There's not that many shows whose cast include top tier Broadway divas Donna Murphy, Audra McDonald, Kelli O'Hara, Laura Benanti, and many, many others. But that is perhaps what makes the HBO TV show The Gilded Age such a particular pleasure—not just for lovers of period dramas, but also for theatre fans. And it's all thanks to the work of the show's casting directors Bernard Telsey (Bernie to his friends) and Adam Caldwell. "So many of them, if not 95 percent of them, make a living doing musicals," says Telsey of the cast members in the show. "That's not a coincidence."
Indeed, you can say that the Telsey Office has one of the most enviable rolodexes in show business. Besides The Gilded Age and the upcoming The Color Purple film, they are also in charge of casting countless Broadway shows and tours: Hamilton, Wicked, and Sweeney Todd among them.
Telsey says that as more film and TV projects are now filmed in New York, and as studios green light movie musicals, this has allowed him to place well-known stage actors on the screen—introducing them to at-home audiences for the first time. "People who have a lot of musical theatre training and live performance experience, are actually really, really, really good at television stuff. Because they're just quick...they're usually playing all different roles in musicals," explains Telsey.
There are so many theatre actors in The Gilded Age that it would take a couple thousand words to list them all and who they play. But in brief, the show (created by Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes and now in its second season) takes place at the turn-of-the-century New York. New money socialite Bertha Russell (played by Carrie Coon) is determined to climb the ranks of the New York high society, which is led by Caroline Astor (two-time Tony winner Donna Murphy). The denizens of high are played by Tony winners Kelli O'Hara, Christine Baranski, Cynthia Nixon, Nathan Lane—to name a few. These well-dressed schemes are witnessed by (and commented on) by members of the "downstairs"—which includes Denée Benton (whose mother is played by Tony winner Audra McDonald), Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Michael Cerveris. And that's not including new players introduced this season, who includes Laura Benanti, Robert Sean Leonard, and Amber Gray.
The series films in the tristate area—particularly Upstate New York, Long Island, and Rhode Island—making it an easy commute for any theatre actor who needs to get back to Manhattan for an evening show. In the in-depth conversation below, Telsey and casting director Adam Caldwell break down how they were able to secure so many Broadway divas for one show, and the one person they want on The Gilded Age but who hasn't said yes (yet).
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did the Telsey Office become involved with The Gilded Age?
Bernard Telsey: Michael Engler, the show's director and executive producer, comes from the theatre. He directed many, many plays. And when he was younger, and I was younger, I was casting some of those plays. So we've always been in touch. And then when this came around, he called me immediately to say, "I want to treat this like it's a New York repertory theatre company."
Telsey: One of the strong parts of a repertory company is there's someone who you might think of as more of a known entity, they're in the star role in a classic play. But in the next play, they're playing a tiny part. It's that they're all such good actors. Even in the smallest role, they're bringing to it the sense of a lead role. And I think that was something that Michael spoke about a lot in this show—it might appear that this seems like a small role, and it might normally be cast by someone who's doing a day player role (that's, like, TV terminology), but he said, "I don't want it that way. I want everyone to feel like they are a series regular. And we're going to budget them and treat them like series regulars, even if they have one line today. Because in episode seven, it's all about them."
Everybody was told that up front. So I feel like everyone signed on for that, rather than looking at the pages and how big their part is. They also got excited by that because it also gave them the freedom to do theatre.
I noticed that. Like Michael Cerveris' character or also Celia Keenan-Bolger's character—they barely had any lines last season but they have bigger roles this season.
Adam Caldwell: A lot of it was in Julian [Fellowes]'s mind, too; we would just need to pick through it because he had so many variations and possibilities. One of the most rewarding things is that we could say, 'We're really liking this person. And we know this person as an actor in New York. And we think that you can do a lot of things with them." And then he would be inspired to say, "Oh, that's great. Now I have an idea of what I want this character to be doing moving forward."
I have a question about character type. Was it intentional, casting-wise, to have the high society ladies be the leading ladies of Broadway. And then have character actors, like Kristine Nielsen, do the downstairs roles that have more personality to them?
Caldwell: It felt like a little bit more of a natural progression. The grand scale and sense of poise and self importance for some of those roles that are upstairs lends itself to the women we think of as the divas of the New York stage. It wasn't that we were manipulating the situation. It just kind of naturally fell into place that way.
