The Gilded Age

Ry Armstrong brings a unique spark to HBO’s The Gilded Age

TV viewers have been buzzing about the HBO series The Gilded Age, which is Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes’ American period drama. The series features an incredible cast—but what really makes it fascinating is how many of those actors and actresses are theater veterans. Every episode is entertaining both for TV fans and those who have an appreciation for the stage.

One of the theater performers in the series is Ry Armstrong, whose role expanded from a minor part to something much more significant over the course of the season. Ry talked to me about filming such a high-profile series and working with so many great co-stars who also hail from the stage. Learn more about both character and actor in our interview.

Brittany Frederick: What was it like for you to film The Gilded Age? A period drama is essentially the prime example of what it means to be an actor, and you’re also filming under the interesting conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ry Armstrong: Obviously, the pandemic was happening and [we] didn’t expect the world to be what it is. And also, I come from the theater, so it was my first really big film, TV gig I’ve ever had. It’s not glamorous. (laughs) We’d walk around in these chef aprons with our 1880s clothing on and drink our coffee at four in the morning, getting ready for a 6:00 AM start. It’s crazy, but it was really fun. We shot in eight different locations. And it doesn’t feel like you’re in a period piece until you’re actually shooting. But shooting only lasts five, ten minutes max, and then most of the time, just hurry up and wait [to] set up the next shot.

Brittany Frederick: The show has a massive cast, so not everybody gets to work with everyone. And with a lot of other theater actors involved, were there people you loved working with, or people that you’d have loved to spend more time with?

Ry Armstrong: I had a weird full-circle experience. I only had one scene with Patrick Page [who plays Richard Clay], and he’s been my acting teacher for four or five years. I’ve taken all of his classes. (laughs) He was like, “Wait, Ry?” And I was like, “Patrick?” We had a scene together, and I was kind of like, “Whoa, that is crazy.” I’m just standing there holding his hat and cane as a classic downstairs footman would be doing.

I love Carrie Coon; she’s a godsend. She mentored me a little bit on the show. The great thing about [playing] a footman is that I stood there and literally watched as a sponge. I took in everything that was happening. And I was watching them in between takes. What was that chemistry? How to do you speak with the director? How do you deal with an audio person having a boom [microphone] going up your petticoat? I was just a sponge the whole experience.

I wasn’t ever with Audra [McDonald], but I think her work is phenomenal in the show. Denée Benton, we had one day on the back lot together. We didn’t speak, but she was there across the street, because I’m in the Russell household, which is on one side of the street. And then the van Rhijn household—Christine Baranski lives over there with Cynthia Nixon and Louisa [Jacobson]. It was honestly too many people and too many houses and so much going on. (laughs) I would just try to keep it all straight.

Brittany Frederick: Out of all that, were there particular moments that resonated with you? Or particular things you learned that you’ll carry with you to the next TV or film role?

Ry Armstrong: There’s probably a couple things. It was beautiful to see how seriously HBO took the pandemic. We were in etiquette classes with the historians on the show, in a full college lecture format [on] March 11th. March 13th, the studio shut down. And then we came back, and they just treated us so well. I was like, “I’m never going to be treated this well again.” There was a day where Salli Richardson-Whitfield, one of the directors, had a possible {COVID-19] exposure and she was literally directing from an iPad. You make it happen. It was a very theatrical mindset of the show must go on, but on a film set.

We went to Rhode Island for a month. That was fun. There were four of us footmen in the Russell household that really got close after working on the show for eight months together. So it’s probably just making those friends for life, and then seeing where the show goes. Because we only get bits and pieces of it; we don’t have the whole script.

Ry Armstrong
Ry Armstrong. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Skollar PR.)

Brittany Frederick: Now that you’ve spent some time with the character, and we know there will be a Season 2 for The Gilded Age, do you start thinking about other things you’d like to explore in that next season? Because hopefully you’re coming back.

Ry Armstrong: It’s hard to say. Timing is everything, so I’m open to whatever the world has. And I’ve had many opportunities come up in the last couple months. I love the show. If they wanted to bring me back on a contract, I would totally say yes. We started working on the show as extras and then were upgraded because of the pandemic; they didn’t want people to be exposed to other productions and they needed people to commit…I was just in it for the ride, so it depends on what comes up.

I got my SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card and my first big gig was on HBO. I’m like, “That’s cool to say.” joining SAG, I served on the SAG Awards Nominating Committee this year. I got to go to all these premieres and see all these Q&As. It was a great deep dive right into the film industry. And I’m grateful to The Gilded Age for giving me that opportunity.

Brittany Frederick: What are the things you think audiences need to know about you outside of the show? Anything else that you’re passionate about?

Ry Armstrong: I’m kind of an environmental activist with Extinction Rebellion. And when we were filming, I did this Earth Day protest where I was in a trash can for four and a half hours in the freezing weather, submerged in water, to protest fossil fuels surrounded by plastic. Then I went and worked the next day. I was so sore. (laughs) It was the craziest thing, but I can say I did it. It was a livestream, and it was really weird because the length of the livestream ended up being exactly four hours and 22 minutes, and the day was April 22nd.

The Gilded Age is now streaming on HBO Max. The series has been renewed for Season 2.

Article content is (c)2020-2022 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.

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