Categories: Interviews

Interview: Carrie Coon on the Social Playground of ‘The Gilded Age,’ Bertha’s Voice and Her Chemistry with Morgan Spector

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Carrie Coon logs onto our Zoom meeting laughing, telling me she isn’t good with this stuff. “It’s a start,” she responds when I tell her that her audio is working now. Moments later, her video begins to work and I see she’s come to our chat adorned in a Morgan Spector t-shirt she’s been seen wearing recently in her downtime to promote her on-screen husband. “I’m a one-woman Emmy campaign for Morgan,” she tells me before we begin.

Coon has made a huge impression on audiences in roles such as Nora Durst on The Leftovers, Ben Affleck’s twin sister in Gone Girl, and now Bertha Russell on The Gilded Age. She’s used to playing women who go for what they want, but Bertha Russell provides a welcome addition into her array of characters. It’s a role that allows Coon to portray a woman climbing the social ladder against any odds pushed in her way. Mrs. Russell’s second season journey takes her into the opera wars, where she’s up against women in her socioeconomic class in an effort to make an exclusive Opera club that she’s part of. It’s riveting and fun, with Coon portraying the character with an intense ambition that feels like a driving force in the series.

During our chat, Coon talked to me about using social acuity to progress in society, the variety of hats she wears in the series, and the importance of preserving physical media. 

Tyler Doster: What resonates with you about the idea of a woman engaging in small-scale warfare with her peers as she attempts to climb the social ladder?

Carrie Coon: Oh, I suppose it feels like the playground. I suppose we’re all doing it from the jump in our own little way. I feel like I recognized that behavior in women very early on and was very confused by it and disconcerted. But it’s fun to play. I think there are still some restrictions for women and what their purview might be. We still don’t have a female president, for example. We haven’t had that. We keep relegating women to certain jobs or holding them to a much higher double standard when they occupy a job that has traditionally been occupied by men, so I’m not sure it’s changed that much. Not to mention the fact that in our billionaire class, there still are philanthropists, and so there are still women running those foundations and doing this work, sadly, because we don’t have the social infrastructure to support the working classes. And so we still require the philanthropic intervention of billionaires. That’s how we’re still functioning as a society, which… how’s that working out for us?

TD: Bertha is someone who utilizes social acuity to maneuver through all these situations. Is there anything different that goes into portraying a character who’s so internalized?

CC: Oh, that’s interesting. I mean, it’s funny. I think of her really as a woman of action. I feel that she is driving the plot, which is what makes her fun to play. What you identify as her social acuity, I also associate with her sense of egalitarianism. I think Bertha truly believes in a meritocracy. Now, the world’s not actually working that way. It’s working that way for her. She feels that she has earned her way into this position and that she deserves all of the accoutrement that should come with it. And she also grudgingly respects someone like Turner, who’s also demonstrated tremendous social acuity, in fact, acquitted herself in such a way that Bertha is not even sure she would be equal to what Turner has accomplished in snagging that man and what I love, what they’ve done with Turner.

And Kelly Curran, of course plays it beautifully unhinged in the show, but they’ve made her… She has good taste. Turner really did teach Bertha about how to navigate that social sphere. And Bertha probably had some lessons to learn, and then Turner just steps into it with such grace. And now I forget the question, but I just wanted to talk about Turner for a while.

TD: I’m sure that’s so frustrating with her dealing with the entire Turner situation after she finds out.

CC: I mean, truly she was washing her underwear. It’s shocking and you can’t make a stink about it because that would then reveal you to be not equal to the class that you’re gallivanting around with. And so Bertha has to play it cool. And that’s the thing I love about her is her ability to see the long game, she understands that the most important thing she could do is get Turner on her side because Turner has money and position. She’s seduced her way into, and now Bertha needs her on her side ’cause she needs all the hands she can get in order to win the opera war. And so she doesn’t sabotage her relationship with Turner because she knows she needs her. It’s a really sophisticated, long game she’s playing, on a parallel track with her husband.

