Laura Harrier is taking on the role of a lifetime in Netflix’s limited series “Hollywood.” Though the rising star has already appeared in a superhero movie (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”) and a Spike Lee joint (“BlacKkKlansman”), Harrier never imagined she’d perform in a period drama, let alone one from the mind of Ryan Murphy — simply because she’s a black woman.
In “Hollywood,” which Murphy co-created with Ian Brennan, Harrier plays Camille Washington, a wannabe starlet in 1940s Tinseltown, who is hampered in her career because of the color of her skin — at least at first. But “Hollywood” has a twist — the show’s premise reimagines a more progressive entertainment industry where Camille becomes the breakout star of a major motion picture and the first black woman to do so.
“Given our current climate and the way that the world is right now [in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic], I think people definitely need some form of escapism,” says Harrier. “It is beautiful and fun and sexy and everything looks amazing, but it also has weight to it. We are talking about real issues and people being historically marginalized in Hollywood.”
Here, Harrier talks with Variety about her influences for the role, working alongside Queen Latifah, and how she carves out space for herself in today’s film and television landscape.
“Hollywood” portrays an alternative version of Hollywood, imagining that the industry could have been more progressive earlier. Why do you feel like that’s something that audiences may be even more receptive to today?
Darren [Criss, who executive produced the limited series and stars as Raymond, an aspiring film director] said some something really interesting recently: He pointed out that during this time of old Hollywood, all of the films then were set against the backdrop of World War II, which was this huge world-changing event that people needed to feel some sort of escapism and uplifted from and that so obviously needed to be addressed in film. And we’re weirdly sort of experiencing something similar right now, I think. [The pandemic] is a huge world-changing event that’s affecting everybody. So, it’s kind of a strange how I think our show [and] the current reality of this coming out now is sort of mirroring the reality of all of the movies and all of the time periods that we’re referencing in ‘Hollywood.’
Why did you want to join this cast and play Camille?
As an actor, if somebody says, “Do you want to be in a Ryan Murphy project?,” you don’t say, “No.” This is such a gift to be able to work with someone at the forefront of television and representation, honestly, in Hollywood for so long. I think he’s really been pushing the boundaries and making opportunities for people of color, for women, for the LGBTQ community for a very long time. And the rest of the industry is just catching up, I think, in a lot of ways. So, working with him was No. 1. But then I was really excited at the prospect of being an old Hollywood movie star because that’s always a time period that I’ve loved and been drawn to. I loved the films of that era and I grew up watching them. I think when we’re talking about this show, [the reaction] is like, “Ooh,” because you have this instant image of glamour and this really storied time. But at the same time, I never honestly thought that I would have that opportunity, just given the lack of representation of that time. So, it was something that I enjoyed watching and seeing, but I never really felt connected to because I didn’t see myself in those movies. With the exception of Dorothy Dandridge — she was kind of the only person that looks like me and who was represented at the time, outside of playing a maid. So, being able to go back and revisit this era and tell this revisionist history of it was super exciting for me and something that I never really thought would happen.
For that reason, I imagined you would directly relate to Camille’s whole storyline — this idea that she is pigeonholed into these maid roles just to get her foot in the door. So, what was it like that first day when you got to step onto set in character?
Oh my God, it was so cool, it was so exciting. Our costume department and the hair and makeup departments, they are just so talented. I did the research and can watch all the movies and do everything I can as an actor, but like half of it is really just like being there in the moment, wearing these costumes, having my hair done perfectly, and having the red lip that just kind of creates the character. Because it changes the way that you walk and the way that you sit: I feel very different when I’m wearing a garter [belt] and stockings and a full skirt and a red lip than I normally do sitting here in my sweatpants. It just created the whole world and it was so incredible seeing all of the extras in the perfect period clothing and the old cars driving around on set. You just feel like somebody transported [you] to that time and that was so helpful for me as an actor to be given all of that.
Who were a couple of your influences or inspirations for Camille?
