Fans of Downton Abbey will be delighted to dive into another sumptuous universe by creator Julian Fellowes, this time based in late 19th century New York and airing on HBO. The Gilded Age is an opulent watching experience, from expansive New York mansions and gowns to the smallest details of an earring or tie pin. The new drama revolves around familiar yet distinct themes: class and its rigidity, new money and old money, and the high cost of power. Morgan Spector plays George Russell, a robber baron from new money of an increasingly industrialized United States. Together with his wife Bertha (Carrie Coon), they move into a neighborhood dominated by staunch New Yorkers (played by Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon, to name a few) who claim to have originally arrived in America on the Mayflower. The show manages to balance its expansive and talented cast with levity and humanity—it never feels cumbersome to watch even the most villainous high society characters hash it out.
Spector might be best known for a starring role on HBO’s The Plot Against America, a recent and acclaimed alternate history miniseries. He also appeared on Homeland, a single episode of Orange is the New Black (he exclaimed “me and Laverne!” when I brought it up), and a handful of films, including Permission and Christine, both alongside his wife Rebecca Hall. From his home in upstate New York, Spector appeared on camera for a Zoom call looking quite cozy in a gray, chunky turtleneck. To him, The Gilded Age isn’t just Downton from an American point of view. “The class position is much less fixed,” he says. “There are characters in our show who I think, over time, may find themselves trading places. There is that possibility in this era, there’s a bit more dynamism in that world.” Below, the actor discusses the research and dialect practice that went into the role, what it’s like to work with his co-star Carrie Coon, and his collaborative relationship with Rebecca Hall.
You are probably best known for starring The Plot Against America, a miniseries based on Philip Roth’s novel set in 1940. What drew you to The Gilded Age, another period drama on television?
At this point I’ve come to accept that I have “resting period face.” I thought that “period face” was more of an Ellis Island face, only in melting pot New York or something. So it was exciting to get a chance to do something that’s more 19th century, that sort of buttoned-up era. I had not gotten to do anything in that period before, so that in itself was exciting. This sounds hacky and as if I’m worshiping my corporate masters, but I like working at HBO. In this streaming maelstrom, I think they’ve maintained a brand that’s based in quality and it makes me feel like everybody’s onboard to make something good, which is exciting.
What kind of research went into playing a character from that late 19th century period?
I try to do a fair bit [of research]—it’s such an interesting era. My general history education is terrible, so it’s always nice to dive into a period, especially one as rich as [the Gilded Age]. I started post-Civil War, got into reading about Reconstruction, and the sort of failure of that process, which is the preceding period leading up to where the Gilded Age begins.
What I realized digging into the research is that what I think the show is interested in—and what I got interested in—are the eccentricities of this weird little microcosm social community. More than the macrocosm forces that created it, this show takes that for granted and says—here’s Mrs. Astor and 400 people in her ballroom, what are these weirdos doing? What are their values, what are they caught up in, what is their daily life? That is joyful fun, and that’s the spirit of the show—what are these weirdos doing with their kajillions of dollars?
Your character George is definitely interesting. He’s definitely that kind of robber baron archetype, who historically are known for being quite exploitative. How did you approach playing the nuances of that character? I know Julian Fellowes does a pretty good job humanizing characters through his writing.
I think Julian’s really interested in the duality of this person who is, beyond the boundaries of his home, a robber baron, a pirate, a swashbuckling business man. But at home he’s quite tender with his children and supportive of his wife’s endeavors at building an empire and taking over the universe. I try to take a look at it on a small personal scale. I think all of us have our conceptions of family at the deepest level. Those are the people we give our best selves to, most of our energy to, who we’re really willing to sacrifice for. And then the world outside is where you struggle to get resources for your family and make sure that they’re taken care of—in a certain way, that’s what George is engaged in. The dichotomy between who he is at home and who he is in business is just a bit more extreme than most of us, I think.
As I was watching it I was thinking the show really is gilded—the entire experience of watching it is so opulent. The house that you spend a lot of scenes in is so over-the-top in a very pleasing way. What was it like acting in the full experience of the costume and set design?
