Christine Baranski on inevitable comparisons between her Gilded Age character and Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey

·11 min read
Christine Baranski on inevitable comparisons between her Gilded Age character and Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey

We love a curmudgeonly dame with a bon-mot at the ready, and there's no one who writes them quite the way Julian Fellowes does.

He created an iconic role for Maggie Smith in the character of Violet, the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey — and now he's done it again on this side of the pond for Christine Baranski on The Gilded Age.

Baranski's Agnes van Rhijn is a pillar of New York City's "old" money, complete with a pedigree stretching back to the 17th-century and the fortune to match, courtesy of her loveless marriage. With that position comes a lot of opinions and a righteous sense of her own freedom to judge any who threaten that system or way of life.

Sound a bit familiar? But Baranski is quick to point out key differences between Agnes and Violet. "It's hard not to think that because of her position in society, but the Dowager is real landed aristocracy," she tells EW. "She is really an aristocrat. Agnes is old money in New York, but she doesn't have aristocratic background. But, she is really holding on to the old value system. Both these women are elitists and snobs."

Fellowes himself previously acknowledged to EW his resigned acceptance that audiences will feel compelled to liken The Gilded Age to Downton Abbey, even if he feels it's an utterly different beast. "Someone will accuse me of that anyway, so I don't think I'll let it hold me up much," he joked.

Still, Baranski welcomes any comparisons to Dame Maggie Smith. "It was intimidating," she says, knowing such parallels would be drawn. "Any comparison to Maggie Smith to me is just awesome. To me, she's incomparable, and I have idolized her since I was in high school. I remember seeing her play Desdemona in Othello on film, and I was sitting in the balcony of the theater in Buffalo, New York."

"I followed her career," Baranski adds. "There's a career that I would aspire to or hold as the gold standard. That's all I'll say. You can draw whatever comparisons. No one writes a snob like Julian Fellowes, so I'm lucky to have some of these marvelously condescending remarks."

With The Gilded Age making its theatrical-star-studded premiere on HBO on Jan. 24, we called up Baranski to talk all things Agnes, including the unexpected parallels she found between her and her Big Bang Theory character, what it was like finally doing a period piece on television, and what lies ahead in season 1.

The Gilded Age, Downton Abbey
The Gilded Age, Downton Abbey

Alison Rosa/HBO; Nick Briggs/PBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I saw you told the Times that you were envious of all those Downton actors getting to play in such a lavish period piece, and that you even approached Julian Fellowes at an Emmys party when Gilded Age was just rumor. What prompted you to talk to him? Do you remember what you said?

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: I had a bit of a connection because when I heard he might write about the Gilded Age, I actually think that I spoke to him about my late husband's family. They were Drexels and are very much a part of the Gilded Age. Matthew's aunt, his grandmother's sister, was a key figure in the Gilded Age and wrote not one, but two memoirs about that period. She was very much in society and then his great-grandfather established the New York branch to the Philadelphia Banking Company with J.P. Morgan, and he was a huge philanthropist. Anyway, [with] Julian, I just wanted to meet him. I was such an admirer of Downton Abbey and I struck up a conversation, which was something to that effect, but I certainly didn't go up to him and say, "Gosh, if you're ever doing a show, can I be in it?" That would not be very subtle.

Both Downton Abbey and The Gilded Age are about class tensions and changing societies — but America was founded on a false promise of a classless society and all people being equal. How do you think The Gilded Age engages with that paradox and how does Agnes fit in?

In 1882, it's rather immediate. The show starts with the carriages arriving with all of these statues and all of these things being delivered to a mansion across the street. My character is still in her nightgown looking out from behind the curtain, looking warily at this new world that's being created. From the very first shots, there's one side of the street and then there's the other side of the street. The Gilded Age addresses that head on because that was a period in history when vast fortunes were being made. The economy in the North was booming after the Civil War. The wives of all of these robber barons define the society and wanted to make their way into society by showing off [and] showing how wealthy they were. They didn't have titles. They didn't have a Dowager or a count or a lord or a lady. They had their money. The old money was a small group of people who had got to the country early on in the 17th-century. They felt, "We don't want to let in people who only wanted to define themselves by money." Old New Yorkers thought that was vulgar and lacking discretion and lacking taste. But as it happens, the world is made by money. So money is a lot of what The Gilded Age is about. It's "gilded" — not golden, gilded, meaning gold painted on a surface to make it look rich.

This was a chance for you to reunite with Cynthia Nixon after playing together on Broadway in The Real Thing. Did your sisterly bond come quite naturally or did you do certain things to develop it?

