriel Byrne, and I play an ex-girlfriend of Jesse’s and we have an unexpected run-in during a time of great tragedy for both of us. I recently finished a film called The Fixer up in Northern California with James Franco and Melissa Leo and Dominic Rains about an Afghani journalist who comes to the United States and is trying to figure out what to do with his life in a small town.
WWW: What kinds of roles excite you today?
RB: I’m drawn to resilient, three-dimensional women. And anything that scares me. Anything that I haven’t done before and scares the sh*t out of me and that I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to do, I want to do it. I’d love to do some fantasy stuff. That’s a genre that I have not done very much of, but am interested in, certainly. That’s sort of my first love; I loved reading books like that and watching movies like that growing up. Also, my dream role is Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. I’d love to get my hands on something like that.
Will you be tuning into Manhattan tonight? Tell us in the comments below!