In the first few episodes of The Gilded Age, various characters speak in reverent tones about a woman of impeccable taste and class whom they all love and fear: Mrs. Astor a.k.a. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, the grand arbiter of New York high society. Enter Donna Murphy, a two-time Tony winner for Passion and The King and I, who graces a scene or two each episode with her chin held high and her smile at its most immaculately circumspect. Unlike many characters on The Gilded Age, Mrs. Astor was a real person, a doyenne of old New York who maintained “the list” of who was in and out of society and what was deemed fashionable. The real Mrs. Astor was especially powerful in the decades after the Civil War and had a tense relationship with the nouveau riche like the Vanderbilts (the partial inspiration for The Gilded Age’s railroad-tycoon Russell family), though she eventually attended Alva Vanderbilt’s famed costume ball in 1883.
On the show, Mrs. Astor kicks off the series by chucking an invitation from Carrie Coon’s new-money interloper Bertha Russell into a fire. She spends the next two episodes maintaining a careful distance from the Russells’ activities, though acknowledges they’re putting up an impressive fight to get in with her. Vulture spoke with Murphy about mastering Mrs. Astor’s imperious politeness, how the show mirrors her historical dynamic with the Vanderbilts, and of course, what it’s like to pose for the giant portrait hanging over your character’s stairwell.
We have to start with the giant painting of you as Mrs. Astor. Did you have to sit for the portrait?
Mrs. Astor was well known for having a particular portrait, done in 1890 actually, that she would greet guests standing directly in front of. The production designer on the show, Bob Shaw, is an old friend of mine. He sent me some photos of the house that was going to be used for her interiors on the Hudson, and he said, “I see the portrait going here.” They decided they wanted her to have that portrait even though historically, the show is set in a slightly earlier time period. We had some paintings from the period [for reference], and they had me pose my head so it could be stuck on the torso of different paintings. So I always knew it was going to be in the show, but I did not know how it would appear. When I read the script for the second episode, I just laughed my ass off, quite frankly. Just the way she keeps her cool after all that happened that day, and walking past this whole self-celebratory image.
You have to play the emblem of this old-money world and keep your cool at all times.
It’s not in her interest to be too reactive to the situation. She’s pragmatic. This stuff, and some of the dynamics that will continue throughout the season, is based on a lot of what went on between Mrs. Astor and Alva Vanderbilt. It’s not a documentary, so they have a lot more freedom, particularly with Bertha Russell and the other fictional characters, but I like that there’s a foundation of what really went on. I love to do research anyway!
Well, because you’re playing a real person, you have the benefit as well as the constriction of basing your performance on research. What’s that like?
In the case of Caroline Astor, there was so much information, and I took it all in and figured I can use all of this. There’s what’s been said by people who were close to her, and what was said by people who did not care for her. She was friendly but not intimate. The director Michael Engler said during my audition that you don’t have to show us too hard what her power is. The most powerful people don’t play their hand. They may behind the scenes when something goes wrong, but it’s like, “Come to me, I’m not coming to you.” She also had a complicated home life. Mr. Astor wasn’t around the house a lot, and that’s all in the history.
In the first few episodes, there’s a lot of the other characters talking about Mrs. Astor before you show up as her. Did you think about how you had to live up to that talk with your entrances?
In certain ways, boy, that’s a great setup. I always joked that if I got paid every time they mentioned me, I’d be rolling in it. But they’re trying to set up a lot of characters, and she was very selective about when she showed up. She was not going to be in the meeting planning the bazaar, but she would go to it to lend it import and legitimacy. When we were rehearsing at table reads before we got shut down due to COVID, Michael was reminding me that I should be as pleasant as can be. It’s not an insincere grin, but it’s a practiced grin. Bring all the grace and charm, but only give in an appropriate way.
There are so many people on this show, like you, from the New York theater world. Did ever look around and go, “Wow, this is a lot of Tony winners”?
Every time I found out another piece of casting I was like, “You’re kidding me!” There were a lot of people I knew, some of whom I had worked closely with and done shows with, many of whom I had sung at a benefit with. There was a historical character Ward McAllister who had a close relationship with Mrs. Astor. He was very prominent as a partner with her in the social hierarchy of who was in and out. I was like, “When are they going to cast my Wardie?” And then they said, “It’s Nathan Lane.” And I said, “Of course it is!” In all the years I have been in the theater and Nathan has been in the theater, we have never done so much as a reading together, and now we’re actually working together. He’s a blast.
Then right as you were about to start filming this big show, you shut down because of COVID.
Once the pandemic hit, we didn’t know when we were going back. But then we did, with so many really well-thought-out protocols. Our show is so big, and it was very complicated; they took good care of us, and we all did our best to take care of ourselves and each other. But getting to see the faces of these people, many of whom you’ve known or admired for years, just added to how special this experience was.
Were you looking to the historical record of what Mrs. Astor wore for your costumes?
Kasia Walicka-Maimone, who designed the costumes, had this idea that, as much as possible, there would be a golden aspect to Mrs. Astor. You’ll see a lot of gold and bronzes in her costumes. You’ll see other colors, but those elements are almost always present. Bertha, Carrie Coon’s character, is in cooler steely metallic tones, as opposed to the warmth and gold of Mrs. Astor. We were definitely working with the silhouettes of the period and the hats had their own individual styles and then she also designed a general shape to each character to give a sense of their taste. Then, there is a piece of art that depicts Mrs. Astor at a ball, and when it came time to do a formal evening gown for her later in the season, I said, “Maybe this is a chance for us to do a historical piece,” and she said, “Darling, I’m all over that.”
Given the historical record, can we look forward to some sort of Bertha Russell–Mrs. Astor confrontation?
I think we’re going to see them in the same room together. That’s all I’m saying. Once I worked with Carrie, that’s when I said, “I need to have more scenes with Carrie Coon!” I feel that way about quite a few actors on the show. There’s a lot of actors and characters I hope I get to have the opportunity to work with.