The Gilded Age: Morgan Spector Reflects on George Russell’s Journey

George Russell actor Morgan Spector breaks down The Gilded Age season 1 finale and reveals why his character isn't just any old 19th century supervillain.

Morgan Spector as George in The Gilded Age
Photo: HBO

This The Gilded Age interview contains spoilers.

The Gilded Age ended season 1 by formally introducing the Russell family into the ranks of New York high society in 1882. Den of Geek was unable to get an invite to the Russell’s extremely spacious living room but we interviewed actor Morgan Spector to analyze George Russell’s plot during the season finale. We discussed George’s opinions on the lives of his wife and kids, the Turner fiasco, and where he believes the character is headed next season.  

DEN OF GEEK: Was George’s storyline filmed in order? When did you find out what the end of this story was going to be?

MORGAN SPECTOR: We filmed by location and because we shot in 2020 during COVID, we wanted to shoot location by location and keep everybody kind of separated. But the scripts were written…we had the ability at the beginning of the season to read all the way to the end. I kind of knew what was coming.

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Do you believe there’s more to George’s conflict with Larry over his career choices than ‘This is the plan I had for him his whole life, he’s my heir, he’s my son’? 

I think as a parent, he has this sense that if Larry’s under his wing, if he’s within the company, then he can take care of him. He can nurture him, he can catch him if he falls, he can make sure he learns everything he needs. It’s all that, ‘If he’s within my purview, then I can make sure everything is alright. I don’t think George knows much about the finer points of architecture. I think as a parent, that’s a scarier situation than being able to look out for your kid. He’s abdicating the throne. He’s the heir to an empire, and instead of that, he’s choosing to go off and pursue something that’s essentially artistic. I think there’s a question of what kind of living is that? Architects do well, but it’s a profession. It doesn’t have the same upside as being a financier and railroad tycoon.

George did not have a lot of involvement with Bertha’s planning for Glady’s debutante ball. If he did, what do you think he would’ve done for her party or other elements Bertha had in mind?

I think she would’ve had her party a lot sooner and it might have been a lot more modest. I think it might have served as a practical purpose of just marking the point where she could have invited her friends rather than the people from the world of old money. She would’ve just been out in the world and able to begin making her way, to the extent that a woman in society could at that point, a lot sooner, because George wants to see her find out who she is and find somebody who really makes her happy. That’s his priority.

As a follow-up, how would he have handled the conflict with Mrs. Astor?

He has that scene where he kind of leverages somebody into attending who has credibility with Mrs. Astor and he and Bertha together create this critical mass where they become unavoidable, the pair of them. And that’s him using his business connections and her using her social acumen and the two of them together making it, ‘Well, you just have to deal with us. We’re a fact of life now in New York society.’ He’s part of the overall approach to Mrs. Astor, for sure.”

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Shifting to more of an overview of George’s plot line, is there a deleted scene that you wish was included or something that happened in discussions early on, that you wanted the audience to see?

There was a version where it was much more brutal with Turner. I like the way it went [in the episode]. George feels responsible enough for the sequence of misunderstandings that lead Turner to arrive at his bedroom. He doesn’t use his considerable power to destroy her. He just lets her exit stage left.

Speaking of the Turner incident, because often in many of these situations, in other period dramas or in general, usually what happens is that the man would want to cheat or feel motivated to cheat. Were you surprised that was not the direction, even earlier on, that George was headed?

Turner makes her play pretty early in the season and it’s right around the same time that we’ve seen George and Bertha really establish the nature of their rapport. It’s clear that he and Bertha have a really satisfying romantic life together, that they match each other point for point as strategic thinkers and the idea that somebody’s going to come along and threaten that, it didn’t make sense to me that early in the season [for George to cheat].

What was the most challenging George scene for you to film and why?

