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[Only IN Hollywood] From ‘Downton’ to uptown in ‘The Gilded Age’

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] From ‘Downton’ to uptown in ‘The Gilded Age’
Julian Fellowes takes us to post-1880s New York City, when Old Money society was being invaded by robber barons and their nouveau riche wives

LOS ANGELES, USA – From Downton Abbey to uptown New York in The Gilded Age, creator Julian Fellowes has moved on from his Yorkshire aristocrats to the old and new rich.

This time, Julian, the erudite writer of the posh drama on the goings-on in the upstairs and downstairs of a countryside manor, takes us to post-1880s New York City, when Old Money society was being invaded by robber barons and their nouveau riche wives.

For those missing the award-winning hit Downton Abbey, which was so beloved that it spanned six seasons and inspired two feature movies (one in 2019 and another coming this March), The Gilded Age may just be your fix.

In the 10-part first season of the brand-new TV series, Julian and Sonja Warfield created a drama set in the booming late 19th century, when America’s version of aristocrats ruled, but a newly prosperous set of industrialists and financiers was rising.

Socialites and wanna-be socialites, robber barons, new magnates, and their servants populate the series.

The impressive cast includes Christine Baranski (Agnes van Rhijn), Cynthia Nixon (Ada Brook), Taissa Farmiga (Gladys Russell), Morgan Spector (George Russell), Carrie Coon (Bertha Russell), Louisa Jacobson (Marian Brook), Denee Benton (Peggy Scott), Harry Richardson (Larry Russell), Blake Ritson (Oscar van Rhijn), Audra McDonald (Dorothy Scott), Kelli O’Hara (Aurora Fane), and Jeanne Tripplehorn (Sylvia Chamberlain).

I recently spoke to the cast and creators of The Gilded Age via Zoom. They discussed a wide range of topics about the show.

But among the most interesting were anecdotes about Julian’s attention to the period details, from the information that being left-handed among the elite was a no-no in those times, to a huge centerpiece on the set that was not, well, huge enough.

Julian talked about the difference in the energy between the rich in New York and England in those times.

“There was a different energy, because in New York, you could join that class if you were successful enough,” Julian began. “You could make the money. It wasn’t all that easy and you had to make an effort.”

“Nevertheless, in England, for some industrialists who’d made a pile, to arrive in London and expect to be dancing with the Duchess of Richmond the following night, that wasn’t going to happen.”

“One of the fundamental differences between Downton and The Gilded Age is that Downton was about the decline of a society that was essentially semi-unlocked. You could break in over a period of time but it took two or three generations to get in.”

“Whereas in America, what Mrs. Astor (Caroline Schermerhorn Astor) recognized was that these people were too powerful and rich to be kept out indefinitely. So they had to be allowed in and she would make her selections of the new people as they arrived and bring them in and mix them with the old people.”

“So New York society acquired a kind of energy and dynamic that European society, on the whole, did not have because they didn’t have very highly successful industrialists, manufacturers, and bankers new on the scene and all the rest of it.”

“They tended to have people from established families that had been going at least a hundred years, if not much longer than that. It created a different dynamic, which was reflected in the coming 20th century.”

“Looking back, these people were limbering up to control the new century, although, of course, they didn’t know it.”

Carrie Coon, whose Bertha is a New Money social climber, said about Julian, “He is very dry. He’s very withholding in the best way. It makes you work hard in a very British way.”

JULIAN. ‘Downtown Abbey’s’ erudite creator, Julian Fellowes, goes from early 20th century England to late 19th century New York in his new series, ‘The Gilded Age.’ Photo by Ruben V. Nepales.

“One of the moments I love – I was on set and I just heard someone say, ‘Julian says, we need more flowers in the foyer.’ There’s this enormous arrangement. It’s four-feet high, four-feet wide. It’s not big enough.”

“And Julian would know. I love that about him. I love that he’s got his eye on everything, not just the acting and the etiquette, but also the production design.”

“But I also loved that when I was offered the part, it came with this very thorough document about where Bertha’s story was going. It’s so grounded in history, the amalgams, the characters that she’s built around, people like Alva Vanderbilt (a socialite who lived in that era).”

“And Julian’s breadth of his knowledge is really stunning. You feel like you’re in good hands. No one’s making any arbitrary decisions.”

“In addition to that, he was totally willing to collaborate with Sonja Warfield, our other writer, and Dr. Erica Dunbar, our historian, to make sure it felt fundamentally American in its expression.”

“And in particular, to take care of the African-American characters, with whom Julian has a little bit less in common. I really admired Julian’s collaborative spirit. I wasn’t necessarily expecting that.”

