Like most good things, this profile of Morgan Spector began with a babka.
Or, more accurately, the babka was preceded by a #HornyShabbatInstagram post I captioned for Hey Alma’s Instagram account. The post in question features a shirtless photo of Morgan Spector and reads “Dear Morgan Spector, we would like to eat babka off your abs please.”
Reader, I am mostly embarrassed to inform you that Morgan Spector saw that post.
Funnily enough, a friend of Morgan’s brought the post to his attention by sending him a Russ & Daughters chocolate babka. Thankfully for me, he was good-humored about it (I mean, he did get a babka out of the deal), tagging Hey Alma in a photo of said pastry:
For the record, I never imagined my thirsty caption would have any reach beyond our Hey Alma audience, let alone result in a DM exchange and my emailing Morgan’s agent to schedule an interview over Zoom. I thought I was just following a trend our followers would appreciate — if you’ve been anywhere remotely online over the last three months, you may have noticed commentary on HBO Max’s new show “The Gilded Age.” The show, a period drama from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, brings viewers into the lavishly decadent world of the late 19th century New York City elite and their servants. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a significant part of those conversations has been centered around just how attractive Morgan Spector is as new-money railway magnate George Russell.
My loins are not going to survive this first season of The Gilded Age with Morgan Spector and that beard. pic.twitter.com/44em4bioM6
— Joey Joey Joey (@JoeyMoser83) January 26, 2022
Morgan Spector could run a train right through my-(telegram signal drops)
— Half-Shirt Radical (@EricShethar) January 27, 2022
The Gilded Age also features a ferocious Carrie Coon married to robber baron wife guy Morgan Spector, and please know it is my professional opinion when I say this couple is Hot pic.twitter.com/Q6fW9h3CHV
— Caroline Darya Framke (@carolineframke) January 20, 2022
I think I’ve done enough public objectifying of Morgan Spector for one lifetime, so I’ll keep any further opinions about his appearance to myself. Rather, I will say that regardless of how I connected with Morgan Spector, I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak with an actor whose work has stayed with me over the last few years.
Spector came into the public consciousness in 2020 for his role in the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel “The Plot Against America.” The story imagines an America where President Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated in the 1940 election by Charles Lindbergh. This America is home to the Levin family, a fictionalized version of Roth’s own family; Spector, who has Jewish roots himself, plays Levin patriarch Herman Levin. As Lindbergh’s presidency progresses and Lindbergh’s Nazi sympathies become more pronounced, the Levins, a fairly assimilated Jewish American family, grapple with rising fascism and antisemitism. The horror movie-like quality of “Plot” is heightened through Spector’s performance of Herman, a character whose shock at the change from the America he knows to what America becomes manifests in angry disbelief as danger creeps steadily closer to his family.
When I finally meet him over Zoom, Morgan Spector is as thoughtful and engaged as his Herman Levin performance. The actor, who first began acting in community theater productions as a child and then studied at the school of the American Conservatory Theater after graduating from Reed College, is naturally well-read and eloquent, and our conversation ranges from whether or not his “Gilded Age” character is Jewish-coded to his Yiddish Shakespearean grandmother — and, of course, being the subject of the internet’s thirst.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Based on the Instagram post that made this interview happen, I have to ask: How does it feel to be thirsted after on the internet?
It’s funny. I mean, if you’re not decorative as a man these days, what good are you? But no, I do think it’s more the character than it is the person. I’ve been on TV before and done other things, and nobody posted pictures of me with my shirt off on Instagram then. You know? I think there’s something about George Russell that people are into. And that’s always cool. It’s always fun to play a character like that… I think it might be the beard.
I think it is the beard.
And as you can see, I don’t have it right now. Because I was doing something else and couldn’t have it. But yeah, I’m never going without it again. It’s the secret sauce.
I love it. So to go into your Jewish identity and background, you’ve said that you came to Judaism through culture and through literature, so I was curious how Jewish literature has shaped your understanding of your Jewish identity? And is that still your main way of connecting to Judaism?
