Even though Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age features a formidable cast, including acclaimed actors like Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon, Audra McDonald, and Nathan Lane, you can still count on Carrie Coon to stand out. Her Bertha Russell is the HBO prestige series’ most intriguing character—the ruthless wife of railroad baron George Russell (Morgan Spector), who is determined to break her way into high society.
Unfortunately, the old money guard of 1880s New York is stacked against her, but Bertha finds that her husband’s wealth and business acumen can help open some doors to this seemingly shut society, and she is determined to elevate the status of her family. Some of her tactics can make Bertha a less than sympathetic character at times. The A.V. Club asked Coon about portraying such a complex wife and mother, how she took to period dress, and what Bertha’s ambitious quest can tell us about feminism even today.
The A.V. Club: Bertha is so compelling as a character. She has this ruthlessness, but she also just wants the best for her family. Do you find her sympathetic? How do you approach a character like that?
Carrie Coon: Oh, you have to love them. I love her. I love a good character flaw. I really do. It’s so much more fun to play. I mean, who wants to play a perfect person? How boring.
I really related to her single-mindedness. I think we can all be myopic when it comes to things that we care about. And for Bertha, you know, this is the only place she can put her energy, in this social ambition. She’s living in a world where women aren’t allowed any other purview–unless they’re, of course, poor or women of color. They were always in the workforce. Let’s not pretend that’s not true. But for women like Bertha, it was charity work and it was making good marriages for their children—the children they better have, by the way. To make heirs for these fortunes. And what I love about her, too, is that she’s worked really hard to get there.
So she has a chip on her shoulder as it relates to these older families who were born into their wealth, and that’s something I relate to. I come from modest circumstances and I’ve kind of made my way. I know that meritocracy in this country is a myth, that the cards are not stacked the same for everyone. But I really relate to that in her. And I think ultimately what I respect is that she does want it to be equal. She does want the same for everyone. She doesn’t really see everyone, but she doesn’t want these arbitrary rules to be obstacles to people who have the means and the capacity to take on more.
AVC: Right. Bertha brings to mind that old Grimm’s fairy tale, the fisherman’s wife, where the woman keeps wanting something and once she gets it, she wants the next thing. And you wonder if Bertha could ever really be satisfied.
CC: Well, if you think about, women are given a container. The world gives them a container and they’re supposed to put all their energy into that container. So what happens when you have more energy than the container allows? Where do you put it?
So I think in some ways that question of, where will Bertha stop or will she be satisfied, is a question we often ask of women and we don’t ask men. Because women are forced to limit the scale of their ambitions in a way that men are not expected to. And we’re conditioned to think that way about them. We’re conditioned to respond negatively to somebody like Bertha, who is not going to stay in her lane. And I think it’s interesting and worth examining. I think that’s what makes Bertha fascinating and complicated when we’re watching her because we don’t always have those revelations at our fingertips. We don’t know why we’re responding to someone the way we do. Why, in one moment we find her repugnant and the next minute we’re really rooting for her. I think it has a lot to do with the way we’re socialized and it’s unconscious.
AVC: There are some moments, though, when she’s really rough on her daughter. Or when that one character dies by suicide after a bad business deal and she just says to George, “Well, he was weak, and you’re strong.” She’s very unidirectional.
CC: Her single-mindedness is a flaw in her character. She’s single-minded in her ambitions and it blinds her, and so she doesn’t see her daughter for who her daughter is. And instead of asking a question of what her daughter needs to be fulfilled, she’s imposing on her daughter, which she thinks will be fulfilling for her because of what society expects for her. She wants to make sure that her daughter is safe and taken care of. And in a good position in society that she’s well respected. She doesn’t understand why her daughter doesn’t want that for herself.
So you’re right, that’s definitely a flaw. And I think anybody who’s a parent has to admit that that’s often the case, that we want more for our children and as a result of that, we don’t often see who they really are and what they really need. We just see what we think they need and we don’t always listen as well as we could.
