Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes has set his sight on New York with his new period drama The Gilded Age on HBO (premieres Monday, Jan. 24 at 9:00 p.m. ET on Crave in Canada), with a phenomenal ensemble cast including Cynthia Nixon, Christine Baranski, Louisa Jacobson and Denée Benton.
The time period between 1870 and 1900 is considered the Gilded Age, marked by America seeing immense industrial and technological growth, but also greed and corruption. Industrialists lived with opulent wealth, including building some spectacular estates, while income inequality became more extreme.
While The Gilded Age is based on fictional families, it was almost a series specifically about the Vanderbilts, as the concept for the show started when Fellowes read a book about Alva Vanderbilt and her daughter, the "dollar princess," Consuelo.
“At one point, I was fiddling around with doing a series about the Vanderbilts but then I found that very constricting, because if you write about real people, you've kind of got to write what really happened,” Fellowes told reporters ahead of the show's premiere.
“So I then moved on from that into inventing fictional Gilded Age families where you could take real events...and use them as much as you like.”
The Gilded Age story begins in 1882 when Marian Brook (Meryl Streep's daughter Louisa Jacobson) moves from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to live with her estranged aunts Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon), after being left with only $30 to her name following her father’s death. Marian is instantly plunged into this battle between old New York money, like her aunts, and the newly rich neighbours, with a particular focus on railroad tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector) and his wife Bertha (Carrie Coon), and their children Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) and Larry (Harry Richardson).
Stepping into this aristocratic world she’s completely unfamiliar with, along with Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), whose graciousness allows Marian to actually get on the train to New York, we see the protagonist try to navigate her new life amid extensive societal changes.
Impressive details, down to a ring with human hair
The amount of detail in all aspects of The Gilded Age is incredibly impressive, including intricate sets and costumes, but it extends to aspects of the shows that the audience can't particularly see.
Louisa Jacobson, who plays Marian Brook, explained that the use of antique objects in show are, she described, “food” for acting.
For example, there is one mourning ritual from that time period where individuals would often wear jewelry that had hair woven into it of a loved one who died.
“I had a ring that had human hair woven into it and I decided that was something that I wore for my mother, Marian’s mother, who had died years ago,” Jacobson said. “So that was really helpful.”
Another useful tool for the actor was just getting into the corset every day, with a heavy skirt and bustle, and a dress that was “constricting [her] neck.”
“Just to feel the constriction all over was an integral part of what it felt like to be a woman in that moment,” Jacobson said. “It definitely felt like it fed Marian's need to break out of these boundaries in some way that had been decided for her and enforced by Agnes and by society.”
A particularly compelling part of The Gilded Age narrative is the Peggy Scott storyline, which tells the story of a middle-class Black woman, often overlooked in a lot of period dramas, who is an aspiring writer and journalist. Amid tensions with her father, Peggy ends up living with Marian and her aunts, becoming a personal secretary for Agnes.
“I'm so deeply in love with Peggy Scott and how much she has felt like a reflection of myself and a sense of belonging in history,” actor Denée Benton said. “Our experiences are just so similar with our identity practices of what we walk as Black educated women in America who grew up in sort of an upper middle class environment.”
“I feel like, similarly to me as an actor, for her, writing sort of gave her a tool to be the arbiter of her own freedom, she's dealing with the patriarchy in her home and then she's dealing with the white supremacy outside of her home, and where does she get to find her own path, outside of the limited imaginations around her.”
Cynthia Nixon, Christine Baranski bicker like a married couple
Right near the beginning of the first episode of The Gilded Age we are introduced to the incredibly engaging, and oftentimes comedic, relationship between Marian's aunts Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon).
Agnes is a rigid aristocrat who has no interest in the "new" people on her street. Agnes got married just as her family funds were slipping out from under her. Now a widow, she provides for her sister Ada, who never married, and Agnes' son Oscar.
Ada largely lives under his sister’s shadow and the two of them have this bickering back-and-forth banter like a married couple. But don’t underestimate Ada, while she may not have a personal fortune she has her ear to the ground and a better sense of what’s happening in the changing society, while Ada is preoccupied with maintaining old traditions and values.
“It is a person who has lived her life on the margins and is excited to see change happen,” Nixon said about her character.
“The idea that Marian is going to come and live with them and that [Ada] has a chance to have a surrogate daughter...at a crucial time when I think Ada feels, not reproachfully, but Ada feels like she fell through the cracks and no one was there helping her and protecting her, and making sure she had a home and a family, and a full life.”
Baranski actually played Nixon’s mother in a Tom Stoppard play in the 1980s and both actors were particularly excited about working together again.
“We adore each other and I think we share a sense of humour, and there's so much in that relationship that has the humour of the old married couple,” Baranski said. “These are two people who live with each other, who get on each other's nerves, are very protective of each other.”
“The hardest thing to act is a married couple because there's just so much worn fabric there,...but I just think it's just one of the great things about doing The Gilded Age is to have Cynthia as my sister.”
The first five episodes of The Gilded Age sets up a series that has the potential to meet, if not exceed, the addictiveness of Downton Abbey. The performances are almost unimaginably fantastic, with witty dialogue paired with delicious scenery and costumes that you can't takes your eyes off of, even when the first episode is well over an hour long.