How Morgan Spector's Theater Training Prepared Him for ‘The Gilded Age’

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Photo Source: Matthew Cylinder

Trained as a stage actor, Morgan Spector now stars alongside some of the most legendary Broadway performers on—ironically—television. Since 2022, he’s shown off his range in the role of robber baron George Russell on Julian Fellowes’ HBO period drama “The Gilded Age.” His character is just as much a family man as he is a ruthless railroad tycoon. Here, Spector discusses the mistakes he made as a young actor and how he gained confidence in a competitive industry.

1. Did your background in theater help prepare you for “The Gilded Age”?

Hugely—I don’t know what I would have done without my [stage] training. I [studied at] the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, which is very much a classical theater training program. We were taught something that, as soon as I got out of school, I realized was completely obsolete—which was this idea of the American Theater Standard, which is the dialect in which you perform classic plays. If you’re going to do Shakespeare, you do it in American Theater Standard. As soon as I got out of school and started auditioning for things, I realized no one wanted that. 

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[“The Gilded Age”] is the first time that it’s really come in handy, because that’s…precisely what we’re using to create the period in our speech. I found [that in] Julian’s writing—as easy as it is in some ways because these characters are very well-drawn—there is a technical demand to the language. I have found myself drawing on stuff that I learned in acting school and [from] doing plays.

2. As someone who’s worked on both stage and screen, do you have any advice for actors transitioning from one medium to the other?

When I first started working on camera, I had this idea that I just had to hold completely still, and I found it really constraining. Over time, what I’ve learned is that if you’re committed and you’re fully engaged, the camera doesn’t mind. You can’t be frenetic; it’s a little easier to be over-the-top on camera. [But] there’s more room to play than I initially thought there was when I first started making that transition. 

One thing that can really be a secret weapon for actors on camera is your voice. Theater actors have incredibly developed voices. If you can figure out a way to play into the mic in an intimate way and use your instrument in the same way with the same range that people do onstage, that can really be an asset…. Somebody like Carrie Coon [who plays George’s wife, Bertha]—she has an amazing, rich, mellifluous voice which she trained onstage.

3. How did you get your SAG-AFTRA card?

It was right after college. I majored in theater and literature, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. A friend of my father’s was helping a friend direct his first feature; they were looking for a young actor to play the lead in this film. I auditioned and met the director, and they were like, “Sure.” 

I was terrible. They had to do a waiver, and then I got my SAG card. Then, I applied to acting school because I needed that structure to invest in what I was doing. I have gone back and watched that film, and I don’t think you would look at it and think, This guy’s going to make it.

4. Is there anything you did on that film that you’ve promised yourself you’ll never do again?

I’m very sympathetic to bad acting, because [acting is] very hard. It’s very easy to act badly, and I do it, have done it, and will do it more. But what I was doing in that project was not making any choices. I was hoping that I could get away with not risking anything. It’s unwatchably boring.

The Gilded Age

Credit: Barbara Nitke/HBO

5. What’s your worst audition horror story?

I used to audition for musicals, and nothing makes me more nervous than singing in front of people. I actually love singing; I just can’t handle it emotionally. I auditioned for a production of [“Les Misérables”] one time, and I sang “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and my voice was trembling with emotion that I didn’t know how to technically process. If I had to audition for a musical now, I think it would still be the same.

6. What performance should every actor see and why?

Gena Rowlands in “Opening Night.” Her character is wasted for, like, most of the film. It’s an unbelievably free, specific performance. How did she do it? I don’t see the seams; I don’t see where the pretend is. She’s completely lost in the performance.

Another one that I love is Cary Grant in “Charade.” He’s so joyful. All of his ease and comedic genius is brought to bear on that film.

7. What role shaped you most as an actor?

My first Broadway job was in [the 2010 Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s] “A View From the Bridge.” Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson were the two leads, and I was an understudy who ended up taking over the part [of Rodolpho] because an actor got injured. 

When I was growing up, and while going to acting school, the whole world of New York theater that you read about in the Times seemed impossible to access. Then suddenly I found myself in that world, onstage with people that I’d only ever read about. I thought, I can hang here. They’re doing stuff that I can’t do, but I do feel like I belong here. That gave me the confidence to move forward professionally that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

8. What advice would you give your younger self?

I’m always annoyed by how obedient I am; a director will give me a note, and I want to do that well. 

Don’t fight somebody on something, but take what they’re suggesting, then bring your own idea in response. Never lose touch with your instinct and your voice as an artist. What makes you valuable on set is your ideas, your voice—the things you bring that nobody else can. 

Sometimes, you need to dance on the head of the pin and do something technical and nail it and go home. Sometimes, you need to take a note and translate it into something more exciting than [what] a director is asking for. I would tell myself to stop trying to be such a good little boy.  

This story originally appeared in the June 13 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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