With a setting of late 1800s America, “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellows’ new drama series “The Gilded Age” tackles racial politics in a way his previous series did not. But when it came to crafting the show’s central Black character Peggy Scott, the actress filling the role was granted the opportunity to chime in when and where she felt the scripts may have fallen short.
Actress Denée Benton fills the role of Scott, an aspiring Black writer who ends up working as a secretary for a wealthy “old money” family led by Christine Baranski’s Agnes. But as early as the audition process, Benton was asked to contribute to the show’s depiction of an authentic Black American experience.
“In my second audition, [director] Michael Engler, asked me how I felt about some of the scripts and as a Black woman, how I felt about how the story was being told,” Benton told TheWrap in a recent interview about her work on the series. “And I really got the opportunity to be honest about some of the things that I thought could be richer and more authentic. And it really was a process that I got to collaborate in from October 2019 to what you guys saw on screen today.”
Before bringing Peggy Scott to life, Benton landed a couple of plum roles on the theater scene as Natasha in “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” as well as Eliza Hamilton on Broadway’s “Hamilton.”
“I’ve played a couple of women from the 1800s, but none of them had been written as Black women,” Benton said. “And so I was really excited to have this Black woman from the 1800s coming from a socioeconomic status that the media never really portrays. And I felt a really immediate kinship to [Peggy] because her identity praxis just matched with mine in astounding ways.”
In “The Gilded Age,” Peggy’s parents sent her to the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia to receive an education while they remained in Brooklyn. Her father, who doesn’t make an appearance until episode 3 and is harsher on her than her mother, just wants them all to be a family again while Peggy wants to pursue a career as a writer.
“In my experience growing up as a young Black woman in America who was educated with parents who were upper middle class, I could sort of feel, I don’t know, a bit like an outcast in all the spaces I was in,” Benton reflected. “And then to find someone like Peggy, who was based on real people at that time, I saw myself and I was like, ‘Oh my God. I existed then too.’”
Peggy dreams of publishing her writing, and this dream takes her from rural Pennsylvania to booming late 19th century New York City in search of better opportunities. When she arrives back in New York, she is hesitant to go back to her parents because they don’t understand her creative aspirations.
“I just felt an immediate recognition of where [Peggy] was at in her life. Of having these parents who worked incredibly hard to give her opportunities, but she doesn’t want the life that they have planned for her,” Benton said. “And also setting out into a world that’s told her that, you know, things like this can’t happen for Black girls like her and [her] refusal to accept that.”
Peggy overlaps with another central character Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) at a crucial moment in both of their lives. In the HBO drama’s first episode, Marian’s father has died, leaving her with very little property or prospects, and the two first meet at the train station where they leave Pennsylvania for Manhattan. When Marian’s purse containing what is left of her late father’s money and train ticket is stolen, Peggy buys Marian (who is white) a ticket to ride in the back of the train with the other African-Americans.
“I just didn’t have to go that far. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly where I’m at in my life too,’” Benton said. “Obviously there are sort of like secrets that get revealed over the course of the season about some of the details of Peggy’s past that are not really specific to my personal experience, but it’s sort of like the spirit of Peggy and where she was coming from, I very much related to. And then it just became a conversation of the spirit of Peggy and the scripts have stayed the same, but there were just like, real, authentic conversations around what it meant originally for the show that I signed on to to have an all white male creative team that was attempting to write a Black woman in America.”
Peggy’s return to New York combined with her charity toward Marian land her a job as a secretary to Marian’s aunt Agnes Van Rhijn (Christine Baranski), which she accepts so that she has time to write, but back home, her upper middle class Black father would rather she take over his pharmacy.
“Another thing that I was sort of really focused on was the opportunities to open up Peggy’s interior life as a human — not only seeing her in scenes with other white characters — so that she also would just get the opportunity to see more of her world,” Benton said.
Benton identified several factors in the making of the show that were tweaked to improve the accuracy and reality of Peggy’s storyline as well as integrate the Black experience of wealth since The Gilded Age began shortly after the Civil War ended.
“It’s not [just] the white aristocracy of the Gilded Age,” Benton said. “We’re telling the story of the upper class Gilded Age and the Black world was very much a part of that.”
According to Benton, a scene in the first episode when Peggy goes to meet her mom at a coffee shop — which she describes as “small shots of an entire café filled with Black professionals, Black people, drinking coffee and eating cake” — was moved up from later in the series to better establish a context that has been historically whitewashed.
