’The Gilded Age’ Star Nathan Lane on Playing a ‘Silly Snob,’ Reuniting with Christine Baranski and His Emotional ‘Only Murder’ Moments

the gilded age nathan lane
HBO/Alison Cohen Rosa

Nathan Lane has long been a master shapeshifter on theater and television. From donning garish red suits on “The Producers” to South Beach drag fabulosity on “The Birdcage” and personifying a sly and slim meerkat on “The Lion King,” Lane is always eye-catching, in a multitude of ways. Over the past year, audiences caught him on Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” as deli dips kingpin Teddy Dimas, and in HBO Max’s 1880s-set “The Gilded Age,” as Ward McAllister, in outrageous multi-piece suits and with facial hair to fit the real-life charismatic snob’s persona.

“He was an odd little figure,” Lane said of his “Gilded” character. “Bertha Russell [Carrie Coon] is fictional but she is based on Ava Vanderbilt, and in the show, McAllister is pivotal to Bertha breaking into this world. She is hoping that he will eventually get Mrs. Astor to approve of her.”

On last night’s finale episode, audiences got closer to finding out if Bertha, who has been desperately trying to climb New York’s social ladder all season, will actually make it to “The Four Hundred,” McAllister’s arbitrary cut-off on who could consider themselves a part of the elite in the city, and in Mrs. Astor’s (Donna Murphy) good graces.

“That number comes from Mrs. Astor’s ballroom size, which had a capacity of 400 people,” Lane explained. “Anybody over that might make people uncomfortable, or that people over that number would not be equipped to socialize in the proper way.” (That may be, perhaps, why Bertha was deadset on ensuring that her own ballroom would be full enough for her daughter’s coming-out party.)

Lane told Variety that he did a deep dive on the cautionary tale of McAllister’s life and legacy, including mastering his incredible Southern twang. He also shared what it was like to be on the “Gilded Age” set, and the working with his “Only Murders in the Building” co-stars.

How did you craft McAllister’s exaggerated accent and mannerisms, and his demeanor, which is the stuff of historical legend?

We had a dialect coach named Howard Samuelsohn, who worked with everyone on the different dialects, and McAllister’s is specifically from Savannah, Georgia, in those times. It took working on my own interpretation of that, and then working with Howard, and going through the motion while he would give me tips. I fashioned a lot of McAllister’s voice on the late comic Oliver Hardy, one half of the Laurel and Hardy duo, who was from Harlem, Georgia, and had a very distinctive and obvious Southern accent.

What was it like to go from a modern-day New York set for “Only Murders in the Building” to New York in the late 1800s? What were some things about the costuming or the sets that you loved, or found to be interesting based on your own research on the time period?

“Only Murders” is such great fun, and I play such an interesting character. Marty (Short) and Steve (Martin) are old friends, and I was so impressed by Selena Gomez and how terrific she is on the show. And the young man who played my son on the show, James Caverly, is an extraordinary young actor. I was so happy for him and proud of him. That whole experience was full of laughter, but then the scenes with “my son” are very intense and emotional, so I loved all of that. “The Gilded Age” has so much work already done for you by the brilliant costume designer and the production designer, because you don’t really have to try hard to imagine that you’re in the era. It’s not like you’re walking into this metal set, you’re walking into some of the real mansions in Tarrytown, and of course, no expense was spared by HBO on the production or the costumes front. The minute you put on that clothing, it really puts you in another world and you begin to carry that suit and carry yourself differently. When you’re in homes like that it affects everything, and you begin to have a keen understanding of what it was like to have lived back then. And, of course, then you also have the benefit of brilliant dialogue by Julian Fellowes, which gets you halfway there.

Speaking of being on set, it was nice to see you back on-screen with your “Birdcage” co-star Christine Baranski! What was it like to work with her again?

