“I feel like Christine and Agnes are merging,” said Julian Fellowes to the audience’s delight about the similarities between Christina Baranski and her The Gilded Age character, Agnes van Rhijn.
The mood was light and airy for HBO’s FYC event this week in New York City’s Whitby Hotel for the elegant and prestigious drama, The Gilded Age. The event welcomed stars Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon, Morgan Spector, Carrie Coon, Louisa Jacobson, and Denée Benton as well as creator and writer Julian Fellowes. The audience was eager to hear what the creative team had to say after viewing one of the season’s strongest episodes, and it begs the question: are we underestimating this Drama Series contender in this year’s upcoming Emmy race?
Episode four, “A Long Ladder,” might be the series’s secret weapon if HBO decides to submit it for consideration. All of the characters who are brought front and center in this episode have a great moment or interaction with others, and the writing really shines through. “A Long Ladder” opens with Ada’s precious dog, Pumpkin, running off without his leash. Nixon leans into Ada’s distress, even collapsing onto couch with a handkerchief clutched desperately in her hand. Agnes (played by Baranski), brushes off her sister’s turmoil, especially when she suspects that Bertha Russell’s household plans forcing Agnes or Ada to cross the street to retrieve the dog.
Every time Baranski opened her mouth, the audience laughed. “You survive a civil war yet you collapse because a lap dog is missing,” Agnes asks of Ada. “Pull yourself together, for heaven’s sake. You’re a soldier’s daughter.” Another line that received a large reception was when Agnes interrupts a private conversation between Ada and Jacobson’s Marion: “I haven’t been excited since 1865.”
This episode has a showcase for everyone whether it’s George Russell denying Miss Turner, Peggy Scott standing up to Marion Brook over privilege and expectations, or a conversation between butlers about the differences between American and English table settings. Even if this episode isn’t necessarily submitted for consideration, it’s a fantastic gateway into how well The Gilded Age bounces around its mammoth cast and complex storylines. We spoke to several other guests at the evening’s reception, and they marveled at not just the beautiful costumes and crafts but also how dramatic and entertaining the episode is. One attendee spoke to us about how impressed she was with showing Peggy Scott thriving as a Black woman in a white world.
WNYC’s Alison Stewart welcomed the cast on stage after the episode aired, and they talked about a wide breadth of topics, including the costuming and why Agnes values the line between old and new money. Below are some highlights from that conversation.
“I think she was raised in a certain way and she has a high sense of tradition. Her mother was a Livingston and they lived all along the Hudson. It was as close to aristocracy as you could get. And the Brooks as well. There’s a real sense of rootedness in an American tradition that came from the Dutch, English and Scottish mercantile class, and they were good people. They were pious. They were hard working and they valued tradition. For Agnes to see what is going on across the street…people just think that can come in and buy their way. I’m a defender of my character.
–Baranski, echoing Fellowes comments on the history of the time, and whether Agnes is a snob.
“Symbiotic. I think that Agnes is someone who has, by force of her personality but also just by necessity, taken the helm of the ship and [has had to] steer it to safety despite some very big obstacles. She’s always been in charge. Ada has always trailed along behind knowing that her big sister would make sure that she didn’t sink. I think that, as with big sisters, she tends to be a little dictatorial. And as with people with a lot of power, she kind of fires off orders, and Ada scurries around behind the scenes and tries to smooth things over.”
–Cynthia Nixon on how she would describe the relationship between her character, Ada Brook, and her sister, Agnes.
“Feeling the way patriarchy really breaks that family structure, and you have this young woman like Peggy having to choose between which oppression she’s going to deal with. At the end of the day, her mom is really the one who’s trying to attend to her emotionally, but also has this oppressive force that she’s navigating. I felt such a tenderness for it, because I think it’s something that many of us with intersectional identities understand–the nuances of those relationships. Obviously, what I respect the most is that Dorothy, Audra’s character, never gives up, and she keeps trying to find the way in which I think is very much Black motherhood. It was nice to see that arc happen.”
–Denée Benton on exploring the estranged relationship between Peggy and her father while also appreciating the nuances given to the relationship between Peggy and Dorothy, played by Audra McDonald. Benton is such an admirer of McDonald’s stage work (how can you not be?), and Stewart revealed that Benton wrote a letter to McDonald thanking her for helping her get a role in Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.
“Both of my parents were raised in the Jim Crow South and very much were the first generation to have access to certain types of wealth. And they were able to offer a certain level of education that their parents couldn’t. We’re not unlike the Scotts. Obviously, it’s not the same story, but I feel like we’re from a lineage of that kind of family. In my own way, I wanted to move to New York and do these big things, and they were like, ‘Baby, just please stay close. Let us take care of you.’ It’s love. In an effort to hold safe, you squeeze and you can crash and I think we end up getting to show our parents how to release fear too. That it was just something I really related to. It wasn’t it didn’t feel that far away.”
–Benton on why Peggy is willing to walk away from her family.
“She’s smart about the direction that New York City is going in with the new opera house and electricity. She’s really smart about Peggy being an awesome person, and she recognizes that the Russells are people who are moving society forward. Unfortunately, she’s just not really that smart when it comes to love or men. Isn’t everyone like that when they’re in their 20s? Unlike Peggy, she doesn’t have a career that she’s gunning towards. She’s trying to find what she wants, and I think that there is power in choice. Where she has a choice is who she decides to be with, and I think it’s less about Tom [Raikes] and more about what she want to do.”
–Louisa Jacobson on how Marion Brook is both intelligent and naïve simultaneously.
“For women of that class, that was their purview. They were permitted to participate in charitable causes, and they had to marry off their children well to make sure that they were set up better than we had started. In some ways, I think what the Russells actually represent is the American dream. We come from immigrant families, and the family is taking advantage of every opportunity. They believe in possibility, and so while they’re playing this social game, I love that Bertha is also able to be like, ‘I call bullshit on that. And we both know it’s bullshit. So let’s really talk about what’s going on.’ I really admire it. She would have been maybe a senator or an entrepreneur, and, in some ways, the way her husband allows her to participate in the decision making, they are very much in sync with what they want. People have found that to be very sexy–respect is very sexy. It’s really moving to see a marriage that operates that way. What else is [Bertha] gonna do?”
–Carrie Coon on why breaking into Mary Astor’s inner circle is so important to Bertha.
“I think what I’m calling the period in which we are currently living the second Gilded Age is absolutely a cliche, but it’s also fairly true. We think of these men as these rugged individualists who made it all themselves, but actually what really what they were very good at was taking state money and putting it in their pockets. They used it to build the railroads and all the things that enriched them. And I think it’s really interesting, even if you look at Elon Musk and Tesla. He’s arguably one of the richest people that lived. This was a very dynamic era. This is an era we’re creating new stuff like there’s a railroad where there wasn’t one. Our show is about how fun capitalism is.”
–Morgan Spector on how The Gilded Age remains relevant today.
Awards Daily’s red carpet interviews with the main cast of The Gilded Age.