TV Talk: CMU graduate Denée Benton helped create and champion her ‘Gilded Age’ character

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Denée Benton, a 2014 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s musical theater program, stars in HBO’s “The Gilded Age” (9 p.m. Monday, HBO; also streaming on HBO Max), as Peggy Scott, a young black woman who strives to become a writer while working as a secretary for old fortune matriarch Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski, “The Good Fight”) in 1882 New York City.

Benton said she immediately felt connected to Peggy when she read the character breakdown.

“Her particular identity as a black woman who was raised upper middle class, educated and had access to rooms that weren’t necessarily available to many black people before her or around her, that’s really my experience growing up. “said Benton, who grew up near Winter Park, Florida. “I have very rarely, especially for a character written in the 1800s, seen this story in the mainstream.”

Peggy is an ambitious writer who tries to live a life different from what her family and the society of the time imagine for her.

“I talked about growing up as a black girl in America seeing images that tell you things you can’t do,” Benton said. “Also just the connective tissue for her to be the child of people who were the first generation to end slavery, when my parents were raised in the Jim Crow South and they were the first generation to see Jim Crow laws attempt to end. ”

Benton said that starting with her auditions, ‘Gilded Age’ director Michael Engler, who is white, asked how, as a black woman, she responded to scripts by series writer/creator Julian Fellowes. (“Downton Abbey”).

“It was the beginning for me to have the first opportunity to add my voice in defense of some of the ways that Peggy could be a richer, more nuanced representation of black women in this era,” she said. declared.

Benton encouraged HBO to add black women to the show’s creative team in empowered positions “so that it’s not just me as an actor trying to manage the power dynamics of making change happen in my scenario”.

From that plea, black historian Erica Dunbar, initially hired as a consultant, eventually arrived as co-executive producer of “Gilded Age” alongside black writer/co-executive producer Sonja Warfield ( “Will & Grace”) and black director/executive producer Salli Richardson Whitfield (“The Wheel of Time”).

Benton said it was important that “there were other black women who had the skills, who had the cachet and the title in their contracts to be able to affect history.”

Benton gives an example of an upcoming episode when Peggy visits an editor to see how to publish an article. In the original script, Peggy simply goes to a white publisher. In the aired episode, Peggy will visit the black editor of the actual New York Globe.

“We were able to say, ‘If we really want to show a fleshed-out black world from the Golden Age, we have opportunities, there are other places that existed,'” Benton said. “I think the whole show benefited from multiple American perspectives, and not just from a white man’s point of view of that time.”

Benton said there was some tension around that contribution, “but everyone handled it with a lot of respect. … I think we’re all very proud of what happened because of some of these difficult and uncomfortable conversations.

Benton described herself as a “typical theater kid” starting in elementary school, but in high school she thought she would study journalism (or broadcast journalism, “as a way to combine writing and performance “) and political science at university. But acting in a high school production of “Aida” convinced her to keep acting. She gave her guidance counselor a list of four acting schools she planned to audition for and the counselor asked her to add one more. She chose Carnegie Mellon.

“And I’m really grateful that I did,” Benton said.

She earned her Actor’s Equity card in 2012 while performing in several shows at the CLO in Pittsburgh (“Annie”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Sunset Boulevard”). Benton revisited his CMU speech and dialect lessons while preparing for “The Gilded Age,” contacting a former classmate to borrow a copy of “Speak with Distinction,” a book used in a CMU class.

After a nationwide tour of “Book of Mormon,” Broadway roles followed, including that of Natasha in “Natasha, Pierre The Great Comet of 1812” (2016-17), for which she earned a Tony nomination, and “Hamilton,” where she played Eliza on and off for 18 months starting in 2018.

Her first on-camera role came in 2016 on the second season of Lifetime’s “UnReal” where she played reality TV contestant and political activist Ruby.

“I remember feeling so excited because I connected so much to the character, like I do with Peggy,” she said before laughing at a memory. “I remember my first walking and talking scene, I was walking past the camera. The cameraman took me by the shoulder and said, ‘If you’re not in front of the camera, the camera can’t see you.’ »

The same casting company that recruited Benton for “Hamilton” suggested her for “The Gilded Age.”

“When there’s a dramatic black period woman, I think I come to mind now, which is funny,” Benton said. “It’s not necessarily something I expected.”

As for Fellowes, who was there for table readings, etiquette lessons and the first six weeks of filming before returning to the UK, his attention to detail became evident during a scene where Peggy hands a handkerchief to another character.

“We got a note that said, ‘Oh, we need to bring a smaller handkerchief, Julian thinks this one’s too big,'” Benton recalled. “I didn’t even know he was there. Turns out he was watching from England and he could see in the photo that the handkerchief was oversized.

In addition to Benton, another “Gilded Age” actor with Pittsburgh ties is Broadway veteran Michael Cerveris (“Titanic: The Musical”), who plays a valet in the new Russell House. Cerveris had a role in “Mindhunter” filmed in Pittsburgh by Netflix and stayed on for a while after the show ended. Cerveris’ father is a Dormont native who retired to Franklin Park. In 2021, Cerveris shot “Basic Psych,” director Melissa Martin’s final film (“The Bread, My Sweet” from 2001), in Pittsburgh. Cerveris currently resides in New Orleans.

You can reach TV editor Rob Owen at [email protected] or 412-380-8559. Follow Rob on Twitter or facebook. Ask questions about TV via email or phone. Please include your first name and location.

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