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Carrie Coon Likes to ‘Play the Baddie’ in ‘The Gilded Age’

Carrie Coon remembers vividly the first time she walked onto the Long Island set of the HBO series “The Gilded Age” and into the regal foyer of the mansion she occupies as Bertha Russell, wife of the railway tycoon George Russell (Morgan Spector).

“I thought, ‘Oh, oh, oh, I have to fill this,’” she recalled.

Delectably, Coon has. In Season 2 of the series, a rococo drama set in 1880s New York City, Bertha takes her fight to join Manhattan’s elite to the opera. She sponsors the nascent Metropolitan Opera as an alternative to the Academy of Music, which won’t accept her new money. Whether in intimate scenes or grand ones, Coon (“The Leftovers,” “Fargo”), as Bertha, gives a full-bodied, deep-voiced performance. A foyer? That’s nothing. This is a woman who can fill the Met.

On an afternoon in late November, a few weeks before the “Gilded Age” finale aired, Coon joined a Zoom call in a white bathrobe and satiny makeup. She was attending the Met herself that night, along with many of her castmates. (In an unusually elegant publicity stunt, they would occupy a box at “Tannhauser.”)

Although the show’s cast doesn’t lack for acting talent, Coon has become a fan favorite. This is probably because Bertha seems to enjoy herself so much, embracing each of the script’s melodramatic turns. Whether interfering in the relationships of her children, Larry (Harry Richardson) and Gladys (Taissa Farmiga), or tangling with her former lady’s maid (Kelley Curran), now a rival, Bertha seems to savor each squabble and brawl. So does Coon.

“I love that feeling of taking over a space,” she said. “It’s a really satisfying and rare feeling as a woman to have that.”

As the wife of a railway tycoon, Coon’s character, Bertha Russell, whose parents were potato farmers has to fight hard for recognition and access among New York’s social elite.Credit…Barbara Nitke/HBO

In between bites of a lunchtime sandwich, Coon discussed ambition, big choices and why no one recognizes her offscreen, even now. These are edited excerpts from the conversation. Mild Season 2 spoilers follow.

Who is Bertha and what drives her?

If Bertha had been of another time, Bertha would have been a C.E.O., an executive, a senator. She’s an ambitious woman in a time where there was no place for ambitious women besides the social sphere. The heart of Bertha is her interest in her children. Her son is fine — her son is a white man with lots of money. Her daughter, however, does need to be protected.

Yet Bertha often sacrifices her children’s happiness in favor of the family’s social standing.

Her myopia is really frustrating because what we see in the Russell’s marriage is that Bertha has, in fact, married for love and respect and ambition. But Bertha understands very well the obstacles for women, even women of a certain class. We’re not even touching on what’s going on for women of color and immigrants who are all working in this capitalist system that will crush them. Bertha is wrong about what she’s doing. But when it comes to our children, we do have these blind spots. It is ultimately about love and protection. She just goes about it without any nuance.

Are there any limits to her ambition?

I don’t think so. Limits are imposed on her externally. I don’t feel that she intrinsically has a sense of limits. Her cause is meritocratic in a way. She believes that you can and should be able to earn your place.

You seem to move through the world more humbly. Is it freeing to play someone so different from you?

It’s fun to play the baddie. It’s fun to traffic in your own capacity for ruthlessness. You are correct in assuming that’s not the way I move through the world. And yet in order to have any longevity in a business as ruthless as ours can be, for women in particular, you really have to have some of that gumption. Anybody who’s still in it, even if they don’t admit it, they have ambition at the root. But it’s terrific fun. In my life I’ve played a lot of really hapless moms — frenzied and lost and grasping. Grasping at this level is a much more delightful way to be at work.

From left, Harry Richardson, Taissa Farmiga, Coon and Morgan Spector in a scene from Season 2, in which Bertha helps bring the New York Metropolitan Opera into being.Credit…Barbara Nitke/HBO

Does Bertha know that she’s a villain?

She’s not a villain. She helps build the Met! She believes that doors should be open to her. What makes anyone else better than she is? She comes from potato farmers, and here she is. Why wouldn’t you open the door to someone who’s worked that hard? That’s how I feel about people who pick up their children and carry them across rivers and deserts from Central America to get here. Those are the kind of people you want here. Those are resilient, astonishing people who will do anything for their loved ones.

Your voice is pitched higher than Bertha’s. How did you find the particular pitch and rhythm of it?

Certainly the rhythm came out of the writing. And then, in Season 1, when I come in and say, “Oh, what an interesting moment for me to arrive,” somehow my voice was just lower that day. I was like, Oh, there she is. It’s fun to be working down there. I never get recognized on the street; I don’t even get recognized by my crew when I’m out of my wig. Even my castmates at a party a couple of weeks ago didn’t recognize me. But people recognize the voice, though very rarely.

And then her gait, her gestures. How did you find those?

These costumes shape you in such a particular way. Women were supposed to glide, to be smooth. You weren’t supposed to see movement. But Bertha is an upstart and I felt that her hips should be involved. I don’t know how conscious that choice was. When you’re asked to walk into that foyer in a hat and a cashmere coat, you just have to sashay.

In this season the show has leaned further into melodrama. How does it feel to play those big theatrical scenes?

Terrifying, but wonderful. It just feels like you’re doing Eugene O’Neill all the time. But oh, gosh, we really do have fun. That’s the key to it: You can’t take it too seriously. You can’t take yourself too seriously. I’m not afraid of big choices, and I’m not afraid of people not liking Bertha, just like I’m not afraid, now that I’m 42, of anybody not liking me. So I try to have fun. There was one take when Bertha first saw Turner (Curran’s character) that was so hilariously broad. I staggered; I grabbed Morgan’s arm; I fell a little bit. As soon as the take was over, we howled because it was a hat on a hat on a hat on a hat.

Walking in that first day, we had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t know how big it was going to be. We didn’t know how much space there was. But as we were shooting, we were like, OK, I think we can handle a little more size. In Season 2, some of the exposition is out of the way, we’ve got the characters introduced. Now we get to have a little more fun.

This season focuses largely on the real-life battle between the Academy of Music and the nascent Metropolitan Opera. What is it a proxy war for?

We always draw a parallel with the moment when the Kardashians were invited to the Met Ball. The world of celebrity and what money can afford you, it’s really emblematic of that. The opera also represents the struggle in this country, this feeling of people resisting inevitable change and holding on very tightly to an older way of life.

Bertha ends the season in triumph. Could she have ended in any other way?

I don’t think so. The show is exploring a very particular time, an extraordinary time of industry and change and growth. We know already that the moneyed people won, the new people won. Where they weren’t invited, they built something new from the ground up. So her rise is really inevitable. She’s an inexorable force. There’s nothing that will stop her.

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