Categories: Interviews

Interview: Morgan Spector (‘The Gilded Age’) on George’s Moral Complexities, Doomsday Prepping with Carrie Coon and Being an Internet Sex Symbol

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As railroad tycoon George Russell, The Gilded Age actor Morgan Spector says of his morally dubious character, “I think that with George, the arena in which his humanity flourishes is his private life, and his family, and his relationship with his children and his relationship particularly with [wife] Bertha.”

It’s that relationship, specifically with Carrie Coon, who plays his social ladder-climbing wife, that gives The Gilded Age its foundation. Even as both engage in duplicitous deals, corner cutting and general billionaire workarounds, their passion for each other – and Spector and Coon’s chemistry – is pushes the drama forward. The second season of the HBO series came at a time where the actor and writer strikes in Hollywood through the summer and fall of 2023 ripped through the industry with the show featuring an arc of strikes and union-busting at the turn of the century, providing a magnification of a topic as relevant now as it was 100 years ago.

In my conversation with Spector, we dive into George’s actions and motivations and Spector fascination with playing him. We talk about working with Carrie Coon (check out our interview with her here), their symbiotic thoughts on doomsday prepping, that incredible Red Lobster horror short they starred in, the perils of billionaire philanthropy and how he’s managing being an internet sex symbol both on and off the show.

Erik Anderson: Right off the bat, congratulations on the third season renewal.

MS: Thank you very much. Yeah. It was very exciting. I wasn’t sure it was going to happen.

Erik Anderson: The girls and the gays are thrilled; I can tell you that.

MS: (laughs) Well, we’re all grateful because I think the girls and the gays saved the show, as has been noted on the old interwebs.

EA: Very much so. What do you think you’ve learned about George the most from the first to second seasons?

MS: I think the thing that we’re playing with George right now is where his boundaries are, where the line is in terms of how far he’ll go to protect his business, how far he’ll go to protect his family, what he will and won’t do. And I feel like we’re discovering that in real time as the writers write and as we play it. And yeah, it’s been fascinating because I think George is a pretty ruthless person, but I do think he has a code. I think it’s not, when you call these guys robber barons, there’s a certain comparison to outlaws.

They’re people that consider themselves above any real constrain, and that makes them fundamentally criminals. But every criminal has a code, right? And there’s a sense of, okay, what is George’s code? And I that’s what we’re figuring out. Gunning 30, 40 men down, including children at point-blank range is outside his boundary, but using existing racial and ethnic tensions to cripple a union by inflaming those tensions is something he’s comfortable with.

EA: I think, as a viewer, you want to find the crevices that you can get into a character that is so morally compromised so that you can, not necessarily even have something to root for, but just have something to let you in.

MS: Oh, I think so. Yeah. I think that with George, the arena in which his humanity flourishes is his private life, and his family, and his relationship with his children and his relationship particularly with Bertha. And yeah, I think that can be a point of access because I think that feels more, at least ethically relatable than some of his other exploits.

EA: Definitely. And speaking of the other exploits, the union busting, and labor law arc this season is fascinating in terms of the timing of it with the strikes last year and film and television creatives fighting for their livelihood. What was it like between shooting that season, the strikes, and then seeing it afterwards? Did it resonate more?

MS: It did. And I think what I found fascinating was when you’re staging a 19th century labor conflict, it’s violent. I mean, these were wars, these were… Often, they ended up in pitched battles and they were really bloody, and the stakes were extremely high. And we don’t think of our contemporary labor struggles as having those same sorts of stakes. Do you remember that quote that came out? It was some anonymous executive was like, “We’re going to wait until people are losing their homes and then we’re going to come back to the table.”

And it was a reminder that the stakes of those struggles are still very high. I mean, that’s when you’re talking about using the leverage you have over people’s livelihoods to threaten their ability to shelter themselves. It’s not the same thing as actually holding guns on them, but it’s a pretty powerful lever. And it was clear, I think, in terms of the temperature of the strike action in Hollywood, that it was getting pretty heated, it was getting pretty serious. So yeah, it was interesting to see just how powerful that conflict still is. Yeah.

EA: Henderson is a great foil for George here. Can you talk a little bit about working with Darren Goldstein and the standoff in the aftermath with Harrison?

MS: Well, Darren is somebody that I have known a long time. A friend of mine from college introduced me to him when I first moved to New York. And so, I’ve known him for a long time and watched his career in New York Theater and various television shows for a long time. And so, I was really happy to get to work with him. And he’s a fantastic actor. And I loved what he brought to Henderson. It was this real, rough, blue-collar dignity and real intelligence, political cunning. And I think… I really love those scenes where it’s three pages long and it’s just a couple of people talking and trying to get the better of each other in a room. And I have a fair amount of those on this show.

