Retired Episcopal priest, ‘Gilded Age’ actor Jack Gilpin reflects on his life in theater, on screen and the church

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Jan 23, 2024

Retired Episcopal priest the Rev. Jack Gilpin stars as Mr. Church, the butler for a wealthy New York family in the 1880s, in the HBO Max series “The Gilded Age.” Photo: HBO video screenshot

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. John Gilpin, who goes by “Jack,” is like many other priests in The Episcopal Church. He found a calling to ordained ministry later in life – he was 61 when ordained a priest in 2012 – and as a bivocational priest, he continued the job he had before ordination.

But one thing that makes Gilpin unique is that job. He is a professional actor, having starred on Broadway and in regional theater, as well as in numerous movies and television series, including recurring roles in “Kate and Allie,” “Law and Order” and “Billions.”

He currently can be seen in the HBO Max series “The Gilded Age” as Mr. Church, the butler for one of the featured New York families in the 1880s. The character’s name, he assured Episcopal News Service, was established before he landed the part.

Gilpin grew up in northern Virginia before attending boarding school and eventually Harvard, where he graduated in 1973. In 1985 he married Ann McDonough, who also is an actor, and they have three children. One of them, Betty Gilpin, is an Emmy-nominated actor. Jack Gilpin grew up in The Episcopal Church but wasn’t active as a young adult, returning after he had begun his career.

After his ordination to the priesthood in December 2012, he began serving St. John’s in New Milford, Connecticut, first as priest-in-charge and then as rector. He retired in September 2020 and then served as a member of the Bishop Transition Committee that resulted in the election of the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Mello as the diocese’s 16th bishop on May 21, 2022.

Gilpin spoke with ENS by phone on Jan. 15 about his faith, his call to ordained ministry and his work as an actor. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ENS: I’ve heard you describe how you grew up in The Episcopal Church, then fell away and started attending church again. Can you say more about the impetus for that?

Gilpin: When I was confirmed in 1963, when I was 12, my godmother gave me a copy of the King James Version of the Bible with the words of Jesus in red. And I still have it, and the covers are long since worn off. When I went away to boarding school and then to college, I had my Bible with me. Even though I was not in the church at all, when I felt off about something, if I was anxious or angry or fearful or just unsettled in a deep way, I would open it up and look for some red words. I wasn’t looking for a specific passage. And those red words would always calm me down, because they came from a place of peace and calm and authority.

In 1982, I was working in a summer theater in Milford, New Hampshire. I brought along with me a copy of “The Sickness unto Death” by Kierkegaard – it was a book that I’d been assigned in high school and never read – and it’s about anxiety. He took as his text the lilies of the field from Matthew – they toil not, neither do they spin – and it just hit home with me.

The place where they had actors living in this little town was right across the road from the Congregational church, and there was nothing else to do on Sunday mornings but go to church, so I went every Sunday I was there. The pastor was a very nice, good guy. The preaching was simple, expository. And – you remember the old days when you had a camera and there was a focus on it, and there was that moment when everything just came into focus? That was what it was like for me. I left church to walk into town to get coffee and a doughnut, and all of a sudden, I realized I was skipping, and people were looking at me, and I thought, wait a minute.

When I got back to New York, I walked into a beautiful church in Greenwich Village called Grace Church. It’s an old, neo-Gothic, beautiful piece of architecture by the same architect who did St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. I went about once a month for three or four months, and within six months I was going every Sunday, because it convinced me that I could be myself. I could call myself a Christian and still be myself. In fact, that’s the point.

The Rev. Jack Gilpin preaches a sermon at Trinity Church, Southport, Connecticut, on Sept. 23, 2023. Photo: Trinity YouTube video

ENS: Can you say more about what led you to be ordained?

Gilpin: After going to church there regularly, in 1989 I decided to audit a couple of classes at Union Theological Seminary. After that, I decided I’d get a Master of Divinity degree just for the heck of it. It took me seven years, but I finished in 1997, two years after we’d moved up to Roxbury, Connecticut. We’d started to attend Christ Church here, and I became a licensed lay preacher, preaching a couple of times a year. After our kids were out of the house, I had preached a sermon, and a woman in the congregation wrote me a note that said, when are you going to do something about this, because you have a call. I thought, well, OK, and I just started putting one foot in front of the other.

ENS: Do you find any similarities in being a priest and being an actor?

Gilpin: There are definitely similarities between the work of a clergyperson and theater, especially theater. You’ve got a script, and it has a beginning, a middle and an end. You’re with a group of people. You’re all doing it together. You have most of the lines, but you’re all doing it together. And it’s different every time.

I retired from parish ministry for family reasons, and I do miss doing the liturgy on a regular basis with that group of people. The great blessing to me of parish ministry is that you’re invited into the lives of people, their highest highs and their lowest lows, and trusted with their companionship on their way.

ENS: When did you know that you wanted to be an actor?

Gilpin: My first theater experience that I remember was when I played the Easter Bunny in a church pageant. I was like 6 years old. I remember looking out at the audience, they were applauding, and I was thinking, this is pretty cool. And it wasn’t the applause – there was a kind of communication going on in that room that involved everybody, and age made no difference. We were in a different dimension in that theater space. And I found that feeling replicated all through grade school, high school and college when I was acting in a play.

