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Taissa Farmiga, Blake Ritson challenge social mores in 'Gilded Age'

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Taissa Farmiga (L) and Carrie Coon can now be seen in "The Gilded Age." Photo courtesy of HBO&nbsp
Taissa Farmiga (L) and Carrie Coon can now be seen in "The Gilded Age." Photo courtesy of HBO 

NEW YORK, Jan. 24 (UPI) -- American Horror Story alum Taissa Farmiga and DaVinci's Demons actor Blake Ritson say their characters in The Gilded Age rebel against a 19th-century class system that offers them wealth and privilege, but little freedom.

"That's a relatable tale, regardless of what area you grow up in or time period you grow up in. There is always the previous generation that has the rules and establishes the protocols, regulations and expectations of how you are supposed to act," Farmiga told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.

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"Then, the new generation comes in and says: 'Hold on a minute. This doesn't work for us. This doesn't make sense.'"

Ritson said huge rules exist in the show's titular era of American society.

"But it's important to note there were also these tiny little rules that micromanaged every nuance of every social engagement, down to how you greet someone, how much you eat, which knife and fork you use, when to take your hat off," Ritson said.

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Written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, the nine-episode costume drama debuts Monday on HBO and follows the van Rhijn and Russell families -- as well as the loyal servants who run their opulent mansions -- in 1882 New York. The show stars Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector, Denée Benton, Louisa Jacobson, Simon Jones, Harry Richardson, Thomas Cocquerel, Jack Gilpin, Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski.

Farmiga plays Gladys, the sheltered daughter of robber baron George Russell (Spector) and his socially ambitious wife, Bertha (Coon).

"She's a typical teenager who is craving her own independence and freedom from her parents," Farmiga said of Gladys.

"She is a sweetheart. She has a curious mind and a rebellious nature, but, unfortunately, her mother is quite strong in her desire to shape Gladys' life. That is sort of Gladys' fight for the season -- to break free and establish her own path forward."

Ritson portrays Oscar, the rakish son of snooty socialite Agnes van Rhijn (Baranski.) Agnes is a widow greatly irked by the arrival of the Russells to her neighborhood and determined to keep them from being accepted into "polite" society.

"He's incredibly well-bred. He's part of the New York aristocracy, the old money, social elite. He is witty. He's charming," Ritson said of Oscar.

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"He's also quite mischievous and irreverent, so in a world where most people tip-toe around the behavioral moral codes, he sometimes opts not to play by the rules. Without giving too much away, he also has kind of an amoral streak," he said.

While Agnes and Bertha are deliciously competitive with and hostile toward one another, the younger members of their families, including Oscar's cousin, Marian (Jacobson), and Gladys' brother, Larry (Richardson), are all eager to be friends.

"Oscar is, obviously, in the hunt for an heiress, and Gladys is in line for the very largest fortune in New York," Ritson said.

"This 150-room Renaissance palace suddenly has turned up, so it is a bit of an eye opener. But I think Oscar really values his happiness and the thing that excites him is the fortune, but it's also the fact that she seems very nice. They get on. They have a kind of repartee," he said.

Farmiga joked that Gladys is simply thrilled to interact with a man who isn't a blood relative.

"She's young and she desires to be out in the world and meet people and, if Oscar is the one who is going to be showing her some attention, I think there is a part of her that is just excited to talk to a human male and learn new perspectives on the world," Farmiga said.

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"Oscar's good company," Ritson chimed in.

The formidable women in their lives also make Gladys and Oscar natural allies.

"She's learned so much. Once she gains her freedom from her mother, she is going to be so much more equipped to handle it," Farmiga said of Gladys' relationship with Bertha.

Ritson describes Oscar's pursuit of Gladys against his mother's wishes as "such an act of rebellion."

"Agnes refuses to host [the Russells,] see them, introduce them," Ritson said. "He revels in the fact that there is no sneaking around. He is openly flying in the face of what she wants, which is kind of gleeful," he said.

Ritson thinks 21st century viewers will connect to the Russells and the van Rhijns, even though they live in a time and place so different from their own.

"The writing of the characters is very subtle and nuanced and delicate and the relationships are truthful and grounded," Ritson said.

"It's quite easy to peer between this prism of the Gilded Age and all its trappings and see these real, truthful people stranded there, trying to find their ways toward happiness and their goals in life."

Farmiga and Ritson loved the intricate, period-appropriate costumes they wore for the series.

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"Putting on each piece of Gladys' wardrobe -- having assistants putting it on because I couldn't even get dressed on my own -- really just made the moment," Farmiga said.

"As soon as I stepped on the set and stepped through the doors, I was transported and transformed. It's something that made my performance so much better."

Ritson added: "The transformation is sometimes quite physical. You put on these structured suits - and I'm sure it's the same for the corsets - and you have to have impeccable posture. You have no choice. You walk a certain way. You're aware of your silhouette."

The stars said they were proud to be part of a project that boasted an ensemble filled with Broadway luminaries such as Michael Cerveris, Katie Finneran, Bill Irwin, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Debra Monk, Donna Murphy, Kelli O'Hara and Patrick Page.

"One of the benefits of us being able to film during the pandemic was that Broadway was shut down for most of it, which means that there were plenty of Broadway actors who needed work and were available," Farmiga said. "We were very fortunate to have them join us at the time we filmed this."

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"Someone said there were 17 Tony Award winners and nominees," Ritson said. "I thought, 'Surely, that's a record!' It's a phenomenal cast. It really is."

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