The actor talks to ET about playing the ambitious robber baron on the HBO historical drama from Julian Fellowes.
On creator Julian Fellowes’ sweeping historical drama The Gilded Age, Morgan Spector plays George Russell, a wealthy robber baron and railroad tycoon shaking things up alongside his wife, Bertha (Carrie Coon), following their recent move to New York. Representing new money, the Russells find themselves on opposite ends of the city’s well-established families in a growing social, class and economic war.
As an outsider, Spector tells ET that George is “not bound by the same codes that the old money elite are bound by. But he also has tremendous power. So, despite being something of an outcast, he is also a force to be reckoned with.” And within the first three episodes of the HBO series, George, as well as Bertha, waste no time clashing with members of high society and businessmen alike.
One area of contention is George’s plans to build a new railroad station in Manhattan, which leads him to bribe one of the city’s aldermen, Patrick Morris (Michel Gill). Despite the law passing, the council decides to go against their decision, not only repealing the law but not allowing the train station to move forward.
As a result, George shorts the market in order to bleed the other businessmen, Morris in particular, out of money and reassert his power and standing within the room. After begging him to stop, Morris, having lost everything, ends the episode by taking his own life.
“True to his character, his decency stops at the point where it starts costing him money,” Spector says. When it comes to his character being described as ruthless or villainous, he doesn’t think this moment “says much about him personally as it says about the system he’s operating within.”
With the series modeled after stories Fellowes read about new American dynasties of the late-1800s (“They made a new way of being rich,” the creator says), George is loosely based on rail magnate Jay Gould, who “was vilified in the press as someone who is responsible for famines and starvation and all these things,” Spector says, explaining that “the kind of capitalism that benefited these men was intrinsically rapacious, exploitative, racist and violent.”
The actor adds, “I would say George is not a sterling example of a deeply moral human being, but I would say he’s probably no worse than any of the rest of them.”
That said, Spector doesn’t necessarily believe George has blood on his hands when it comes to Morris’ demise, even though the others try to blame him for it. “These guys tried to destroy him, right? They came for him. They tried to do to him what he does to Patrick Morris,” he says. “I think George feels awful about it. But I also don’t know that he had much of a choice once it became this option of, ‘Either they go down or I go down.’”
One thing is for sure, if the others had been able to tank George’s railroad business, he would have bounced back in large part due to the support of Bertha. “They would have each other’s back. They would still be in the foxhole together,” Spector says, explaining that unlike the Morrises, where “if the money goes and the house goes, their relationship doesn’t survive. I think the Russells would find their way back up again.”
“The marriage really struck me on the page as feeling really real and very modern in its expression. So, that was an exciting thing to take on,” Coon previously told ET about the relationship, which is built on mutual respect and understanding, even if George’s dealings with the railroad is bleeding over into Bertha’s attempts to climb the close-knit social ladder and vice versa.
“George does an interesting thing by saying these two worlds are not separate. Like, my power is my wife’s power and I back her,” Spector notes. And so far, their overlapping ambitions have aligned enough to keep things moving forward.
Most notably, that’s seen in episode 2 when Bertha fails to convince the charity bazaar to relocate and set up shop in her newly built ballroom. After learning that the women turned their nose up to his wife, George then buys out the entire charity, shutting down the multi-day event in a matter of hours. While the other women are put off, Bertha knows this kind of stunt impresses people. And by the end, it’s caught the attention of Mrs. Astor, the undisputed head of society portrayed by Donna Murphy.
What’s clear from that point on is there’s no excluding the Russells, at least not from where they want to be included. If anything, this is the original power couple. “There is something about that, the fact that you can’t really deal with one of them in isolation,” Spector agrees. “The fact that they have each other’s backs to the extent that they do makes them really formidable and, at least to their peers, somewhat enviable.”
George and Bertha Russell also happen to have so much chemistry that it exudes off-screen. Even Variety dubbed them “TV’s Hottest Couple,” writing that they have “a marriage so hot that neither person involved need remove so much as a glove to set the screen ablaze,” while Decider went so far as calling them the “horniest.” And that’s quite a glowing review considering Fellowes’ shows, including Downton Abbey and Belgravia, are not necessarily known for their sexual overtones.
“I’ve seen a little bit of that response online, which is really, really fun and gratifying,” Spector says. “It’s funny, this idea of chemistry, I think a certain amount is just showing up on set and really trusting your scene partner that they’re going to deliver. I just really have absolute trust in Carrie Coon. And maybe that’s the relationship, maybe that’s George and Bertha and their faith in each other.”
While the series is only halfway through its first season -- HBO just announced it’s been renewed for season 2 -- Spector is excited for what comes next. For George, in particular, the railroad’s success “is hugely important… It remains in play for the coming episodes.”
And even though the Russells seem unbreakable, that doesn’t mean their bond won’t be tested. Audiences have already seen Bertha’s eager lady’s maid, Miss Turner (Kelley Curran), bat her eyes more than once at George. And there’s also the matter of staying on the same page. When it comes to what remains to be seen of the two, Spector teases that “no relationship is without stress.”
“I think the thing that could be dangerous for George and Bertha is if their separate ambitions pull them in different directions,” Spector continues, noting, while not intentional, “those differences can get so intense, it could really cause some problems.”
The Gilded Age airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO and HBO Max.