“The Gilded Age” Actor Michel Gill Says Filming in Newport’s Mansions was “Stunning”
The Broadway-turned-Hollywood actor talks “Gilded Age,” filming during a pandemic and his new Hulu role
Michel Gill already had an impressive resume before he was cast in two of this year’s most hotly anticipated television series. The actor, who was born in New York and attended boarding school in Switzerland, became a familiar face for viewers as Gideon Goddard in USA Network’s “Mr. Robot” and President Garrett Walker in “House of Cards.” In the latter, he played alongside his real-life wife, actress Jayne Atkinson, who played Secretary of State Cathy Durant.
Gill recently made his Newport debut on HBO’s “The Gilded Age.” The show, which features sweeping shots of the city’s historic mansions, is the latest period drama to come from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes. Gill plays Patrick Morris, a banker and New York City alderman who is forced to contend with a quickly rising class of new wealthy elites.
Around the same time he was commuting to Newport from his home in the Berkshires for filming, he was cast in “The Dropout,” starring Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes. The series, set to premiere on Hulu on March 3, covers Holmes’ rise and fall as the founder of the blood-testing startup Theranos. Gill plays her father, Chris Holmes, who himself had a rocky background as a former vice president of the scandal-plagued Enron.
Gill spoke with Rhode Island Monthly recently about filming in the Newport mansions, visiting Block Island, acting alongside his wife and what viewers can gain from watching period drama. The following interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
To kick off, how was filming in Newport? You were able to film inside the mansions, correct?
I am embarrassed to say that I had never seen the mansions before in my life. I’ve traveled a fair amount in my life and I grew up in Europe, so I was exposed to the castles in England and France and all these grand old homes. My mind was completely blown away as I drove down looking from mansion to mansion at these extraordinary places. And then to be inside the Breakers and to look at this, you compare it to Versailles in France. These people really went all the way building these structures. It was just mind-boggling. And apparently, at incredible speed as well. So, it was quite stunning. It was beautiful. It was truly a thrill to be shooting in the environment. It adds so much to your experience. You think it’s subtle, but it really isn’t. It’s lovely to be on a set where things have been built to replicas, or when I did “House of Cards,” to walk into the Oval Office. Every time I saw it was just “Oh, wow, isn’t this cool.” But then when you transition into the actual place, it really does get you very excited, very motivated, and it’s an honor, and it just adds to the creativity.
Does it add to the experience knowing that, not necessarily the exact characters, but many of the real-life individuals like the people you’re playing actually lived in those homes a hundred years ago?
I’ve been going into these places all my life, having to write reports on my trips as a kid — the style, the food, the clothes that people wore. And so I’m very aware. I walk into rooms like this and I touch the walls, because these walls have heard and seen things. I just feel in awe of the history of it. And, you know, you try to just sit there in the space. It’s inconceivable to really understand fully what it’s like to walk into this place and say, “This is my place.”
What was it like filming a show during the pandemic?
It was incredible to see the lengths to which the studios cared and went and invested in the security and care of everyone on set. It was very alien. There were plastic tents, individual tents for every actor so you could see through them and talk to each other, but we were all protected. The testing was occurring the days before you’d get to set, the day of the set, the day of shooting, so it was — you felt like you were being protected as best you could. And then suddenly everybody would show up on set, take their masks off, and go for it.
You had quite the cast on “The Gilded Age.” What was it like working with Julian Fellowes along with some of the fellow actors and actresses that were with you on the show?
I consider myself part of the lucky club. I really always have been. I’ve been so lucky working with such wonderful, wonderful actors. Julian Fellowes was being very careful as well during the time, so he wasn’t on set. Whether he was in the city looking at a live feed or back home in England, he was always there. His presence was felt. And he had notes, he would give them, but he was also very respectful of the process and so, you know, as you’re speaking his words you feel his presence and you feel honored to have him in your sphere, but I didn’t really spend much time communicating with him. The directors were more my conduit to him if I had any questions. But the brilliance of Julian Fellowes actually is that what he puts on paper is really very easy for you as an actor, as an artist, to take in, to learn and to go and do because he writes so well for each character. It really comes very easily. There are some scripts that are painstakingly hard to memorize, and then there’s Julian Fellowes who really puts it out on the paper, and it’s just lovely. The main actors that I got a chance to play with were Morgan Spector and Carrie Coon and the woman who plays my wife, Katie Finneran. I couldn’t have been more delighted to be with them and to work with them.
You said this was your first experience being in the mansions and seeing that part of Newport. Had you spent any time in Rhode Island previously?
I’ve been to Block Island. I love Block Island. I would do some writers’ retreats about ten, twelve, years ago, maybe a little bit more, with a friend of mine. We were writing something and went to Block Island a few times to just put ourselves in hibernation and do some work at two weeks at a clip. So yes, I’ve been to Block Island, and I’ve driven through Rhode Island. I used to go visit way back with some friends in Providence at Brown and all that stuff, but I haven’t really otherwise explored too much. But I enjoyed Rhode Island, for many, many years.
Do you enjoy this type of period work?
I’ll take it any time. I find it so much fun. I’ve done it all my life, and I’ve gone back and forth from contemporary to period. I love period work. It gives us all an opportunity to learn more about where we come from. And I think that that’s what draws people to these shows like “Downton Abbey” and this particular show, “The Gilded Age.” We have a lot to learn from in watching this show unfold to understand sort of where we’ve come from. All these help us get to know who we are and why we are who we are. And I’m always fascinated by the link and the chain between, you know, one generation and one period to another. There’s a complete continuum, and it’s just part of the study as an artist to really continually visit those times to reinforce your history or to learn something new about your history.
Did you have a chance to spend any time offset?
