As Bertha Russell, a robber baron’s wife on The Gilded Age, Carrie Coon swans around her Fifth Avenue mansion wearing the finest couture from French designers and coldly commanding her sprawling staff. But there is no trace of Bertha’s imperiousness when the Emmy and Tony Award–nominated actor (Fargo, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) signs onto Zoom on a recent weekday, harried from a day packing up her Chicago household for an impending move with two young children underfoot. “My husband”—playwright and fellow actor Tracy Letts—“said to me before he left, ‘I’m starting to understand the appeal of having a staff,’” said the Ohio native as she situated herself in frame, in front of an upturned mattress. “I was like, ‘I’ll settle for a cook.’”
Bertha is having a better time than any other character on The Gilded Age, the long-awaited HBO series from Oscar-winning Gosford Park scribe and Downton Abbey mastermind Julian Fellowes. Fellowes has been clear that Bertha is very much based on Alva Vanderbilt, the turn-of-the-century climber who, like Bertha, had to elbow her way into New York City polite society with equal parts aggression and elegance. She famously marked her society entry—long-resisted by the old-money snobs—with an elaborate ball for roughly 1,000 guests at the sprawling chateau she and her husband built on an entire city block. On Monday’s first-season finale of The Gilded Age, Bertha and her husband, George (played by Morgan Spector), mark their own societal victory with a similarly extravagant event.
In a conversation that kept her from packing more boxes, Coon spoke about real-life Alva and her endlessly fascinating life. For instance: “Alva Vanderbilt ended up building a new estate in Newport, but she kept [her previous home] Marble House because she preferred the laundry room. So she would do her laundry at one mansion, and then live the rest of the summer in the other one.”
Coon also told us about her preparation to play Bertha, the crucial lesson she’s learned from her Leftovers character Nora Durst, and what she’d like to see in The Gilded Age’s season two.
Julie Miller: Bertha is such a force—what were you initially told about her?
Carrie Coon: It was clear to me from reading the scripts that Bertha was one of the more energetic forces in the narrative. She was an amalgam of Alva Vanderbilt and, in the documents that Julian sent me, he had outlined an entire arc for Bertha that goes through history. Now, we don’t know how long the show will run. I could be on the show till I’m 50, or it could end in a year. I don’t know, but he’s got a plan, and it was really exciting. I’ve done period work on stage, but no one’s ever seen me do that kind of period work on TV and film.
JM: So how much do you know about Bertha’s fate beyond this season?
CC: In theory, this era takes us all the way up through women’s suffrage. And Alva Vanderbilt eventually, after marrying her daughter off to a duke and divorcing her husband, went on to fight for women’s suffrage. Now, of course, that was not a unified movement…. So there are some complicated things about Alva. That’s not Bertha, of course, but I think we have a lot of opportunity—there’s so much happening in history, the sky is the limit in a way.