Two years after signing a landmark deal that kept her at MSNBC but reduced her workload to one hour of live TV each Monday, Rachel Maddow stepping back from the hustle of a nightly cable news show is looking a lot less relaxing than it did on paper. She has filled the void left by those four weekly episodes of The Rachel Maddow Show — must-see TV for the panicked American progressive — with podcasts, an aggressive Hollywood development slate, her fourth book (Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism, out Oct. 17 from Crown) and a new outlook on how to best share her deep well of historical and political knowledge with her loyal following. “Producing the same kind of material for the same shaped box at the same time every day had me worried that my brain was getting squished into that box, too,” says Maddow, who turned 50 in April. “I was not thinking in expansive ways because I didn’t have expansive deadlines.”
During an expansive conversation on a sunny September afternoon in the rooftop garden of MSNBC’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters, it’s telling that Maddow is working from the office and not the western Massachusetts home she shares with her longtime partner, artist Susan Mikula. She’s donning more hats than ever, but she’s ready to jump back on the air as news demands. And between GOP chaos in the House of Representatives, Donald Trump’s legal woes and a make-or-break presidential election on the horizon, news is as demanding as ever. So are her viewers. Maddow’s is regularly the No. 1 primetime program in all of cable news, even as she hits 15 years on the air — a feat celebrated with a party the night before we meet. “That’s 105 in dog years,” she clarifies. “And I feel every inch of it.”
More than a year after cutting back your on-air time, how do you feel about the boundaries that you’ve established?
I have not established any boundaries at all. (Laughs.) This is a grave problem. Clearly, you prepared for this interview by talking to Susan, who honestly and earnestly thought she would get more time with me — which has not happened.
Having settled into only airing Mondays, what does the rest of your week look like?
With the five-days-a-week show, I became a pretty good compartmentalizer. We built a staff cadence where, unless something really crazy happened, we were not calling each other on weekends. I think that’s how we were able to avoid burnout for all that time. Now I have an uncompartmentalizable work life, and I haven’t figured it out yet. I work seven days a week instead of five. But it doesn’t feel like as much of a grind.
The Rachel Maddow Show looks the same at one night a week, but has there been an impulse — from you, your staff, the network — to eventize it in some way?
There’s still a little impulse, since we’re planning a week in advance, to base it around a big interview. But I’ve never been inclined to book well in advance. It’s not my jam. I don’t want to be locked into something that seems like a good idea a week in advance that doesn’t feel pressing by the time we get around to the show.
Speaking of advanced bookings, what’s the backstory on your fortuitous Hillary Clinton interview the night the Fulton County election racketeering indictments against Trump and others came down?
Can you believe it? (Laughs.) The grand jury process is legit secret. It is like the last sacrosanct thing in American civic life. Trying to discern when the grand jury is going to hand down an indictment…it’s not exactly tea leaves, but it’s close. And all the best tea-leaf reading was that it would not happen that day. We had the opportunity to book Hillary Clinton. She’d written this essay in The Atlantic about loneliness. It’s an underappreciated thing in the preservation of democracy, the idea that people need to feel like they have a stake in their community to have a stake in their country. We said to her office, “Rachel is really interested in this essay. But it has to be OK with you that we cancel if something major happens in the legal environment.” Totally fine. I was sure it was not going to happen that day. And then sure enough.…
Obviously, you didn’t cancel.
We contacted her office and said, “If she wants to cancel, we totally get it.” I was shocked that they went along with it. And it’s not just that she was there. It was that she had something profound to say about it. A lot of people reacted to the optics of the fact that we had her there: “Look at the look on Secretary Clinton’s face!” You can treat it that way, but actually the content of the interview was helpful. She’s somebody who’s operated at those levels and who competed against him to try to keep him out of that job. I thought it was fascinating.
Multiple outlets have described these indictments as Rachel Maddow’s Super Bowl.
In the news business, there’s some gymnastic scoring. You get judged on degree of difficulty. And the multiplicity of jurisdictions, charges, prosecutions, relevant fact patterns, potential witnesses, lawyers, all these different things — the things that you have to learn to ably cover [in] this part of the Trump era — up our degree of difficulty. I like the challenge. But this is hard.
Ultra, your 2022 podcast about far-right groups plotting to overthrow the U.S. government before World War II, has led to your new book, Prequel, and a potential feature film you’re developing with Steven Spielberg. When do you feel like you’ve purged your interest in a particular subject matter?
And I’m now working on Ultra: Season 2 as well. (Laughs.) This era and America’s confrontation with earlier iterations of fascism is a rich subject matter. The resonance is just uncanny in terms of what we’re confronting now. Authoritarianism is authoritarianism. Fascism is fascism. We have a lot to learn from Americans who confronted forces like this. And I feel like I’ve just started. To the extent that Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner and Danny Strong are adapting the podcast material for the movie, I think they actually have another set of ideas. It’s just a rich time period.
What do you think of film development?
There wasn’t that much time before the strikes happened, so I think that remains to be seen. I think I am only just learning what it means to work on a movie and what it means to try to develop something in Hollywood. This is all very new to me.
Strike or not, Hollywood can move very slowly.
You hear “yes” 400 times before “yes” matters. I’m used to asking somebody “yes or no,” and there’s a 50/50 chance you’re going to get a “no.” If it’s “no,” it’s over. If it’s “yes,” you go. That’s it. You don’t have to spend a year hearing “yes” from people before you know that’s the answer. It’s crazy to me. I’m not going to change the ways of Hollywood. That said, if you’re going to make something that costs tens of millions of dollars, there should be more processes on the way there.