We did have this history, ages ago — and I mean, ages ago — 1984. I played Cynthia's mother, and we had a happy working relationship then. But my god, she was a Barnard student, and now, she's playing my sister. Of course, we did lots of talk and we shared our research and we gave ourselves backstories about our father, our mother, our brother. A lot of this is actors' research, not only on the historical period, but on understanding the backgrounds of your various characters. That's part of the pleasure of doing this, really researching a human who lived in another era.

You've noted that this is your first period piece on screen. Excepting Chicago.

Oh I forgot Chicago, but really, when I say period, I mean another century.

What was the most challenging part? And was it different from doing a period piece onstage, which you have done a fair amount of?

The thing about the stage is you have time to rehearse. If you're wearing corsets and wigs and all of the things that at first are uncomfortable and need getting used to, you have time. On the stage, you have weeks of rehearsal and previews. On film, you put all that regalia on and on your first day of filming, you're filming and it goes in the can as they say, and you're on to the next day's work. So what's challenging is doing a piece that's this demanding with not a whole lot of rehearsal time.

The rehearsal time you do is preparing it in your head, but we were shut down because of COVID. We were about to start shooting, and we had a reading of it with everybody, but then it all shut down. So, we lost our momentum and then had to start up again. So, I would say doing this work without any time to rehearse it. And then just entering that world and feeling natural in it. Because you can do all the research and have your dialect coach teach you how to speak and the etiquette coach tell you how to hold a teacup and table manners, but then you have to let it go and live in a scene and talk and walk.

Speaking of the stage, The Gilded Age feels like it has more theater performers on it than appear at the Tony Awards ceremony.

Oh my god, it's just an embarrassment of riches.

Do you think that adds a certain something to the performances or shifts the energy from what it might be with more strictly screen actors?

All these actors are trained in the theater, and so, they're not afraid to assume characters. They're not afraid to speak in a certain way that is different from the contemporary way of speaking. It felt like an acting repertory company. We all knew each other, and it was just easier to mesh. I can't explain it, but it felt like an acting troupe.

A lot of women in Hollywood feel like their careers are over at 40. But that's when yours really started. Do you think that's given you a certain freedom or perspective in your onscreen work other actresses might not have?

[I made this] jump from 20 years of working in the theater to being on a television sitcom [Cybill] that was almost an immediate hit because it was written by Chuck Lorre and nobody had ever seen a character like Maryann. A martini-swilling, witty woman who was fabulously dressed and audacious in her behavior. So, it got a lot of attention and it launched me in television, and then I got offered film roles. I experienced a very positive bump after the age of 40. In so many ways, my career in film and television was just beginning. Honestly, if you look at the people with whom I've worked in television, they're the top people — Robert and Michelle King, Chuck Lorre, and Julian Fellowes. It doesn't really get any better than that. I keep sailing the waters of film and television. And because my career wasn't defined by being young and beautiful on film, I didn't have that "Oh my God, my career's ending now that I'm 40" feeling.

At the end of episode 1, Agnes is clearly very set in her ways. Can you tease the rest of the season? Does she have much capacity for change?

It remains to be seen, but she's not all one dimension. When you're establishing a show, as Julian has done, introducing so many characters, you're going to get a broad sense of what they are before you zero in on the nuances. You'll get the broad brush strokes first. We have to understand what the stakes are by Agnes feeling as strongly as she does. Because much of the tension of this show is the tension between the old money and the new money. So, you would have to have a character who embodies that protectiveness and the sense of righteousness of her position as Agnes does. That character really functions in that way. But whether she'll cross the street or whether she will be more open, that's the delight of watching the series unfold.

You've played a lot of smart, wisecracking women onscreen. Which of your former roles would you say is most like Agnes?

In some ways, Leonard's mother [on The Big Bang Theory] was a brilliant neuroscientist, but she spoke always with an absolute sense of certitude and so does Agnes. I call Agnes a walking declarative sentence. She simply knows her position, and she adheres to it. There are good reasons why she feels the way she does, and Beverly was like that too. It wouldn't have occurred to her that she was wrong. She also had a chilliness to her; she wasn't an effusive woman. I'm glad I played Beverly in advance of playing Agnes.

What would Diane Lockhart of The Good Fight/The Good Wife make of Agnes?

Diane is smart enough to know that Agnes was very much a woman of her time. It's easy for us in our 20th-century viewpoint to judge these people harshly and call them snobs or elitist or whatever. Agnes' trajectory [is] having to marry a man that she didn't love in order to save herself. Although she had the pedigree and she was old money in name, her brother had squandered the family fortune. She was well born, but she had no money and she saved her sister as well, financially. It was disaster for women at that time not to marry and not to have money. You just slipped through the cracks. And Diane would, as a feminist, deeply empathize with Agnes' position as a woman who did what she had to do to stay afloat and to have the life that she led.

Can you tease the rest of Agnes' journey this season in three words?

Slow to warm.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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