From a production standpoint, what HBO understood about the show is that it needed to be big and luxurious, and a sensuous experience for eyes and ears. The production designer, Bob Shaw, is brilliant. When we first walked into that set, you just kind of can’t believe that anyone built it or that it’s an illusion. It was really astonishing work. And Kasia [Walicka-Maimone], our costume designer, is brilliant. For the women who have to wear corsets, it’s kind of a different experience…for 12-hour shooting days that’s a pretty rough experience. But for me, you look at these clothes and you think they’re going to be stiff and uncomfortable, but they’re beautifully tailored and incredible pieces of craftsmanship. They tuned to every detail.
Did you watch Downton Abbey?
I watched the first season and sort of drifted in and out afterwards. The upstairs/downstairs thing that Julian does in Downton is really satisfying and pleasurable. There’s something about the way Julian finds dignity and humanity in anybody in his world—you never know who’s going to be the emotional center of the episode. You have a general sense with the main characters, but sometimes the hard-hitting thing that lands the emotion of the episode might be a character who you haven’t really spent that much time with. I think that kind of surprise is really fun. Watching The Gilded Age, maybe the audience is not going to care about every character, but there’s something for everyone to get attached to and get invested in because the scale of what Julian is writing is so epic.
Carrie Coon plays your character’s wife on The Gilded Age. What was it like working with her?
I honestly think Carrie Coon is just the truth, you know what I mean. She’s just one of the best actors working, as far as I’m concerned. I also knew her a bit socially before the show, my wife worked with her husband, so we had some familiarity. To get to go to work and be mostly doing my scenes with her makes every day fun. But I’ve also gotta be on my A-game so that I don’t embarrass myself in front of Carrie Coon.
How much did you have to practice to nail the accent your character has on the show?
It took constant practice. We have a great dialect coach who is there every day, every scene. It’s tricky, doing the right little sound changes to land the period and not alienate the audience and not become caught up. The difficulty is there’s nothing you can listen to, right? Ordinarily when you do an accent, you go and steep your brain in the sound of that accent. In this case, you have to drill it and just slip into it, which took some doing.
Are there any other television shows that you’re watching lately and liking?
I’m watching Succession; I thought this season was insanely good. I was really happy about the new season of The Expanse, I haven’t actually gotten to watch it yet but I like that show. I don’t get why that show can’t be Star Trek, I don’t get why you can’t just run that thing forever. I’ve realized I’ll just watch any sci-fi, no matter how good or bad it is. Late in life discovery. Have you watched Gomorrah on HBO Max? The last season is about to air and at the center of it there are these two characters, and there’s this one character Ciro Di Marzio, who is just one of the all-time great television characters.
Would you be interested in joining a sci-fi project?
It depends but…yeah! If you’re in space, if you’re interacting with some other civilization or species, the stakes in every scene are life or death. Anything can happen at any moment—I think that’s why as a genre the plots tend to be so thrilling as they are. They’re also just imaginative, they end up being shows that are a way of looking at your own time, your own moment. Right now, everybody wants to make work about the moment that we’re in, but everything ends up being so shot-through with our own contemporary politics that it’s sort of boring. The distance between the fiction and the truth isn’t large enough for it to be interesting. With sci-fi, that just can’t be the case, you always have to imagine more, so there’s potential for powerful allegory. But yeah, I’d love to do something like that. Give me a lightsaber.
You’re married to actor and director Rebecca Hall. Do you bounce ideas off each other often or workshop new roles? Is there an element of professional collaboration between you two?
Her brain works in ways that my brain does not work. I think we’re complementary in some ways. There are creative leaps that she makes as a writer and director, and all I can do is say, “Yeah, do that, do more of what you are.” But we always record each other for auditions, and I’ve learned to listen to anything she ever tells me, which I feel is sometimes like cheating. We’re always engaged around work and art as much as possible, but we’re not the same kind of thinker, which I think is fantastic.