I went to college with the idea that I was going to become a lawyer, but when I was a sophomore, I thought, no, I’m going to be doing this [acting]. I was doing two or three plays a year, and I’d spend 30 hours a week at the theater, far more than I spent on academics. I graduated in 1973 and came to New York and just started.

ENS: You initially had some roles on soap operas, but you also were in Broadway shows.

Gilpin: I understudied a play in 1978 called “Players” that lasted for just about two weeks. Then I understudied the play called “Lunch Hour” with Sam Waterston and Gilda Radner, and Mike Nichols directed. That was 1980, and I understudied Sam and two other actors, and I played all three of those roles on Broadway. But the first time where I was in the cast was a play called “Beyond Therapy” by Christopher Durang in 1982.

ENS: So, you started in theater, and movies and television came alongside that?

Gilpin: Yes, I did some soaps, and the first TV movie I did was “Max and Sam” [later renamed “Found Money”] with Dick Van Dyke and Sid Caesar. That was a lot of fun. The first feature I did was a movie called “Compromising Positions” with Frank Perry in 1984.

ENS: Do you have a favorite role in your long career as an actor?

Gilpin: First, “Beyond Therapy,” because that was a big break for me in terms of putting me in a different category in the eyes of the business. I did it off-Broadway with Sigourney Weaver and Steve Collins, and then on Broadway with John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest. I was one of the two holdovers from the off-Broadway company that went on Broadway, and that was a lot of fun.

Then in 1985 I did a play called “The Foreigner,” a comedy that was very successful off-Broadway and ran for about a year and a half. I replaced the guy who had done the lead originally and came in and did it for seven months. That was just a great part.

But one of my favorites has always been when I was involved for many years with an off-off-Broadway company called the Ensemble Studio Theatre, which has been in existence now for over 50 years. I did a play that was only nine performances by Romulus Linney, the father of actor Laura Linney, about Oscar Wilde called “Goodbye Oscar,” and I played Oscar Wilde. So, there are those three, but I would have to say, playing Oscar Wilde was probably my favorite.

ENS: Can you say a bit about how you got your current role of Mr. Church on “The Gilded Age”?

Gilpin: In October 2019, I decided I’d be retiring from the parish for family reasons, and I announced that to the congregation after Easter 2020. Well, that same week in October, I got a call to come in for “The Gilded Age.” I had turned down auditions for regular parts on series the previous eight years, because I knew I wouldn’t have the time to do that. This was supposed to start in March of the next year, and I thought, well, maybe I can swing it. Michael Engler, the director, who I had known from theater years before, told me he saw the [audition] tape and thought, “That’s what I want.” Normally, especially on a project of this size, you go through echelons of people, and you’re in competition with other actors. I heard from my agent that they were seriously interested in me, and then a month later, I got the job. And I had forgotten that the character’s name was Church.

ENS: What do you like best in your character?

Gilpin: I like the fact that he is a problem solver. I like the fact that he’s like the dad, and I like being a dad. I like helping people work together and knowing that there are certain requirements for that; that you have to do that with respect for each other, and you have to be conscientious about doing your job. I like working with the other people who are at the top, with Celia Keenan-Bolger and Doug Sills. The head housekeeper and the cook are just slightly under the butler, but they are basically the three that run the staff.

I had fantasized when I was in grade school about being a butler, after I read the Jeeves stories by P. G. Wodehouse. It was not about bowing and scraping but about anticipating what people wanted before they knew they wanted it. In the Russell household, I enjoy, as Church, dealing with both Mr. and Mrs. Russell, because they’re different people. They have different areas of the life of the house that they engage in, both of which involve me. And I want their lives to be happy and successful the way they want their lives to be happy and successful.

ENS: With the elaborate sets, I assume you sometimes are filming scenes in the same location but out of sequence, and is that difficult?

Gilpin: It was a real challenge during Covid. We did block shooting, which is when you’d have a set for a number of scenes from different episodes. You do all of those without having done any other scenes that informed those scenes in sequence. There was somebody on the set whose job it was to have all of that in his head. But you’d say, now wait a minute, I don’t remember – has this happened yet or what?

Also, the food is real food. The flowers that you see are fresh flowers. I’ve been in off-Broadway shows that were less expensive than the flower budget for one week of this show. They have spared no expense on details. What you see as the Russell’s kitchen is the actual kitchen in one of the mansions in Newport, the Elms. Last season there were a number of scenes that were shot in the top floor of that house, which is the servants’ quarters. The man who built that house was a Pittsburgh coal baron. I think there were maybe five people in the family, and it had a staff of 60. There was a time when the butler and the head housekeeper came to him to ask for one more hour a week off for the staff, and he fired all 60 of them.

Another thing about the show is that there are a lot of resonances between that period and now, with the deregulation that’s been going on for the last 40 years. That was the period before there was any regulation at all, before the trust busters and yellow journalism, and unions were an issue that comes up in season two. So that’s a dimension of the show that I’ve always thought was interesting.

ENS: When do you start filming the third season of the show?

Gilpin: We learned there was going to be a season three when everyone else did, so I think filming will start in May or June.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.