When Archie (Jeremy Pope) is threatened with being removed from his own screenplay because making a movie written by a Black screenwriter would “sink the studio” in Netflix’s “Hollywood,” he responds with as much composure and restraint as he can muster. But given that the show is set in the 1940s, when Black individuals had historically little power in showbiz, he didn’t immediately rail against such comments.
“Maybe in 2020 he would push back, he would fight back, because we have a little bit more leverage now — we have receipts, we have ways in which we can hold people accountable,” Pope says. “But in the ’40s and ’50s, it was just a way in which we had to navigate and move.”
Pope’s Archie is just one of several lead actor nominees who played characters finally forced by external events to stand up for themselves, whether in the face of social pressures, against a more powerful person or system and/or while fighting inner demons.
In portraying Dominick Birdsey in HBO’s “I Know This Much Is True,” Mark Ruffalo took on the role of caretaker to his schizophrenic twin, Thomas (whom he also played). Often putting his brother’s needs in front of his own, it wasn’t until his sibling died, and he literally had no other choice, that he focused on himself. In Hulu’s “Normal People,” it takes Connell (Paul Mescal) almost the entire season to defend his love Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) publicly, while in “Ramy,” the titular character (played by Ramy Youssef) is forced to finally confront his many mistakes after marrying his Sheikh’s daughter (MaameYaa Boafo).
Archie’s moment of true expression comes when he is in a safe space with his friends, during which he says, “F— white people, they don’t care,” Pope recalls. It was important to him that in the edit it wouldn’t come across as “an angry Black man — because here again he’s being stripped of his chance at greatness, and oftentimes that’s what we feel as Black artists and entertainers.”
Mescal notes that his character was told “his whole life that he’s a cool guy,” which warped his idea of how to deal with emotion, so he, too, bottled them up — until a pivotal penultimate episode confrontation with Marianne’s brother about breaking her nose.
“It was very satisfying to play that, because he’s a character who is back-footed for a lot of the series,” Mescal says. “In a lot of other shows, he would feel like a knight in shining armor, and that’s not what Connell represents. In fact, the knight in shining armor in the series is Marianne; she’s the one that saves him. It’s nice to play against that gender stereotype a little bit.”
As for Youssef’s Ramy, his big moment of honesty comes after two whole seasons of “performing change,” as opposed to actually taking responsibility for his terrible decisions (such as sleeping with his cousin the night before his wedding).
“He jumps into this life with the Sheikh as his new spiritual guide, being part of this mosque and being part of this new family, and feeling like that’s enough to take away any pain or any sort of flaw he might have had,” Youssef says. “I think it really comes crashing [down on] him when he sees his cousin again and he sees this other part of him he doesn’t want to admit exists.”
The finale ends with Ramy isolated from his friends and family because of his actions, but it could be a turning point for growth for himself.
“He’s going through this confusion where you really feel like you don’t fit in and you’re constantly shape-shifting to try and fit in,” says Youssef. Finally being confronted with his mess gives him a “newfound clarity.”