Salli Richardson Whitfield
Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski in The Gilded Age.
Audra McDonald in The Gilded Age.
Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector in The Gilded Age.
Louisa Jacobson and Denée Benton in The Gilded Age.
When Salli Richardson Whitfield started working on the new HBO series The Gilded Age, it wasn't the opulence portrayed in the story, nor the enormous wealth of many of its protagonists that struck her. What really stood out was the immense gap between the rich and the poor.
"It very much feels like we're living through the same thing now," says Richardson Whitfield, a director and executive producer on the series. "Whether it's a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island [where production shot exteriors], back then or a 20,000-square-foot house in Palm Springs today, it feels like the period resonates now."
Set in the 1880s, The Gilded Age follows the story of Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson), who — after her father's death — moves from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to live with her old money aunts (Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon).
The series was created by Julian Fellowes, whose past period drama Downton Abbey also told a story bridling with upstairs-downstairs wealth disparity. Here it's more complicated, as Fellowes tackles a real onion of a tale, peeling back layer upon layer of social strata dictated by various confines: old money versus nouveau riche, old world aristocracy versus new world pedigree, constrictive social mores, unbending gender disparity and, yes, rampant racism.
Given that the story begins twenty years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Richardson Whitfield says that Fellowes keenly understood that The Gilded Age "couldn't just be about beauty and opulence... that we had to deal with some of America's issues."
Richardson Whitfield began her career as an actress — past roles include costarring in Keenen Ivory Wayans' film A Low Down Dirty Shame and a series regular role in the Syfy show Eureka — but eventually moved toward directing with the encouragement of Ava DuVernay (creator of Queen Sugar). "There was a time in my life when I would have said no to the thought of directing, but Ava told me, 'I think you're a director and you just don't know it.'"
Richardson Whitfield has since discovered an appreciation for having control of the story, and was responsible for directing four of the season's nine episodes. And given her history as a performer, she has a clear understanding of how to communicate with actors. "I think I understand their language and their rhythm."
She's also enjoying the immersion into the world of Gilded opulence. "The costumes are so gorgeous, the hats — all from Paris — they are a character in their own right!"
But when it comes to lavishness, perhaps nothing is more visually stunning than the chandelier being hung in a newly constructed New York mansion owned by a ruthless railroad tycoon. Weighing 395 pounds and bedecked with 8,661 individual hand-pinned lead crystals from Austria, Turkey and Egypt, the lighting fixture — commissioned for this series — oozes over-the-top wealth and an obsessive ambition to impress.
"Because of the money it took just to mount a show like this, I can't imagine this being anywhere other than HBO," says Richardson Whitfield. "What I'm hoping is that with this story we've found a sweet spot between reality and fun."
One that will obviously be well lit, to boot.
The Gilded Age debuted January 24. New episodes air weekly on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max.
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