Morgan Spector, whose George Russell is a self-made railroad tycoon, said of the show’s creator who also wrote the beloved 2001 satirical murder-mystery, Gosford Park, “Julian used to be an actor. One of the hallmarks of his writing is that the scenes are fun to play. That’s true, no matter where you sit in the world.”

CARRIE AND MORGAN. Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector play a social climbing matron and a newly rich train tycoon, respectively, in ‘The Gilded Age.’ Courtesy of HBO.

“In the world he’s creating, he also has that great quality that all the best writers have, which is that every character is endowed with full humanity. And so, you really don’t know in a given episode who is going to be the emotional center of the show.”

“It could be somebody who you’ve really never met before. You’ve seen them in passing. They’re one of the kitchen maids that you’ve seen briefly.”

“But then suddenly, you’re in their story, and you’re in their world. And that world is just as rich as anybody else’s in the show.”

“In addition to the physical scale of the show, there’s a human and emotional scale of the show that not that many writers can achieve actually, except for someone like Julian.”

Carrie shared about her research on the late 1880s: “One of the things that was most surprising to me was just how extensive the etiquette of the period actually was. It really suffuses every aspect of their lives.”

“As an actor, you have to be conscious of it all the time. You can’t call a character by their first name if you don’t know them.”

“You can’t shake someone’s hand. You can only nod. You can’t pick up a wine glass by the goblet, only by the stem.”

“Those were details that our etiquette coach was always looking for. And that Julian also had his eye on from London. He would catch us out. We were playing a little bit of gotcha every day.”

Morgan added, “Along those lines, one thing I forgot was that you’re not allowed to be left-handed in the 19th century, in this social class anyway. And I am.”

“So prior to shooting a scene, I was like, ‘Can I use…?’ Julian over was, ‘Nope, you’re right-handed. It would’ve been beaten out of you.’ ”

“The first time, our first scene at the dinner table, all I was thinking was, ‘Just don’t drop the soup. Please, God, don’t drop the soup.’ ”

“Another piece of research that I loved was the competition around these balls that these people would throw was so intense that they really had to get more and more baroque in terms of what the parties were.”

“One I read about at one point, was they did the whole thing on horseback, inside a ballroom. Everyone sat on a horse to eat. The servers were all on horseback.”

“You had dozens of horses, and it was all going great for about 30 minutes. And then the horses all started going to the bathroom inside the ballroom.”

“I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a horse. It’s a prodigious amount of ‘production.’ So it very rapidly became an uncomfortable situation for everybody. I love that story.”

The Gilded Age is anchored by the characters of Christine and Cynthia, a socialite widow and her less affluent spinster sister, respectively. The two stage veterans relished the chance to deliver Julian’s lines.

Christine said, “I felt enormous obligation to bring that character to life, but probably because of the success of Downton Abbey. Julian does his dialogue which can be so witty and he does write snobs unlike anyone else.”

“I just wanted to give it exactly the right touch. I was told several times by the director that I really didn’t have to work so hard at it.”

“I said, ‘You mean, I can just be myself.’ He said, ‘Oh, yes, this character, she’s very much like you, just talk like yourself.’ I guess that’s a character indictment.”

“We had that very long wait before we started shooting because of COVID. We were ready to go. Cynthia and I had a meeting with the director just maybe a day before we shut down.”

“We were all just ready to go. So we were living with this material for months. That was a lot of time to do extra research and work but it was also a lot of time to get more nervous.”

“Oh my gosh, we’re finally going to do it, rather than just jumping in. So I was just very relieved once the first few episodes were over.”

“We got our sea legs because Julian is a sweetheart on the set and he was always helpful. It wasn’t as intimidating as I thought it would be. I don’t know about you, Cynthia, but I was nervous.”

Cynthia replied, “Yes, it really was such a challenge.  Christine and I are huge fans of Downton Abbey. Certainly, the way it’s written is incredible but the way the actors lift that dialogue and those plots off the page…”

“Julian really knows so instinctively how to write for actors but it is a fine balance between giving these very funny, sometimes ornate epigrams their due but sounding like a real person, rather than an actor who has learned their lines.”

This early, Christine’s snob socialite is already being described as The Gilded Age’s Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess (the sublime Maggie Smith) in Downton Abbey.

“I’ll take that compliment but she’s (Maggie) incomparable, in my opinion,” Christine reacted. “But yes, no one writes a snob like Julian Fellowes.”

“The thing that surprised me, or it was a revelation to me, is you think of the Gilded Age and you think of all those robber barons and all those rich guys.”

“You’ve got the Vanderbilts and the Carnegies and it was really the women who created the culture and the society because the men were off making money or they were in the gentleman’s club after work and smoking their cigars. And they had their mistresses.”

