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Broadway legend Christine Baranski stars in Julian Fellowes' newest, 'The Gilded Age'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"The Gilded Age" opens - 1882 in a Central Park that squawks with goats and sheep. A large household staff bustles in the kitchen, while upstairs, the grande dame of the house - it's Christine Baranski; you can just tell - peers through a window at new neighbors moving in. Strings swell in the theme music, and Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon throw Julian Fellowes' dialogue back and forth like the major-league talents they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GILDED AGE")

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: (As Agnes van Rhijn) She means to join us here, just as soon as she has closed the house and sold her furniture.

CYNTHIA NIXON: (As Ada Brook) Oh, what a relief.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes van Rhijn) A relief? And who is to support her? Exactly. Me - with the van Rhijn money, which was not achieved at no cost to myself. You were allowed the pure and tranquil life of a spinster. I was not.

NIXON: (As Ada Brook) I'm very grateful.

BARANSKI: (As Agnes van Rhijn) So you should be.

SIMON: "The Gilded Age" drops Monday on HBO. Julian Fellowes, best known for "Downton Abbey," has written the series, which also stars Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector, Louisa Jacobson and Denee Benton. A whole roster of Broadway stars are in line for cameos. And the esteemed actress and grande dame Christine Baranski joins us. Thank you so much for being with us.

BARANSKI: It's a real pleasure to be on your show, Scott.

SIMON: Ah, pleasure is ours. Honor is ours. Tell us about Agnes van Rhijn, if you could.

BARANSKI: Who wouldn't want to play a snob as written by Julian Fellowes? She is indeed a snob. She considers herself Old New York, which would mean Knickerbocker Society, one of Mrs. Astor's 400, you know...

SIMON: Yeah.

BARANSKI: ...The people who got here before everybody else did. And she considers herself part of a tribe of people who are known for their dignity and their sobriety and their good manners and discretion. So she makes it clear to her young niece, who has arrived penniless and needs a place to live - she informs her young niece that she will have to adhere to a strict set of standards because she is indeed Old New York.

SIMON: But you know, if I may, Agnes - there are also a lot of grace notes with her.

BARANSKI: Oh, I think - yes, I think she's highly intelligent. She's witty. She's a strong and, in many ways, a self-made woman because she had to leave her home in Pennsylvania and marry a man she didn't love because she had pedigree. But she - her brother squandered the family fortune, so, in fact, she's a survivor. And you see softer parts of Agnes as the series continues because, in fact, they're building a mansion across the street. And it's rather like the equivalent of a Trump hotel going up.

SIMON: (Laughter).

BARANSKI: It's, you know, appalling displays of money and actually over-the-top taste.

SIMON: I did not know until doing a little research that the elegant and elevated locution associated with so many characters you play - how do I put this? - is not something you inherited growing up in Buffalo.

BARANSKI: (Laughter) Somebody asked me, what did you sound like when you went to Juilliard? And I said, I kind of sounded like this. I had a really, you know, like, a - kind of sounded like a mouse. The voice that I have now, that was four years of training. And I think it was aspirational, Scott. I really didn't want to talk like, you know - and I love Buffalo. Don't get me wrong.

SIMON: Yeah.

BARANSKI: But I wanted - I aspired to be Maggie Smith.

SIMON: I'd say you've nailed it, you know?

BARANSKI: (Laughter).

SIMON: I - you're your own Maggie Smith now. Tell us about all the Broadway talents that are involved in this series.

BARANSKI: They were all available, all of these marvelous theater actors, because of COVID. They couldn't work on the stage and was rather like a acting repertory company.

SIMON: Oh, boy. Oh, yeah.

BARANSKI: And I hope it remains so because you have more Tony Award-winning actors...

SIMON: Oh.

BARANSKI: ...In "The Gilded Age" than probably any show in history.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. Audra McDonald and Nathan Lane and - it's amazing.

BARANSKI: Donna Murphy, yes. I mean, it just - Kelli O'Hara...

SIMON: Kelli O'Hara, yeah.

BARANSKI: ...Everybody. And if they're not on this season, they'll be on in subsequent seasons because, you know, there's nothing like theater actors. If you want to do a period piece and are not afraid of the various manners and ways of speaking that are required of their characters, you want theater actors.

SIMON: Yeah.

BARANSKI: They know how to do it.

SIMON: What's it like to bring a Julian Fellowes script to life?

BARANSKI: It's such a privilege, particularly playing Agnes. His dialogue is easy to say because he writes for character, and he's very specific. He's a master of detail, and he knew each and every character that he was writing for. And it's rather like working with a great writer/historian. He did tremendous research and has a great love of the Gilded Age.

SIMON: Yeah. You know, it's often said that the story of America is like what we see in the musical "Oklahoma!," the farmers versus the ranchers. You see "The Gilded Age," and you think it's old money versus new money - or people like Mrs. Russell, the new family on the block, who says, I don't want my old friends (laughter). I want new friends.

BARANSKI: Yes, the Gilded Age - you know, with the trauma and the drama of the Civil War, the Gilded Age suddenly burst onto the American scene in the North as though it was the beginning of capitalism. There was all of this money, all this energy for the new, and these astonishing fortunes were being made. And the women, they were going to show their money. And so what did they do? They almost imported European aristocracy, their palaces and their ballrooms. And it really is such an energetic, you know, vibrant time in history.

SIMON: Yeah. May I ask you about Stephen Sondheim, who's just left us?

BARANSKI: You may.

SIMON: You, of course, are known as one of his foremost voices. You were his friend and, I gather, even neighbor in Connecticut for years.

BARANSKI: Yes. I did get to know him. And indeed, he did live in the town next door. And Meryl Streep, who also lives in that neck of the woods, did "Into The Woods," the musical. And, you know, I said to Meryl, why don't we take him out to dinner? You know, why don't we spend time with him when we can? And so we'd had wonderful dinners, and I'm happy to say that this past summer I did have a dinner with him with Meryl in Connecticut. I'm so glad we did. He did become a friend.

SIMON: Yeah. Christine Baranski is one of the stars of Julian Fellowes' "The Gilded Age." It begins Monday on HBO. Thank you so much for being with us. So good to speak with you.

BARANSKI: So lovely to speak with you. Thank you for having me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREE NATIONALS AND CHRONIXX'S "ETERNAL LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.