‘The Gilded Age’ Finally Arrives on HBO

Christine Baranski still remembers the fateful evening at the 2012 Emmy Awards when she was seated near some of the stars of “Downton Abbey,” the celebrated PBS “Masterpiece” drama about a British country estate in the early 1900s.

Baranski, nominated for best supporting actress in a drama for “The Good Wife,” left without a trophy, which instead went to one of her “Downton” rivals. “I was competing against the inimitable Dame Maggie Smith, thinking I’d have a snowball’s chance,” she recalled.

But at an after-party later that night, Baranski encountered Julian Fellowes, the “Downton” creator. She had heard he was working on a follow-up series, and she took the opportunity to pay him her compliments.

“I would always be pea green with envy, watching all those fabulous actors in their fabulous outfits doing this period piece,” she said. “I thought, why can’t the American actors get a shot at this?”

A decade later, Baranski and a cast of dozens are getting that opportunity in “The Gilded Age,” a new period drama created by Fellowes that has its premiere on Monday, on HBO.

While not a direct follow-up to “Downton Abbey,” “The Gilded Age” is another sweeping historical series produced in similarly lavish style, set this time in 1880s New York amid the class conflicts between old money and the nouveau riche.

In its debut episode, “The Gilded Age” follows a fictional young woman, Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), and her new acquaintance Peggy Scott (Denée Benton) into the Manhattan home of Brook’s wealthy aunts, Agnes van Rhijn (Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon).

Jacobson and Denée Benton play young women who are new arrivals to the world of Manhattan’s wealthy.Credit…Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

There they are drawn into the glamorous customs and merciless mores of upper-class New York life and the blue-blooded aunts’ rivalry with the prosperous arrivistes George and Bertha Russell (Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon), who have just built their new mansion across the street.

“The Gilded Age” brings all the pageantry and production value that “Downton Abbey” was known for — sumptuous sets and extravagant costumes, as well as a starry cast. It also carries the pedigree of Fellowes, a two-time Emmy winner for “Downton” and the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “Gosford Park.”

But “The Gilded Age” is arriving after a drawn-out development process, during which it relocated from NBC to HBO, and a production delayed by the pandemic. The series will test whether viewers want to turn to HBO for a historical costume drama in the “Downton Abbey” mold, and whether “Downton” was a once-in-a-career hit or a repeatable phenomenon.

Fellowes, who wrote all six seasons of “Downton Abbey” (a couple of episodes included co-writers) and its two film sequels, knows that these are precipitous stakes, though he prefers to see them as reflections of the runaway success that “Downton” enjoyed.

“The only way people are not going to have any expectations of you is if you’ve only ever written a flop,” he said in an interview. “I’d rather have the big success and see if I can survive it.”

In his research and writing for “Downton Abbey,” Fellowes explored the phenomenon of so-called “dollar princesses” — wealthy American heiresses of the 1800s and 1900s whom faltering European aristocrats married in order to bolster their dwindling fortunes.

That led Fellowes to further reading on dynastic American families like the Vanderbilts, the Astors and the Goulds, and the financial boom that followed the Civil War.

“The fortunes got bigger, the men got much more powerful, and everything was boiling over,” he explained. No longer content to pattern themselves on European nobility, these capitalist barons began spending their money “in an American way,” Fellowes said. “They didn’t just buy country houses in the middle of 40,000 acres — they built vast palaces that were 15 feet away from the one next door.”

But only the men were permitted to have careers and participate in politics. As Fellowes said, “Strong women who were imaginative and full of invention had to make it happen for themselves” — by inventing an implicitly hierarchical high society.

The show recreated the opulent interiors of the era. It was shot largely on soundstages on Long Island.Credit…Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

That history became the basis of “The Gilded Age,” which NBC commissioned from Fellowes in 2012, by which time “Downton Abbey” had become a global phenomenon. Another six years passed before NBC announced that it had slated the show for a 2019 debut. But when the spring of 2019 rolled around, instead of a premiere came the announcement that HBO was taking over the series.

Pearlena Igbokwe, the chair of Universal Studio Group, said that “The Gilded Age” had been a coveted project at NBC, where she previously oversaw drama development. But it took several years for Fellowes to clear his plate of “Downton” duties, and once his “Gilded Age” scripts started to arrive, Igbokwe said, “the scope and ambition for the project was pretty epic.”

“It was fantastic, but it was a decidedly big show,” she said. “The network decided, we don’t want to restrict Julian’s vision in any kind of way, and we don’t know if we have the appetite for that vision.”

Other networks expressed interest in “The Gilded Age,” including HBO, which was then overseen by the WarnerMedia entertainment chair Robert Greenblatt, who had originally signed up the series for NBC as its entertainment chair. (He has since left WarnerMedia and started his own production company.)

Casey Bloys, who is chief content officer at HBO and HBO Max, said that lavish period dramas “can get more expensive, probably, than a broadcast network can support.” But HBO was willing to take on “The Gilded Age” as a co-production with Universal Television. (Bloys declined to comment on the budget for the series except to say, “Any time you do a period piece, to get the period right, it’s going to cost you.”)

Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector star as prosperous arrivistes, Bertha and George Russell, who try to break into high society.Credit…Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

Bloys said the drama had a timeliness that fit HBO’s programming philosophy. “We like when a show is commenting on something, and for better or for worse, we find ourselves in a new Gilded Age,” he said. “We have our own robber barons today. So it is somewhat unbelievable that we are here again, but here we are.”

Fellowes said he was pleased that “The Gilded Age” landed at HBO, describing himself as a fan of signature shows like “Succession” (even though, as of last December, he had seen only its first season because “I couldn’t work my computer to watch the second.”) The transition from NBC to HBO “was all quite friendly and cooperative,” he said.

As casting commenced, Baranski and Nixon (“And Just Like That”) signed up to play the show’s bickering aunts, who have conflicting ideas about the strictures of society life. As Nixon described the characters: “Agnes is someone who believes the word of the law is absolute. Ada believes that the spirit of the law is not always right in every detail, and she goes around it wherever she can.”

(Baranski said of her character, “She’s a marvelous snob, but who wouldn’t want to play a snob written by Julian Fellowes?”)

Sets were built on soundstages on Long Island, including for the myriad rooms of the Russell mansion, decorated with period-appropriate fabrics and patterns made by some of the same European companies that fabricated the originals in the 1800s. A backlot constructed at the nearby Museum of American Armor, in Old Bethpage, N.Y., housed the imposing edifices and opulent interiors that together recreated a stretch of 19th century Manhattan’s East Side. (The show also uses locations in Troy, N.Y., and Newport, R.I.)

Bob Shaw, the show’s production designer, said that compared to past HBO series he had worked on, including “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire,” “This is the biggest build I’ve ever done.”

“We kept drawing and doing illustrations, and they kept saying yes,” Shaw added. “You draw a grand staircase, and you’re waiting for someone to say, ‘Well, how many times are they going to go up the stairs?’ And that never happened.”

Cast members read favorite Edith Wharton and Henry James novels in preparation for filming, and they were given lessons on Gilded Age history, etiquette, diction and social customs.

“Calling-card culture was an intricate, delicate dance,” Jacobson said. “If you went to the opera and you met a society lady who you want to maintain your position with, you’d drop your calling card off at her house. Like, hey, I want to hang out with you — I want you to like me.”

“It was like Instagram,” she added.

But just as shooting was about to start in March 2020, the onset of the pandemic forced a monthslong delay.

Coon said the lavish surroundings made it easier to embody a forceful, privileged woman like Bertha, an Alva Vanderbilt-like character.Credit…Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

“It was like we were about to launch the Queen Mary and then, not so fast, we’re going back to the docks,” Baranski said. “It was painful.”

The delay cost “The Gilded Age” one of its principal cast members, Amanda Peet, who dropped out because of scheduling issues. She was replaced by Coon (“The Leftovers”), who assumed the role of Bertha Russell, an Alva Vanderbilt-like character who finds that her family’s newfound wealth has not earned her a perch in New York’s social hierarchy.

Coon said that Bertha’s snubbing at least gave her forceful character a sympathetic dimension. “The sympathy comes from everyone’s sense of fairness,” she said. “We prefer the myth of meritocracy to an arbitrary rule of exclusion.” Speaking from her character’s perspective, she added, “The world isn’t fair, but you should at least be able to buy your way into it, right? That strikes her as quite fair.”

The long hiatus and gradual restart of production also allowed cast members like Benton (a Tony Award nominee for “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”) to seek refinements of their roles to better reflect their understanding of history.

Benton said she urged the “Gilded Age” creative team to provide more ways to show that there were Black people like her character, Peggy, who lived in their own affluent and educated communities.

“The heart and the intention around Peggy have stayed the same,” said Benton, whose character is an aspiring writer. “But it was like, do we have an opportunity here? Why does Peggy have to work for a white publishing office? There were amazing Black newspapers at that time. Did we think about that?”

Benton said that a collaborative process led to changes in characters and story lines, although it “certainly did not happen overnight.” She added, “I’m sure there were some clenched butt cheeks and some eye rolls, but we made it through.”

Bloys, the HBO executive, said, “We always try to make sure that a period piece feels authentic.” He added that in the case of the Peggy character, “We really wanted to make sure that she was fully realized and historically accurate.”

Those same aspirations of authenticity also necessitated the actors’ daily ritual of getting dressed in elaborate, restrictive period clothing.

This became a particular burden for Coon, who was eight months pregnant by the end of the “Gilded Age” shoot. “There was a point where I couldn’t wear a corset anymore,” she said. “You’ll see some cleverly-timed horses and some hand acting to hide my stomach.”

She allowed that if you’re trying to embody Manhattan’s 19th century elite, it helps to be enveloped in luxury. The extravagant dresses, hats and bustles “do half the work for you” when it comes to getting into character, she said, and lavish surroundings like the towering Russell mansion set make it easier to channel the sense of entitlement that extreme wealth can bring.

“How can you not try to take up space in a room like that when you’re given it?” she said.

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