Dubbed America’s Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes’ latest period drama is set to make a splash. Danielle de Wolfe learns more about her stellar cast.
Julian Fellowes, by his own admission, is a man obsessed with “clever older women.”
Having conjured Lady Violet Crawley of Downton Abbey and Constance, Countess of Trentham of Gosford Park from the recesses of his mind, he is very much a torment of his own making.
“I guess that comes from being raised by a sort of phalanx of great-aunts who always had something to say on every subject,” announces Fellowes, 72, with a nod of acknowledgment.
Reflecting on a writing career dotted with Bafta nominations and an Academy Award for Best Screenplay (Gosford Park), it is the Tory pair’s latest project, the 19th-century period drama The Gilded Age, which has taken us back to your study through an Internet connection.
Against a backdrop of ornate picture frames and classical paintings, the self-proclaimed monarchist can be found discussing the “idiosyncratic hallmarks” of his own creations, noting that when it comes to aristocracy, he prefers “institutions that bind the country together, rather than the that divide the country.
Renowned for creating period dramas that investigate the nuances of British high society, most notably penning every word of ITV’s award-winning series Downton Abbey, Fellowes is once again ready to immerse audiences in a world of opulence and excess. However, there is a key difference this time.
Trading the sprawling gardens of England for the frenetic bustle of America’s East Coast, The Gilded Age nestles among the queen bees of New York high society. Reuniting with Downton executive producer Gareth Neame, Downton Abbey feature director Michael Engler and Altered Carbon director Salli Richardson-Whitfield, it’s no wonder the series has been dubbed the ‘US Downton Abbey’ .
“The Gilded Age is an American story and it needed to have an American perspective,” Neame, 54, says of the project.
“In a way, Downton was about the decline of the aristocracy; they’re losing power and they have to think about money… but in The Gilded Age, we’re seeing the beginning of the American Dream, the industrialization of America, and seeing how that created huge fortunes.”
Starring Cynthia Nixon of Sex And The City, Mamma Mia! and The Good Wife’s Christine Baranski, Bridgerton star Harry Richardson, Gone Girl’s Carrie Coon, and Meryl Streep’s daughter, Louisa Jacobson, in her television debut, is a series packed with recognizable names.
A story centered on Marian Brook (Jacobson) penniless after her father’s death, moving in with her spinster aunts, Ada Ross (Nixon) and Agnes van Rhijn (Baranski), becomes her only option. Sitting at the top of the New York social pecking order, the aristocrat van Rhijn upholds the values and traditions of old money.
However, the arrival of Bertha Russell (Coons) changes everything, as the wealthy socialite and her businessman husband try to buy their way into the highest echelons of society. An era of rivalry where new money went up against the old, the series highlights the widening wealth disparity in New York City.
“The real difference actually, was that [Americans] they didn’t opt for primogeniture: they didn’t leave most of their fortune to their eldest son, or even a chosen son, they always divided their money between their children,” says Fellowes.
“Of course, that’s why there were so many more heiresses from America than anywhere in Europe, because in Europe to be an heiress, everyone else had to be dead.”
With filming on the series delayed from March 2020 to October due to the onset of Covid, Nixon, 55, describes returning to the set as “an incredible gift” after a “time of tremendous isolation”. Reunited with Baranski, the pair played mother and daughter as part of the 1984 Broadway play The Real Thing, the duo describe the unconventional on-set protocols that cemented the shoot as one forever.
“We lived in these little plastic cubicles off the sound stage,” explains Baranski, 69, with a smile. “We could go into our little plastic house, take our mask off, but we had to put it on as soon as we got out of our little container. I just remember seeing people in these gigantic vintage clothes, sitting in plastic houses like you’re a zoo.” animals or something. It was very strange.”
Unafraid to tackle prominent and divisive themes such as money, sexuality, power, and race, The Gilded Age tackles topics missing from many traditional history books. With Brook, described by Jacobson as a “radical” woman who “longs for something more,” crossing paths with aspiring novelist Peggy Scott (Denee Benton) on the way to her aunts’ house, the series delves into what mobility was viewed social from the perspective of black Americans at the time.
Immersing himself in reading material in an attempt to investigate the lives of upper- and middle-class black New Yorkers during the 1870s, Benton describes the experience as “like drinking water.” Recalling how she learned about the nuances of black life “that have largely been left out of the conventional storytelling model,” Benton says that Fellowes’ recommended reading reinforced “what it really meant to operate as a black woman in contemporary spaces.” in white”.
Regularly referring to the characters he creates as his “children,” Fellowes continues to acknowledge the superficial parallels that are drawn between Downton and his latest on-screen project.
“It’s like saying, ‘Oh, this medical show has doctors, too,'” Fellowes announces matter-of-factly.
“I don’t spend my life worrying about whether Agnes is funnier than Violet. I thought Violet was a great creation, a joint creation of me and Maggie Smith. But I think Christine is excellent at this. So in myself, I’ve continued ahead.
“All I think you can do is make a show or a movie or a musical that you want to see.” “And if anyone else wants to watch, great. But that’s my rule of thumb.”
The Gilded Age is coming to Sky and NOW on Tuesday, January 25.