This has been a wild year for labor. The Hollywood strikes, the UAW and many other guilds and unions have either struck or had fraught contract negotiations. As someone who studies this stuff so closely, is there a historical antecedent for such mass unrest?
Yes and no. The thing that is unique right now is that such a small portion of the American labor force is unionized. Once union membership gets very small, to have a significant portion of union membership striking — that’s a big deal. We’ve definitely had this many strikes simultaneously in big important industries in the country before, but that was a time when the unionized labor force was gigantic. This is a very potent moment in terms of labor being small but mighty. I think it helps that we’ve got a vocally pro-union president. That gives people strength, and it challenges the White House to put their money where their mouth is.
When you’re not working, what does your media detox look like?
I fish and sleep and do chores and walk the dogs. I spend a lot of time now with the other projects that I’m working on, reading books and academic articles and transcripts and congressional hearing records. I love it. You’d think that I would want to stop reading. I’m just wired that way. But I do try to make sure that I see the sky.
A 2022 Vanity Fair profile of you described your preferred bait shop as being covered with Trump flags. As someone recognizable for their politics, does that lead to awkward conversations?
Every once in a while, somebody at a bus stop or a taxi driver will be like, “Do I know you from somewhere?” They can’t quite place me. I always say I’m Anderson Cooper, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.
You don’t think it colors your day-to-day life in a small town?
Well, you don’t know, right? I live in rural America, and I love it. Every once in a while, somebody recognizes me and wants to talk politics. But more often it’s, “Got bears in your trash?” My neighbors don’t care about somebody being fired at Fox. And that’s true, I think, of America in general. It’s a good reality check. There are lots of things to talk about that have nothing to do with these few square blocks of Manhattan where all the cable news networks are.
You’re going on tour with the book. Is that sort of stuff fun for you?
I am an introverted person. My battery goes down, not up, via interaction with other humans. But I really like this book. With [each previous one], I was like, “I will never do a book again.” But I’ve got so much energy around this topic. If you think there is a threat of America losing democracy at a very fundamental level, if you’re worried we might not have another presidential election after the next one — and I think a lot of people are worried about that — there are stories to tell about other Americans who confronted that very real threat before. So I feel very excited and nervous. Because for those who know me and like me from TV, I feel like, in person, I’m a disappointment.
When I’m talking on TV, it’s stuff that I spend all day writing. With a live [audience], it’s more spontaneous. Maybe I won’t be as good? Maybe people will be like, “Oh, you should never meet your heroes.” Fear of failure is very motivating. I want people to like the topic, I want people to like the book, and I want people to get something out of coming to see me.
Having worked in cable long before cord-cutting really cut into profits, are you concerned about its future?
Since I’ve been in cable news, I’ve been told, “This is the last year! It’s all over!” I’m at 15 years of being told this is the end of cable news. At some point, the last year in cable news will arrive, but I don’t know if it’ll be during my lifetime. People like getting live news information from the screen. And none of us is irreplaceable, but it’s a unique thing that we’re doing. I think people value it, and I don’t see that changing. Delivery systems, business models and incentives may change, but the fundamentals — presenting the news live and in real time with integrity — we’re going to need those forever.
Were you aware that Elon Musk recently made a public offer for you to have a show on X? Nonexclusive! You could still do whatever else you wanted.
I missed that. (Laughs.) I was very busy that day, I’m sure.
You seemed to pull back from that platform before his era even started. Why?
Well, I’m still there theoretically. You know how slugs leave trails? (Laughs.) For all of its faults, Twitter was a good place for real-time journalism. It was a really effective resource. Mr. Musk not only doesn’t value that, it seems like that’s what he most wants to undo.
I’m still having a hard time understanding the value in undermining a product’s core value.
Well, if you see journalism as something that you actively devalue and think is bad, what better way to pull the rug out from under it? It’s one thing to say, “You journalists are bad. Do better.” It’s another to say, “Journalists are the enemy of the people.” When you’re in that Trumpist nihilist category about truth and information and expertise, there’s nothing that’s too destructive. Destruction is the point.
What excites you right now?
Developing journalistic projects and not knowing the medium where they’ll end up. Anything could be a podcast or a docuseries — or maybe a movie or some sort of scripted project. Having those conversations, very early in an idea, where someone at NBCU can say, “You think this ought to be a podcast, but we think you should make this as a TV series and here’s why and here’s the person to talk to about it.” That’s all new to me, and that feels very much like the first day of school.
Knowing that Susan, your network and your audience all want more of your time, do you expect having to fight the temptation to be on air more heading into an election year?
There isn’t a lot of tug of war about, “Should I come in or shouldn’t I come in?” So far, it’s been pretty obvious. I assume that it’ll still be the case going forward. But I’ll be there every Monday. I’ll be there after every debate. I’ll be there on primary nights. I’ll be there on breaking news. Every time a president gets arrested, I promise I’ll be there. But I’m also in the middle of a 1,300-page translated German transcript at the moment. (Laughs.) I had the greatest job in the world, and then I changed. Now I have the greatest job in the world. I mean, obviously, the world’s coming to an end, right? Sorry about that. But this moment, at the end of the world, is working for me.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.