The Gilded Age takes place in a time of robust change. At every level of society, possibilities are opening up as the century comes to an end. In the HBO series, Ben Ahlers stars as Jack Trotter, a footman at the Brook household.
Ben spoke EXCLUSIVELY with HollywoodLife about Jack’s aspirations for himself. He noted that Jack is trying to “find his place” in all the change going on around him. The actor hinted at a “rich backstory” for Jack where we’ll learn where his “heart and brain come from.” Read our Q&A below:
What does Jack think about the rise of new money versus old money? Does he have an opinion about it working for Agnes?
Ben Ahlers: I think he does. They were building that mansion across the street for a while. I come into the first episode, I’m sweeping, and I just look across at this palace being built to the sky. I’ve been waking up every morning and looking at that. I think in this time, there was so much change. Since I didn’t have much of a stake in getting my station overrun by these railroad tycoons, I think it’s a lot like youth today in this changing world of new media and new industries popping up all over the world where he’s trying to best align himself, to find his place in that change. Putting myself in his shoes, if I was waking up every morning and looking across the street, I think it’d be tough for me not to get caught up in that possibility for myself.
Agnes is very much old money, but then you see the new money and what a life could possibly look like for anyone.
Ben Ahlers: Absolutely. The show brought me out to New York, but New York embodies that so fully. It’s always changing. Industries come, buildings go, and then new opportunities present themselves. I’m a Brooklyn boy. I’ve got that dark Irish-Italian accent to me, and to have stability in any workplace, given how far you can fall and where a lot of these kids came from, is the American dream in and of itself. But during that time, to find middle-class stability where you can create a life for yourself, especially as a young person, there’s really nothing else to do except wake up and try to orient yourself towards that possibility.
Will we get some background on Jack over the course of the season?
Ben Ahlers: You will. What’s so brilliant about Julian is both Downton and Gilded Age are so literary in the sense that they keep these interweaving characters who, even with just short, little vignettes, you find out a lot about them. Jack has a really, really rich backstory that I actually wasn’t privy to until later in the season, so that was its own challenge. How do you get to know this person when, especially with TV writing where everything keeps changing, the way that you perform character changes with the way that they’ll tweak the plot? There’s some really good stuff in the latter half of the season where you get to understand where this kid’s heart and brain come from.
Jack seems like he’s always got his eyes and ears always open. He’s privy to a lot of information.
Ben Ahlers: He’s this radical optimist. This very practical optimist. But back then, especially as a footman, I’m standing in the corner a lot, serving tea, and then watching these heavy hitters within society have these discussions. I can’t check out on my phone. When I go to sleep, there’s not a lot to do other than just stew and think and dream and do all of that. I think just by sheer exposure to the height of the people that he’s working for, he’s a sponge in that way.
He’s a vessel for secrets possibly…
Ben Ahlers: That was the way we connected. That downstairs staff, and we really hammered this home in rehearsals, that’s your family. You live down there. Mr. Bannister, the butler, is a father figure for me. Bridget is my best friend and my confidant. Gossiping about the to-dos of the Astor clan of New York City… Come on. It’s better than a magazine about it.
Do you think Jack yearns for something more than the life that he has at the moment?
Ben Ahlers: I think when you get to know where he’s come from later in the season, there’s been this muscle of independence and this constant striving to make something of his life. I think when you’re around these role models, these benchmarks of high class and power and all of that, that gets ingrained in you just by the environment. You find that even when I was on set with Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon. I mean, don’t even get me started on that. That was a whole two months of just preparing myself for when I walked on set. But you look at these titans of your industry, and you start to dream more of yourself, especially when you’re an equal player in that process. I definitely connected with Jack in that way.
Agnes doesn’t break. She is so strict and so confident in her beliefs. Will she ever give at all? I would not want to get in a fight with her.
Ben Ahlers: She’s got a value system to her. Whether you agree with that value system or not, there are risks and consequences to embodying those and stating them as freely and as clearly as she does. You have to respect it to a degree. She’s not afraid of having her own sister or own niece not really like her that much because she believes in something.
Marian comes to live with her aunts, along with Peggy after meeting her on the train. Will Jack have much interaction with them moving forward? I feel like they’re both kind of rebels.
Ben Ahlers: What’s also great about all of this is that TV is full of endless possibilities. There are endless possibilities that could continue to change. I think there’s a very stark cut-off between the upstairs and downstairs in terms of their ability to socialize and anything that would blur that line would be, like you said, very rebellious. Peggy is such a great conduit because she’s in both worlds so clearly. I don’t interact much with the Russells across the street, but there is this youthful spunk to that whole generation, both as actors and with my friends. Louisa [Jacobson], Denee [Benton], Taissa [Farmiga], Harry [Richardson], all of them, but also as characters I think even if I’m not interacting with all of them I do feel like we embody such a clear point of view and influence to that world. I’m hopeful that I get to because Louisa and I have been friends for years. I’m on set with them all the time just because I’m so baked into the fabric of the scene, but in terms of interaction, we haven’t crossed that line yet.
The era of The Gilded Age and fashion was so different than anything we could have ever imagined. I’m sure the people back then would think the same thing about the way we dress now. What was it like transporting yourself back to that era?
Ben Ahlers: When I first walked onto the backlot where we shot a lot of those outdoor scenes with the horse-drawn carriages, especially when we were filming, you were in that environment. I’ve never had vertigo, so I don’t know how to explain that, but you almost got dizzy with the fact that you really did feel like you’re in a completely different world, especially with the work that Kasia [Walicka-Maimone] from the costume department and everyone from the props department did. Every detail was so taken care of to the point where, unless you were going to go sit down in the green room and get on your phone, there was really no indication other than the cameras that you weren’t in the 1880s. As disorienting as that was, I kind of got caught up in the joy of that kind of funhouse because there was such a respect for how you presented yourself, how you carried yourself, and certainly that got very restrictive in ways that the show also does a great job of highlighting the consequences of that. But it kind of bled into the rest of my life where I was like, you know what, I want to take care of my things. If I’m going out to dinner with someone I want to dress in a way that shows them that I respect that I’m here. I think we’ve kind of drifted from some of that.
Watching that first episode, the world is very different now than it was in that time period. The special effects are really, really great because it shows there were no skyscrapers or an H&M on the corner or Starbucks or whatever. It’s kind of sad because change has to occur, but so many of those beautiful homes from that time period are just completely gone.
Ben Ahlers: New York’s a very specific example of that too. It will never remain static, but then you go over to Europe, and after being war-torn for a century and just desecrated, they still own that architectural character to them and have such distinct differences depending on where you are in the continent over there. What’s funny is that Agnes would have said the exact same thing. It’s not even a critique. It’s just more of that cyclical nature of the grass is greener in the past. When I moved here, I walk everywhere now. I’ll just go on two-hour walks. I’m just trying to make sure that I appreciate my version of New York because I know in a few years I’ll probably be saying the exact same thing.