Morgan Spector, who plays ruthlessly ambitious railroad magnate George Russell on HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” is of two minds when it comes to his character’s villainy. “I don’t see him as a villain. I see him as a really relatable human being who does things I think he’s sort of responding reasonably to, given the circumstances in which he lives on a moment to moment basis.” But Spector is quick to point out the capitalist failings of both George and the times he lived in. “I do think that the economic system that prevailed at that time was profoundly unjust, immoral, exploitative and brutal … that level of inequality is indefensible.”
Class and money are recurring themes in “The Gilded Age”; the series, developed by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”), tracks the lives of “new money” couple George and Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), the “old money” Van Rhijn family, and the servants who work for both houses in 1880s New York. George and Bertha represent a more modern, non-traditional marriage as Bertha is both George’s equal and co-conspirator in business and their machinations to conquer New York high society.
Spector shared that he and Coon didn’t have to go far for inspiration in crafting this unique relationship dynamic onscreen. “We both brought a lot of our own marriages to these roles and to this marriage. I think happily we’re both in partnerships that feel like this to us, that there is a kind of sense of parity and a sense of we’re all on the same page. We’re both pulling in the same direction in terms of what our goals are for our lives. Maybe we disagree on how to get there, but we’re always strategically aligned.”
George’s love for Bertha and his family knows no bounds as witnessed in tonight’s season finale when he blackmails a colleague into attending his daughter’s debutante ball. “Any time he can develop leverage over somebody in order to get what he wants, he tries to develop it and inevitably, at some point, uses it. I think it’s interesting how increasingly over the course of the season, George is comfortable using his power in business to achieve social aims on behalf of his wife or his daughter,” Spector said.
Photographer: Alison Cohen Rosa
In one of the first season’s darkest storylines, George financially decimates a group of businessmen partly due to his wife being snubbed by their wives, leading to one of the men, Alderman Patrick Morris (Michel Gill) to commit suicide. Regarding the shocking plot twist, Spector said, “I thought Michel especially did such an incredible job as that character. He comes and begs for his life. You really feel like his life is on the line. I just found it really moving. I actually saw some reactions online to that — some people were really shocked, and some other people were like, ‘What do you expect? You were trying to destroy his life and you slipped.’ That’s the nature of the game.”
Spector observes that Morris’ tragic ending speaks to a larger conversation about power and masculinity. “As a man, you are expected to be able to provide for women, for children. In a way that’s totally anachronistic, right? Women are in the workforce. Women earn. Women take care of families. This thing is baked into our concept of gender, I think specifically in America, the stress of that and the constant sense that you weren’t man enough by that totally socially imposed standard. That is a hard thing to carry. Maybe we can do away with that someday.”
With the renewal of “The Gilded Age” for a second season, is Spector worried that his character might face karmic retribution for his underhanded deeds? “I think you have to be looking over your shoulder if you have the kind of power George has. I mean, the Aldermen have no small degree of power. This stuff has to continue to be finessed, I think. I think if you have the kind of power he has, then you probably have enemies. That’s something that he’s going to have to keep an eye on for sure.”
“The Gilded Age” is now streaming on HBO Max.