With ‘The Gilded Age,’ Louisa Jacobson Cuts Her Own Path

This article contains spoilers for Season 2 of “The Gilded Age.”

“I’m sorry I’m late,” the actress Louisa Jacobson said, a little breathless, as she entered a vintage clothing boutique, in Manhattan’s East Village earlier this month. “It’s been such a crazy day.” It was a weekday afternoon, and traffic from her home in Brooklyn had been bad. The smells of the damp autumn day clung to her coat as she swept through the door, face lightly flush from the chill and manic hustle outside.

She eyed a vanilla-bean-and-cedar candle and rifled through a rack of long blazers.

“I like to buy pre-owned or vintage because it’s better for the planet and my wallet,” she said, adding that “I buy all my jeans here.” On the day we met, those jeans were medium-wash and boot-cut, matched with black boots and a black leather trench coat over a brown leather vest and a white button-down blouse for an overall steampunk vibe — a sartorial hint, maybe, at the Victorian fashion of the HBO drama “The Gilded Age,” if not quite the studied sensibilities of her character in the series, Marian Brook.

Marian’s wardrobe, by contrast, consists entirely of long, bustled dresses and ribcage-crushing corsets. In the high society of 1880s New York, even plucky, forward-thinking heroines were expected to lace up tight for potential suitors.

“Ouch,” Jacobson simply said.

And yet Marian’s big decision in Episode 6 was perhaps even more constraining. Earlier in the show’s ongoing second season, her story took a dramatic turn as she went toe to toe with her formidable old-money aunt Agnes (Christine Baranski) and became a confidante of her other aunt, Ada (Cynthia Nixon). Marian also had to manage a suitor of dubious appeal, the handsome, if dull, widower Dashiell Montgomery (David Furr). Then suddenly, he proposed.

“Can you imagine jumping into being the leading lady on ‘The Gilded Age’?” asked Christine Baranski, left (with Jacobson), in a scene from the series. “What a daunting task.”Credit…Barbara Nitke/HBO

Bowing to the conventions of her day, Marian accepted, in defiance of her own instincts. Fans, in turn, have questions — and consternation — heading into the season finale on Sunday. (“Uh-oh, “The Gilded Age’s” Marian Has Me Screaming at My TV Again,” reads one recent headline.)

“There’s a lot of financial pressure on the union,” Jacobson said, referring to the engagement. “But,” she added, “she would be settling. Dashiell doesn’t take her career as a teacher or an artist seriously, and he’s like, ‘Well you can stop all of that once we’re married.’ She doesn’t vibe with that.”

Jacobson, 32, has faced her own pressures — not least as the youngest daughter of perhaps Hollywood’s most celebrated screen actress, Meryl Streep. (She uses Jacobson, her middle name, as her professional surname.) And her star is ascending fast. When she was tapped to lead “The Gilded Age,” in 2019, it was her first television role. The drama was created by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”), a writer whom she had long admired.

Then there was the cast, stacked with theater royalty including Baranski, Nathan Lane, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy and Cynthia Nixon. Jacobson had only just graduated from drama school.

“Can you imagine jumping into being the leading lady on ‘The Gilded Age’?” Baranski, a two-time Tony Award winner, said in a recent phone conversation. “What a daunting task.”

Judging by her success thus far, Jacobson has remained mostly undaunted. But whatever advantages have come with her upbringing, it also showed her at a young age the pitfalls of fame and favor, enough that she spent much of her early adulthood pursuing other paths. Now that she is committed to acting — and if her stage name and hustle are any indication — she seems determined to build a career on her own terms and merits as much as possible.

If Jacobson ultimately found the creative life irresistible, she came by it honestly: Her father, Don Gummer, is a sculptor; her two older sisters, Mamie and Grace Gummer, are also actors; and her older brother, Henry Wolfe, is a musician. The family lived in Salisbury, Conn., a small town near the Berkshires, until she was 9, when they moved to New York. She often performed spontaneously with her siblings at home.

“I think I always knew that I wanted to act,” Jacobson said as we walked from the vintage store to a nearby flower shop on an afternoon of errands. She lifted her coat over her head as the rain picked up. “But I didn’t always know that I wanted to be an actor.”

