Denée Benton on The Gilded Age Finale and Lifting Up Black Women’s Voices

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“There Are Black People In The Future” read an arresting billboard in Pittsburgh in 2017. It was mounted by interdisciplinary artist Alisha B. Wormsley to testify to the “systemic oppression of Black communities through space and time.” It’s an important reminder and an ongoing project. There are Black people in the past too — a fact that the art made about our history too-often forgets. Costume dramas are some of the biggest offenders. In his latest HBO hit The Gilded Age, Julian Fellowes, the man behind period cultural juggernaut Downton Abbey, breaks with that tradition by populating his 1880s New York-set tale with Black characters, correcting what was long a historical and televisual blindspot. Among these characters is Peggy Scott, played by Tony-nominated actress Denée Benton, who theater fans will know from her star-making roles in “Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812” and “Hamilton.” Peggy is a secretary born to the Black elite (her father’s a pharmacist and her mother is a pianist) whose life changes when she gets a job in the home of old money gatekeeper Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski). In the series, New York is buzzing with all different kinds of energy — there’s tension between old money and new money, arrivistes hustling to become somebodies, and Peggy who is attempting to straddle the color line in an effort to realize her dream of becoming a writer in the city.

I spoke to Benton recently about advocating for Black women on and off screen, why it’s important to not let white people off the hook, and the joys of working with a cast of theater kids.

You’ve developed quite the niche playing women from the 18th and 19th centuries from Eliza in Hamilton, to Natasha in Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812 and now Peggy Scott in The Gilded Age. What is it about period pieces that keeps drawing you in?

I think they keep finding me. I’m still at the place in my career where I’m auditioning for the roles I get called in for. There’s been something about my essence that has really matched up with these types of period drama women. These characters show us that women have always been dynamic. We have this idea that the progressive, liberal-minded, modern woman is something that is new but people have always been attempting to be arbiters of their own freedom.

How did this role change after you booked it, because I heard your input—via a letter you wrote to HBO amidst the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020—altered the direction of the show.

It was something that started way before the summer of 2020. That was definitely the cherry on top, but changes had already started. It was a really collaborative process between me and Dr. Erica Dunbar, who is one of our co-executive producers and at the time was a historical consultant on the show. In my very first callback for the series Michael Engler, one of our EPs and directors, asked me, “as a Black woman, how are you responding to the way some of these scenes are written?” I felt invited to share where my point of view was coming from. I continued to lean into that as we started shooting and as we were in pre-production and chose to continue to bring up these conversations.

The intention of Peggy was always there but some major changes occurred like my costumes, and how much we got to see my parents, and even the T. Thomas Fortune storyline being added in. One of the changes I was the most proud of was adding empowered Black women’s voices to the creative team so that it wasn’t only behind the scenes conversations, but there was actually structure in place for these changes to be supported.

You hear a Black woman is in a period drama and your mind immediately jumps to “slave” because that’s largely how we’ve been represented. But instead Peggy is the daughter of upper middle class Black people. I can’t remember ever seeing that on screen. It obviously opened up new storytelling avenues.

Especially during this time period. For me, maybe the earliest we started seeing families like this was the Jeffersons and obviously the Huxtables, but it’s also my story. I grew up in an upper middle class Black family where my parents were the first generation out of the Jim Crow South laws. I connected to Peggy so immediately off the page that I felt a sort of voracious protectiveness of her. I really wanted her to make Black women feel proud and feel seen in the dynamic nature of her interiority.

I was hyper focused—along with Dr. Dunbar, Julian, Michael, Salli [Richardson-Whitfield, EP/director] and Sonja [Warfield, co-ep and writer]—on making sure we don’t fall into tropes, and making sure she isn’t only being seen in the white male gaze. I was able to pull a lot from myself and Dr. Dunbar’s incredible knowledge about this time period really helped shape and expand the possibilities and show she’s a living, breathing, human being who had her own kind of orbit. She’s not just a part of someone else’s orbit.

