Interview: With the Gilded Age and The Accidental Wolf, It's a Golden Age for Kelli O'Hara
Tony winner Kelli O'Hara is enjoying a golden age in her screen career, with two projects taking center stage at once. On HBO's high-profile drama The Gilded Age from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, she co-stars with Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon, and Carrie Coon, playing a bridge between the backbiting worlds of old money and new. Her work in the Topic streaming series The Accidental Wolf, from Tony nominee Arian Moayed, couldn't be more different; she earned an Emmy nomination in 2018 for her turn as a housewife embroiled in a scandal after she receives a phone call from a stranger being murdered.
For audiences who know and love her meticulous musical performances in The King and I and The Bridges of Madison County (among countless other shows), these two screen roles allow us to see the full breadth of O'Hara's talent. And a third project at the same time, an opera version of Michael Cunningham's The Hours (where she'll sing the role played on screen by Julianne Moore) is icing on the cake.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
For starters, tell me about your character, Aurora Fane.
Aurora Fane is a member of the Brook family, which is the Christine Baranski/Cynthia Nixon sect of the show; the old money, if you will. She was definitely raised in this fashion and wants to stay in it, but also starts to be intrigued by a tiny bit of rule-breaking. She becomes a bit of a bridge between the old and the new money by helping to get Bertha Russell, played by Carrie Coon, into the good graces of Mrs. Astor (Donna Murphy) and the Four Hundred, as they called them. So I had my feet in both houses, which was really fun, because I got to be in the Brook house, and see all of those wonderful actors over there, and then I'd get to see Celia Keenan-Bolger and Michael Cerveris [who play servants] in the other house.
I was going to say, the show has more Tony winners per episode than the actual Tony Awards do.
It felt like the top of the game, really. I would show up and be really invigorated. It was the cream of the crop, which was really neat. Debra Monk said to me, when we both found out we got it, "Are you upstairs or downstairs? Let me guess." And I said, "What's that supposed to mean?" And she goes, "Well, I'm naturally downstairs." [laughs]
Did it help the process that basically everyone on the show has a theater background?
Absolutely. Everyone, from the diction coach to the directors, said, "This is why we did this." A lot of people in the cast are singers, and there's a lilt to the Julian Fellowes language — it sort of falls off the tongue. There was a definite air to the place that was screaming with theatrical background, and so it did feel like we had a shorthand. There wasn't a lot of "We want to get out of here." We're all used to the world of work, so there wasn't a lot of complaining. It was just sort of, "Let's do it." And I think that's a theater thing.
I remember being nervous for a couple of days when I was filming a very intimate and wordy scene that I had with Christine and Cynthia and Louisa Jacobson. It was a lot of words that were sort of archaically arranged, and I took a deep breath like, "Just get it together." But there's Christine Baranski staring at me. Finally, we cut, and she goes, "I'm so sorry, it's my character to look at you like this." She knew that she was making this dour face and it was making me nervous. [laughs]
It's fun to watch The Gilded Age at the same time as The Accidental Wolf, which is the polar opposite in terms of tone and is now streaming on the service Topic. Much of that show was filmed years ago and is now blossoming and taking off. What does that mean to you, as the star?
Sometimes, gifts are just not immediate. Arian Moayed and I did King Lear at the Public together in 2011 and he said he was going to write something for me, but I never really thought he would be serious. We shot the pilot episode, which was originally a short, and in that episode, I'm nursing a baby. That's my daughter — she's eight now, and that tells you how long ago it was.
A couple of years passed, we shoot the whole first season, and what I knew to be true is that I really didn't care what the outcome was. I just thought the opportunity and the experience was such a gift, because each time, he was teaching me. He was teaching me about lenses, he was teaching me about being on set. I mean, I know it's cliché to say, but I didn't expect anything from it. I certainly didn't expect an Emmy nomination or anything like that. So, the fact that it did get acquired, and It's being released as a second season, and will be released as a third season — and by the way, the third season is my very favorite — that's just icing on the cake.
And then you have The Hours opera, which I imagine is like, smack in the middle between the two somewhere.
I mean, or out in outer space. I'm learning that right now, so that's in my psyche, as well.
When are you doing The Hours?
We have a staged concert — not really staged, but a concert — with the Philadelphia Philharmonic in March, and then we do it at the Met in the fall, November. The music [by Kevin Puts] is really beautiful, and the libretto [by Greg Pierce] is equally stunning. I'm just wrapping my head around it now and it's starting to make sense to me. And I love the fact that you have these things at the same time, because I don't ever want to be put in one box. I couldn't be happier or more challenged to have these three things happening at once.