I think my main way is really just my Jewish family. But that’s not a religious affiliation, you know what I mean? I’m mostly Irish on my mother’s side, and Jewish on my father’s. So there’s an immigrant history on both sides of my family. But I’m more familiar with the Jewish immigrant story of my father’s side. And so when I think of what my history is in this country, and how my people arrived here, it’s that story. It’s coming through the Lower East Side, eventually making your way to the Bronx, that sort of early 20th century immigration, and then striving for a place in the rich American tapestry.
And yeah, I think when I said that about literature I was talking about [Philip] Roth; specifically reading everything he’s written and his story of his family. I think Primo Levi is one of my favorite writers and one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. His story and his experience of the Holocaust were very informative to me about what it is to be a human being and how we should view politics and history and art. And I think his perspective is very humanistic and broad, actually, and very inclusive of a variety of experiences, but certainly is refracted through a particularly Jewish frame. And then, I don’t know if you’ve ever read this Irving Howe book, “The World of Our Fathers,” which is about that wave of immigration sort of from the 1880s through the 1920s, coming from Eastern Europe in through the Lower East Side. That story mirrored my own family’s history fairly directly, so that was very, very fruitful for me to read.
I’m interested in what you’re saying about your immigrant history. Did that at all inform how you play George Russell? Because that character’s lived experience is the opposite of the American immigrant experience.
It is, but what I was told early on is that part of his character was based on Jay Gould. And Jay Gould is not an immigrant, but he was born in genuine rural agricultural poverty and became one of the richest people ever to live, and there’s something about that journey from one way of living, being in rural isolation in upstate New York, to being part of this circle of insane wealth… I mean, it isn’t immigration, there’s not this sense of deracination to the extent that crossing the Atlantic on a steamer implies, but there’s something similar there.
And I don’t know, as somebody who — again, I’m not in any way saying that this is like it, being a migrant is a very, very different experience and can be very traumatic, depending on where you’re leaving from — but as someone who grew up in California and moved 3000 miles away to New York City, I felt like I left a lot behind in doing that, right? My family was all in California, nd everybody I grew up with. There was that sense of like, man, it’s just me in the city. I’m just alone in this place. To me that’s always felt like an echo, a dim echo of that experience. And so yes, I think it is something that I used to connect to other characters, and definitely something I used to connect to George, actually. Because there is a sense of, you know, what you lose when you leave behind one version of yourself and become someone else, essentially.
Definitely. Speaking of your family, you once mentioned that your grandmother was an actress and did Shakespeare in Yiddish. I’d love to hear more about that.
My knowledge of it is a little sketchy. I know when she was very young, that was her dream. What she wanted to do was be an actress. And yes, she was part of a traveling Shakespeare troupe that was doing Shakespeare in Yiddish, when (I think) she was eighteen. She sort of ran away from home to do that — she defied her parents’ wishes in order to go do that. And I think it was actually fairly short-lived, because there was this catastrophic bus accident. I don’t think anybody died or anything like that, but she lost her two front teeth and so she couldn’t go on being an actress and so she sort of went home in shame a little bit. But I know she did continue to do stuff. She met her husband, my grandfather, when he was a supernumerary, as he always said, which I guess meant he was an extra in a larger production. So she must have continued to do it to some extent, but I’m not sure exactly.
Wow, thank you for sharing that. So what are your favorite Jewish traditions?
I mean, both my parents are extremely secular. My mother grew up in a Catholic family and went to Catholic school. And I think because of the kind of institution that she went through, she really rejected that entire world. And similarly, my father came to an extremely rationalist, anti-religious position at a certain point. But we did Hanukkah, so that was pretty much as far as our religious traditions go. That was basically it. But, you know, we made latkes.
Do you ever wish you had a more traditional Jewish upbringing?
I don’t regret not having a religious upbringing. But I do wish that I was more steeped in the traditions. Because I think there’s a way of abstracting a secular value out of these traditions and having a sense of tradition as culture as opposed to tradition as faith. So I wish I was a little bit more connected to that, and I have started to try to acquire some of these things. Like I didn’t grow up doing like a Passover seder, but I tend to do that now in my own family, and I’d like my daughter to have a sense of – I mean she’s very removed from these things, so it’ll take a little bit more effort to try to make it something that she considers her own. But I’m trying to make that effort as a parent.