And as far as that very shrewd comment she makes to George about the suicide. You know, I try to contextualize it when she says that “you’re strong and he was weak.” I think the source of George’s strength is their marriage, that he is with a woman who is ambitious herself. It’s a woman that he respects very much. She’s intelligent and and together they’re going to do what they do together, including fail. And he knows that if he has to make a risky decision, that she’ll be behind him because she’ll understand why he made it. So in a way, what she says is absolutely true. The man who died didn’t have the same kind of honest relationship, perhaps, with his wife. So he couldn’t go to her and say, “I’m desperate, we’re desperate. What do we do?” He didn’t think she would be able to survive the consequences. And so I think she’s not wrong. And it’s hard to hear, but in some ways, she’s not wrong.
AVC: So why is she so hungry for this acceptance from these people who obviously don’t want her, when she is such a strong person anyway? Just to make a clear path for her children or…?
CC: Well, I think it’s partly that, but that’s the only thing she’s allowed to be hungry for. She’s not going to be a senator. She’s not going to be an entrepreneur in her own right, even if she has the capacity to do it. This is the only place society is allowing her to put her energy in now. Are there women in history who did other things, who became aviators or archeologists? Sure. But that’s not the world Bertha grew up in. There’s one way for her to go, and it’s up, and up means charity work and making good marriages for her children. So she’s constrained. And so her desperate need to break into society is because there’s no other place for her to put her ambition, and there’s no other way for her to use herself.
AVC: You have such well-known roles in modern-day productions like The Leftovers, Fargo, and Gone Girl, people probably don’t automatically think of you as a period actor. What’s the most fun part of that for you?
CC: Well, it’s fun to think that, because the whole first part of my career was mostly outdoor theater in corsets and upholstery fabric in high heels. So I’ve done quite a bit of period work. I really love it, but I’ve never gotten to do it at the scale or certainly in TV and film, as you point out. So for me, it was a lot of fun to be invited to that party. It’s a time period that I really love. Henry James is one of my favorite writers. I love Portrait Of A Lady. I think it’s one of those extraordinary openings to any book in literature. Edith Wharton, too, I always really, really loved her voice. So for me, it’s just a delight.
And then to have the level of craftsmanship and artistry in the production design, the costumes, Julian [Fellowes]’s ability to build the worlds and Michael Engler and Salli [Richardson-Whitfield] as our directors—they’ve attracted just a world-class team. So I know I’m playing in period at the highest level, where every detail has been has been agonized over. It’s extraordinary.
AVC: No offense to any of the other cast members, but Bertha does seem to have the best dresses and gowns. They just seem so dramatic; the one with the blue birds is amazing. Do you have a favorite gown? Is there one that kind of personifies Bertha for you?
CC: Oh gosh. Oh, they’re all so perfect for the moment that she’s in. Well, the opera look is certainly one of the most extraordinary. I mean, that red velvet is like butter. It’s the most fluid piece of fabric, and it drapes so beautifully. And that cape weighs thirty-five pounds. It choked me. I can only do that so many times and we had to take off my necklace because it was going to pierce my skin because the cape is so heavy. So I mean, women still go to great lengths to ascend in the fashion world. That certainly hasn’t changed very much, I’m afraid.
I also love this one dress and I wear it, I think, a couple of times, but it’s turquoise and copper, and it has this black and white sort of graphic element to it. They called it the Eiffel Tower dress. And I just love some of her combinations are so surprising, they feel risqué to me in a way that’s really, really fun.
AVC: Bertha is such a focal point in the show. What’s the main thing you people want to take away from watching the series?
CC: Well, I have to say, I think Julian knows his audience, and I think he’s able to serve up something that is wonderful, a lavish escape from the world you’re in. And if that’s all you want, you can show up and that’s all you need to get from it.
But if you want more… I think he’s thoughtful enough of a creator that the social dynamics are also compelling and that each character has a specific set of circumstances. And if you want to dig a little bit deeper and find parallels to the world we’re living in now, those are also there for you. And so you can change your mind from week to week if you want.
And then in addition to that, the extraordinary artistry. I mean, the production design and the costumes, it’s just all out of this world. And I’m telling you every extra’s costume they built; they didn’t rent anything. And so you’d be standing across from an extra and you would see like the tiniest brooch in a ribbon; everything was so chosen. And I just hope people get to enjoy that as much as we did while we were there.