Jacobson, right, with Alison Dillulio, an old friend and the director of Chapter NY, a Manhattan art gallery. Before them is the drawing “City” (2023), by Christopher Culver.Credit…Sabrina Santiago for The New York Times

She acted throughout middle school and high school, but when it came time for college, she opted to study psychology at Vassar, in upstate New York. She wanted to become a therapist, which she viewed as a more practical career path.

“Because of the way I grew up, there are parts of the business that I know are difficult,” she added. “And growing up with fame in my household, it provided us with a lot of privileges, but it also came with a lot of anxiety.”

But the pull of acting didn’t relent, and she continued to do student theater. After graduation, she worked a retail job selling handbags in New York for about a year, dabbled in modeling and worked as an account coordinator at an advertising agency. She continued to rush to auditions on her lunch breaks.

Finally, that pull was too strong to resist: She applied for the master’s program in acting at Yale, the same school her mother had graduated from around 40 years earlier.

“I knew that if I just went into it without studying it, I would feel, I already feel, in some ways like I don’t deserve —”

She trailed off.

“I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing,” she said, “and that I had a tool kit of professionalism that I was walking into the room with.”

Months after graduating in 2019, she booked her big break, as Marian in “The Gilded Age.” For Fellowes, who created the series, the combination of Jacobson’s “charm and strong personality” immediately stood out.

“I knew I wanted Marian Brook to be someone who seemed quite the perfect young woman from that period — mild, demure, rather easy to deal with,” Fellowes said in a recent phone conversation from London. “But, as the story unfurled, it would become clearer and clearer that she had, in fact, got an extremely strong will of her own.”

Initially, Jacobson said, the learning curve was steep: She was intimidated by the veteran talent around her, Baranski in particular.

“I’m the one who gave her a really hard time,” Baranski acknowledged. “I tend to stay in character between shots, and I think it was quite terrifying. I felt bad because I thought, ‘Oh, does she really think this is me?’”

Also, Jacobson’s corset was too tight.

“I finally said, ‘Can you breathe in that?’” Baranski said. “And she said, ‘No, I go home and I’m wracked in pain, and I’m having trouble sitting and I’m having trouble speaking.’

“And I said, ‘Are you kidding? You loosen that corset.’” (Midway through the first season, Baranski said, she did.)

At first, Jacobson said, she was also becoming trapped in her own head, overthinking things. That’s when Nixon, a veteran actress and director, stepped in with some advice.

“Drama school really does a number on people,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “It takes a while to get that out of your system.”

“So it was mostly like, ‘Try to stop worrying about getting there,’” she added, “‘and know that you’re there already.’”

Jacobson has ambitions to do more theater and to direct, regardless of medium. “I just want to be happy and fulfilled,” she said. Credit…Sabrina Santiago for The New York Times

Jacobson readily acknowledges that her upbringing has been “totally privileged in a lot of ways,” yet she still has to audition for every role, she said. At 5-foot-7, with dark brown hair (her character’s blond tresses are a wig) and her mother’s stunning cheekbones, she cuts a striking figure even on the streets of New York, but she is generally able to walk them unrecognized. During auditions, she wonders whether casting directors know whose daughter she is, but she tries to keep those thoughts in the back of her mind.

“I try to stay focused on the work,” she said.

Our final stop that afternoon was a Christopher Culver exhibition at a TriBeCa gallery, Chapter NY, directed by a childhood friend, Alison Dillulio, whom she has known since the fifth grade. As we examined the charcoal and pastel drawings, talk naturally turned to her sculptor father.

“I got my love of art from my dad,” she said. “He would set up a still life on our kitchen table and we’d each draw it.”

“Though,” she added, “His were always better than mine.”

As pedigrees go, having such celebrated parents seemed rather intimidating, but like her character Marian, Jacobson balances her ambitions with an independent spirit. She wants to do more stage work. (She recently acted with all three of her siblings for the first time in a reading of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” at the Williamstown Theater Festival.) She also aims to direct, in whatever medium. (This summer she was the assistant director of a play by Maia Novi, “Invasive Species,” at the Tank, in Midtown.)

But Jacobson also wants to follow another piece of Baranski’s advice: Live in the moment.

“That’s always been the goal,” she said, after hugging Dillulio goodbye. The rain was pouring down, and she opened the door to the Uber that would whisk her back to Brooklyn.

“I just want to be happy and fulfilled.”

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