Madeline Brewer – Mad About the Girl

Olivia Malone
Britt McCamey
Gemma Lacey

It’s unlikely you’ve missed Madeline Brewer, whether you’ve seen her heartbreaking portrayal of Tricia in Orange Is the New Black or been captivated by her portrayal of Janine in The Handmaid’s Tale, she’s equally magnetic in each role and there is much more we can look forward to from the flame-haired actress.


Madeline Brewer is our digital cover story for February 2021

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It’s evident she’s something of a chameleon as an actress and at just 28, the variety of roles she’s played is a testament to that. What’s not so noted, is how she achieves this, but there’s a surety to how she embodies each character which comes from a strong command of her physical presence and her attention to the details of their personality
When we speak the intention with which she approaches her work is palpable. She discusses her most recent role in The Ultimate Playlist of Noise where she plays a free-spirited musician, who she describes as “just a girl”, what’s most interesting to her, is what the character is not. “I said to the director, ‘She is not a manic pixie dream girl.’” Even over the phone, her eye roll is palpable and it’s easy to see why she’s often given characters with a sassy demeanour. Yet her natural deftness for delivering these statements with such wit and charm immediately makes you think how could it be any other way?
It’s this gift of observation that plays into her process as an actor, when speaking about Janine and The Handmaid’s Tale the details she shares belie a sharp eye and quick mind. “In the first season Janine is standing at the window, taking someone’s order for coffee and she’s kind of zoned out and replies, ‘May the force be with you’. She just kind of has these one-off strange lines that you’re like, okay, Janine you weirdo! But I wanted to make them deeper than just that.” In a show where the characters’ lives can seem incredibly bleak, the optimism she displays in Janine creates a tender and amusing performance in stark contrast to their circumstances. To her mind, it’s as though Janine’s theme song is the Nat King Cole song Smile, which blends the comedy and tragedy or the story so perfectly.

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It’s clear she loves her work and is hungry and excited for it all, she claims her heart-wrenching performance as fragile Tricia in Orange Is the New Black felt so real because it was her first job and she was “terrified all the time”, but to agree would be to deny the beautiful tenderness and tension she brought to the character. That tension is a recurring theme for her, she’s also shot several thrillers and horror movies and I ask why she feels drawn to those roles, “My mom calls me a raw nerve because I’m just buzzing all the time, so this is a good way for me to get some of that out.” She’d love to be on Bridgerton and then ad-libs, “I was trained to play princesses!”, a reference to her classical training but then explains what’s really important to her is the role in any form. “Character is home to me. If I’ve got a good character and a good director and some good writing, that’s what’s important.”
For her Orange Is the New Black was her first experience of that and also a chance to be inspired by her peers. She shares stories of the various side gigs the cast had as they were filming, equally unaware of the huge hit the show would become, they would finish shooting and head to castings, or hurry to wait tables. Witnessing that work ethic and seeing other actors at work sparked something in her which has continued to this day. We talk about some pivotal relationships with her and she lights up when discussing Elizabeth Moss, “She is the most generous director I think I’ve ever worked with. She’s so gentle and understanding and she’s so experienced you can let go without any risk and just be in the moment.” It’s not just her direction she admires but her generosity, in every sense. “Lizzie’’s been working since she was like eight and she could be jaded, but she is not. She’s kind to everyone on set. I mean, she‘s there almost every single day, hours upon hours, upon hours, and when she’s not on set, she’s working daily, planning for the next episode. She’s so committed and yet still so generous. I mean, that’s the word that I think of when I think of Lizzie, she’s like a generous soul.“

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Given that only more recently the #metoo moment occurred in Hollywood, it’s heartening to see the younger generation of women both being inspired and guided by strong women but also using their platforms to champion these relationships.
Her respectful nature is certainly part of Brewer’s charm as is her subtlety, she describes asking for advice while working with Anthony Hopkins where he told her very simply, “Pull, don’t push,” which remains one of her favourite pieces of advice to this day.
It’s in discussing another role of hers in Cam that I learn this respect also shows up as advocacy for herself. She plays the lead female character, an ordinary girl who makes her living online as a cam girl, the films showcase the unique traits of this lifestyle and she watched hours of footage to ensure a genuine performance. She discusses her relationship with the directors and how empowering the experience was. “I’m shy but they told me, if you’re uncomfortable, you have to speak up. So I was able to find that place in my body and in myself to say, ‘Hey, I’m not comfortable with this.’ Before this I was not that person, I would say okay, just to get through it.“
Strength and individuality are things she’s drawn to and another ambition she holds is to play Madonna which feels like a role that’s calling to her. “I’d love to honour one real-life person and their story because it’s so much fun.” It would also allow her to return to being a blonde, which she’s keen to do, even though “I’ve really come into myself as a redhead, but I already have plans in the works to go back to being a blonde, because it’s true, they do have more fun!”

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Living in California she favours a more casual and natural look describing her beloved leather jackets and affection for a look “that’s pure 1996.” She enjoys working with stylists for red carpet events but feels you have to be careful because “a really gorgeous dress can wear you.” On our shoot, though her performer’s instinct takes center-stage and she effortlessly casts shapes in quilted dresses, shimming silver tunics, and is unfazed by a more conceptual piece with a surgical style collar.
It’s at this point I realise the essence of Madeline Brewer, an ability to try other characteristics on for size whilst remaining wholly true to herself and it’s suddenly clear why there’s always a joy and authenticity to her performances no matter how dark the subject matter.
I ask how she keeps grounded and she shares two things with me; when she’s tense she sings, “I have to get things out of my body. I have to get my thoughts out and, I have to sing, I sing even to myself or in the car, because if I have a knot in my stomach, it just releases when I sing.” The final thing she tells me is that she’s obsessed with Japanese culture and currently on the path to folding 1000 origami cranes, I ask what she plans to do with them, “I often make them when I travel, so I leave them on the plane for people to find.” And there it is, that beautiful combination of focus and magic that truly sets her apart, leaving us to wonder what enchantment she’ll be bringing to our screens next.
Photography: Olivia Malone at Home Agency
Styling: Britt McCamey at The Wall Group
Makeup: Homa Safar using Weleda, Kosas & DIOR beauty
Hair: Tiago Goya
Set Design: Ali Gallagher