Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon interview: ‘The Gilded Age’
“My heart jumped!,” recalls Christine Baranski about the moment she heard Julian Fellowes planned to write a series about the “gilded age” of American history. The Emmy-winning actress shares, “One is not often offered period pieces of any kind,” but especially ones set during the “very special… scenically rich period” of the late-nineteenth century United States. Years later, she would go on star in HBO’s “The Gilded Age” with Cynthia Nixon, who concurs that this period is “really exciting” to explore on screen because “the roots of what New York would become and America would become were crystalized” in this moment. Watch our exclusive video interview above.
Baranski and Nixon play siblings Agnes van Rhijn and Ada Brook on the series, respectively, after previously playing mother and daughter on stage in Tom Stoppard’s play “The Real Thing” in 1984. Agnes is an urbane and hilariously rigid widow, but Baranski doesn’t think of her as witty. “I don’t start from that place as an actor,” reflects the two-time Tony winner, who focuses instead on the “tough life” that women had in those days, through which her “humor and that acerbic quality” arise. Ada is quite light and joyful and therefore quite different from Agnes, but she has also experienced disappointments in life. Despite the fact that Ada’s life “didn’t really happen” because she is a spinster who depends on her sister’s generosity, Nixon thinks of her as “an optimist” because “her gratitude… knows no bounds.”
WATCH our exclusive video interview with Julian Fellowes, ‘The Gilded Age’ creator
Both actresses have worked with or said the words of incredible writers, from playwrights Stoppard and Lillian Hellman to television’s Robert King and Michelle King and Michael Patrick King. They sing the praises of Fellowes, who Baranski calls “our foremost film historian” for the way he does “vast amounts of research” and on this series is “revealing a period of American history that most Americans don’t really know about.” Nixon refers to his writing as “almost Dickensian” in scope considering “how many vivid characters there are and how many threads of plot there are interwoven.” She also emphasizes how his words get “right to the heart of the emotion” of the characters.
Nixon shares many memorable scenes with Louisa Jacobson, who stars as Ada’s niece Marian. The two-time Emmy winner thinks her character forms an immediate bond with Marian when she arrives in New York because “Ada never had children and would have so loved to have them.” She “sees so much of herself in Marian, a young woman adrift,” continues the actress, adding that she is so “thoroughly enchanted” with Jacobson that “it makes it very easy to care about her and want to be her aunt whether biological or not.”
WATCH our exclusive video interview with Harry and Rupert Gregson-Williams, ‘The Gilded Age’ composers
Similarly, Baranski often partners with Denée Benton, who plays the aspiring young writer Peggy Scott. Through happenstance, Scott comes to work for Agnes as her secretary, handling all of her correspondence. The actress thinks their on-screen relationship is “utterly delightful.” She notes, “When you play a character as tough as Agnes you look for those ways that will show the softer aspects or perhaps the more empathetic aspects of the character.” She calls Benton “a walking lightbulb,” so “luminous” with a “tremendous future.”
Baranski and Nixon are just two of the numerous theatre performers who work on “The Gilded Age,” many of whom have Tony Award nominations and victories to their credit. Baranski says that having a cast comprised of mostly stage actors makes the set “collegial and easy,” not only because so many of these performers have worked together before, but also because “when you’re delighted and there’s humor and you’re joking… it makes for a lovely bonding, it makes for a more relaxed set.” Nixon adds that when you work on their show, “It feels like the Olympics… You’re acting with the best.”