In terms of your career, I think it’s fair to say that “The Plot Against America” is probably your most Jewish role.
Yes, I think I became publicly Jewish by doing that role.
What did it mean to you as a person with a Jewish background to play Herman Levin and be a part of an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel?
It meant a lot to me. I love Roth, I think he’s a real North Star for me creatively. I mean, not one that I’ll ever attain. But I think of his writing as such an example of this marriage of just sheer creative brilliance and rigor, a kind of disciplined approach that I find brings me sustenance every time I return to it. So to get to play even his fictional father and be part of that world in some way, it was really thrilling.
And at that time it was interesting for me to think about Jewishness and what it meant to be Jewish. We were shooting in 2019 and in that moment I think many Jews started to feel personally threatened because of the rise of antisemitic violence. And I think many [American] Jews felt like this was a moment of feeling unsafe in their own country.
But I think the way that I connected to it was more in thinking about, especially, the treatment of Muslims in the United States. And that transposition was actually like… if you made these characters Muslim, as opposed to Jewish, the story would almost still work based in contemporary America. If you look at the way that cops have surveilled that community, the way that the FBI has essentially entrapped members of that community, and the way that America as a nation has waged war upon predominantly Muslim countries, in a way that utterly dehumanizes those populations, I think it’s actually a very live and direct transposition. Anyway, I found that really chilling. But I think one thing that’s sort of hopeful about it is that maybe Jews are uniquely positioned to sort of understand what can happen and see these forms of dehumanization, and point them out, and hopefully have a kind of moral authority based on the the history of the 20th century that can maybe change some of these structures.
You’re right, it’s a very chilling and anxiety-inducing story. It’s been two years since “The Plot Against America” has come out but has any of that stayed with you?
That’s interesting, yeah. It was definitely anxiety-inducing. I definitely had this sense during that time of like, where is this all going? You know, with the rise of Q — the sense that a great number of people, especially looking at QAnon, were like, I am waiting for the military to start slaughtering my enemies. That’s a frightening idea. And there was a sense that, at the margins, there were certain people in positions of real power who were sympathetic to that movement.
I was reading “The Jakarta Method,” which is this brilliant book by Vincent Bevins about the history of CIA involvement in the third world, particularly during the Cold War. One of the things he points out in the book is that there’s an element of superstitious hate that gets attached to communists, and certainly Jews, in situations which precede mass violence or mass slaughter. And to me, when I was looking at that piece and seeing the rise of Q, I was like, this is frightening. If you paired that with a real desire to sort of violently reorganize American society like that, some of those elements are already there. And so, at that time, that anxiety was building. But I think, in retrospect, looking at the Trump administration, when you look at policy, when you look at what they actually did, outside of the rhetoric, outside of the media hysteria, it’s like replacement-level Republican. Which is not to say that isn’t bad enough, given what that party has become.
I do think, for me, some of that anxiety has faded. But it looks like they’re gonna get another shot in 2024, so we’ll find out if it gets worse.
I also think it’s interesting that you did “Plot,” which was so timely, and now you’re doing “The Gilded Age” which, if you look at wealth disparities in America then and now, is also culturally relevant. So as George Russell, are you rooting for him? Because he’s certainly not a good guy.
Oh, no, he’s totally not a good guy. I think the trick that the show pulls off to kind of make you root for those characters is a really fascinating trick. I hope that audiences can both enjoy it and then also interrogate it to some extent. Because, for example, there are a lot of Tesla fanboys out there who love Elon Musk. There are people out there who really root for these guys who, yes, some of the stuff they’ve done is impressive. But also the disparity between their resources and their power and everyone else is inexcusable on a Michael Moore level. And on a practical level for a functioning society, it is unsustainable in a real way.
