Christine Baranski: ‘It’s funny because I’m from this blue-collar neighborhood in Buffalo’

Christine Baranski had a very full career on stage for decades before she really became “famous” for her TV and film work. I love her because of Diane Lockhart, the character she played on The Good Wife, and now on The Good Fight. She’s very, very good at playing posh, cultured, educated American women, so much so that I thought that was her background. Like, I thought maybe she grew up in a well-to-do Connecticut family and she went to all of the best private schools. She did not! She grew up in a working-class family in Buffalo, New York. That was one of the most shocking things I learned from her excellent Town & Country cover story. She’s promoting The Gilded Age, which is basically “Downton Abbey, but in America.” Julian Fellowes created it and cast Christine as the Maggie Smith-esque snobby matriarch. Some highlights:

Playing a high-class grande dame: “It’s funny because I’m from this blue-collar neighborhood in Buffalo. I don’t know how it happened but… I always wanted to play queens or ladies rather than victims. I was never good at playing victims. I was always better at playing the character of the woman who was more in command of her life.”

She still loves Buffalo: “I love Buffalo. I’m a sports fan. I lived through four years of the Buffalo Bills losing the Super Bowl. I even have a T-shirt somewhere that says, ‘Buffalo, a drinking town with a football problem.’ I couldn’t wait to get out when I was 18. I had 12 years of Catholic school and the nuns. Now that I’m older, and I look back, I was part of a community, a tightly-knit Polish American community with traditions.”

Going to Julliard in the early ‘70s: “It was so exciting to be at Juilliard at that time,” she says, remembering how she would get cheap tickets to the ballet, the opera, and the Philharmonic. “It was before Wall Street appropriated New York and turned it into a city where you couldn’t afford to live. I didn’t have any money and somehow I saw great things and had a wonderful time.”

Her film/TV career: “My television career started late, when I was in my 40s. I didn’t really want to go into television, I wanted to stay and work in the theater, but it wasn’t paying bills. The script I read was written by a man named Chuck Lorre, who’s now one of the most successful men in television,” she says. It was for a sitcom starring Cybill Shepherd on CBS. Baranski’s character? A “divorcée with a wicked sense of humor” named Maryann. “I think people will always be intrigued by a sophisticated, witty woman. Look at Stephen Sondheim. Look at Company, the character that Patti [LuPone] is playing, that’s that woman, you know? Angry, kind of bitter, but turning it into humor and a kind of attitude about life. It’s kind of a fabulous construct. I’m glad to have been the first on television to do it.”

Wearing a corset: “One of the things about The Gilded Age that excited me most was that I would get to use training I haven’t used in so long because I’ve played contemporary characters.” The corsets, though, she says, “are just as uncomfortable as I remember.”

[From Town & Country]

In the profile, Christine also speaks about what she calls “the Drexel connection” of The Gilded Age. Her late husband Matthew Cowles was from the Drexel family, one of the wealthiest and most well-connected banking families in New York during the so-called gilded age. Her late husband’s family established the Drexel Banking company WITH JP Morgan. Crazy. As she researched her role in the show, she ended up doing wider research into Cowles’s family. Which is pretty cool. Especially since a Polish-American girl from Buffalo married into that family!

Can I just admit something? While I get what Julian Fellowes is doing with The Gilded Age, my qualms are: no matter what, American high society was never a carbon copy of British high society. Fellowes’s cultural references and British-aristocratic milieu cannot be transferred to America directly, even if this was a time period where there were more of these society gatekeepers and angst about “new money.”

Cover & IG courtesy of Town & Country.

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30 Responses to “Christine Baranski: ‘It’s funny because I’m from this blue-collar neighborhood in Buffalo’”

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  1. MoBiMo says:

    Have to admit, I’m kind of done with Julian Fellowes.

  2. GR says:

    @Kaiser, I understand your concerns about Gilded Age, but honestly they are not trying for accuracy in the first place.

  3. amyb says:

    Love her and old enough to remember her husband as Billy Clyde Tuggle the evil low life pimp on All My Children. Did not his family were Drexels

    • M4lificent says:

      OMG! Christine Baranski was married to Billy Clyde Tuggle? I watched that whole story arc on summer vacations in grammar school. It was pre-VCR, so it was my task to summarize the storylines for my teenaged sisters who had summer jobs.

      • BothSidesNow says:

        Yes she was for decades until he passed last year.

        I fell in love with Baranski on Cybill!!! ❤️❤️❤️❤️
        She was brilliant on her show, and I rewatched in when it became available to stream!!!

        I was drawn to The Gilded Age due to Baranski, and she is spectacular!!! Nathan Lane was on Corden last night and he discussed his character and how he has maintained a speech coach as it’s possible for him to slip from Georgia accent into Beverly Hillbillies accent!! Nathan plays a true character from that period and acted as the gatekeeper for Mrs. Astor!! Nathan Lane is brilliant on The Gilded Age and is a national treasure!!! Love Lane too!! ❤️❤️

        I look forward to The Gilded Age each Monday!!! It’s very well done!!! And Farmigas daughter is in the cast but I only became aware after a write up regaling her connection. I think that there is a Streep daughter as well, but don’t take that to the bank!
        But if it has Baranski, count me in!!!!

      • Anne says:

        I love the Gilded Age. Each episode is better and I’m obsessed with that period of time now, so just got Anderson Cooper’s book on his family, The Vanderbilts. There was a lot of crossover with England with those rich American families. Lady Cora from Downton was from a rich gilded age family who married to get a title and her rich family gave the Downton abbey family an infusion of cash. Luckily they also fell in love. There’s also an interesting parallel plot about a black women (who works for Christine B’s character) who wants to be a journalist and it’s based on real people from that time period in NYC. Meryl Streep’s daughter plays one of the main characters.