“It was the women who put in so much energy into creating these gigantic castles, European residences with all of the trappings of European aristocracy.”

SISTERS. Christine Baranski (right) and Cynthia Nixon play Old Money sisters in ‘The Gilded Age,’ which airs exclusively on HBO GO and HBO every Tuesday. Courtesy of HBO.

“It was the women who cared about putting together a strict society that had to be calibrated – how can you get into this society? And all those parties. It must have been exhausting for them.”

“Alva Vanderbilt actually said that her life was hellishly exhausting being a society hostess. But it was really the women who created what we think of as the visuals of the gilded age.”

Cynthia said, for her part, “Yes, I was going to say exactly the same thing, that certainly, women had many fewer [rights]. Women couldn’t vote, for example, and women couldn’t control the purse strings 99 times out of a hundred.”

“But in terms of society, not just in terms of who’s in, and who’s out on personal feeling basis, but actually, a robber baron, an industrialist who wanted to succeed financially, if he and his wife were not accepted into society, so many economic doors were closed to him.”

“Definitely, that was something that was completely in the purview of women. The other thing that surprised me was in a time with so many very rigid rules, how people were able to bend them up to the point of breaking and even get around and then to change what the mores were.”

“And I would say for Ada and Agnes’ relationship, I always think of them as an old married couple. Christine and I would talk about that a lot. And that Ada would be the more traditionally feminine member of that couple, seeing about everybody’s emotions, smoothing hard feelings and being a go-between.”

“Agnes, of course, rules the roost and controls the purse strings. But Ada is a little more strategic than she appears.”

“Sometimes the person or the people in charge actually know less than the people scurrying around on the sidelines, gathering information and trying to press their advantage, however they can.”

With such a talented cast, the actors reveled in working with their peers.

Taissa, whose Gladys is the sheltered daughter of Carrie and Morgan’s characters, said, “I have such respect and admiration for Carrie Coon. She’s a phenomenal actress but also just as a person, she’s so unapologetic and fierce and yet very kindhearted at the same time.”

“I worked a lot with Morgan and Carrie. I always love being paired with phenomenal actors. I like to try and match people’s game.”

“Whatever scenario I find myself in, it’s like, ‘Oh, okay.’ I love stepping it up a notch and working with such high-caliber actors. You don’t have a choice. You don’t want to fall behind.”

Blake Ritson’s Oscar, Agnes’ son who has a secret, shared, “I had lots of scenes with Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon who are wonderful, exciting actors to work with.”

He also praised Louisa Jacobson, the daughter of Meryl Streep, whose Marian Brook was recently orphaned and sent to live with her two aunts in New York.

INGENUES. Louisa Jacobson, Meryl Streep’s daughter, gets her biggest television break in ‘The Gilded Age.’ Denee Benton costars as Peggy Scott, an aspiring writer. Courtesy of HBO.

“There are some brilliant younger actors. I thought Louisa was fantastic in the show. I really relished her scenes. I loved working with Taissa and Harry Richardson.”

“There wasn’t a single actor in the show who you couldn’t feed off and get into really quite exciting territory just by being alive and responsive.”

Denee Benton portrays Peggy Scott, an aspiring writer seeking a fresh start and meets Marian.

Back to Julian, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, who directs the series with Michael Engler, laughed when I asked her for an anecdote about Julian’s meticulous eye for detail.

“I have a story,” Salli beamed. “I got in trouble. Well, because just what you’re talking about. I remember we were shooting a scene and Julian was watching from afar.”

“Bertha (Carrie) is sort of giving it to Gladys (Taissa) and her nanny, or her governess, and I had them sitting, I get a call.”

“I think David (crew member) may have rushed in and said, ‘Julian needs to speak to you. They would never ever sit down like that. I’m like, oh, holy holy hell. Julian’s mad at me.”

“And really, it was a simple fix. They stood up. Then Julian was happy. He is really particular about the etiquette of that time.”

“A scene could be ruined and you can’t use it if someone picks up their glass the wrong way or tips their hat the wrong way.”

“That may sound ridiculous to someone else but to us, it’s what makes the show what it is. It is being that particular about those little things. Once I got in the groove of it and understood really what Julian’s needs are, then I didn’t get in trouble anymore.”

Salli added, “And you can also know the new rich from the old rich because the new rich, they haven’t been born in this their whole life. So this is something they really have to think about as compared to the people like Ada and Agnes, where it’s second nature.”

“And a lot of times, from research, you find out that’s how they know if you really belong or not because they can tell the little things that you’re doing wrong – someone who’s been there since they were a child, just doesn’t do that.”

The Gilded Age premiered Tuesday, January 25 at 10 am exclusively on HBO GO and HBO. Subsequent episodes will debut every Tuesday. –

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.