And yeah, to actually look at this show, it is just about this sort of insular world. It is in no way a critique of these people. It is inviting you to enjoy the minutiae of their concerns. But I think there is something mordantly witty about that. Because, again, for instance, right now, Afghanistan is going through a famine. Right? You have millions and millions of people there who are starving. And similarly in Yemen, you have all these kinds of situations, and somebody like Elon Musk, who has like $300 billion, could individually solve those problems today. And yet, he wants to go to Mars. He’s got these sci-fi fantasies that he’s super into, and, you know, maybe someday that’ll bear fruit for the species or something like that. But, I think in some ways, these concerns that these people have — they have so much power that they get to be as eccentric as they want to be. And essentially, that’s what’s happening in our show. They have so much money and so much power that they only have to pay attention to the weird little things that interest them. And they just get to be as strange as they can be. Which, I mean, it’s fun.
Absolutely. And with your character, there’s the side of George who is this ruthless businessman, but he’s also a very loving family man. How do you balance those two sides?
I think it is both an interesting duality and something that everybody also has. It is something that is quite common, that your children, your family, the people who are closest to you, they’re your priority. And when you have to choose between their interests and the interests of the world or the interests of even your broader community, most of the time, you’re going to choose the interests of your family and your children. The kind of dividing line that we all understand and maybe try to elide sometimes is just very clear for George and very stark.
Sure. Looking at “The Gilded Age” from a Jewish angle, there’s that scene where George buys off his daughter’s suitor with a business opportunity with a Jewish owned-company and asks him if he’s comfortable working with Jews. I’m curious if you thought about what it means to be a Jewish actor portraying a non-Jewish character in a fairly antisemitic period of American history?
Well, it’s funny because I’ve seen some people say that George is coded as Jewish or that there’s this unstated thing and the Russells are actually being excluded because they’re Jewish. And that’s not the case, but I found it really fascinating because I mean, who knows? Maybe it could come out later on that, that is the case. That’s certainly not something that I’m aware of now. But Jay Gould, upon whom this character was based, was often rumored to be Jewish.
There are caricatures of him that bear a lot of resemblance to the kind of antisemitic ghouls that you would see in like Nazi papers. And I don’t think that’s an accident. I think one of the insidiously ingenious things that the Nazis did was take this incredibly vulnerable minority of people within their society and blame them for international capitalism. Jay Gould was being scapegoated for the excesses of the era when actually he was probably a fairly ordinary robber baron — I mean, they were all fairly ruthless and fairly cruel because that’s what the era required in some way. It’s very fascinating to me that he was rumored to be Jewish and then in that same way he was scapegoated for the excesses of the era.
What are you hoping for in the second season?
I’m just very excited to read scripts, I haven’t seen anything yet. I don’t know if this will be in it, but I would love to get into some of the labor struggles of that period. I mean, I think this is actually an apocryphal quote. Gould was rumored to have said, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” And, these guys were routinely hiring Pinkertons and recruiting the assistance of the state to violently suppress strikes and protests against conditions in their factories and railroads. And I think that is a really juicy, interesting history. And actually, it’s stuff that I haven’t seen touched on enough in fiction. The history of American labor violence and labor struggle is really fascinating, and I think we have an opportunity in this show to touch on that. I mean I don’t think it would ever be the whole story. But it could be part of my storyline at some point. I would love that. But you know, I’m sure whatever they come up with will be fun.
Personally, I would love to see that, that’s great. So in doing all these historical pieces, you’ve said you must have “resting period face.” I saw that you were recently cast in a movie about the Boston Strangler, which I assume will also be a historical drama. Are you now leaning into your resting period face?
I think one thing about this business is you have to take it as it comes. When I got out of drama school I had all these ideas about who I was going to be, what kind of work I was going to slot into and you have to be flexible and go with the way that you’re sort of seen by the industry. But I also like that kind of material. I think sometimes there’s a little bit of a reach technically as an actor to kind of try to embody another period. And I think that’s fun. I enjoy that challenge.
Your wife Rebecca Hall is an incredible artist in her own right. Would you ever collaborate with her?
Yeah, I would. We’ve done plays together and a couple of movies and I think it’s a little trickier now that we’re parents. But I’m sure we will. I don’t know what the next thing would be. But I’m sure we will have something.