SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Hollywood,” streaming now on Netflix.
When Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan first sat down to write “Hollywood,” their new seven-part limited series about the Golden Age of Tinseltown, they wanted the show to be an investigation into the power inequality when it came to the lack of inclusion for women and people of color both in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. But, as time went on, they soon enough realized it was more interesting to tell a story of what could have been, rather than what actually happened.
“We were looking at the Golden Age of Hollywood through the lens of #MeToo and the Weinstein of it all and as a study of how everything has changed and how nothing has changed,” Brennan tells Variety. “All of the characters that are in it now were in it, but as we were writing, we were missing a bit, just writing the world as we knew it was. Ryan smelled it before I did, but the second he did, I was like, ‘Oh no no no, you’re onto something. We have the opportunity here to tell a different kind of story.’ Instead of the scene where the black girl is going to audition for the movie and is not going to get it, what if she did [get it]? And suddenly the whole show, for me at least, opened up. It gave it a real bottom and made it really about something.”
Although they were already three episodes in, Brennan shares, they stepped back to open up the world further and then went back and rewrote those three episodes (and created the four that followed) through that new lens.
“Hollywood” begins with a clear divide of power between the aspiring actors and writers, such as that young black woman Camille (Laura Harrier), who has been relegated to playing maids but dreams of being a leading lady, and the producers, agents and studio executives who dictate whose stories get to be told — and who gets to tell those stories. Jack (David Corenswet) is a veteran and husband who dreams of being a movie star and at first spends his days standing outside of studios hoping to be picked to be an extra in a movie. Soon enough he starts working as a call boy where he starts making pivotal connections. One of those connections is the wife of a studio head (played by Patti LuPone) who actually does help him get acting work, but another is aspiring writer Archie (Jeremy Pope), who has written a movie in which Jack hopes to (and eventually does) star.
“Because my background was acting first, and then I cam to writing, those characters were, for me, the least challenging to write,” Brennan says. “The fact that we were able to do so many scenes of screen tests were so fun. I’ve been on both sides of that table, and that’s something that you’d otherwise very rarely be writing. But highlighting the attitudes of the day was really delightful.”
On the flip side, Brennan notes the biggest challenge in writing “Hollywood” was writing the studio heads and executives because getting down to “what is the nature of that power?” can be a tricky thing to capture, he explains. What helped was the cast — “particularly Joe Mantello and Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor,” he says.
“There’s an old quote about Shakespeare and in a scene with the king it’s not up to the actor playing that role to project power in the scene, it’s up to every other actor. So a lot of the times Joe just wanted to say less. It was interesting and I wouldn’t have expected that — and you rarely find an actor who asks for less dialogue — but he was exactly right. And what was interesting about Holland was she was very, very keen on making sure that her character, while being sympathetic and being what we would now call progressive, she very much wanted that to still be in a period vocabulary. She was very, very astute and if something felt too contemporary, she would rather have the sharper elbow.”
The third episode of “Hollywood” is a turning point for those characters who are struggling because there becomes interest in Archie’s movie. From there, his, Jack’s and director Raymond’s (Darren Criss) stars are on the rise. There are quite a few frank discussions about Raymond being Filipino and Archie being gay and black in Hollywood and, when Camille auditions for the lead and titular role of Meg, opposite a white woman — and the daughter of the studio head, no less — she books the role. It is not without discussion of whether or not her “type” is a leading lady, but ultimately it is decided that even if it comes with some controversy, she is the better actress and it is a positive step to take and message to send. Even the daughter of the studio head, Claire (Samara Weaving) isn’t angry over losing the part and ends up taking a supporting role in the film-within-the-show.
“We wanted to explore what if what happened in the ’80s and ’90s happened in 1947 instead?” Brennan says. “Everyone knows how powerful images are and how powerful Hollywood is. Along with tech and financial securities, it’s this country’s main export — culture. It’s even powerful beyond our own borders. And there’s an argument to say the reason why there is now a whole political party devoted to essentially demeaning the contribution of Hollywood just shows how powerful it is.”
Further wanting to “live through their moments of victory and aspiration,” Brennan says, inspired the decision to see “Meg” not only get nominated for a number of awards at the 1948 Oscars but also win them. It was a way to show the industry around these select individuals rising up and meeting them with strides for representation. But it was also a way to rewrite a few real people’s lives in ways “that I think they would have liked it to go,” he explains.
This includes Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), who in reality was so frustrated with the way she was pigeonholed into stereotypical roles in America that she left in the late 1920s. In “Hollywood,” she references similar hardships but is happy to be back in Tinseltown, where she has a supporting role in “Meg” and ends up winning an Oscar for it.
“I was writing a lot of people whose experiences were not like mine at all,” Brennan admits. “You have to investigate one’s self as deep as possible to find those moments of exclusion and pain — as much as one can — and try and amplify those experiences and put one’s self in these people. I found that a very mindful act on this project.”
This also includes Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) who still changed his name and his teeth, but found himself in a loving, committed relationship with Archie and opted to go public with that, even if it meant he wouldn’t get acting work.
“I don’t know if the real Rock Hudson looked back on his life and thought it was tragic — and if he did, he wouldn’t have breathed it to anybody. But there’s so much pathos in his actual story and that life of that much hiding and projecting an image of a person — in so many ways, not just sexuality. I felt, and Ryan did as well, the biggest obligation to give that person and that memory of a person a redemptive end,” says Brennan. “He felt like he had a life that was wronged and wouldn’t be now.”
Not everyone could get on board with this more open, inclusive way of working immediately or there wouldn’t be conflict, though. Henry Wilson (Jim Parsons), who signed Rock, tried to get him to hide his homosexuality, despite being gay himself. But even he saw the value in living freely by the end, making amends with Rock and using his new status as an Oscar-winning producer to make the first gay romantic drama, based on the real events of the gas station at which Jack and Archie worked as call boys. It’s an idea that could only come to fruition in this time period because of the strides already taken — from “Meg” winning the Oscar to Archie kissing Rock when he got up to accept his own Oscar.
“What if this had happened? We would be living in a very, very different world,” Brennan says.
“Hollywood” was designed as a close-ended, one-season series, but Brennan admits that the nature of posing the question of “if this, then what?” sets up potential future seasons.
“Is there a Nixon movement? What is the independent movie? What does MIramax look in like in the 1990s when there isn’t a Harvey Weinstein? What is Don Simpson making if ‘Top Gun’ isn’t just about white people?” he says. “Every time we would bring that up, it would undergird the profundity of the question we were asking. So I certainly hope we will move forward in time with this as the premise and look at how the town is different decade by decade.”