Carrie Coon on That ‘Gilded Age’ Finale and Embracing the Show’s Soapy Nature

The actress talks to TheWrap about Bertha’s big moves and Season 2 of the HBO drama


Note: The following contains spoilers for “The Gilded Age” Season 1 finale.

The first season of the HBO drama series “The Gilded Age” came to a close in grand fashion on Sunday night, with Carrie Coon’s Bertha Russell finally embraced by high society in the party to end all parties. The event was the inverse of the first episode of the series, in which “new money” Bertha throws a party at her expensive new New York City mansion and the “old money”-ruled society world refuses to attend.

But while Bertha got what she wanted, it necessitated an embracing of the game of the NYC society world and some maneuvering to get there. “It’s the only game in town,” Coon told TheWrap during a recent interview about the finale and her work on this season. “She has to play the game, because she can’t be a senator or an entrepreneur or a scuba diver,” Coon said, referencing the limited roles for women during the late 19th century. “She wants what she wants, and sometimes it’s a real limitation for her because she doesn’t see how it’s hurting the people who are right in front of her. George, in his fears about, obviously, how that is going to play out in court with the railroad. And with Gladys — she can’t really see Gladys. She only sees who she wants Gladys to be.”

During our interview, an obviously delighted Coon talked about the joy of being part of “The Gilded Age” and embracing the entertaining, soap opera nature of the series. She also discussed Bertha’s worries for her children, using Alva Vanderbilt as an amalgam for Bertha and drawing from real-life history for her character’s arc, the “couple goals” of Bertha’s relationship with George and looking ahead to Season 2 (which she reveals starts filming in April or May).

Check out the full interview below after you’ve watched the finale episode.

Did you know Bertha’s entire arc for the season going into it, or was it unfolding as you guys were shooting?

We did have many of the scripts before we started shooting, and I had received the documents from Julian [Fellowes] when I was deciding whether or not to join the show that outlined Bertha’s arc over multiple seasons, as just sort of a theoretical pitch about where this could possibly be headed, and it was very exciting. So I did have an idea of how Season 1 was ending before we started. But of course, with COVID and shooting in different cities, we were all over the place.

The finale is really the inverse of the pilot, in which no one shows up and Bertha vows revenge, and now all of a sudden she’s on top. She’s got everyone coming to her palace. I was curious what that arc was like to play knowing that was your North Star at the end of the season.

That’s a good question. You can’t ever plan the end before the beginning. Or, you try not to plan the end before the beginning. I think what I loved about that arc is that she has all these conversations with the society ladies who are keeping her out, and there’s a build from when she first talks to Katie Finneran’s character [Anne Morris], to Kelli O’Hara’s character [Aurora Fane], and then finally Mrs. Astor. And so, I feel like those conversations are a useful way of tracking Bertha’s confidence as she’s playing the game. I love the moments when Bertha pokes holes in the artifice, where she calls bullshit on all their arbitrary rules. And I love that she’s willing to both play the game and to examine it, and so critically, and encourage other people to see through the ruse of what it is that they’re doing. So that was fun, knowing that was the arc of it.

Carrie Coon and Donna Murphy in “The Gilded Age” (HBO)

By the end of the finale, she gets what she wants, but we’ve also seen her… she dismisses Monsieur Baudin against her husband’s protests because of how it’s going to look, and previously she and George got into it a bit fretting over status while he was dealing with the railroad fallout. In order for Bertha to be accepted by society, is there a bit of her buying into the game as well as playing it?

It’s the only game in town. There’s no way to ascend to the level of society they want to be in without playing that game. And Bertha and George are savvy enough to understand that those tracks are running parallel. So it’s important for George’s business to be successful, and it’s important for Bertha’s social conquest to be successful. And sometimes those two objectives are in conflict. Sometimes they intersect in a way that makes for an uncomfortable time for Bertha and George. And yet, I think they’re always unified about the endgame, which is really the appropriate marriages for their children. The endgame is always to leave your children in a better position that you started.

So she has to play the game, because she can’t be a senator or an entrepreneur or a scuba diver. You know? She’s limited in where she can put her energy, and she’s a woman that has tremendous energy. And, let’s face it. She’s also very single-minded. She wants what she wants, and sometimes it’s a real limitation for her because she doesn’t see how it’s hurting the people who are right in front of her. George, in his fears about, obviously, how that is going to play out in court with the railroad. And with Gladys — she can’t really see Gladys. She only sees who she wants Gladys to be.