TD: It is. Did anything change regarding preparation between the first and second season as you grew more familiar with her?

CC: When you get to play a character over one or two or, heaven forfend, three seasons, you do start to feel you know them better. And I think sometimes what that translates into in terms of preparation is bumping up against something in the writing that doesn’t feel quite suitable. And so you may be more inclined to speak up about those things. They happen rarely, the writers know the characters really well too. But I do feel that the actors tend to sink down a level and then we might start to just have a stronger instinct about that stuff sometimes. I come from the world of theater. I am not inclined to speak up. I tend to honor the writer because the playwright is the king or queen of the theater. So you respect the written word. And so I’ve never been someone to play fast and loose with language or to push back a lot on story, but I do think that’s one of the consequences. But as far as preparation, I mean, look, putting on the clothes and walking into those spaces, you’re 75% of the way.

TD: Which actually leads me into my next question. Do you have a favorite hat on the series so far?

CC: I mean, the Easter hat was pretty outrageous, and I love that sequence of everyone putting on their Easter bonnets before the parade. I thought that was a beautiful way to open the season. That’s a great hat. I mean, I know the turkey leg hat gets a lot of pushback, but those feathers in person were stunning. They kind of looked like turkey legs on screen.

TD: Do they ever get heavy on your head?

CC: [laughing] Yes! They’re very heavy. On some days they started to hide mic packs in the wigs and in the hats. And I said, “This is the narrowest part of my body, practically, my neck, and it cannot support any more weight because I’m wearing a giant wig and a giant hat.” And what I have found is that I found these headrests that you can put at the base of your neck so that it keeps your hat just off the ground. And feathers can kind of shoot straight out. And if you need to rest, you can take a nap on the floor without crushing all your feathers. Very important in a 16-hour day.

TD: All about resourcefulness.

CC: Yes, indeed. Very Bertha of me, I think.

TD: I was about to say that Mrs. Russell would be so proud.

CC: She would.

TD: The Gilded Age is a series so adept at huge payoffs in these seemingly smaller moments after we’ve seen episodes and seasons of length. What’s the most exciting part as an actor to perform these scenes? I’m particularly thinking at the end of the opera wars, the satisfaction that Bertha has.

CC: It is fun to play those moments. In some ways, they are the most imaginatively challenging moments because often they involve the most CGI we have in the show. So when I was walking out into the opera space in that scene, I was actually overlooking just the catwalk of our studio and the back walls of our sets and all the crew eating crafty in their sweatpants. God bless them, they deserve all the breaks and snacks they can get. And so it’s actually much more work to play those moments. Same with the end of season one, we had the Edison, the lighting ceremony. They had a big lighting rig, but not really just a flashing light. And so oftentimes those period moments which are so wonderfully historically grounded by the writers, take the most work to play, nothing to look at. So the scene work is actually easier because at least you have a scene partner.

TD: On Watch What Happens Live you quickly assigned Bertha an incredible [Real] Housewife tagline. So now my question for you is, if Bertha was dropped into one of the Real Housewives cities, which do you think she would easily vibe with the most?

CC: Oh, New York. 

TD: OG New York or current New York?

CC: I mean, look, she can play any game, drop her into current New York, and she will rule. She just will have less plastic surgery than everyone.

TD: I think that might be a little bit of an advantage to her, but I think it would be very confusing to her coming from her-

CC: Yes, she’d probably quickly get on board if it was expeditious. I mean, if it would benefit her in some way, she would be getting in on the Botox, I’m afraid.

TD: She’d be trying to figure out a way to have a Botox clinic set up in her name.

CC: Oh, definitely. Yeah. Yeah. She would be leading the charge in a new technology.

TD: Your chemistry with Morgan Spector in this series is combustible. With the familiarity coming into season two, how did that affect your scenes and what is the air like when you guys are around each other getting ready for these scenes?

CC: Oh, that’s funny. Well, of course, I worked with Morgan on an avant-garde short film a couple of years before we got cast in the show. And he was one of the reasons why I said yes to the job because he was cast ahead of me since I had worked with him before and since I knew him and was a fan of his work, obviously, and a fan of him as a person. And because my husband had worked with Rebecca, Rebecca and I were pregnant at the same time, we had our babies at the same time. So our families are very much on parallel tracks as well. Honestly, what it’s really like is Morgan and I, when we’re together, we very quickly tip over into doomsday talk. You might’ve heard rumors about the potential podcast we were going to have about disaster preparedness and various sundry crises happening around the world.

So actually what’s funny is that there’s quite a juxtaposition because Morgan and I together are quite dark and cynical, and yet somehow that sort of cohesiveness off-stage translates into chemistry on screen. Who knew? And we just really adore each other. We really respect each other. And so it always makes intimacy much easier to play when you feel that way. When you absolutely trust another actor, you can just dive into that stuff without any inhibitions, I would say. He’s very attractive, that also doesn’t hurt.

TD: Oh, that’s an understatement.

CC: I think getting paired up with all these frightfully attractive men, my family is just… They’re just gobsmacked. They can’t believe I ended up here.

TD: How did you settle on the specific voice and intonations of Mrs. Russell?

CC: It’s funny. I remember a moment in season one, I think I had been a little bit sick. I’d had a cold, I was walking at Kelli O’Hara’s event she was holding for the Red Cross. And my voice was a little low that day, and it was very early in the season that we were shooting it. And now I had that line, “What an interesting moment for me to arrive.” That register so shattered everything else that was happening in the room. And I thought, oh yes, Bertha takes control of a room this way, and it’s masculine. It has a masculine energy, I think, which I imagine somebody like Bertha might have very subconsciously understood would give her power in a room. And so it just felt right.

It just sat in my body the right way. And then now I just make fun of myself all the time about it. That’s what makes the show feel really theatrical. You can make choices like that and it will work because the world is actually quite large and quite grand. And so you can push those TV limits a little bit and act with some size, which is actually fun to do and maybe sometimes campy. But I love it. It’s a hoot.

TD: Bertha Russell actually reminds me slightly of Nora Durst in the way that I think they’re both very direct and about what they’re trying to achieve. So I wanted to ask you, do you ever compare characters you’ve played while you’re playing them? Or do you keep them individualized until maybe after? Or do you ever do that?

CC:I haven’t necessarily thought of them that way, but I will say that characters always teach you something. So the way Nora Durst was uncompromising, that was not a way that I, Carrie Coon, walked through the world. And so it was instructive to get to feel what it’s like to walk into a room in that way. And likewise with Bertha, she’s equally uncompromising, I think you’re right about that. And unflinching in some way. And again, I am from the Midwest. I’m very conflict averse, I’m always apologizing for being in a room, trying to get off-stage before they kick me off. Before I get the hook. 

So to play these ladies is a real test of my own humility. I don’t have the same level of self-confidence, but I see what you mean. It’s interesting to me that I get invited to play these parts again because they actually run so counter to my nature. And so the people who know me well and my family, they think of me as someone with tremendous lightness of being. I’m quite goofy and silly, and I don’t take myself very seriously, and I’m not uncompromising. I’m determined and I work hard. I think those are qualities I share with those women. But my family’s consistently mystified by how I get cast. But I think it does have something to do with… I’ve always played older than my age. Maybe it’s my voice. Maybe I look old. I don’t know. Something.

TD: You’ve said that you took the initiative to film your own audition tape for The White Lotus, and I wanted to ask you if you could give me any insight into the character. Did you create a character for this audition?

CC: I relied very, very much on my friend Olli, who is a great actor. You last saw him in Oppenheimer as one of the scientists. And he has made a profession of helping actors tape for jobs. And because I don’t have a setup… I have two small children, and I find all that technology stuff completely overwhelming. And I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for that audition. And so what helped me in that case was having somebody on the outside who knew the show to say, “Here’s what I see, and here’s what we might turn up a little bit for this audition.” And so I guess all that’s to say, it’s sometimes really helpful to have somebody on the outside looking in to help with those things.