Telsey: Some of the strategic things were, like, we have a bunch of upstairs women but I don't have a script yet. But one's going to be Lady Astor. And another one's going to be like this. And we would bring in Kelli and Donna and Deb Monk, all of those kinds of people. And say, let's read—even if we're not sure who's going to be what role. And that was fun, because usually, you have one role like that, and only one person gets it. But to have all of them and go, "Well, we can put Katie Finneran in this one and Kelli O'Hara in this one. And let's move Debra Monk downstairs so she's still in the show." That was the sort of fun part of it for us. Because usually, all those women are up for the same one role. In this case, it was like, "Oh my God, we can have so many of them."
How did Christine Baranski get cast since she was doing The Good Fight when the show started?
Caldwell: I would say that the first two roles that we just started discussing, in terms of like lists and ideas were, Agnes and Ada, the two sisters [played by Baranski and Cynthia Nixon]. It just felt like the starting point. It was easy to have a discussion based on the women of this age group who have this experience level. [Christine and Cynthia] had a previous experience working together on The Real Thing.
Telsey: That was a case where you're making lists as a casting director, because you don't know who people are going to respond to. And that one was so easy, in some ways, because she was a favorite of ours. Which, in many ways, doesn't mean that much when you're dealing with a bunch of high-end names. But immediately, Julian and Michael were like, "Oh my God. Run, don't walk." Can we get Christine because she was doing The Good Fight? That was the challenge. She had to get permission from HBO and she had to get permission from CBS. That became a whole challenge in itself. But one that got worked out perfectly.
Same thing with Cynthia, they immediately were like, "Yes, we have a history with her at HBO. So we love her, but what's the schedule of And Just Like That?" It turned out they were at opposite times. So once CBS approved Christine going, it was like, "Oh, my God, we're done. We got the two parts. We only got 42 more to go." [chuckles]
What about Denée Benton since she hadn't done TV before?
Caldwell: As soon as we were able to get into an audition process, the first pair that we worked on was Marian and Peggy [played by Louisa Jacobson and Denée Benton, respectively]. They were thought of as a pair and they needed to have chemistry together.
Telsey: It was gonna be younger people who would come in and even Michael would not be as familiar with them. So we just started doing auditions with people. We knew Louisa from graduating Yale. And she had been a reader in the office a year before on a project that Adam was doing. So, you know, she was immediately scheduled.
Denée, we knew well. We had already cast her in Hamilton and had seen her before that in [Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812]. She just stood out at the auditions. We even did the pairing and had them read together. And it was, like, instant and exciting because neither of those two women had done a lot of television.
You said some of the leading ladies auditioned without knowing what part they would be playing. I can't imagine asking Donna Murphy to audition.
Caldwell: There were a lot of these people who read more than one role when they came in. And were game and eager to. We had the luxury of doing that. There's certainly other projects where they would need to be pursued with an offer. But this was at the level where people were really interested and wanted to make sure that they threw their hat in the ring. And Donna was part of that. She was just so game and came in and read a couple of things.
Telsey: We made sure we took care of all these people, because we were so honored that they were even willing to come in and read. Julian doesn't know these people. And it's not like these wonderful actors have a lot of tape in these kinds of situations. So that is another reason why I think everybody was willing to come in and read for Julian.
Caldwell: That's true across the board. There's plenty of people that we were auditioning because they were interested in this project. But there wasn't a way for Julian to say, "Show me the tape of their period [work]." Because they don't have the work. In London, the U.K., it's a very different thing. A lot of those people have a lot of period work [on screen]. But for us in the States, it's like, "Well, if you had a clip from Boardwalk Empire, that sure could be helpful." But it wasn't really comparable.
You spoke briefly about how Julian Fellowes was able to write for the actors that were cast. As casting directors and creatives, do you feel kind of pride or ownership of the fact that the people you've put into the room kind of helped make the show?
Telsey: That's nice of you to say. We don't feel ownership by any means. We think of casting directors as a creative art form. And to have a director and a writer and a show-runner who value that, wanting to know who we thought were the people who had more than what might be on the page. And then to see them get hired, and then see them get written for. Oh my God, that happened! Because all we did was say something. We didn't make the actor have to come in and do cartwheels. That is such a thrill when someone values our contribution. And so, yes, is the long answer.
Caldwell: There's a trust involved. It's really nice when there's true collaboration and when they ask us for our opinion and we're able to share—and where we really feel like that's listened to and heard and part of the decision-making process.
Who do you want to cast but haven't been able to yet?
Telsey: Renée Elise Goldsberry. She's never been available. Because she had her own TV show. But I'd love to see her in this world.