Jennifer Beals on Playing the Secretly Biracial Star Margo Taft in ‘The Last Tycoon’

One of the unexpected joys of Amazon’s “The Last Tycoon,” which debuted in July, is actress Jennifer Beals’ turn as Margo Taft, an ambitious screen siren who is caught between feuding studio heads Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer) and Louis B. Mayer (Saul Rubinek, playing the real-life mogul behind MGM). Margo’s storyline is the liveliest of “The Last Tycoon,” largely due to the vim of Beals herself — after finagling her way into a Brady picture, she demands that the director come to her dressing room and drop his pants, so that she can take the measure of the man who might try to order her around. (Margo doesn’t make the poor sucker go through with it — but the point, as she explains with a sultry air, is that he was willing to.)

But ultimately Margo is nearly undone by a long-buried secret that comes to light mid-season. When her beloved maid Lucille (L. Scott Caldwell) dies, Margo’s outsize grief reveals a secret: Lucille, a black woman, was in fact Margo’s mother. (Beals, who is herself biracial, played a character with a similar secret in the 1995 film “Devil in a Blue Dress.”) Margo’s attempt to make a place for herself in the ruthless world of Depression-era Hollywood is undermined by the gossip, and eventually Mayer uses it against her. But Margo is far from disappearing into obscurity; by the end of the season, she’s won an Academy Award.

Her story is one of “The Last Tycoon’s” many examples of the less romantic side of Hollywood glamor — and an indication of how biases about identity have existed in the industry since its inception. Variety spoke to Beals about coming to the role and working opposite Grammer’s untrustworthy Pat Brady.

You’re great as Margo. How did you decide on this role?

Thank you, it was such a pleasure. I loved it so much. It was one of those things where you couldn’t possibly have said no. You know — sometimes I get actually, like, physical things that happen to my body, where I know I have to say yes. And it usually involves a tremendous amount of fear and actual physical shaking.

As soon as I got off the phone with [executive producers] Billy Ray and Chris Keyser, and they were explaining to me what they had in mind for the character, I just got off the phone and almost wanted to start to cry — out of fear! I knew that I had to do it, and that it was mine. There’s a couple of times in my life where I feel like, okay, that’s mine — that I’m meant to inhabit that for whatever reason. I started to get very, very excited about it. Let’s see how high I can leap.

Were you inspired by anyone from this era in particular?

No, I wasn’t. Because there wasn’t really anybody like her. Because she had a plan. She’s such a master strategist, and these masks are donned in order attain freedom as an artist, you know, to allow herself to be passionate and as powerful as possible. And to take care of her mother as best she can.

So, there was nobody that it was modeled on of that era. There were lots of films that I listened to from that era, to try to determine what she sounded like. I tried to ask myself, okay, so what does she want to sound like? Who does she want to sound like? And I didn’t pick one person, but I did watch “The Women” an awful lot. And as for the persona — I mean, most of it comes just out of my imagination. Some of the behavior is based on people that I know, or people that I’ve worked with.

And I reached out to [celebrated acting coach] Sandra Seacat for her advice. She helped get me on a really good road. I wanted somebody to bounce some ideas off of before I got on set. And so she was really, really helpful — she listened and just, you know, asked me a lot of questions. And that led me then to ask myself more questions, and different kinds of questions. That’s really for me the process — just keep asking another question and another question.

The trick is to know what questions to ask. You know: Why would you [Margo] do that to yourself? Well, you know, there’s a certain amount of freedom that you get: like she wouldn’t have that freedom otherwise. And so, well, do you want that freedom just for you? Or do you want that freedom for somebody else? Who is that freedom for and what does that mean, and what is her Achilles heel? What’s that look like? And I think that is certainly ego, thinking that somehow it’s all real. You must be careful to keep the plans — to know what your goal is. Don’t lose sight of the goal. And her mother [Lucille] really helps her stay on the path. That guy will help you become a better actress. That group will get you into better films. So stay on the path. [With Margo] there’s such a fear of being caged; there’s such a fear of being in her grandfather’s place, of being on a plantation, and being a slave. A fear of slavery, and not wanting to be a slave. And knowing what that means, and having heard that and seen that in her grandparents.

There’s a point where Margo says [to Pat Brady], “You want to lock me up.” And he says, “In a gilded cage of your own making.” And then she realizes, well, if I shift my thinking, then I can enter into a partnership, and I won’t be caged. But I will have a partner with whom I can create better opportunities…

I could talk forever. I just, like, I love her so much that literally, when we were done, I missed her so much that I talked with Billy Ray and I said, “You wouldn’t happen to have, by any chance, a monologue that you had written for her that you didn’t use, do you?” And he said, “No, I don’t — but I’ll write you one.” Which is the nicest thing any writer/director has ever done for me.

Well, what’s the monologue?

I’m not going to tell you! Because maybe we’ll get to use it. But yes, it’s wonderful, it’s really fun.

Tell me a little bit about Margo’s relationship with Pat Brady, Kelsey Grammer’s character. They seem to really understand each other, but then he’s also the one that is responsible for repeating her secret to Louis B. Mayer. 

Is that utterly clear, that Pat did that? Do you think?

That was what I took away. It was at the party in “Eine Kleine Reichmusik.”

It’s complicated. Because then he goes on to realize what he’s done. And I can’t speak for Kelsey, for sure. Because then in the scene with the confrontation with Mayer, he encourages her to go and become the biggest movie star. So it’s a very complicated relationship. Certainly, early on, he appears to be someone that she will manipulate in order to get what she wants. It’s another person that she’s going to manipulate to get what she wants, and then I think there’s part of her that recognizes herself in him, and recognizes that beyond this toughness — this tough exterior — is actually this big-hearted person. And I think they kind of understand one another. He’s one of the few people who really knows who she is. Now that her mother’s gone, it’s very lonely.

I know the actress Merle Oberon was half-Indian, which was a secret for most of her life. Did her history play into your storytelling at all? 

Well, I think in a basic way of having the maid be the mother. But not in the psyche at all. Because, you know, I think Margo is far more powerful, psychologically, than Merle Oberon. She has a plan, and it’s of her own doing. With Merle Oberon, I believe it’s the studio that makes her do that. I don’t think she did that on her own, right? And Margo’s been doing it since she was a young girl. Because she knew where she wanted to end up, and she knew that wasn’t going to happen in any other way — or she didn’t believe that would happen in any other way. So I think that’s the difference. Margo has, or thinks anyway, that she has the reins. And I don’t know that Merle Oberon had the reins. I don’t know that she did.

And she and her mother are on the same page about everything.

In that way, it’s unlike “Imitation of Life,” where the girl is embarrassed about her mother. It’s very different. I wanted to take this notion of shame away, and have a plan. It’s like being a spy — but it’s terrible, because you are giving up a really basic identity. It’s painful. It’s excruciating.

Do you know if you’ll be reprising the role of Margo?

If we get a second season, and I’m able to do the show, and I’m invited to do the show — Billy said, yes we would love to have Margo on the second season, but that’s not official. But I love Margo, and I would never, ever abandon Margo, given the opportunity.

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