“What if we had given these men, these women, the queer community, black people opportunities—how different could it be?” Jeremy Pope recalls producer/screenwriter/director Ryan Murphy saying, in an effort to sell the Broadway actor on Netflix’s Hollywood. Pope had little information on the series. What he did know, though—that the series is set in the 1940s and that it takes a revisionist look at the supposedly halcyon days of the film industry by giving black, Asian, and gay characters leading story lines—captivated him.
“The question Ryan posed to me at the time was, ‘What would happen if, you know, Rock Hudson and Anna May Wong and Dorothy Dandridge had had happy endings?’ The idea of pulling up buried history and also rewriting some wrongs excited me,” says Janet Mock, an executive producer, writer, and director, who joined the project after collaborating with Murphy on Pose. (Hollywood is part of a multimillion-dollar development deal Mock signed with Netflix.)
Hollywood, which features fictional story lines intertwined with real-life ones, is a bubbly, glamour-filled show that balances its irreverent, cheeky plots with smart commentary relevant to today’s cultural moment, despite being set decades in the past.
Pope, a Broadway star new to streaming, is part of a cast of young talents that includes David Corenswet, Maude Apatow, Laura Harrier, Samara Weaving, and Darren Criss, playing against heavyweights like Patti LuPone, Holland Taylor, and Rob Reiner. “I was really interested in going after young, sparkling new voices. We auditioned, and everybody in the world wanted to be a part of this show, I think, because once they figured out what it was about, it was meaningful for them,” Murphy says. “In the case of Laura and Samara and Jeremy, as soon as I saw their audition tapes, I was like, ‘Well, that’s the one.’ That was it.”
Finding the right actor to play Rock Hudson was the biggest challenge. Newcomer Jake Picking stood out among the hundreds of people who auditioned, but Murphy just wasn’t sure the resemblance was strong enough. He was convinced enough to do a makeup test, and after Picking’s chin, cheeks, teeth, and nose were transformed by prosthetics, Murphy knew he had his guy. “Jake is certainly one of the great finds of my career, because sometimes you don’t know when you take a gamble. I just know that when I sat with Jake, I thought he was so soulful, and he was so emotional about Rock and about how he had been treated in his life.”
Working with the newcomers was a delight for LuPone, a longtime Murphy collaborator and Broadway legend. “These are young kids. They’re still innocent, and you just don’t want anything bad to happen to them. You want their careers to be happy and wonderful,” she says. A particularly steamy scene between her and Corenswet filmed on her first day. “David Corenswet and I: ‘How do you do? I’m David.’ ‘How do you do? I’m Patti. Now let’s have a love scene.’ But he’s a Juilliard grad, I’m a Juilliard grad—so there was acting shorthand there.” (When asked for his take on working with LuPone, Corenswet responds, “That’s a heck of a sentence: ‘Your costar, Patti LuPone.’ It [still] seems pretty surreal.”)
Murphy looked to past cast members for Hollywood, like Corenswet, 26, who had a breakout role as a love interest in 2019’s The Politician and was invited by Murphy to read the pilot script on the Fox lot in Los Angeles. “We sat down and had a long conversation, which basically started with me asking, ‘Why me? Why do you want me to do it?’ ” Corenswet recalls. “Somehow, he knew that this time period and this story about a young, optimistic kid who really cares about doing something that matters was right up my alley.”
Pope, too, felt a deep connection to his character, Archie, a black gay man who writes an explosive screenplay. “It was easy to put myself in Archie’s shoes,” says Pope, 27. “Being a black man in this business, you sometimes wonder if there’s enough room or space for you to be able to use your gift.”
Pope comes to this role off a landmark year in theater in 2019: In January, he made his Broadway debut in Choir Boy, the Tarell Alvin McCraney–penned story of a young gay choir singer at an all-boys prep school. The morning after he took his final bow in the show, he began tech rehearsals for the musical Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations, playing Eddie Kendricks. He was nominated for Tonys for both roles, becoming the sixth person in history to receive double nominations in a single year. “Last year, I was in two of the biggest, blackest shows on Broadway, which offered so many voices and a sense of representation for so many people,” he says. “You only need to see yourself once to validate those dreams and that gut feeling that you, too, can do what it is you want to do.”
Pope believes strongly that representation onscreen only works if it’s mirrored in the team working offscreen. “I asked Ryan early on, ‘Being that I’m playing this black gay writer in the ’40s and ’50s, is there going to be someone in the writers’ room who represents me in that way?’ ” There was, and it was Janet Mock, who was fundamental to shaping the voice of Pose.
Murphy’s productions, Mock explains, hinge on a theme. For Pose, it’s family. “With Hollywood, the word is ambition,” Mock says. “What does it mean to be a dreamer? To go after the impossible? To be a black screenwriter who is openly gay and able to write a story not limited to race or sexuality?… What does it mean to be a brown girl in a sea of white faces, trying to become a star?”
Mock instantly connected to characters like Archie and Camille, a black actress played by Laura Harrier who longs to break out from playing maids. To write such roles, Mock drew from her own experiences as one of few black transgender public figures. “The pressure of having to be the first, I understand that. To be the first and to be the only. For me, when I thought about a lot of our characters, who were the first to do this, the first to do that, [I wondered], What does that isolation and that alienation look like? How do you fight that?” Mock says.
For Harrier, 30, playing Camille meant researching women like Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne, exceptional talents who were never given, she says, their “full due.” But she struggled to find information on them. “I can look up to Angela Bassett and all these women who paved the way, but they didn’t have that,” she says. And that’s what makes Hollywood so special. “That’s the whole magic of this show. We’re showing representation in Hollywood at a time when you didn’t see it onscreen,” Harrier says. “That doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. It’s so crazy in these old movies that we think the world was just straight and white in the ’40s. Obviously that wasn’t true.” She pauses, then adds, “What would the world look like now had those barriers not been there?”
Top image, lockwise from top left, on Pope: Suit, Louis Vuitton. Shirt, The Row. Shoes, Hermès. On Weaving: Trench coat, boots, Louis Vuitton. On Criss: Jacket, Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Shirt, The Row. Pants, Dior Men. Watch, Audemars Piguet. Tie, Tie Bar. On David Corenswet: Suit, tie, Dolce & Gabbana. Shirt, Boss. On Maude Apatow: Top, skirt, Gucci. Bralette, Only Hearts by Helena Stuart. On Laura Harrier: Dress, boots, Louis Vuitton. On Picking: Suit, Salvatore Ferragamo. Shirt, The Row.
Styled by Katie Mossman. Hair by Laura Polko for Sun Bum Hair Care (Apatow), Sheridan Ward at Cloutier Remix Agency (Harrier), and Clarissa Rubenstein at SWA Agency (Weaving); Makeup by Kelsey Deenihan for Lorac Cosmetics (Apatow), Dana Delaney at Forward Artists (Harrier), and Allan Avendano at SWA Agency (Weaving); Grooming by Kindra Mann for Tom Ford for men (Corenswet, Criss, Picking, and Pope); produced by Gabrielle Roussos at Oui Productions.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of ELLE.