Casting directors Bernard Telsey and Adam Caldwell are already back at work on season two of HBO’s “The Gilded Age.”
The series stars Christine Baranski as Agnes van Rhijn, a socialite living in early-1880s New York City with her sister, Ada Brook, played by Cynthia Nixon. “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes brings wealth, scheming and social hierarchy to New York, and with that a wealth of Broadway actors who make appearances throughout the first season.
Telsey and Caldwell spoke with Variety about how they were able to bring Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin and Steven Spinella to the show. They also talk about why Baranski called Agnes “a dream role,” and they tease casting for season two.
Were you surprised by how well the first season was received?
Bernard Telsey: I don’t know if I was surprised. You’re always surprised, right? But it’s exactly what I had hoped would happen because of Julian’s history.
I was one of those audience members who found “Downton Abbey” not on day one, but day seven. I had a feeling about this. I knew from people I circled with who are not in the industry, who were so excited by the American version of “Downton Abbey,” so to speak.
And then, I think our secret weapon of putting every theater and musical theater actor into it created just an extra buzz in the New York community. I’m not saying they’re responsible for the millions of people watching, but I knew that they would be responsible for a bunch of the good social media responses.
Adam Caldwell: We knew that the New York buzz was great because so many people were saying, ‘I can’t wait.’ It was also happening during the pandemic and there was this hunger for it.
How did the casting process work for the show and building this group of Broadway stars and actors from the New York community?
Telsey: I feel the first conversation about, Agnes (Baranski) was in 2018. I flew to London to meet with Julian then. But one of the great things about Michael Engler, being the executive producer and director is that he comes from the theater, so there’s already a shorthand.
To his credit, he said, ‘Listen, this is going to be in New York. I know, as you do, as casting directors that the New York acting community are trained actors. They’ve done [Eugene] O’Neill to Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” those are the kind of people that we get to tap into for this.’
That was always in our minds. Of course, talking with Julian, and then talking to HBO, recognizable names or not, everybody was on board with trying to hire that New York community.
It was about making it a troupe, that people can step in and out all the time and be a part of this.
What is the casting story behind Christine Baranski?
Telsey: She was just someone that we always talked about. There was a big question, ‘Is she even available because of “The Good Fight.” And that was very unclear at first. But as casting directors, we had made lists and we marked off our favorites.
What was wonderful about that first meeting was it was unanimous, and probably the shortest meeting ever. I love those meetings, but they’re always tricky because everyone’s coming to the table with different ideas and different points of view. But that meeting was so short because everyone went, ‘My favorite is Christine.’ ‘Oh, that’s my favorite.’ ‘No, my favorite is Christine.’
Adam said, ‘Oh, no, can we get her? How do we get her? And how do we work around the show?’ That’s when everyone stepped up HBO, CBS, and most of all, Christine’s team of agents and managers who were unbelievable.
Christine also said, ‘This is a dream for me because I’ve never had the opportunity to play period on film.’
What about the casting of Louisa Jacobson and Denee Benton who had such a great dynamic?
Caldwell: Louisa had been our audition reader a couple of times for some Williamstown Theatre Festival work that we had, and we cast her in a show, so we were very aware of her. We knew we wanted to try her. When we started, she was doing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on the West Coast. So, that was a self-tape. On the last day of callbacks, we finished working with Denee, and then Louisa came in and they said, ‘Please call Denee. Get her to come back as fast as she can and we need to see her in the room.’ with and like Denae was napping and had to like rush back to the office to come and like read with Louisa.
It was a process but it felt pretty obvious, and together, they were great.
Now that Broadway is back, how is season two going to work and how is that coming along?
Telsey: The thing we have to remember is that it was supposed to start shooting the week that the pandemic hit in March 2020. So, Broadway was open at the time, and we still had all those Broadway actors because we had done the casting so early that they were hired and not doing a Broadway show.
They were all hired before the pandemic. Nathan Lane, who had a recurring role later on in the process, maybe was an exception, but everybody else was hired before the pandemic.
Caldwell: There were definitely Tony Award winners that we were able to put in the cast that was like and Nathan Lane. I don’t know if we would have been able to get Nathan because he didn’t enter until episode five.
Telsey: We just added a Tony winner last night at 11 p.m. for a major role in season two. It’s like the prerequisite. [laughs].
Caldwell: We have another that’s already set for seven or eight episodes so that’s definitely two Tony winners. Another two-time nominated actor…but we’re still at it. It’s still a part of the recipe of what we think works because of the talent and the experience.
It can keep expanding. We might get a little bit more of a glimpse into the Black elite world. Historical figures pop up too and it’s fun to jump in and play around in the sandbox with everyone.