I found that really very interesting, because clearly she has love for Gladys, but it’s almost cruel what she does with that potential match for her. She’s doing this in the best interests of her family but it takes a certain level of disconnect in order to make those hard decisions.

Yes it does. Because what she knows, of course, is that the world is not set up for Gladys. Larry will be fine. But Larry is an attractive, rich young man who’s going to have a position and he’ll marry well. She doesn’t worry about Larry. And it’s her first born. She’s charmed by Larry. She really doesn’t understand why Gladys doesn’t want more for herself. Because she can’t understand a young woman who doesn’t share her ambition.

And it is cruel. And that’s what Alva Vanderbilt did to her own daughter. She ended a relationship that Consuela had and then she married her daughter off to the aristocracy in England. Because so many of those new money families, because they were not being accepted into society, one of the ways they could achieve position was to sort of become part of the landed gentry in the UK, which gave them enough novelty back home to achieve the kind of social status they were in pursuit of. And that’s exactly what Alva Vanderbilt did to her daughter. Unhappily.

And then Alva herself ended up having a divorce at a time when that was very unusual. Getting remarried at a time when it was unheard of. I love Alma as an amalgam for Bertha because she had a very subversive past. So even as she was ascending socially, she was also subverting those rules. One after another as she got older and more mature, and more confident. And I think ultimately realized that what she had done to her daughter was very cruel. But at the time, you know. Bertha’s just looking out for her family in the only way she knows how.

Did you come in to the show with a knowledge of the time period and the approach that new money took to gaining status? Or was that part and parcel with joining the project?

It’s always good to be reminded. That time in history is one of tremendous change and economic stratification. And you can read endlessly about the foundations of where we are now and how we got here. It was sort of seeded in that time. But for myself, personally. I was a literature major in undergrad, and Henry James is one of my favorite writers. “Portrait of a Lady” is one of my favorite books. I think I dressed up as Edith Wharton in fourth grade for a book report.

So it’s a time period that I’ve always loved. I love the films from that era of the books that were written. And so I had enough knowledge of it to know that it would be fun. And then, I’m sort of a nerdy actor. I really love to research parts. So I read a bunch of historical books. There’s a great biography of Alvin Consuelo. There’s some incredible society novels about the social mores of the time, and how they were designed to catch people out and keep them out of society. And those rules are even hard when you’re on a set. Trying to follow etiquette rules when you’re just pretending is really challenging. So the research part was really fun.

It’s interesting because the finale episode begins with Bertha being snubbed by Mrs. Astor, and it’s so interesting because no one’s killing each other in this show. It’s not “The Sopranos” or “Game of Thrones,” and yet the stakes feel just as intense. And I’m curious what that’s like for you as a performer. To play with this kind of drama. Because there is, I can imagine that there’s a concern that it veers into soap opera territory–

It is a soap opera, Adam! (laughs) I mean, yes, the stakes are always life and death. Because social death for these people is the equivalent of an economic travesty. If they cannot achieve these marriages, if they cannot be running in the proper circles, if they can’t be successful in business, they can’t keep up with their contemporaries, and they don’t have a social life. For women, all they could do was participate in charity and participate in planning of events for their families. There was no other outlet for them. If you’re excluded from those things, you have no life. And when that’s all there is to judge you by, that’s pretty… It’s like social media. It’s not that different, right? You have all these people performing self on Instagram, and there are people who are severely depressed as a result of it. It’s not that different.


And of course, let’s be honest. We also know that what they’re talking about is a world of incredible privilege. Women of color, poor women. They were always in the workforce. So you’re right. The stakes are different for these women who are in society. But the stakes are that high. You know, if Gladys doesn’t make a good marriage, she could die in poverty. So that’s serious business.

Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector in “The Gilded Age” (HBO)

So then tell me about embracing the soap opera of it while not turning it into camp.

