On an ordinary quarantine-era Monday in April, a bolt of joy shot through the Internet courtesy of producers Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan. The first trailer for their Netflix miniseries Hollywood promised a sexy gas station, A-list Broadway stars, 1940s glamour, May-December romances and, most importantly, a story that looks at the Hollywood that could have been, with a true resistance to hatred.
Set in the film industry’s Golden Age, the series mixes fictional characters with real-life figures like Hattie McDaniel, Anna May Wong, and Rock Hudson. It takes a revisionist lens to the era, giving characters from marginalized groups storylines in which they fulfill their dreams. “I was interested in doing something very optimistic and very uplifting and giving these disenfranchised people happy endings,” Murphy says.
The show is the mega-producer’s second with Netflix as part of a 2018 deal he signed with the company, thought to be the largest TV contract in history. The partnership marks a new phase in his career and only fuels his already prodigious output. He’s currently at work on a feature film adaptation of the play The Boys in the Band, a miniseries version of A Chorus Line, season 2 of The Politician, a series focused on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Nurse Ratched, and a film version of the Broadway hit The Prom, all for Netflix. That’s in addition to new seasons of Pose, American Crime Story (this time focusing on Monica Lewinsky), and American Horror Story, all on FX.
In a spare brief moment between projects, Murphy spoke to ELLE.com about Hollywood’s dark history, his eye for new talent, and the freedom of showing nudity on Netflix.
What sparked the idea for the show? Why was old Hollywood something that you wanted to take on?
I think it was a combination of two things. I was raised by my grandmother. She was a big movie fan, so I grew up watching a lot of old movies and reading a lot of golden-era Hollywood books. There were three people I was always interested in: Rock Hudson, Anna May Wong, and Hattie McDaniel. I was always moved by how they never got their happy ending, how they had to live inauthentically and were never given the opportunities they deserved.
After I did Versace, I was interested in the world of that gas station in Hollywood [in his memoir, “fixer” Scotty Bowers recounted being employed at a gas station that offered sex work in the ‘40s], not so much because of the sordid sexual stuff, but the idea that people had to go to a gas station to find companionship or sexuality in a world where they could be arrested or even killed for being authentically who they were.
The cast is full of new faces, some appearing on TV for the first time. What was casting like?
What’s interesting is I’d worked with almost all of the “older” actors before. I’ve worked with Jim Parsons and Joe Mantello and Patti LuPone and Darren Criss and David Corenswet. We were all friends. But I was really interested in going after young, sparkling new voices with this show.
The hardest part that took me the longest time to cast was Rock Hudson. I read hundreds and hundreds of guys for that part. Many of them looked a lot like Rock. And in the case of Jake [Picking], he gave a really interesting audition. I thought he was great, but I still wasn’t sure. So I wanted to meet him and he came in and sat in my office and talked to me about his life and how he had been new to Hollywood and how hard it was. He had spent many nights up watching Golden-era movies. I was so moved by him that we did a makeup test and added a lot of prosthetics to him and we were all just blown away. I think people don’t realize there’s so much of his face that we [changed]. His eyelids, his chin, his cheeks, his teeth, his nose. We really worked hard on that look for him. I’m very proud of how it looks.
Many of the young actors are relatively new faces who have had some significant roles, like Laura Harrier in Blackkklansman and Jeremy Pope in Ain’t Too Proud on Broadway. But Jake feels like a truly new face.
What we wanted was somebody to protect Rock Hudson. And that’s what he did. He’s so good at it and he’s so emotional and he holds his own in those big hard scenes with Jim Parsons. Jim came to love him. Everyone just loves Jake.
I would think you’d have to feel a real ownership and connection with these real-life characters because they all had such difficult experiences. There’s such a responsibility in these stories because you’re really bringing them justice for the first time.
There’s a lot of tears on the final episode and those are real tears. In many cases I used all of the first takes because so many people were so emotional about Anna May Wong and Rock Hudson and Hattie McDaniel, and the new people like Jeremy’s character and Laura’s character, actually being seen by a system that has for years neglected them. So all those tears were real emotions. It was cathartic making this show because it was thrilling to give justice to that group of people who deserve it.
Was there a scene that was particularly fun to film?
There’s so many of them. I liked all the unexpected relationships. I loved the relationship between Holland Taylor and Dylan McDermott. I loved the relationship between Patti LuPone and her daughter, and also David Corenswet because you don’t really see women past 40 ever given a chance to play something romantic or sexualized. It was fun to do that.
But my favorite thing by far was the final episode, because we got to really dig in and we were given the time and the money. That last episode went three weeks over budget and overshooting because it took so much time to get it all right. Historically right. That was my favorite thing that we did—not only was it emotional, but I loved that set. I loved those clothes, I loved the props.
Has being with Netflix changed the scope of what you’re able to do with a show or the production value?
I’ve never been able to do full male nudity until now—and also full female nudity, I might add. That was liberating. I’ve spent a lot of time in my career having ridiculous conversations about nipples. I cannot tell you how many conversations where I’m like ‘Really?!’ To be able to just go for it is great.
Since the stay-at-home order, Hollywood has gone from something my friends were excited to watch to, for many people, literally the only thing on their calendar. Does that change the way you feel about putting it out in the world or how you think it’s going to be received?
We had always planned on this coming out. We’ve been working for a year toward this date. It’s a very dark time. It’s a very scary time. It’s a very troubling time. I know that I personally am looking for things to watch to feel uplifted and hopeful. I think this show has the exact thing we’re looking for at this moment. It leaves you with a feeling of maybe things could be better. Maybe the good guys will win, maybe we’re going to be okay, and we can come together as a group to change the world. That’s what this merry band of people are doing in this finale.