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It’s All About Characters: An Interview with Sonja Warfield

'The Gilded Age' is gorgeous to look at and the drama is as rich as Downton’s. The historical drama is also a love letter to old New York. Former stand-up comedian, television writer, and author Sonja Warfield is co-writer and recently took the time to speak with Script contributor Sonya Alexander about her writing experience on the show.
Christine Baranski, Louisa Jacobson, Cynthia Nixon, Denée Benton in The Gilded Age. Photograph by Alison Rosa/HBO.

Christine Baranski, Louisa Jacobson, Cynthia Nixon, Denée Benton in The Gilded Age. Photograph by Alison Rosa/HBO.

Downton Abbey is a modern-day Upstairs. Downstairs (1971-1975), portraying the contiguous worlds of penniless servants and aristocracy. The cinematography is sumptuous, the score enchanting, and the acting a confluence of outstanding British talent. However, the ever-popular show went off the air in 2015, leaving a void in the wake of the tea and biscuits phenomenon. Fans of the high-brow program may now get their appetites for heady, opulent period dramas whetted by a new entry in the canon of rich man/poor man dramas with The Gilded Age.

The English aren't the only ones to have old money vs new money rivalries. Julian Fellowes latest addition to his catalog of finely-crafted period dramas incorporating subdued spectacle and earnest social commentary is The Gilded Age, which hits HBO on January 24, 2022. The story takes place in 1882 New York, when industrialization was on the rise and there was a shift in economic values. Railroad magnate George Russell and his social-climbing wife Bertha are cause celebre for the old moneyed neighbors in their new neighborhood. Like Downton, it’s ripe with dry wit and cinematic magnificence.

The Gilded Age is gorgeous to look at and the drama is as rich as Downton’s. The historical drama is also a love letter to old New York. Former stand-up comedian, television writer, and author Sonja Warfield is co-writer and recently took the time to speak with me about her writing experience on the show.

How did you get involved with The Gilded Age?

Julian felt it was important to have an American voice for authenticity since he's not American. I have a relationship with HBO, I've written some pilots for them. They asked me to get involved. I met with him, and we hit it off. We actually have a lot in common, which probably seems incongruous... [laughs] That's how I got involved.

How much and what kind of research did you have to do for the character of Peggy Scott?

In terms of research, we have a fantastic historian, Erica Dunbar. And Julian had done his own research. I was writing Peggy from a real human character point of view. Making her come alive was less about research and more about feeling and understanding who that character was. But, in terms of story, especially with the Black press, there were historical things I didn't know. I would consult with Erica. In filling out her family, I gave Audra's character some traits of my great-grandmother.

What are some major differences between writing sitcoms and drama?

Everything for me starts with character. It's character where you have comedy and conflict. It's two characters coming together with different points of view. That part wasn't different. What was different was the historical drama aspect. There were aspects of that, like the language, that I had to consult with others like Julian, researchers, and historians on. There's humor in The Gilded Age. That was in my lane. Even though my resume says comedy writer, I love dramas and character-driven pieces.

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What are some of your favorite television dramas?

I was huge a Mad Men fan. And I loved Downton.

What was your writing routine for this?

I don’t know that we had a routine but what we started doing was switching off. I’ll write something, he’ll rewrite it. Then we’ll switch off, and I’ll rewrite his, then he’ll write mine. Then Julian will do a polish. He just has a grasp of the language of that time. There are things you wouldn’t think of. When we say somebody passed on or they pass away, they didn’t say that during that time. I wrote that a character Marion said “They passed away.” Julian said they wouldn’t say that. You would think they would have said something proper. He said they’d say, “They’re dead,” or “They died.” There are nuances in the language that one doesn’t know…but Julian does.

I’m going to veer away from the show for a moment. What would you say is the funniest book you’ve ever read?

Surrender the Pink by Carrie Fisher. I love her writing for humor.

What writing experience has had the greatest effect on you, personally and on your writing?

I’d say The Gilded Age because in terms of the writing, I’d written a couple of movies and a book. I’d never imagined writing an hour drama. It was something I wasn’t sure about but did it. Julian has been a great mentor. I’ve learned a lot from him. Personally, it’s been revelatory. Also, he’s European and Europeans enjoy life. Americans know how to grind and work ourselves to death. We have a working relationship, but he also shows me how to live.

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What advice would you give to writers who are trying to get into television writing?

It’s cliché but just write. Also, live your life because it’s those life experiences that will influence your writing. If you’re just sitting and writing and not living, your writing isn’t going to be as robust and complex and beautiful. Another thing, when you’re stuck on something, stop and don’t write. I do some of my best writing when I’m on walks or hikes.

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That’s a great lead into my next question. How do you deal with writer’s block?

I don’t buy into writer’s block. I think you just write through. If there is something that I’m stuck on, I’ll go on a walk or hike and come back to it with a fresh perspective. Or figure it out during my walk.

After contributing to The Gilded Age, are there any historical figures that you’d like to write about?

Zora Neale Hurston is probably my favorite author. At the end of her life, she was a maid. I’d like to dive in and learn more about her.

Do you have a certain place you like to write?

People always ask me what inspires me. I respond that I like to have a roof over my head and eat food. The paycheck…! [laughs] For me, the fewer distractions, the better, I’ve done some of my best work when I lock myself in a hotel room.

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What was an inspiring moment for you when you were teaching?

Just getting to know students personally and encouraging them. When you’re so young and embarking on a career that’s feast or famine, things can seem scary. It’s important to encourage young writers.

What did you learn about New York that you didn’t know before while working on The Gilded Age?

I don’t want to give too much away but there’s a story about Edison’s lights. When you watch the show, you’ll probably figure out what it is.

How was this as a collaborative project?

It was a feast for me because it was a big collaboration and we all got in there and worked with the material.

The score for the show is amazing.

Yes, it is. As a whole, I think we all made beautiful music together. 

The new HBO drama series The Gilded Age debuts on January 24, 2022.


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