It’s some of my favorite stuff to play because you’re… Especially when you have a wonderful actor like Darren, you get to just chart the power shifts back and forth as you play out those scenes. And yeah, what I like about the relationship between those two men is that there is a grudging, mutual respect. As much as they are really structurally enemies and they’re locked in a conflict that can never really be permanently resolved, I think there is a kind of admiration, at least from George to Henderson. I mean, maybe Henderson hates George more than George… I think George can afford to admire Henderson. But yeah. No, I really like playing those scenes, and I loved the way they were written. They were fun to do.

EA: The relationship between Bertha and George is really the show’s core, and it doesn’t succeed without you and Carrie working together so well. We talked with her a recently and she had horrible things to say about you. It was shocking.

MS: (laughs) Yes, we hate each other.

EA: It’s really going to end her career, and I feel terrible. Do you think, though, that the Red Lobster horror short that you did together was foundational to your dynamic today?

MS: (laughs) I mean, I don’t know if I would say foundational, but I was thinking about this, our spouses had worked together on a film called Christine, which if you haven’t seen it, please go out and see it. And the writer of that film is also a producer, Craig Shilowich. And he and his producing partner came to us and asked us if we would do this short written and directed by Robin Comisar. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s nuts. At one point, she cuts off my tongue with a butter knife. I mean, it’s really wild. And it required us just to, on the day, take a lot of big leaps.

And when you’ve done that with another actor and you’ve both risked getting egg on your face, it helps. It helps when you then walk into another situation together and you have to do that and be creative together, and especially figuring out the tone of this show and how these performances needed to be pitched. Early on, that was something we were really doing together, and it was a pleasure to do, but it’s tricky. It has to be crafted and it has to be calibrated. And so, yeah, I think maybe we were a little less afraid of that process because we’d already been through something so silly together.

EA:  I think she said, “Morgan and I together are quite dark and cynical, yet somehow that sort of cohesiveness off-stage too translates into chemistry on screen.”

MS: Yeah, it’s true. I mean, I think we both have this very… I don’t know. Bleak outlook on the contemporary world. But at the same time, we’re both, I would say, pretty idealistic in some ways. So, there is a tempered optimism, I think, that we share. Although when we get together, it always spirals into just apocalypse.

EA: She did mention a doomsday podcast possibility.

MS: I mean, we got to come up with an angle. But yeah, we’re both… I don’t think I’m alone in this, but I think there’s this sense… We’re looking at the world right now, you think… And especially having lived through the pandemic, you have this feeling of, are these systems that are designed to support civilization as we understand it… How durable are they? What kind of tests can they withstand? Because in certain ways, COVID was… In that it really was dangerous for actually a fairly small percentage of the population and its fatality rate was pretty low, imagine something that was two or 3% more fatal and also killed children.

And you can imagine almost a total system collapse, right? Yeah. I don’t know. So, that’s the kind of stuff we get into together. And you start thinking, am I insane or should I be stockpiling ammunition and canned goods right now? That’s the terrain sometimes.

EA: Well, it highlights too in something that the show is about, these beginnings of America and system inequalities where billionaires are also philanthropists and that requires a social infrastructure that is either there or it’s not there, and it still exists. It’s one of the great things about the show, is its understanding of that.

MS: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. I think about this philanthropy thing sometimes because I’ve become skeptical of philanthropy, because in some ways it’s a soft power tool of billionaires in a very unequal society. Because they drive so much investment in the nonprofit sector, they really get to determine mission and policy. And a lot of that really can be quite self-serving, both from a PR and even from a financial perspective for them. And I’m sure that was true then, although sometimes you look at something like what Carnegie did with his libraries all across the country, and those really did make a difference.

I mean, there were some of these philanthropic projects that were, I don’t know if purely altruistic, because I’m sure to some extent they were legacy burnishing projects as well, but they did actually change people’s lives significantly for the better. And I don’t know that I necessarily see that as much today from our contemporary billionaires. But I’m sure they would disagree. But yeah, personally, I think it is incumbent on the state to restrain the power of these people, basically, because that is the closest thing we have, as imperfect as it is, to a democratic instrument. And in the absence of that, you just have a really pretty savage and unequal system, pretty much.

EA: Moving directions a little bit, but maybe not so much, I was thinking about how the women’s costumes and hair and hats really get a tremendous amount of attention and deservedly so. But I’d like to hear, for you, how George’s period fashion brings him to life for you.

MS: I mean, there’s something about… One of the things that Kasha [Walicka Maimone], our costume designer, really focused on early on with George is she wanted him to feel like a train. When he moves through a room, there’s this power of steel and speed. And so, as much as possible, I’m wearing multiple layers, like a vest and a jacket, and often a coat. And so, there’s this sense of size and force, which I feel in the clothes and also really appreciate. You can see that in the color palette too, for the most part. Although occasionally I will wear a slightly lighter than navy blue, but very occasionally.

