SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Hollywood,” streaming now on Netflix.
Jeremy Pope is best known for his work on Broadway, starring as Pharus in the Tarell Alvin McCraney play “Choir Boy” in 2018, and following that up last year as singer-songwriter Eddie Kendricks in the musical “Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations.” He was nominated for both roles at the 2019 Tony Awards, becoming only the sixth actor in Tony history to be tapped in two categories at the same ceremony. Now, Pope is poised to break out as a small-screen star as gay screenwriter Archie Coleman in Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s 1940s-set “Hollywood.”
Given that “Hollywood” was created by two white men, how much collaboration did you ask for and receive in shaping who Archie was?
I met with Ryan [Murphy] and talked about what his vision was for the story and the overall arc of these underdogs trying to make it in the industry and what that looks like. Early on I did know about the sex work and why it was important to talk about in the show — in a way that was not looking down on it. It was a theme that coexisted with these young dreamers, which I thought was interesting. But early on Ryan did ask me to trust him about what the concept of the show was. I was able to do so because one of my first questions for him was about how we’re talking about this black, gay man who had to exist in a different way in the ’40s than right now. I wanted to be very conscious of that, and I asked him if there would be directors or people of color in the writers’ room to have that voice and experience writing those conversations for me. And he assured me of that. I was able to work hand-in-hand with Janet Mock who directed two of our episodes, and that was important and felt special because we were able to take the time and develop these experiences and relationships.
What were some of your influences and inspirations for Archie?
Archie revealed himself to me as we went on because at first we only had the first two scripts. And then I think Ryan, Ian and the writers would all write to the cast they had. I fell in love with old Hollywood. I started to learn about the different actors of the time who were successful and what that looked like, what kind of pictures they were a part of, what was happening in the world politically down South versus the East and West coasts. James Baldwin was a big inspiration for me on his project, being that he was so cultured and ahead of his time. That felt like, if anything, that’s what Archie should be like.
Why was it important to you to see Archie succeed?
We created a fantasy world where things can be stretched in different ways. Had it been in the ’40s with our black man’s experience it wouldn’t have been so easy. But I think what we’re able to do is portray this fantasy world as, What if? What if, instead of Archie being silenced, he spoke up a little bit louder? What does that look like? Early on, once I realized that, it was easy to understand the decision-making and how Archie got from Point A to B physically. They were all fighting for something they really believed in, and that’s at the heart of what we’re saying here: If you fight for what you believe in — change — and if you lead with that, knowing you’ll be criticized and not everyone thinks like you, if you push the needle a little bit further, how much more could we do and how much more beautiful would it be for so many people? I think once I realized that that was the overall arc of the show, it made it more passionate for all of us and felt more immediate as to why our characters were striving so hard to see their dreams come true.
How did you feel about seeing some of the struggles Archie must have had being young, black and gay in this time period?
I didn’t need it. I think because we know a lot. We’re still fighting for equality across the board, so I don’t think it’s one of those things we needed to harp on for the past — because to some extent it’s still very hard for certain people today. But what I found very interesting, especially with Archie, was how confident he was and how fearless he was. It almost felt like a person in 2020 — this younger generation that is speaking out and protesting and really fighting for their voices to be heard. I don’t know that you saw many people in that vein in the ’40s, but here we have this person who is very confident and who believes in what he does and what he wants to be and, given the opportunity, he can be a trailblazer. I know the struggles of what people before me had to go through, being black and being queer and trying to occupy a space in the industry that wasn’t built for them or for us. That’s a struggle within itself. But the overall message of fighting to be heard whether you’re one or two or three is something. And there are some who are in positions of power [in the show]. The role that Patti [LuPone] plays, she can change the world, she can make a difference by just granting an opportunity to one person. That expands and gives a voice to so many people.
What were the conversations you had around why the movie Archie initially writes is a traditional Hollywood film and why he’s initially resistant to changing it so a black woman could play the lead?