[It was] the Turner scene when she comes in because Kelly Curtis who plays Turner, is so excellent. Turner is very brazen in that scene but Kelly is having to be quite vulnerable. When another actor is actually doing something that makes themselves quite vulnerable, but they’re doing it very courageously, it’s compelling. It was difficult to calibrate tonally where I was as opposed to where George was because George had to really completely reject what she was doing. I think from a contemporary perspective, you’re like, ‘Oh man, it’s okay.’ Modern instincts and sensibility are very different from that era. Salli Richardson Whitfield at one point was like, ‘You have to get in there and just tell this woman to get the fuck out of your bedroom.’ It was a hundred percent the right note.

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Was there an intimacy coordinator on set?

Yeah, there was. Now that it happens all the time routinely, you’re like, ‘Why wasn’t this happening before?’ This is so obviously helpful. You would never do stunts without a stunt coordinator. It’s exactly the same [with an intimacy coordinator].”

What attracted you to play George in the first place? Take us all the way to when you were first offered the role or auditioned. What motivated you to take the role?

It’s fun to play someone who’s tremendously powerful, of course. But he’s also somebody who [is] very happy. He’s a guy whose life is going well and it’s all easy. As an actor, being in a character where you can always say ‘How easy can I be?’ ‘How relaxed can I be?’ ‘How much can I not push and just let this person be comfortable?’ It’s a fun challenge and I enjoyed that. I had just finished airing an HBO show when I got the opportunity to audition for this. I initially was sort of skeptical that I would work in this world, that I would personally make sense. I don’t want this to sound snooty, but I want to give credit to [HBO content officer] Casey Bloys [who]…said that he wanted me to audition for this. In retrospect, I respect the instinct because it was not something that I would’ve necessarily been like, ‘Oh, I’ll be good at that.’ When I started playing the [George] scenes in the audition, I was like, “Oh, this actually sits well on me somehow.

How hard is it to reign your instinct back to become a full-on 1882 supervillain when you’re playing George as that’s a very fine line to walk?

Those moments when he really unleashes his power are quite satisfying, but he has to sort of hold that in reserve. If it was too blustery and grand, then I think it wouldn’t be very fun. I think of [George]… as a chess player, a businessman, he is calculating and…he tries to be as clear and lucid in his thinking about his work as he possibly can. When he comes into situations that are challenging, if a little emotion creeps in occasionally, that happens, but it is not how he likes to operate. 

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What was your process for preparing to play George? Did you conduct any historical research? Did you look at any business biographies of people from the era?

I had been told that he was a little bit based on Jay Gould and [Cornelius] Vanderbilt, so I read up on those people and their biographies, to some extent. I’ve found as much first-person writing by those robber barons. Carnegie has a book and there’s [John D.] Rockefeller who’s put together a sort of a book at the end of his life. I ended up reading a big doorstop book about the era called The Republic For Which It Stands, which is about Reconstruction into the Gilded Age. That was an excellent book, although in some way almost too comprehensive. 

I find myself incredibly compelled by Reconstruction because there’s this lost opportunity for America to become the best version of itself and it fails to do it. There’s [also] a great book called King Lehr in the Gilded Age which is a woman’s memoir about her loveless miserable marriage. Elizabeth Drexel is targeted by a fortune hunter and ends up deceived by him and he completely ruins her life. You get to see this world through her eyes and it’s really a fascinating book. 

If you were to give George some advice from modern day life, what would you give him?

Plastics, my boy plastics… [is] it a little soon for that? Texas oil? I think they weren’t drilling there yet. He could really get into that early on. That’s probably a few decades too soon as well.

George managed to evade bankruptcy and jail this season. Where do you think he’s headed next season? 

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I do hope that George continues to stay solvent and out of prison. I think those are better options for the Russells. I think this was obviously a time of enormous volatility economically, and so the risk that George faces in the first season of losing everything that he’s ever built….that never really goes away. He’s not one of these old money families where all their money is in the land, and maybe as with the British aristocracy, increasingly they’re a little bit land rich and cash poor. He is more in the market, his money is in business ventures and those ventures may succeed or fail. I’m hoping he’s always going to have to be trying to stay one step ahead.