Interview: Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector on a Marriage of Love and Ambition in The Gilded Age

Coon and Spector play social climbing Bertha and George Russell in the HBO series from Julian Fellowes.

One of last winter's big TV hits was HBO's The Gilded Age. Created by Julian Fellowes and featuring a star-studded cast of theater professionals, the series is set in the strict social scene of late 1800s New York City. At the center are Bertha and George Russell, a nouveau riche couple determined to gain respect and status among the old money.

Playing Bertha and George are Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector, who imbue their characters with as much love as ruthless ambition. Here, they tell us about building this television marriage, and what we can expect from season two, which is shooting now in Newport, Rhode Island.

Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector in the HBO series The Gilded Age
Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector in the HBO series The Gilded Age
(© Alison Cohen Rosa)

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The marriage of your characters fascinated me. So often in media, you see these aggressively bad marriages, and yet Bertha and George Russell are very supportive of each other, and of each other's intense ambition.
Morgan Spector: I agree. Often when we see married couples on film or television, there's a built-in conflict in the narrative so that there's always some juice there. I understand why, and it's often really thrilling. But I also think there's something really exciting about a marriage that works, and seeing how two people who are fundamentally well suited for each other and who really love each other navigate difficulty together.

Marriage has become something now — people do it later, and people are getting married at a higher degree of education, and childcare is becoming more shared. Domestic work is still very unevenly distributed, but the egalitarian marriage is becoming more common, I think, and yet our representation of that isn't. It's more fun to see a guy who goes outside his marriage or a woman who's alienated from her husband. But I think seeing a marriage that is actually richly fulfilling for two people, and watching them go through the conflicts that happen anyway is people's lives, is just as exciting.

Carrie Coon: When I grew up, my parents had a very egalitarian marriage when it was less common. My mom made more money than my dad. My dad was responsible for more of the housekeeping and cooking. I was frustrated to not see that represented on screen because it's not my experience of marriage. I'm so tired of the problematic marriage, which is set up to fail. It's so boring. I think the respect is the thing that's really sexy about this marriage. And that says a lot about where we are – that respect is coming off as a titillating revelation.

Tell me about building this relationship as actors. I know you had worked together in the past, but it was hardly a comparable situation.
Carrie: Our spouses had worked together, too, on Christine, so they had become pals. We all kind of knew each other, and our kids are the same age. But we're theater actors, right? Theater actors always have to take on intimacy right away, especially in New York where you get like two-and-a-half weeks of rehearsal before you put up a play. You better get intimate really fast.

What was nice about working with Morgan is that I know and love and respect his wife [Rebecca Hall] as a person and as an actor, and I think he knows and respects my husband [Tracy Letts] as an actor and writer, and I think our marriages operate similarly. We're married to other people in the business; we're ambitious duos who are working at pretty high stakes in the industry; and we're balancing two careers with children. So Morgan and I have a lot to relate to each other about.

You're shooting season two now. What nothing can you tell me about it?
Carrie: Nothing. Nothing. Morgan, what can we say?

Morgan: The thing I was really struck by is that I thought we've already established so much. We've built all the costumes. We've built al the sets. But no, it's just like…all new. Visually, it's much more sumptuous this season than it was last season, which is sort of like, how can you even imagine that? I'm excited for everybody to see it, because there's a certain doubling down on the excess of the first season, which is really cool.

Carrie: I had a fitting where I was like, "This is my favorite dress." And then I put on another one and I was like, "Nope, this is my favorite dress." They've really outdone themselves. I don't know how they're doing it, because our costume department builds the background costumes, as well. They're not renting anything. So you're standing across from an extra and you're just like, "Look at that button!" You find yourself getting lost in the details and not focusing on your job. But our crew is back and our designers are back, and the shorthand is really strong. They're all just firing on all cylinders.