Christine Baranksi & Cynthia Nixon on Ada ‘With a Sharp Elbow,’ Agnes Out of the House

Christine Baranksi & Cynthia Nixon on Ada ‘With a Sharp Elbow,’ Agnes Out of the House

Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon play The Gilded Age‘s odd couple sisters, Agnes Van Rhijn and Ada Brook. Baranski’s Agnes is steely, steadfast, and determined to keep New York high society occupied with “old money” families only. Nixon’s Ada is more delicate, but don’t confuse that with weakness. Season 1 brought Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) into their home, prompting quicker change than Agnes would like while simultaneously lighting a fire in Ada to own her individuality.

The Gilded Age Season 2, now filming in New York and Rhode Island, will continue to challenge the sisters. But as we saw in HBO’s first season of the Julian Fellowes drama, Ada is more willing to adapt to a challenge than Agnes. Here, Baranski and Nixon reflect on Season 1 and look ahead to Season 2.

New Tony winners just dropped. Were you scoping out new potential cast members on Sunday?

Christine Baranski: [Both laugh] Yes, fodder for the show.

Last time we spoke, you told me of a “tectonic shift” between Ada and Agnes in Season 2. It sounds like Marian’s presence will continue to change things in the Van Rhijn/Brook home. How will this impact Agnes and Ada’s relationship?

Baranski: There is a seismic change, and you’re right to comment that Marian is very much a catalyst for all this. She’s this fresh energy, and I think she is perhaps empowering Ada and calling Agnes out in ways that’s changing the dynamic.

They disagree at times, but from your perspective, are they the kind of sisters who will stick by each other no matter what?

Cynthia Nixon: I think that blood is definitely thicker than water where these two are concerned, but they do have very different world views and very different sets of priorities.

What we saw in the first season is Ada’s sort of getting a little movement where she could, agitating where she could, but keeping in mind the pecking order, the social strata. I think what we’re going to see is a little more of Ada with a sharp elbow.

Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

The costumes are just so splendid. Wearing those and having so many Broadway actors in the cast, does it ever feel theatrical when making the show?

Baranski: It feels very theatrical. It feels like we’re doing a period play. Julian’s writing, it feels like a play to me. It’s deeply cinematic, but I think it does feel more like a repertory company.

Nixon: We were sitting around on set one time last season, and I guess it was just the particular people we were shooting with that day, but I just looked around and said, “We exactly have the cast for The Importance of Being Earnest.

What made you want to take part in the series?

Baranski: I didn’t really know what my character would be, but when I heard that Julian Fellowes wanted to write something about the Gilded Age, and given the success of Downton Abbey — I always used to look at those English actors with such envy that they got to do a period piece with writing like that and do many episodes of an historic period that was so interesting — I was on board without reading the script or even knowing what he had in mind for me to do. I just wanted to be part of it.

Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski in 'The Gilded Age' Season 1

Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

Nixon: I would say exactly the same. The idea of working with Julian, and I knew that Christine, they were trying to get her. Both of those things, and — Christine and I share this — we’re New Yorkers. It’s always a priority if something shoots in New York. But to get such a delicious period piece in New York with these incredible, really vivacious characters that you can just sink your teeth into, as an actor, you really couldn’t ask for more.

Do you have any favorite lines from Season 1, either your own or someone else’s?

Nixon: The line that always strikes me is not a line of my own. It’s a line of Marian’s, where Denée [Benton’s] Peggy asks her about her aunts, and she says, “One of them is clever, but not very kind. And one of them is kind, but not very clever.”

Baranski: I liked when I intruded on Mrs. Russell’s luncheon in order to call out my butler, and to my horror he was presiding over this luncheon. I walked in, and I was publicly humiliated. But as I exited, I muttered to him, “Heads have rolled for less.” So many of Bertha’s make me laugh. I do love her Lady MacBeth quality. She’s just utterly fearless about her ambition, so unabashed about her ambition.

I’m looking forward to seeing more of the Van Rhijns and the Russells interacting next season, especially scenes with Carrie Coon, because their dynamic is just so juicy.

Nixon: I’m not sure Agnes would agree with you there. I don’t think she’s looking forward to it too much. [Laughs]

Baranski: No, she’s not one to mingle with them. We will see — Aunt Agnes might be forced out of the house more often. But certainly, I think Julian’s task and his achievement in Season 1 was to establish the rigidity of that society. Having established that, then when rules are broken or manners are stretched, we’re now clear about the rules are.

That’s why my early scenes were almost dictatorial in how things had to be: where we’re going to church, what you’re going to wear, and you only have the old people, we don’t have the new people. There was a lot of exposition there, but I think it was very necessary to create for an audience to understand just how rigid that society was. And certainly, Agnes and the Brook household. We were a fortress and an embodiment of the old world.

There are lots of moments establishing Agnes’ rigidity, but I think she has her moments of progression as well, especially in her relationship with Peggy.

Baranski: I think Agnes can recognize that this young woman is fighting very hard for a better life. She’s intelligent, she’s industrious, well spoken, and writes beautifully. Agnes is impressed with Peggy and becomes her champion, because [she knows] how hard it is for any woman in that society, much less a young Black woman who has ambitions to be a writer. I think Agnes really appreciates this young woman, perhaps more than she appreciates her own niece.

Denée Benton in 'The Gilded Age' Season 1

Alison Cohen Rosa/HBO

Moving forward, what can viewers expect?

Nixon: Plot twists, conflicts heating up. And I’ll just say people who appear are maybe not always what they seem.

Baranski: Julian is an absolutely marvelous historian, so he can open up that canvas about what life was like in the post-Civil War era. It was a time of tremendous change, and he can base a lot of that in what was actually going on, witness our Suffragettes and real characters he’s introduced. But it’s a real opportunity to open up the American landscape and have marvelous history lessons while having a narrative with all these interesting characters. People will learn about American history.

The Gilded Age, Season 1, Streaming Now, HBO Max

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