With so many Broadway icons — including Christine Baranski, Kelli O’Hara, Michael Cerveris and Nathan Lane, to name a few — starring in HBO’s “The Gilded Age,” Morgan Spector thinks a musical episode of the series is overdue.
“You know what we should do? There’s the British tradition of the Christmas special,” Spector tells me on this week’s episode of the “Just for Variety” podcast. “If we could have a Christmas special, then we could have some singing and it would be great. Give the people what they want.”
Season 2 of the Julian Fellowes historical drama wraps up with the finale premiering on Dec. 17. Spector, who plays railroad magnate George Russell with Carrie Coons as his socially ambitious wife, insists he still doesn’t know if a third season is confirmed. “I wish I knew whether we were going to have one or not,” he says. “We won’t find out, I think, until they’re going to air everything and then make a decision based on all of our metrics and whatnot.”
Spector and I caught up over Zoom from his New York City area home.
What do you remember about your very first day on set of “The Gilded Age?”
The first day on set was a scene with Carrie, and it might’ve been our first scene of the first episode, where we go to my library and I’m sitting there smoking a cigar, and she comes and sits on my lap. And I think both of us just felt eggy and lost and how do we move? What are we doing here? The technical demands of Julian Fellowes’ world and language are real. And for me anyway, it took me a few weeks to feel comfortable. But Carrie is the greatest scene partner you could ever ask for. I mean, she has done all her work. She delivers, she’s ferocious. And also just one of those people who lights up a set. So it has been fun since the first day, although that first day was the worst. I was absolutely shitting myself.
Do you have to learn things like how to put on a top hat, how to take off a top hat? That’s not a natural thing we do now.
It’s about doing it in a way where you’ve done it a thousand times, and of course you haven’t. And removing your gloves, your form-fitting leather kid gloves, and every time you touch someone and you remove them and then put them back on. I don’t know how these people got anything done in their days. They were dealing with their clothes all the time.
Well, the servants are the ones who did the grocery shopping, the dry cleaning, et cetera.
Right, of course. And also help you put your pants on in the morning. I mean, it’s ridiculous.
When you’re on a set like that, surrounded by a gazillion extras and the most gorgeous wardrobe and the production, do you ever look around like, “Where am I? How did this happen? What year is this?”
Yeah, I mean, I have definitely been many times awed by the scope of this project … on our back lot with gigantic cranes, an entire built set of 61st street. I mean, it’s stuff you don’t see. I have not worked on productions of this scale. I worked on “Boardwalk Empire,” which was also really big. I remember they rented a whole city block on Staten Island and turned it into a town outside of Chicago, stuff like that. But this honestly dwarfs anything that I’ve worked on, but it really is the cast. You look around this cast and you’re like, “The recurring guest stars all have seven Tonys. What is this?” But it’s really cool. I came up through the theater and these are names that I have read about and considered legendary, and here I am on set, and you’re just getting to see Kelli O’Hara swan in and Christine Baranski, Michael Cerveris and Cynthia Nixon and all these people. Carrie, obviously. The list goes on and on, and Denée Benton, like, oh my God.
Now I have to ask you the most important question. What is the secret to your beard grooming?
I can take almost no credit for it. I grow it and then Nicki Ledermann, the makeup head on our show, shapes it. She did Joaquin Phoenix’s makeup for “Joker.” She’s an Oscar-nominated makeup artist. She’s a brilliant, brilliant artist and, luckily enough, she’s very into barbering and she takes care of my beard. It is like a sweet, innocent baby, and she shapes it so well. Yeah. Anyway, I don’t know. Sometimes I watch myself in shows and I’m like, “I don’t know if you’ve got it. You might have a face for radio, kid.” But then with that beard, it sorts it all out.
That is not a beard for radio.
That beard belongs in the spotlight.
But also when you’re shooting, are there times where you’re like, “I don’t want it. I want to shave it off?”
Absolutely! When the season drags on by month seven, it’s more the mustache than the beard. The beard is fine. It’s your upper lip being covered with full inch of hair that is not convenient. That is a difficult thing.
I’ve had a beard now for about a year.
Yours is tidy.
Yours just goes with George. It just has this command.
I will say that I will take credit for the impulse to grow it. I definitely felt like I had to have that. Also, it helps to age me up a little bit.
So it was your idea for George to have the beard?
Yes, but again, I can’t take any credit for its immaculate shape.
Tell me about the first audition you ever went on.
God, what was it? I can’t remember what the very first one was, but the one that’s popping to my mind is I auditioned for a production of “A Christmas Carol” at the McCarter Theatre, and I came in, I auditioned to be Scrooge’s former business partner. He comes back as a ghost at the beginning and I just played it. I so overdid it. I was there bellowing and rattling my chains and just pretending I was a 75-year-old hammy theater actor, and it really was one of those moments where the casting director just sat there quietly and let it hang in the air and there was an implicit, “You know what you’ve done. Just leave.” And I did, and I never heard from them again.
Would you say that was your worst audition?
I’ve had some bad ones. I sing a little bit. I was in the national tour of “Lion King.” It was my second job out of grad school, but the parts I was playing, you can speak sing it so you don’t have to be a singer. But because of that, I have auditioned for some musicals here and there, and I have a terrible problem — when I try to sing in an audition, I just start to shake and I’m on the verge of tears.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed. You can listen to the full interview above on “Just for Variety” or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.