‘The Gilded Age’ Star Morgan Spector on Playing a Robber Baron and Introducing Conflict to the Show’s Happiest Marriage: ‘I Wanted It to Be Over’ (2024)

George Russell, one of the most prominent characters in HBO’s sprawling period ensemble “The Gilded Age,” is many things: a self-made man; a loving husband; a titan of industry. But Morgan Spector, the actor who plays George in Julian Fellowes’ fictionalized tale of 19th century New York City, is comfortable calling the character out for who he really is. “Robber baron,” Spector declares on Variety’s Awards Circuit podcast. “You can say it!”

The first season of “The Gilded Age” made clear George was no one to trifle with, using his sharp elbows and iron will to get his way with the Russells’ new neighbors on the Upper East Side. But in Season 2, he’s not just a David punching up against Manhattan’s stuffy, hidebound old money; he’s a Goliath facing off against his own employees, who have started organizing for better wages and a more humane working schedule. Showing the dark side of the enormous wealth that defined the show’s namesake era while keeping George in the audience’s good graces was a challenge, but one that Spector relished taking on. Listen below!

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“I was very excited about the union storyline,” Spector says. “I wasn’t sure it was a place that the show would want to go.” But he was pleasantly surprised by how the show, which largely focuses on the lives of society’s elite upper crust, incorporated the concerns of the working poor. “I remember watching the strike episode and thinking that [director] Crystle Roberson had made it quite poignant. You were really on the side of those workers. You really felt their power and their solidarity. I was proud of the show for pulling off that moment.” Spector also credits Fellowes and co-writer Sonja Warfield for staying true to George’s less sympathetic traits while also making his last-minute decision not to fire on a crowd of strikers believable: “It was always a sort of balancing act: let’s not make George seem like a more ethical person that is credible, but also, let’s not have him turned into an absolute monster.”

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After Season 2 was filmed, the union subplot gained extra resonance when members of the performers’ guild SAG-AFTRA, Spector included, went on strike themselves. “I think the show was able to speak to something that was really in the air,” Spector says. “When you’re on set, when you’re at work, how much agency do you have? How much democratic power do you have? Those kinds of questions are still very alive. That’s what they were fighting over in the 19th century, and we’re still trying to figure that out today.”

Closer to home, George faced an even tougher — and more unlikely —adversary: his own wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon), with whom he previously formed the show’s most loving and mutually respectful relationship. Bertha is scandalized to learn her former lady’s maid attempted to seduce George, and hurt to realize her own husband never told her. Spector describes the ensuing confrontation as “a little bit painful”: “My favorite thing about ‘The Gilded Age’ is the rapport that our characters have, the ease that they have with each other. Introducing this element of difficult conflict and coldness —I didn’t like it! I wanted it to be over.” Unfortunately, George and Bertha are on a collision course headed into next season. George wants their daughter, Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), to marry for love, but Bertha has arranged for Gladys’ marriage to a duke without his knowledge. “I think there’s a potential for really going to battle,” Spector teases, though he hadn’t seen any scripts when we recorded our conversation.

Outside his work on the show, Spector has also been outspoken on the ongoing conflict in Gaza, signing an open letter in support of “The Zone of Interest” director Jonathan Glazer’s controversial Oscar acceptance speech and wearing an “Artists for Ceasefire” pin to our interview. “There’s something there’s something about this conflict that is not only uniquely horrifying, but that reveals the true power structures of our world, “ Spector says. “I think it’s important that we continue to speak out and ask for something better and fairer and more just and more peaceful.”

And just as “The Gilded Age” sheds light on our current era, Spector found the same to be true of Glazer’s film. “While it is set during the period of the Holocaust, it is also about what we are all willing to tolerate in the present in terms of the amount of immiseration and suffering that we could stop and don’t,” Spector observes. “I think that’s actually what his film is about. It’s about the people worrying about their home renovations on the other side of the wall. If you watched his film and didn’t understand that, I think it was a misinterpretation. I thought what he said was very brave and, I think, hard to argue with.”

Also on this episode of the Awards Circuit Podcast, CBS’ “After Midnight” host Taylor Tomlinson discusses her experience as a newcomer to network television, feeling overwhelmed but supported by the “After Midnight” crew. She talks about how her confidence has grown over time, helping the show’s panelists look good and how much improv there is on the show. There’s also the question of the fate of TikTok — a site that is heavily utilized on the show — and what that might mean for “After Midnight.”

Additionally, Tomlinson spells out her daily schedule for the show; how exec producer Stephen Colbert has been supportive and helpful, providing valuable notes and time. Also, how she has learned to balance her TV duties with hitting the road, and much more.

Variety’s“Awards Circuit” podcast, produced by Michael Schneider, is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post weekly.

‘The Gilded Age’ Star Morgan Spector on Playing a Robber Baron and Introducing Conflict to the Show’s Happiest Marriage: ‘I Wanted It to Be Over’ (2024)
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