I took some walks but honestly, there were so many things going on at the time. I had my family, my mother I took out of New York City, and she was living with us. One of my sisters from England came and stayed for six months in the Berkshires. I have another sister whose husband passed away in Seattle, and so she came to the Berkshires. And so there was a lot going on. And my wife, Jayne Atkinson, was working in Canada. She was doing a series there, so much was going on. And our son was out of college and back home. So I really had to get in and get out very, very quickly in order to continue taking care of things at home.
Let’s talk for a few minutes about “The Dropout,” your new show coming out from Hulu in March. What was it like being a part of telling that real-life story that’s so close to what we’ve been seeing in the news the past couple years?
It was crazy. I had my own opinions about it. I’ve been watching Elizabeth Holmes for a little bit, and I heard the podcast “The Dropout,” and I watched the documentaries, and I just was very concerned about this young lady. I just felt, my goodness, something is not quite right there in Denmark with her. She’s got some things going on. And so it was a fascinating story, and to watch Amanda Seyfried transform into her was fantastic because I got to sort of deal with it on the ground zero as well in telling the story as it was unfolding in trial. And I was concerned, because the whole premise of her argument was something I had never heard of before, which was that Sunny [Balwani, Homes’ former business and romantic partner] had abused her and had controlled her. Her whole argument was going to be that she was a total victim, and I didn’t see any of that in what we were doing. So I was like, “Oh, this will be very interesting if this were to turn around.” I don’t see how that could happen, and they’re going to see right through it, but what a whole new set of circumstances and statements that came out. And that said, it was just very cool to be sort of learning what was about to happen and starting to happen in the trial as we were shooting it. I don’t think I’ve ever really done anything in that way where it’s actually happening as we were shooting.
You’ve touched on a lot of interesting television roles over the years, including “House of Cards.” Do you have a favorite role that you’ve played?
I really have a love affair with every role I play, with every character I inhabit. I did have fun playing the president of the United States. It was quite fun because I’ve been a presidential sort of history buff, and I was also fascinated by what that role and that position entailed. And as a person who’s studied Shakespeare and explored kings and princes along the way, to know and to feel what it’s like to be in a position of that kind is always fascinating to me, the human dynamics within that. And there of course are a lot of plays that I’ve done in the theater that I’ve enjoyed as well. I particularly like the roles where I slip from what appears to be a nice guy into someone who’s a little shady. I always like that. And, most importantly, my favorite thing is always performing with my wife. Whether it’s on stage, or we were lucky enough to do it on “House of Cards,” the real joy is in that.
How did the two of you meet?
We met in 1989 doing a play at a theater in New Haven, Connecticut, the Long Wharf Theatre. We were doing a play called The Heiress, which is an adaptation of a Henry James novel called Washington Square. We sort of took a shining to each other then, and then a year later we did another play in San Diego at the Old Globe. We did a play called As You Like It, a Shakespeare play, and totally fell in love doing that and then a year later, we got together.
Obviously you were busy the past year or so with filming, but it sounds like you’ve also had some opportunities to really enjoy your time at home in the Berkshires during the pandemic.
Absolutely. That’s what infuses me, it infuses me as much as working. My family life is as important because honestly, the work will not be satisfying and it will not be filled if my life is not supporting it. And it’s really a balance that takes many years to sort of figure out, to carve out and to structure. Not everybody’s really interested in it. Some people are more than others. For me, it was so important to balance the two because I just knew that to bring a character to life, I needed to have a lot of life happening. And I’ve been lucky. I’ve just been so lucky with an amazing wife and an amazing son and a great family, extended family. Keeps me busy, engaged, invested, and we’re always seeking adventure so it’s important. It really is.
Where did your son graduate from recently?
He graduated from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and he’s going into the family business.
Has he had any notable roles yet?
He just graduated and moved to Brooklyn and he got his first job as a waiter at a restaurant.
Sounds like he’s doing it right. That’s where everyone starts, right?
Yup. And a couple months later he got his first film. So he’s doing well. He’s got great representation, he’s a wonderful actor, he got his first job in a feature film and he’s just doing it. He’s living his life and he’s doing it and we’re there if he needs us. But from the time he was young he said, “Oh god, Mom, Dad, I’m just going to be so much better than you guys.” And we said, “Well that’s the whole point, that’s exactly why we brought you into this world.”
You and your wife recently got a new puppy. Can you tell us about that?
He’s a Bernedoodle. He’s a Bernese Mountain Dog from my old years in Switzerland — because I grew up in Switzerland, so I always loved the mountain dogs in Switzerland, those and the St. Bernards — mixed with a poodle to make him hypoallergenic so that my family can visit us. He is adorable and he’s going to be massive. He’s going to be so big, it’s crazy. But he’s just really great, very smart, and he just loves the mountains. He’s my soul mate.
Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
Honestly, I think the most important thing about me is that I start my day with a frigid cold shower. That’s the secret of my life from the time I was at boarding school where you were forced to take cold showers, I have never stopped. Otherwise, there’s really nothing great or grand about me, I just enjoy it when people love the shows that I’m a part of. I’m a storyteller at heart. I love being part of a story and I just think it’s so important for the community and the world to continually have the opportunity to hear stories and new stories or new twists on stories. We thrive on that as a race, as a humanity, on the humanity side of things. The pandemic has been terrible for that, it’s shut it down to such a large degree, and I hope that we get back into the groove because without that kind of storytelling and sharing of those emotions and those different realities, I think we get a little stagnant and atrophied in our hearts and in our lives. I love what I do, my wife and I love what we do, partly because it’s so community-oriented and social and we thrive on the interaction that we have with the world and people out listening to stories. We cannot tell stories without having people listen to them. Listening is as great a part as telling, and I’m just so grateful and thankful for being able to do what I do.