He has to know how to play the game, and that is something he realizes as he’s trying to make it. When Archie is writing “Peg,” the only way he thinks he can get into the room is to write a story about something that white people can identify with: a struggle about a white woman who wants to be seen and recognized — which, similarly, is a parallel of his life. He’s going to push the needle in that way and playing the game that way. But this very interesting thing happens when Camille has the idea to change the name so she can get a screen test. It was very similar to the crabs in the barrel moment where in the industry of black artists sometimes we wonder if there’s room for all of us. A lot of the times the industry will only praise one of us at a time. So here’s this moment where he’s like, ‘Listen, I’m here for you and I support you and I’m sure you’re good, but don’t f— with an opportunity that I have.” It makes it a tricky moment. I don’t know if a lot of white people are having those conversations where they’re looking at it like, “I’m getting my foot half-way in the door and I don’t want that moment to be jeopardized.” Rewriting the script to make it about a black girl, at that time in the ’40s it just wasn’t a thing; there wasn’t a lead black actress leading a movie because it would be considered a race picture, and Archie was trying to think bigger than that. So I do think it’s an interesting turn that once they decided to take Archie’s name off of it it made him realize they have to band together and he makes the decision to tell Camille, “I need you to get this part. I need one of us to be represented.” I think that is such a special and interesting turn that felt very real to today — conversations that I’ve had with other black actors that I’ve seen in audition rooms all of the time. It’s kind of like, “Yo bro, maybe this is yours, maybe this mine,” but we realize we have to really work together and really support each other because at the end of the day it’s power in us being seen and being represented.
Archie is a fictional character, but his onscreen boyfriend Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) is not. What was most important in finding the relationship with Jake, especially given that some audiences might expect certain things from a character for whom they have a real-life reference point?
Me and Jake, we met early on, before we started filming, to get a sense of each other and talk about life and experience. One thing that I shared with him was that I had just come off this Broadway play and sometimes people have all of these ideas of how you are going to play this character and what they feel it should be like. While I think all of those things are important, I think it’s just as important to find your own voice and version and lend your gift to this person’s legacy or whatever it is they left behind. I told him that early on and said, “Listen, we’re going to create our own dynamic because what we’re creating doesn’t exist.” It didn’t exist, so what we had to lean into was just being available for each other and being open for each other. We talked early on about if people would be offended because that’s not Rock’s life, but again, it’s a fantasy world so we have to lean into the “What ifs.” And there’s power in loving individuals for who they are and I think Archie and Rock find that very early on. Jake and I spent a lot of time together on set, and he was always so open and available for me as an actor that it was a great team bond.
What did it mean to you to see Archie and his movie embraced by Hollywood at large at the end of the show, and what helped you tap into the right emotions for his Oscar acceptance speech?
It was really special because while we were filming the cast was all in one place. It really felt like a celebration where we could celebrate the show we were creating. But there were these real, honest moments that were written for us. I remember the emotion when we were there was connected because by the time we were filming the end of the season it felt like the writers were in my head; they write to you — to your energy and your heart — so it came from that. But again sitting with the idea of how it would have changed my life and how it would have changed so many people who came before me, had they seen this man given an opportunity to speak. One thing I learned throughout the process of “Hollywood” was when Hattie McDaniel did win her Oscar, they wrote her speech for her, so it was, “Here we are giving you the praise and the accolades, but we’re going to tell you how you feel about that.” And I thought, “Wow, here’s Archie standing here as a black, gay man, and he gets to say what he feels. It’s not written for him.” It’s a powerful moment and a moment that could have changed history. It was exciting to know the movie was a success — in that fairy tale happy ending. These people worked so hard and all of the things they got, it is hopefully going to uplift some people.
What thought have you given to what the world would look like if a movie like Archie’s really did get made decades ago and then a gay romantic drama to also got made just a few years later?
It ends at Episode 7 but we talked about what an eighth and ninth would look like — who would be a working actor and what movies would be made because of this, all the way to what Hollywood would look like in 2020, having a black writer win an Oscar for screenwriter and a black actress having won. It would have changed the world on its head, and I think that’s kind of exciting and mysterious. What I think we do know is that there would have been more people in the kitchen and on the playing field and our world would have featured so many people from so many different walks of life. And I think if anything that could have been and would have been a more exciting Hollywood. We’re seeing change now and we have a generation of people who are wanting to experience change and making room for them, but how much further could we have been gone had these stories been told earlier?
How different was your process in finding your character in “Hollywood” from how you work on Broadway?
It’s different being that with Broadway you rehearse and you take your time in figuring out what you’re creating. And usually you have the whole script there! You kind of know where you’re going. When Ryan asked me to trust him, I really had to — with race and the nudity. And once we got on set, it was about trusting the journey and being fearless that the story we were creating was going to be a beautiful one.
Things you didn’t know about Jeremy Pope:
Hometown: Orlando, Fla.
Person he’d most like to meet: Michelle Obama
Currently listening to: Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness” audiobook
Cause he cares most about: The Actors Fund
If he wasn’t performing: “I’d probably be an art teacher.”