Carrie Coon Loves Playing ‘Sort of the Bad Guy’ on ‘The Gilded Age’

After two seasons of playing new-money New York City matriarch Bertha Russell on HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” Carrie Coon has a theory for why the period drama set in the 1890s keeps audiences rapt.

“In a world that is very chaotic and, frankly, terrifying — some days the news is very bleak — we feel at times in this country powerless,” she said. “To have a show where a problem gets created and then 15 minutes later it’s resolved, it’s pretty comforting. And to have that comfort cloaked in gorgeous, very detailed costumes, Emmy-winning production design and a Broadway bingo [cast of actors], that’s just icing on the cake. Sometimes, you just need entertainment for entertainment’s sake.”

The brainchild of “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, “The Gilded Ageunfolds like a beautiful, big-budget period soap opera populated with capital-A actors. It delves into the culture clash between old-money New Yorkers like Christine Baranski’s Agnes Van Rhijn and upstarts like their neighbors the Russells, whose patriarch George (Morgan Spector) is a railroad tycoon.

We also get a glimpse into the lives of wealthy Black families like that of Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), who wants to be independent of her parents (Audra McDonald and John Douglas Thompson) to make her way in the world as a journalist.

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

For Bertha, her only objective in life is to gain acceptance into high society, and in Season 2, the battle of the rich plays out via dueling opera houses. In the end, Bertha’s new creation, the Metropolitan Opera, prevails over the old society Academy of Music. Playing such a shrewd operator has been fun for Coon. “She’s sort of the bad guy,” she said. “People hate her. It’s glorious to play the character who wins at the end. Who doesn’t like to win? I love to win.”

Bertha’s determination is bolstered by her strong marriage. So in Season 2, when she and George clash over information he failed to share, we see a different side of Bertha. “I’ve learned how powerful her vulnerability is,” Coon said. “We don’t see it very often; she’s quite tough. She has a break from George and so we see her not having a place to go with her vulnerability and feeling at loose ends. Any villain — if she is in fact a villain; she is a greedy capitalist if nothing else — is certainly more interesting for having that complication.”

Denée Benton and Louisa Jacobson in “The Gilded Age” (Barbara Nitke/HBO)

A key component to Bertha’s master plan is to marry off her daughter Gladys (Taissa Farmiga) to a rich suitor, regardless of whether or not he brings love to the union. “She thinks she knows what’s best for her daughter and she thinks her daughter has no idea what she needs,” Coon said. “She certainly thinks her husband doesn’t have any idea what her daughter needs. She doesn’t believe that Gladys is necessarily equal to the task before her, which is making a good match, securing the family fortune and setting up her own children for the future. Bertha’s doing it out of love. It’s just flawed. We do a lot of things for love that are not necessarily good for the people we love.”

So far, Bertha has only rarely crossed paths with the formidable Agnes and her meek sister Ada (Cynthia Nixon). “I would love, love, love to work with Cynthia and Christine,” Coon said. “I never get to work with them and I doubt I will. I just think their worlds are not going to collide.”

Carrie Coon and Kelley Curran in “The Gilded Age” (HBO)
Carrie Coon and Kelley Curran in “The Gilded Age” (HBO)

We will see, however, the continuing bitter rivalry between Bertha and her former lady’s maid Enid Turner (Kelley Curran), who tried to seduce George in Season 1 and now, married to a tycoon of her own, is on equal social standing as Mrs. Russell. “She’s a tremendous foe; she’s totally unhinged and she has, it seems like, no moral bottom,” Coon said. “I think the thing about Turner that is so terrifying for Bertha is that what she’s accomplished is incredibly impressive. She really was washing my underwear and suddenly she’s being entertained in my house. That is an astonishing leap in any circumstance. Their ambition is very similar.”

In that case, maybe they won’t remain foes forever? “It might be interesting,” Coon said, “to see what would happen if Bertha and [Enid] teamed up.”

This story first ran in the Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap
Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap

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