“I really wanted [Peggy] to make Black women feel proud and feel seen in the dynamic nature of her interiority.”

Her dream is obviously to become a novelist, and to that end, she lands a job as a journalist for this Black newspaper. But before that there’s one of the most powerful shots of the series when Peggy visits the office of this white paper interested in publishing her and the director, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, who you mentioned, makes this decision to have the camera pan a row of white men sitting on a bench with her and she’s meant to look like a fish out of water. And then later, an editor tells her that her writing is so beautiful he doubts she wrote it. It should be this belittling moment for her, but instead it becomes a showcase for her steel spine. What was it like working through a scene like that with a Black woman behind the camera?

It just felt like I could put my shoulders down from my ears and trust. Unfortunately, you’ve probably lived this as I have lived this. There are moments and scenes like that, where it can be really easy to feel protective of the white characters and to not want them to be seen as villains and give them this apologist narrative. I am always of the mind that the more you tell the truth, the more we actually get to see humanity which is one of reasons I really loved the shoe scene and the way Louisa [Jacobson, who plays Marian] and I advocated to let Marian let the egg be on her face. She doesn’t need to be this benevolent white angel because if she is, we don’t get to see her grow.

Salli was really open to those types of nuances and textures. She felt more comfortable leaning into the tension of what it actually meant to create some level of interracial intimacy in that time and what type of boundaries and trust have to be built for that to exist and the types of real harm that happens along the way. For me, there was a trust of the perspective that comes from having actual diversity behind the lens. It really enhances the storytelling for the entire show.

the gilded age

Benton as Peggy in The Gilded Age.

ALISON COHEN ROSAHBO

When Peggy and Marian first meet at a train station it feels like you guys are being set up as foils, but you end up being these really close friends in the series. But Marian has well-meaning white ally energy which we see in the shoe scene. It’s funny to see them running into the same complications of an interracial friendship back then that people run into now. Can you share what kind of conversations you had with Louisa, if any, about that relationship and its complexities?

Louisa and I talked a lot. We’re both in interracial relationships romantically and we talked a lot about the nuances of that and it was really helpful. She didn’t feel protective of Marian’s innocence. We both kind of advocated for it. Can we see some white fragility? Can we see some white rage? I know she’s our protagonist, but we are dishonoring their story and we are dishonoring Peggy if we don’t allow the authenticity of this moment to exist.

Some of the first drafts of the scenes had Marian responding a little quicker to understanding she was wrong. Over different conversations with Michael, Julian, and Salli, we got to a point where we were like, no, Marian is going to be defensive. She’s embarrassed, she’s ashamed. She’s going to say, “Why is this such a big deal? Why are you freaking out?” Because if these fights happen in 2022, imagine what it would’ve been like in the 1800s where a misstep like that for Peggy could cost her life.

One of the biggest surprises of the series is Peggy’s unique bond with Agnes, who disapproves of nearly everything and everyone else but her. She gives Peggy a job, lets her live in her home despite even her own servants being turned off by sharing a home with a colored woman. Why do you think Agnes is in Peggy’s corner? I kept mulling this over all season.

There’s nuance there and it’s something that even for myself as an actor and as Denée was justified kind of easily. I’ve had many experiences with this sort of benevolent white older person who takes a liking to you because you are “the right kind” of Black person, you know what I mean? There’s inherently racism within that. Peggy’s not ignorant to that. I dress a certain way, I have the type of education that’s given the gold star, so you can get to the point where you could consider seeing me as human. Peggy’s never unaware of the tightrope that she’s walking. With that truth, I do think that Agnes respects Peggy’s strength.

