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BWW Interview: Denée Benton & Louisa Jacobson on THE GILDED AGE

The Gilded Age premieres Monday, January 24 on HBO.

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes has returned with The Gilded Age, a new period drama set to premiere on HBO and HBO Max on January 24.

The series follows Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) moving from rural Pennsylvania to New York City after the death of her father to live with her thoroughly old money aunts Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon). Accompanied by Peggy Scott (Denée Benton), an aspiring writer seeking a fresh start, Marian becomes enmeshed in a social war between one of her aunts and her stupendously rich neighbors (George Spector, Carrie Coon).

The series also features an extensive lineup of Broadway talent, including Michael Cerveris, Claybourne Elder, Linda Emond, Katie Finneran, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Debra Monk, Donna Murphy, Kristine Nielsen, Kelli O'Hara, Patrick Page, Taylor Richardson, Douglas Sills, and more.

BroadwayWorld sat down with Tony-nominee Denée Benton and Louisa Jacobson ahead of the series premiere to discuss their characters' friendship, what sets The Gilded Age apart from other period dramas, and working with the all-star cast.

BWW Interview: Denée Benton & Louisa Jacobson on THE GILDED AGE


We've seen period pieces become increasingly popular within recent years. What excited you both about joining The Gilded Age?

Denée Benton: I think for me it was seeing a depiction of black life that we rarely get to see in the 1800s. I was just so thrilled because Peggy's upbringing was so similar to mine, but if I had just listened to my history books and the movies that they made about this time period, you'd think that black people just evaporated after enslavement and showed up again at the Civil Rights Movement instead of the fact that we existed in all facets of society that entire time.
So when I saw the opportunity to play a character like this, after having played, you know, Eliza [Hamilton] and Natasha in the 1800s, I was always like, there's gotta be a black version of this somewhere. And then here comes Peggy. So for me it was really exciting.

Louisa Jacobson: I was super thrilled when this came into my inbox from my agents. I think anyone in my position might be. I was a huge Julian Fellowes fan before, I love Downton Abbey. I just was so drawn to it. I also didn't know a lot about this part of history and I am a New Yorker. So to have the opportunity for my homework to be to just learn New York city history and live in it was an amazing idea in my head. So I was like, yeah, of course I want to do this. I also was excited about the friendship between Peggy and Marian. That was something I hadn't seen in a period piece before. All these great roles for female identifying actors. These ambitious women who are competitive and fierce, but their arena for how to exercise those things is kind of limited. Carrie Coon's character, if this was 2022, I wonder if she herself would be a CEO of a huge company because she's so ambitious and Anne Morris and Kelli O'Hara doing all this philanthropy work. And Agnes, this matriarch, it's exciting to see all these amazing roles for women.

I was drawn to Marian because she seems like she could fit the mold on the outside. And there's just a little thing in her that wants a lot more than what was expected of her. So That was fun to play with and it'll be cool for audiences to see how it evolves throughout the season.

Speaking of the incredible actresses, you both have such amazing people playing maternal figures to you in this series. Denée, Audra McDonald plays your mother and then Louisa, you have Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon playing your aunts. What was it like working alongside them?

LJ: Oh, a dream.

DB: I mean, there's really no way to contextualize how incredible it was to find out Audra McDonald who will be playing my mom. I remember when I got nominated for Great Comet, I wrote Audra just like a fan letter, just thanking her for everything that she represented for me as a young black woman. I don't even know if she ever got it but then to find out that this person who is really meant so much for me and me dreaming what was possible is going to be playing the woman who birthed me, I was like ah! And then on top of that, for her to just be such a grounded, incredible scene partner, she's the real deal. She is so focused on her work and so incredible at her craft and was also nervous in a corner focusing on her preparation, that it was just like an actor's actor in every way. It was a gift beyond measure. And then John Douglas Thompson as my dad. We would talk shop in between scenes and I just felt so inspired. I was like, "John, how do you cry?" It was just a theater nerds dream in every way.

Well, watching this series as a Broadway fan is a theater nerd's dream. What was it like getting to work with such like a stellar cast of Broadway greats?

LJ: So humbling, just like so amazing. Especially as a newcomer to film and TV, they've all been newcomers to this medium as well at one point in their lives. Just to hear their stories about that, I confided in them about nervous I was to do this and they just made me feel so comfortable and welcomed and they were so human, like me. They have gone through it. It was like having peers and made a very nurturing environment.

DB: I also felt like there was a kinship there because no one needed to play it cool. We were all kind of geeking out about the dialects and the costumes and in our, you know, our character developments and our props, like the props department, as theater kids, was our kind of unsung heroes of the show. They just help you come to life. I've been on other sort of more Hollywood sets and it's just a different culture of actor, for sure. To be around essentially a bunch of theater kids who have grown up to be working actors felt like a culture. I was like, "Oh my God, these are my people!"

LJ: Yeah, They're all clowns too. They just made me laugh so hard. It was lovely. And I did find myself, in moments with Denée, or even Christine, we were shooting and I was so used to cheating out onstage. Our director was like, "You know you can just talk to her like normal. You can square off." I was like, right. It was so funny.

DB: And then sometimes Christine Baranski would hum Sondheim to herself.

What do you hope audiences enjoy about this new series?

DB: When I speak for the vantage point of my character, kind of Marian and Peggy, they're so deeply human. We really get to see Peggy make a bold decision and then go, "Oh my God, did I make a mistake?" Like we get to see them be real young women and they're not caricatures of themselves. I really felt strongly about Peggy not just being the product of a white man's gaze, but really getting to have black women's voices be a part of creating her, like Sonja Warfield. I think now, black women will watch the show and also hear themselves speaking in ways where sometimes you watch a black character that wasn't written with anyone's input and you're like, "That's not my story." So I'm excited for her voice to be added to the cannon.I think people will be surprised at how they see themselves in her.

LJ: I think in a world where we're so consumed by our phones and fast things, I'm an old soul and Denée told me that she's an old soul and I think that the set was filled with old souls. So hopefully like we'll inspire some other people in the world to like, appreciate, you know, witty conversation or old soul stuff.


Watch the trailer for The Gilded Age here:



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