And then, something I really appreciate about the costumes is just this incredible attention to detail with the cuff links, and the tie pins, and these things that will often have a kind of narrative resonance just thematically, which is really beautiful and fun. But yeah, the clothes are genuinely… The fabrics are really luxury fabrics. It’s these thick, soft, wools handcrafted, custom-built to me. I mean, there’s this sense of… There’s an experience of that luxury that feels like wealth that really feels like George’s world.

So, it’s not just a question of being in a room and looking around and seeing it’s beautifully appointed and, obviously, expensive that lets me inhabit that space. It’s also the clothes that, from even just as close to my body, giving me that feedback that this is a guy where everything is perfect, everything is built exactly to him. And that’s not how life is for most of my life. But as George, the costumes just put me right in that space. It’s amazing.

EA: I was also thinking of the Met Gala just in relation to something like The Gilded Age and philanthropy of billionaires. And I have to tell you, I absolutely loved your Met Gala look.

MS: Thank you very much. I loved it too. I was so happy with it.

EA: It was speaking loudly. It was phenomenal.

MS: Thank you so much. Yeah. No, I was very happy with it. I loved working with Willy Chavarria. He was so down to go in the direction I wanted to go and be creative. And we didn’t have that much time, so it was wonderful. But it was funny going to the Met, obviously, because… I think this year they actually reduced the guest list to some extent. So, it was 400 people, and that was Mrs. Astor’s 400. And I also had this amazing… I won’t say who it was, but I met a guy who is a proper billionaire at the event, and he was a fan of the show, and he came up and told me. And it was like getting co-signed by a contemporary George Russell. It was both gratifying and strange. The Met, the experience of briefly being in that community is very surreal.

EA: You’ve become a bit of a sex symbol both on the show and off. Are you embracing that, you think?

MS: How can you but embrace anything like that? It’s great. I feel… I don’t know. I mean, it’s not like you start getting invitations to the good orgies. You know what I mean? The impact of it is a little bit at a remove. It’s a little bit remote. And it feels really very like an internet phenomenon. So, I always expect it to curdle into loathing any minute. But at the same time, it’s great. To me, I think it’s really about the character, as these things always are. It’s the character that’s sexy. It’s the character that people are really drawn to. And to get to play somebody like that, that has an impact in the world and connects to the audience, that’s all it ever really is about. So yeah, it’s fantastic.

EA: Is there anyone on the show that you haven’t shared much screen time with that you want to have a little side story or a few scenes with in the future? I

MS: I mean, everybody, I want to play with Christine Baranski. I want to play with Denée. I want to do something with Audra McDonald. It’s an amazing… The cast is insane on the show, and we are a bit siloed. And so, yeah, everybody that I haven’t played with, I want a shot. Yeah.

EA: And speaking of so many Broadway legends on this show, I know a lot of fans have been clamoring for a musical episode or for music to be able to find its way in there. Do we need to draft a letter to Julian? Or what’s the best move here to get this to happen?

MS: I mean, give it a shot. What I keep fantasizing about, and I might even try to pitch this to somebody, is that we would do a benefit recording of some kind, get the cast together to… Pick a charity of some sort, maybe around a holiday, and get together in a studio somewhere and put out something. I don’t know. That stuff is all complicated because you have to license songs and you have to figure that out. But I think that’s probably the closest we’d get. But it feels possible. Maybe I can organize something like that if I can…

EA:  There’s where the philanthropy can come in, right there.

MS: Exactly. Yeah. (laughs)

EA: I love it.

MS: Have Yourself a Gilded Little Christmas, or something like that.

EA: Okay. I’m sending a letter right now.

MS: (laughs) Send it, send away. Change.org.

EA: Exactly. Morgan, thank you so much this morning for hanging out with me today.

MS: Total pleasure. Thank you.

Season two of The Gilded Age is currently available to stream on Max. Morgan Spector is Emmy eligible in the category of Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for The Gilded Age.

Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson is the founder/owner and Editor-in-Chief of AwardsWatch and has always loved all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards since he was in single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself in film school and the film forums of GoldDerby, and then migrated over to the former Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), before breaking off to create AwardsWatch in 2013. He is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, accredited by the Cannes Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and more, is a member of the International Cinephile Society (ICS), The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics (GALECA), Hollywood Critics Association (HCA) and the International Press Academy. Among his many achieved goals with AwardsWatch, he has given a platform to underrepresented writers and critics and supplied them with access to film festivals and the industry and calls the Bay Area his home where he lives with his husband and son.

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