They have something in common with the hardship that they’ve been through; Agnes lost a child, Peggy also lost a child. They have this connection of knowing what it means to be dealt a hand that you have to finesse and make work for you. Agnes has a hard time respecting Marian because Marian doesn’t have a lot of strategy. I think Agnes respects how strategic Peggy is and that Peggy is clearly a woman who’s going to do what she says she’s going to do. Agnes respects smart people. Her worst nightmare is a foolish little girl and she can see Peggy’s not that.

the gilded age

Audra McDonald and Benton in The Gilded Age.

ALISON COHEN ROSAHBO

You’re a self-described theater kid and this series is packed with your people, Tony winners and nominees. Did that bring a different energy to set? Did your shared background in Broadway help create a shorthand?

A thousand percent. I think something about theater actors is that we are all so incredibly eager. There is not a cool kid amongst us. Acting is such a vulnerable thing that it’s really comforting to be surrounded by people who are also nerding out about their dialects and come to set word perfect and have done all their text work. We are technicians in that way.

In such a layered period drama, it felt really supportive, especially being surrounded by actors who also had made the transition from theater to film. There was just a lot of grace that we gave each other. And a lot of trust that we were all showing up with the same kind of veracity and asking the same questions. Even the way we wanted to work to block a scene, or wanted to take the time to figure out where our props are coming from. We all had this really specific relationship to wanting to comb through everything. That felt good.

One of them is Audra McDonald who plays your mother, and who you grew up idolizing as a Black girl in musical theater. It’s such a rare thing for Black women to have other Black women to idolize and to have in any kind of mentor capacity because there’s a scarcity issue both in theater and Hollywood. Can you talk about what it was like working with her?

The thing about the scarcity model is it’s such a byproduct of erasure. What I learn the more that I’m in this industry and educate myself is there have been Peggys all along, there have been Audras all along, there have been Diahann Carrolls all along and there have been Dr. Erica Dunbars all along. We get hidden from each other because of the mainstream not necessarily telling our stories or pushing them to the margins. But we really have always existed and there have always been networks of Black women supporting each other. The more I get to meet and work with my idols, I get to learn about the Black women that are in their corner and the Black women that they got support from to get to this point. It really is this network of beauty that has always existed.

One of the most insidious and powerful tools of white supremacy is erasure because it has us constantly having to relearn our history, which Toni Morrison talks about. Meeting Audra, it was like a lifting of that veil like, welcome, here you are, and here we all are, and here we’ve always been. You get to walk in that power too. Outside of that, she’s just an incredible actor and working with her made me better. She’s an incredible craft woman and was also just down to earth and willing to talk about motherhood and what it’s like balancing it all. There’s such a humanity to all of it. I got to look back on my younger self and see that even in moments where I thought I was alone, I wasn’t really alone. Things were just being hidden from me.

“One of the most insidious and powerful tools of white supremacy is erasure because it has us constantly having to relearn our history”

Throughout the season it was teased that Peggy has this big secret. In the finale we learn—at the same time she does—that the child she thought she lost survived. When was that revealed to you and did it change how you played her?

I think the whole driving force of Peggy is that she does think that her child is alive, at least that’s the way I played it. That’s what brought her to Doylestown, that’s what made her leave home. I think she had this burning feeling that her dad wasn’t telling her the whole story. When she finds out, it feels like a confirmation of an intuition even more so than a shock.

The Gilded Age has already been renewed for another season. What do you want for Peggy and also what do you as an actor want to explore in this world?

I want to see Peggy continually achieve her dreams. I want to really get into some of the nitty of Black Gilded Age life. Like, I want to see a coming out ball. I want to see Peggy’s dad’s pharmacy, I want to see Peggy in love, I want to see Peggy make mistakes. I really want to keep digging deeper into her humanity and let her get messy. I really want to explore more of the Black world and let it be as prominent of a fiction as the Russell House and these other spaces, because it’s such a profound, intentional, blind spot in our history books that I think that our show has a really incredible opportunity and responsibility to showcase this moment and to fill in this truth. I think there’s incredible political power there too. I hope that we continue leaning into picking up that mantle.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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