And so sometimes a good coach can really be the difference maker in a situation like that. And I’m always willing to take, because I want a director to know what they’re getting. I don’t ever want a director to have an idea of what I am, that’s not me. I want them to be able to see what it is that they’re working with. So nobody comes in with misconceptions, right? But I was really grateful that Mike picked me.

TD: I’m sure you can’t say much, but your audition tape, did that in any way become similar to who you were playing on The White Lotus?

CC: Well, yes, though the scenes were changed a little bit. The scenes that I worked on are very much part of the show, though maybe a little bit shifted, the dynamics or the lines have changed a little bit, and we didn’t know much about the characters that we were given. But yes, yes, those scenes are in the show. They’ll kill me [for spoiling].

TD: I won’t have HBO on your back. I wanted to ask you about your use of Twitter during film award seasons as a way to log your films. It’s so interesting and everyone on Film Twitter pays attention. I know, I always see every year everyone’s so excited to see you posting. Have you always been a film logger or is that something you started doing because of Twitter? What made you decide to let everyone know what you’re watching every day? It seems like you guys have a nightly movie.

CC: Yes. I mean, if my husband had his way, every night after the kids went to sleep, we would go in our basement and watch movies. Now, thankfully, we’re working actors right now, especially in a time that’s very challenging in the business. We’re both working right now. And so we haven’t had as many movie nights lately. But it really started during quarantine because we were home. We were home, we had young children. We weren’t going anywhere. We weren’t seeing anybody. And so we kept this list of the films we were watching during quarantine, and we just continued it after quarantine also as a way, like you say, to point out to maybe lift up some films we were watching during award season. We’re voters in the foreign films category, which a lot of actors and people don’t necessarily have access to. And so we always want to promote the foreign films we see because they’re magnificent.

And it just became a fun thing that Tracy and I… And then people started Letterboxd accounts based on the list. We curated a movie night for a publication. We’ve both done our criterion lists now, and because we just have this insane collection. I mean, my husband’s collection, and I’ll say this, my grandparents were the ones who exposed me to film as a young person. I watched mostly old black and white movies that I was raised on with a couple of new ones thrown in. And then my husband, of course, has this incredible collection, so it’s continued. I married a film buff, I guess. And he really does give business to all of those little imprints that are cropping up and making obscure DVDs. We have the most obscure DVDs. It’s an extraordinary collection for the apocalypse. As I say, we will have an apocalyptic movie theater when everything falls apart. 

TD: Yeah, it was on Jimmy Fallon, you said you guys have over 10,000, right?

CC: Yeah. He’s crossed the 10,000 mark. And just about anything you can think of, he’ll say, “Oh yes, we have that.”

TD: I love the empowerment of physical media, though.

CC: It is amazing because there are things you cannot stream, you will not find [anywhere else].

TD: Absolutely.

CC: Even great films from the seventies or eighties, nobody’s put them out. And once these companies buy them up, buy the rights of them, you don’t have access to them anymore unless they say, and if they shelve something, that’s it. There’s no way to get it anymore, to see it anymore. So it’s important to prop up these companies. I mean, not everybody has the money and the resources and the space, but those of us who do, we should try to keep it going.

TD: Physical media forever.

CC: Amen.

Carrie Coon is Emmy eligible in the category of Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The second season of The Gilded Age is available to stream on MAX.

Tyler Doster

Tyler is the TV Awards Editor for AwardsWatch and from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He’s been obsessed with movies and the oscars since he was about 14. He enjoys reading, but even more, talking about Amy Adams more and will, at any given moment, bring up her Oscar snub for Arrival. The only thing he spends more time on than watching TV is sitting on Twitter. If you ever want to discuss the movie Carol at length, he’s your guy. You can find Tyler at @wordswithtyler

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