There are more scenes that Benton described as crucial to accurately portraying Peggy’s experience, but for the sake of avoiding spoilers we’ll leave those vague (for the time-being). She highlighted costumes as another opportunity to be as intentional as possible in building Peggy’s character and background.
“I think originally when most of my scenes were existing within the Van Rhijn household, there was this kind of like, unintentional sort of professionally drab color palette, and sort of a limited capacity that didn’t necessarily reflect Peggy’s affluence and the access,” Benton recalled. “So having opportunities for her to go meet up with her mom and meet up with these people that she would want to be presenting a different kind of aesthetic to, to show off that she’s doing really well also gave the opportunity to play with colors, to play with silks, and play with fabrics and move into even more equality of making sure that Peggy — as one of the only Black women that you see on screen frequently — wasn’t unintentionally in lower quality things than the other white women on the screen, and kind of like unintentionally, subconsciously limiting her access to quality, which just wouldn’t have been true to her storyline.”
Benton not only had experience wearing corsets from her past roles, but she knew extra tips and tricks from having to sing while wearing them.
“In ‘Great Comet’ I wore like a proper whalebone corset like we do in ‘Gilded Age,’ and I had to sing in them and it’s so hard. And so even like small technical things,” Benton recalled. “I remember when I got my fitting — it’s like you breathe out as much as possible and they have to fit that part of your waist and you need to go in with a full stomach.”
In addition to fashion fixes, Peggy’s interactions with other characters, specifically Agnes Van Rhijn and later on Marian, add layers to her own role.
Benton describes the juxtaposed tension between the Van Rhijn household and Peggy’s parents’ home for Peggy as “dealing with the white supremacy of the outside world [and then] with the patriarchy within her own home, and what it means to be the arbiter of her own freedom.”
“I just related to that so deeply of the kind of tightrope that Peggy’s walking of being, you know, the educated Black woman who’s quote unquote, one of the good ones [who] does all of the respectability politics perfectly and you know, gains a version of Agnes’ respect,” she said. “And she never, ever forgets for a moment that if she drops a T, or if she, you know, has a button out of place, that that respect is always at risk to dwindle.”
“It’s still a version of internalized white supremacy that she has to navigate in the Van Rhijn household,” Benton continued. “And then she goes home and she’s navigating: ‘You fought for my freedom. So let me be free’ and ‘I know you’re terrified for my safety, but you can’t in turn become my oppressor.’”
“The Gilded Age” premiered on Jan. 24 with many noting the jaw-dropping costumes and production design that bring the period to life, and when asked what came to mind when she heard the words ‘Gilded Age’, Benton drew a connection from the late 1800s to the modern world.
“Obviously I think of the clothes, I think of the corsets, I think of like, hustle and bustle and horses and carriages. And, you know, I didn’t really know a ton about that period,” Benton said. “But I was also definitely thinking of the turn of the century and kind of the way the Industrial Revolution was about to begin. I find that time period really interesting because it feels like very connected to the seedlings of the evil that we see today with the climate catastrophe, and the CEOs are definitely all little George Russell babies so I find that all really interesting.”
She collaborated with co-executive producer Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar, who was originally brought on as a historical consultant, director Salli Richardson-Whitfield and co-creator/writer Sonja Warfield to flesh out her character’s representation in the series as well as more generally in history.
Benton’s experience developing Peggy as a character and an accurate representation of upper-class Blackness during The Gilded Age proved fruitful for both the show and for Benton as an actress.
“What I learned from playing Peggy is that I’ve always belonged. Like the type of Black girl that I am has always existed. And that the tool of erasure is a really insidious tool of white supremacy that has us constantly having to relearn our history,” Benton said. “It was just such a healing moment to see Peggy and see myself and be like ‘Oh my God, I’ve always been here.’ She feels like a spiritual ancestor in a way and the women that she represents, and it feels like someone has given me, I don’t know, like a connective tissue to hold their hands again and just feel really lifted by them, and so that has been one of the most beautiful parts of playing this role. It felt really validating.”
Benton also shouted out the other women with whom she collaborated to further flesh out her character.
“It was really me trusting that, ‘Okay I, as one of the main Black representations on this show, I can trust these women’s voices to make sure that like, even if it’s not intentional that Peggy doesn’t end up feeling like a token or doesn’t end up feeling like just tired biases and stereotypes that we all don’t even realize that we have, that bringing in these perspectives, not only helping the entire world of the show, that made it so like a Peggy could come to the screen that we all were really proud of.”
New episodes of “The Gilded Age” air Monday nights on HBO and HBO Max.