      • EllenOlenska says:

        @Anne if you want a fun a light ( but well researched) read on the transatlantic heiresses read “ To marry an English Lord”. It’s fabulous.

    • SarahLee says:

      What? Billy Clyde? OMG! That’s amazing. LOL!

  4. Snuffles says:

    How many episodes of The Guilded Age have you seen? Because it’s more than what you described. There is a companion podcast and the show goes out of its way to be historically accurate. In Downtown Abbey there was no “new money”. In America at that time, “new money” families were rapidly taking over much to old money’s chagrin. And as we all know, new money won out.

    The show is also showing the black elite from that time (something I never knew about). SPOILER: The black character, Peggy Scott is from a wealthy black family in Brooklyn. He’s also bringing in characters like T. Thomas Fortune, a trail blazing black newsman. My Dad, an amateur historian, was very impressed that his character is part of the show.

    Each episode is getting better and becoming it’s own thing outside of Downton Abbey.

    • Red Weather Tiger says:

      I agree—I’m really enjoying The Gilded Age, and the podcast is so interesting! It’s been giving me a most welcome break from my depressing political podcasts. Christine Baranski is outstanding, as is Cynthia Nixon and the dude who plays Mr.Russell. 🔥🔥

      I was amazed to discover the main ingenue, Marian, is Meryl Streep’s daughter!

      • BothSidesNow says:

        That’s right!!! Plus Miss Astor is Vera Farmiga’s daughter too!!

        I should listen to the podcast but I have been watching the YouTube videos!! It’s an extremely brilliantly show!! Well written on historical time period, though the names of the characters are fictional, otherwise they are portraying actual families, dynasties and the world of new money v old money during that specific period of America’s growing expansion.

      • SarahLee says:

        @BothSidesNow – Taisa Farmiga plays the Russell’s daughter – not Miss Astor. I’m waiting for her to get more airtime.

    • Snazzy says:

      I’m honestly really enjoying it too! And it is getting better and better. Despite them being on opposite sides, I love Aunt Agnes and Mrs Russell. Honestly, they should be besties.
      I had no idea Marian is Meryl’s daugther!

  5. Bettyrose says:

    I admit to watching it despite loathing the good hearted orphaned niece narrative. Without that character the show would be a lot more fun. The costumes and plots are fun in general. But it’s no Dowton Abbey. It comes hard and fast with morality lessons, whereas one could just delight in the class snobbery of a bygone world with Dowton Abbey.

    They should’ve done Cora’s origin story. New money seeks respectability by aligning with titled Brits.

    • Snuffles says:

      I think that is the direction the Russell’s daughter is headed.

      • Bettyrose says:

        Oooh good call!

      • booboocita says:

        If, as has been noted, the Russells are modeled after W.T. Vanderbilt and his social-climbing wife Alva, then the Russells’ daughter is modeled after Consuelo Vanderbilt, their “dollar princess” daughter. Alva married off poor Consuelo to Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, with one hell of a nice dowry. Consuelo is thus related by marriage to the Spencers (yes, the Diana Spencers) and Winston Churchill.

        While the marriage produced two sons, it was loveless and unhappy, and was eventually annulled. Consuelo married a French pilot from a wealthy family and lived a much happier life thereafter.

      • BothSidesNow says:

        @ booboocita, that is what I have read and understood as well!!! It’s quite a fascinating story!! Who knew that old money was so unwelcoming to new money. But Baranski’s character is modeled as one of the families that reached the new world on a British ship. I am enjoying every aspect of the show. The division of money v acceptance, well educated and well off African Americans, who still were persecuted by racism and ignorance as to their wealth and education. I enjoying all of the show!!!

      • Anne says:

        Yes, I entertain fantasies that we will meet a young girl named Cora who is destined to be Lady Cora Crowley. Her “bio” says she was born in 1868 so that works!

      • bettyrose says:

        That’s what I love about this site. I’m getting more interested in the show just reading everyone’s input. I do hope there’s a glimpse into Cora Crowley’s early years. It always seemed to me that the life of a country aristocrat would be so dull for an American girl who debuted in NYC and London, but Cora has a very English upper class demeanor, so it would be interesting to see if she was just that way naturally or had to learn it when she took, er, countess training.

  6. Savannah says:

    I’m really enjoying the show and the costumes are unbelievably beautiful! Baranski is one of my favorite actresses too.

  7. Twin Falls says:

    I unapologetically love this show.

  8. Mrs. Smith says:

    I am obsessed with The Gilded Age. I kind of figured poor Gladys was destined to be married off for a title.

  9. teresa says:

    She had one of the greatest lines of all time when she was on Cyril, and it’s a line I’ve used in my life when dealing with horrible me. She retorted to Cybil: “I didn’t understand a word you’re saying, because I don’t speak rat bstd”.

    • Roo says:

      Didn’t her character also refer to her ex as “Dr. Dick?” She was so brilliant in that show and she was fantastic in The Birdcage.

  10. TeeMajor says:

    I love her and currently in LOVE with the Gilded Age!

  11. Redheadwriter says:

    It is not Vera Farmiga’s daughter on the show, it is her younger sister. Taissa Farmiga has been acting for years and is quite good on her own.

  12. Shoop says:

    Tbf Downton Abbey was not that accurate, anyway: the plot about the Irish chauffeur shacking up with the daughter was ridiculous: a bunch of Toffs at that time would sooner have had him shot.
    The Gilded Age is improving as it goes, (though I still watch it with a dose of mockery): The writing was flat and clicheéd to begin with and George and Bertha were just annoyingly smug dicks, but I’m still with it, and the cast are good.
    I want Gladys to escape the Little Bo Beep drag, though, and get some good conditioner; she deserves more, and should just kick her mother in the shins at some point.