Joining the impressive cast of Julian Fellowes’ new HBO series The Gilded Age (we counted 64 nominations and 23 wins between them), Morgan Spector uses his classical theater background and intense dialect training to bring us George Russell, a new money robber baron in late 19th century New York. True to form for Downton Abbey creator Fellowes, the period drama is as lavishly opulent as its characters are rich with duality and humanity. Last week, it premiered to a stunning one million views and record-breaking numbers for HBO.
Here, the well-read, well-spoken, self-described “Hollywood’s preeminent wife guy” [to the equally brilliant and frequent collaborator Rebecca Hall] walks us through the paces of his experience working on such a grand scale series, nailing Fellowes’ heightened language, learning to eat with his right-hand (because, obviously, left-handedness is for peasants), and why pleasure always makes a good teacher.
LEO: Where did you grow up?
Morgan Spector: I grew up in small-town called Guerneville in Northern California.
Tell us about this project.
The Gilded Age is Julian Fellowes’ foray into the 19th century in New York. Instead of the upstairs/downstairs intrigue of Downton Abbey, this time it’s an intra-class feud between the “old money” social set who’ve inherited wealth and illustrious family names and the new industrial tycoons who are rapidly replacing them as the power players at the top of American society.
What drew you to the role?
I was a little reluctant to audition, only because I hadn’t done anything like this before, and I wasn’t sure I’d be any good at it. But once I was actually playing the material, it was really enjoyable. I tend to trust that experience. Pleasure is a good teacher.
Did you have to learn any new skills or do any specific training for the role?
Lots! I have a classical theater background, so I’ve worked with this dialect before, but it’s been over 15 years. I had to refresh my ear for it. Howard Samuelsohn, our dialect coach, was indispensable. I also had to learn how to eat with my right hand. Turns out you basically weren’t allowed to be left-handed in that era. It was something that didn’t occur to me until the shooting day, so it mainly amounted to just doing it on the fly and hoping I wouldn’t spill soup all over my evening jacket.
What has been your favorite part of working on this series?
The cast is astonishing. It’s as if some giant Laura (from The Glass Menagerie) enjoyed collecting theatre geniuses instead of glass animals. The chance to be part of this ensemble and play scenes with actors of this caliber is fantastic.
Most challenging part?
Julian’s language is fairly heightened, and I think for the audience, some of the pleasure of his style comes from seeing the actors play their parts at a pitch that is a little larger than life. Doing that while still keeping the performance credible and grounded is tricky.
What will you remember about the making of this project?
Just the sheer scale of it. If you look at any single dimension of this show and consider how much thought and work and time and money went into it, it really beggars the imagination.
Who did you most lean on during this time?
My mom lives with us, so I lean on her a lot. Multi-generational households! If you can do it without constantly turning into a teenager again and pointlessly screaming at your parent, it’s an incredible gift. But this moment is tough. It feels like we’re living through a slow-motion armageddon, and all of the institutions that are supposed to represent our collective interest and well-being have turned out to be utterly incompetent and basically corrupt.
Given the challenges we’re facing as a species over the next century, I think we’re going to have to get to a more pragmatic and rational future through some kind of cataclysm. So that shit gets me down sometimes. Hanging out with my three-year-old is pretty good for making me forget everything else.
Do you have any hobbies that help keep you sane?
I lift weights very regularly. I’ve been doing it forever, and it’s almost entirely a mental health practice. I recently read Alison Bechdel’s new book about fitness; I don’t think I’ve ever felt more seen.
Who is your role model in your industry and why?
I aspire to be Hollywood’s preeminent wife guy, so I’m going to say my wife, Rebecca Hall. She’s a true artist, both in front of the camera and behind it. She’s essentially creative, it’s just a thing she can’t turn off. I admire that tremendously.
CHECK OUT MORGAN
As George Russell in HBO’s The Gilded Age
As Herman Levin in HBO’s The Plot Against America
As Dante Allen in Showtime’s Homeland
As Frank Capone in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire