Fans of “The Gilded Age” know that Carrie Coon provides the social-climbing spark to a costume drama where most of the characters are seething or scheming underneath their polite veneers. As Bertha Russell, Coon is always one step ahead of the old money elites attempting to thwart the rise of her and her railroad baron husband, George, and their family. But the impeccably tailored outfits that Bertha wears like armor to do battle with the gatekeepers of late 19th-century New York society can
“There’s an episode where I’m at a tennis club for a party, and I could barely walk in that dress,” Coon says. “They had to come in and do an intervention and cut fabric out and change the under-bustle, because I was falling over. And then they put you in three-inch heels and a pearl choker, which when you take that off at the end of the night, it looks like you’ve been strangled. It’s exhausting.”
More from Variety
The HBO series is now in its second season, and Coon likes to watch along on Sunday nights to see how Bertha is trying to get the upper hand.
“It’s fun to keep up with the zeitgeist and relish the best Twitter barbs,” Coon says before catching herself. “I mean X barbs, or whatever we’re calling it these days.”
George and Bertha have a true partnership. Rather than being threatened by Bertha’s drive, George is attracted to it.
Ambition is their love language. They’re running this train on parallel tracks. He takes care of the business and the money, and she’s taking care of their social standing. I think he recognizes that were she a man, she’d be operating in a very different capacity. But those paths aren’t open to her.
It’s a shame that someone as intelligent as Bertha doesn’t have those opportunities and instead must spend all this time fighting over whether or not she’s going to get an opera box.
The things they’re fighting over can seem ridiculous, but that was their purview. They didn’t have any other place to put that energy.
In the show, Bertha has a very specific accent. How did you develop it?
It’s a mid-Atlantic accent that I’m doing, but it is hard to maintain. Every episode some of my Midwestern sound pops up. But with a voice like the one I’m using, you must take it on and wear it with confidence and hope people buy into it. I notice a difference between Season 1 and Season 2, because there are places now where I feel like I really settled in, and I’m more comfortable. I don’t get a lot of time to prepare before I start. I’m not Meryl Streep — I don’t get a year to build a character. I don’t train to be a swimmer for a year like they did in “Nyad.” I go from job to job, learning as I go.
In episode 3 of this season, Bertha discovers that Turner, her former maid, has married a wealthy man and become a member of high society. What was that like to play?
It’s such a delicious twist. This is a woman who used to clean her underwear and now she has to court her for support with her opera box battle. It’s humiliating. But Bertha also has a grudging respect for Turner’s ambition and for what she’s been able to accomplish.
She also discovers that Turner made advances on her husband, which strains her marriage to George. Does she think George cheated or does she believe him when he says he turned Turner down?
Bertha doesn’t think George cheated on her with Turner, that would be the more traditional fight. What she’s upset about is that he hid this from her. That’s a violation of their pact. They tell each other everything. You are seeing a very solid marriage being tested.
You started in theater, and the cast of “The Gilded Age” is overflowing with Broadway vets like Audra McDonald, Michael Cerveris and Kelli O’Hara. Does that change the energy on set?
We are used to telling a story as an ensemble. No one’s showing up to be the diva. And because we’re theater actors, we’re so used to being broke that we’re really grateful to have a job. So, the spirit of the work is infused with a level of gratitude that you don’t always see.
A critic recently described Bertha as the Walter White of “The Gilded Age.” Do you agree?
Everyone’s always pitching you the female “Breaking Bad,” and I never realized that I already was in it. I don’t know if Bertha would be able to embrace her rabid ambition and go fully evil. We would lose the audience. Her ruthlessness does come from love. Although I suppose Walter White becomes a meth dealer because he loves his family and wants to support them.
Do you think of Bertha as a villain?
You can’t judge a character that you’re playing. Your job as an actor is to understand where the character is coming from.
What has it been like to join the “Ghostbusters” franchise with 2021’s “Afterlife” and next year’s “Frozen Empire”?
These films are so much bigger than me. I’ll hear that theme music for the rest of my life. It will be the first line of my obituary.
Things you didn’t know about Carrie Coon:
Hometown: Copley, Ohio
Hollywood origin story: Coon’s big break, a supporting role in “Gone Girl,” had her learning the ropes from Ben Affleck and David Fincher. “I was so green. There’s a scene where I’m eating French fries. They had to tell me to only eat one or two each take because I had to do it 150 times.”
Current movie obsession: “Raise the Red Lantern,” by Zhang Yimou
Best of Variety