Dorothy Dandridge, No. 1; she was really sort of who I looked to to help shape the character. Camille is a fictional character, but I think so much of it is drawn from Dorothy’s story of her being marginalized and not having these opportunities, to going on to be nominated for best actress. I’d like to think that Camille has a happier ending than Dorothy Dandrige because her life turned out very tragically and she never reached the heights of her career that I think she should have and could have in a different time because she was so a talented and beautiful. It’s really sad to think about what could have happened for her and didn’t because of the racism in the world at the time. I mean, the fact that she was nominated for an Oscar and went to a hotel and they drained the pool so she couldn’t go and jump in it. It’s crazy, the stories.
Also, Lena Horne, who was the first black woman to be signed to a studio deal in Hollywood. But it’s crazy for her too because she was always in scenes alone because they had to be able to cut her scenes when they played it in the South for white audiences. So, she left [Hollywood] because she wouldn’t get to act with anybody, she was just standing on camera singing. It wasn’t, I think, what she wanted and aspired [to]. She went on to have a very successful career, obviously, as a singer.
They were really my sources of inspiration in just thinking about the adversity that they went through and how brave they must have been to be the first. I’m fortunate to have been born at a time when I had people like Halle Berry and Angela Bassett and Nia Long to look up to and to connect with on screen and to see myself in. But just imagining a world where that’s never existed and where you’re the very first person to be creating that sort of representation, it was just incredibly brave. And I really want to pay homage to them through playing Camille.
Speaking of Halle Berry, listening to the conversations that Camille gets to have with Hattie McDaniel (played by Queen Latifah), I thought about Berry and her best actress Oscar win in 2002. Where at the time she thought, and I think the world thought, that things were going to change in Hollywood and then they haven’t in a lot of ways. Did you or anybody else ever talk to Halle about that experience?
I didn’t. I would have loved to talk to her, but I’m unfortunately not personal friends with Halle Berry, so I couldn’t call her up. I wish! But I definitely watched [her Oscars acceptance] speech a lot in preparing for this and preparing for when that happens for Camille. I watched her speech and thought about what that meant. And unfortunately, I think the world thought that things we’re going to change a lot [after she won] and then they didn’t. They’re changing now obviously, and we’re starting to see that. But for me, the question was what would the world look like had this happened at the beginning of Hollywood and then where would we have been at as society and as an industry had the Camille story been true, or if Dorothy Dandridge had actually won when she was nominated [for best actress in 1955]? I think the world would be a really different place. So, I just kind of looked to that for inspiration and kind of guidance in creating those scenes.
What was it like acting opposite Queen Latifah as Hattie McDaniel? Did she give you any career advice while you were working together?
It was so cool. She’s just somebody that I have admired and looked up to as long as I can remember, honestly. I mean I saw “Set It Off” when I was probably too young to see it. I love her so much, but it was really cool because I feel like for Camille, Hattie would have been somebody that she grew up watching and admiring since she was the only black actress and she won an Oscar. And, for me, it’s the same with Queen Latifah. So, I kind of just needed to be there in the momeng, just listening to what she was saying because I was already so excited to talk to her in the same way that Camille would’ve been excited to talk to Hattie. It really felt like art imitating life.
It was such a gift to get to work with someone like that and honestly all the actors on our show — with Holland Taylor and Patti LuPone and Dylan McDermott and these industry veterans that are so talented and have been at the top of their game for such a long time. I think us young kids, we all just were so excited to be around them and to get to work with them. And when you have people like that in a scene with you, it just makes you better because they’re just so on it and deliver every single take. So, it just creates a better performance out of you.
As the series tackles this feeling of being “other” and finding your own space in the industry, how have you learned to do that for yourself?
I have been so fortunate to work with amazing people like Ryan Murphy and like Spike Lee. I’m so grateful to be able to work with these incredible creatives that are at the top of their game. I just want to hopefully continue to do that and just recognize the importance of picking and choosing who you’re working with and trying to tell important, timely stories within that and some [projects] that hopefully will resonate with audiences and make them think about the world in a potentially different way.