I think Julian Fellowes is really good at what he does. And I think Julian Fellowes knows what the audiences want. What they want is an entertaining show that is beautiful, that does have stakes, that tiptoes into some social criticism, but that’s not the focus of the show. The focus of the show is ultimately entertainment, and if the language of the piece is also heightened. This isn’t your traditional mumblecore modern show (laughs). The language has a level of theatricality to it. Which is why you have all these Broadway actors swanning around in our show, because they know how to handle that language. And I think that we found in the doing of it, Morgan [Spector] and I talked about this a lot when we were working, is if you make it too small it doesn’t work. You’re not actually telling the story. You’re not serving the story. And you have to rise to the level of that language in a way that, as you say, maybe draws a fine line between, just on the side of camp sometimes. But it’s really fun to do, and I think it’s largely just really fun to watch. And those dresses are huge. And those rooms are huge. And you have to fill up those rooms.

Everything out of Christine Baranski’s mouth is a hoot.

Oh, yeah. It is. She’s magnificent.

She’s incredible. I am sincerely hoping we get more scenes between the two of you next season, because that’s a square-off that’s waiting to happen.

Oh, I agree. I would love that so much. I admire her as a performer and as a mother. And as a woman who has a career. I admire Christine on every level. And I would delight in sharing some scenes with her. I would probably be a little intimidated, but I would do my best.

I know you’re on social media. Did you see there’s this enthusiasm between #CoupleGoals between Bertha and Morgan? It’s been a lot of fun to watch, because you guys really make an incredible team, and it’s so nice and refreshing to see a marriage as a partnership.

I know. What I find a little disconcerting in all of it is that so many people, we’ve gotten so far away from the baseline of what it is to have mutual respect that when a husband respects his wife we’re absolutely titillated by it (laughs). It says a lot about where we are in society that people are like, oh, couple goals. Like the baseline of just mutual respect is, like, unachievable. Or aspirational in some way. But that’s often what it is, isn’t it?

It’s like their baseline is really healthy. It’s a sexy marriage. He supports her ambitions. She absolutely is the architect of his social climb. And they work in concert, and they also make hard decisions together. And they also advocate for one another. Even when it’s hard. And yes! That was one of the things I loved about the script when I read it, is that the marriage felt egalitarian in a way that you rarely see anywhere. And for that reason, it felt very modern, too. Because so often, marriage is depicted as this punishing institution for women. Which is not always the case. So I love that part about the script.

Was the entertaining nature of the show part of the draw? Because, you know, “The Leftovers” is just a little heavy.

Yes. Well, I’m known for my dramatic work. I think we can all attest to that. I think directors are always surprised to work with me because they find that I’m actually quite light-hearted, really. You know, this is work that I’ve been doing for decades. I just haven’t been doing it on TV and film. I came up, I did four years out at the American Tourist Center in Spring Green, Wisconsin. And that’s all work in period, in big dresses and so it’s always been a part of my repertoire. It’s just not something that the wider world has seen because it’s confined to Wisconsin and Chicago.

So for me, it’s just an extension of work that I’ve always enjoyed doing. And to be playing on that stage with the production designer we have. With Kasia [Walicka-Maimone] doing the costumes. With Julian Fellowes who just knows how to build these worlds so effectively and make every character have their own arc through the storytelling. He just builds that all very beautifully. And to be back at HBO which is a place that I have spent some of my career, it’s all just a really delicious combination for me, and I’m feeling very fortunate. It’s so much fun! It’s a great group. It really is, and we really adore each other.

And I’m so grateful we get to come back and play again, especially as COVID is easing up a little bit, and our business is starting to recover so it doesn’t feel as dire and desperate in the world of theater as it did when we started. There was a lot of sadness in our community. You know, it’s been a very challenging time, and so it’s starting to feel like you can enjoy it more, instead of feeling guilty that you’re working and nobody else is.

Do you know when you guys are going back to shoot Season 2 yet?

I believe we’re going to start around the end of April. We don’t have an official date, but we’re looking at April and May, and we’ll certainly be heading back up to Newport and all those towns we shot in, in the first season, which will be really fun. We’ve so enjoyed being in the mansions up in Newport. That was a place I had never been, and the preservation society was just magnificent. And I think they’re very excited for us to come back because, like so many people, I had no idea that those mansions existed. I didn’t really know where Newport was, growing up in Ohio.

“The Gilded Age” is available on HBO On Demand and on HBO Max.