Sadly, we don’t have a lot to do together in this. We only really have one scene, and she enters into a scene that I’m in and then leaves, so we don’t have a whole lot of time together in this first season. We don’t have an exchange, but obviously she and I have known each other personally for a long time and have worked together several times in different capacities and she’s always a joy. She is a consummate actress and professional and a great deal of fun. Something delightful about this show to me is that it’s almost as if they decided to turn all of Broadway’s theater greats into their own repertory company. Everywhere you turn on set, you’re seeing some great actor that has been on the stage. All of them could easily carry their own show, and they’re playing butlers and maids. Debra Monk, for example, is an old friend of mine who is a brilliant actress and seeing her play this rather severe character is outstanding. At one point you get a glimpse into her personal life, which is rather difficult, and you come to an understanding of why she is the way that she is. It’s an extreme pleasure to walk around and see people you consider to be both old friends and also fantastic actors you admire from afar and are thrilled to work with for the first time. I’ve spent a lot of time on set with Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector, Kelli O’Hara, who I’ve known for a long time and who I love to death. So, the whole thing has been such a joyful experience to show up every day and see all of these theater people together for a show.

If you could liken Ward McAllister to someone in the present day or his ruinous memoir, “Society as I Have Found It” to a present-day book, who would it be and why? Or do you think that he was a one-of-a-kind fellow and product of his time period and class?

I mean, there’s certainly income inequality today, but I’m not sure there is an equivalent of McAllister or his book in today’s world. We should all be happy that this sort of thing kind of died out! I mean, look, there are still very very wealthy people who are also silly snobs, and who act like they don’t want to associate with certain other people. That will always exist. One of the most fascinating things about McAllister is how, after his book came out, everyone turned on him. In that sense, he was similar to Truman Capote when he wrote “La Côte Basque, 1965” and the other stories from “Answered Prayers.” Everyone shunned him and the very people that he spent his career worshipping didn’t want anything to do with him after that. In terms of today’s society, I’m not quite sure if there’s one person that is a social arbiter, and it’s probably better that it’s that way.

McAllister’s memoir was basically an amalgamation of gossip columns. I’d love it if you could talk about what struck you the most or made you laugh during your research on the character or just the Gilded Age in general?

McAllister was a successful lawyer and his father and brother went to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, and they worked in mining law and made a ton of money. He went back to Savannah, married a wealthy heiress, and they did a tour of Europe during which he became fascinated by the social etiquette and the cuisine and the food and wine of Europe. He studied it all as if he was going to a university on party-planning and how it was done differently in each country. He very much favored the British and he loved French cooking. He met Mrs. Astor when he came back and she became sort of his patroness, and he in turn her right-hand man, in terms of this nonsense about the Four Hundred, the people who they felt were worthy of being a part of elite society. So, he was a total snob and obsessed with money, but there were people who knew him best who also said he was charming and the life of the party. He and his wife established Newport as the retreat and playground of choice for the wealthy and they used to refer to their huge mansions as summer cottages. He encouraged all these people from New York to buy or build there, and that’s why it became what it was. People who ridiculed him made fun of the fact that he was obsessed with all of this stuff but, you also have to remember that there was no Netflix, no cable, nothing and everything was about socializing and having dinners and having parties, so to this circle, it was a huge thing. When his memoir came out, he was outcast and he died alone in a restaurant.

Why do you think people get so hooked on period shows like “Downton Abbey” and “The Gilded Age” where violence and shock factor aren’t necessarily in your face all the time, and where drama sort of simmers?

Fellowes writes very complicated, very Dickensian-like emotional stories with highs and lows and twists and turns, and he gets you to invest emotionally in these people. You think you know them, and then all of a sudden something happens and you see a whole other side to them! I mean, it’s referred to as a high-class soap opera but, in this case, I think of “The Gilded Age” more like a sprawling epic about this period in America, and about old money versus new money. But, within that, many different stories. He is able to create a tapestry of different lives and, yes, the “upstairs and downstairs” of it all. It’s also partly an escape — you see these pretty pictures and scenes, and you get invested in the characters and their lives, and you can’t wait to see what happens next.