Ryan Murphy’s second Netflix series, Hollywood, may be set in the studio world of post-WWII L.A., but its flavors are distinctly 2020. The glossy, compulsively watchable fantasy tells the story of a major movie studio producing big-budget drama Meg, with Black actress Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) controversially cast in the lead role of a doomed starlet based on real-life actress Peg Entwistle, who jumped to her death from the “H” in the Hollywood sign in the early 1930s.
The limited series, co-created by Ian Brennan, plays out like a dream – what would happen if profit-driven studios had taken the brave step of giving minorities major lead roles during Hollywood’s Golden Age? – and comes loaded with many of über-producer Murphy’s TV signatures. There’s a cast of attractive young newcomers (Broadway star Jeremy Pope, Ready or Not’s Samara Weaving, Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Harrier, and more); a handful of Murphy veterans (The Assassination of Gianni Versace’s Darren Criss, The Politician’s David Corenswet); plenty of visual panache, this time with a 1940s Hollywood flair; and lots to put a smile on any LGBTQ viewer’s face — a fictionalized Rock Hudson is among the lead characters, for starters.
And as with American Horror Story, Feud, and other Murphy-produced series, Hollywood is marked by a number of veteran actresses in the kind of complex, flashy roles you don’t see a lot of outside of Murphyland. Holland Taylor is a wise studio executive; Mira Sorvino plays an aging actress struggling to land a role; and Broadway legend Patti LuPone stars as Avis Amberg, the studio head’s wife who has to take over when he suffers a heart attack. It’s Avis who makes the call to cast Washington, and who deals with the fallout, and it’s LuPone who runs away with the series: Whether she’s dressing down a group of bean counters trying to shutter her studio, getting plastered backstage at the Oscars, or getting freaky with 26-year-old Corenswet’s Jack – expect memes of the “staircase moment” to do the rounds – she’s a joy to watch.
Rotten Tomatoes recently called LuPone at the Connecticut home that’s enjoyed some fame during quarantine; the actress has been offering virtual tours of her eclectically decorated basement on Twitter ever since fans began obsessing over it when she appeared on a Rosie O’Donnell live stream. It was the day after her birthday when we called, and she was hungover from a night with people on Zoom getting “trashed on martinis” — not something she usually drinks. Her mouth may have been dry, but LuPone had plenty to say about working with Murphy, what she’d change about the entertainment industry today, her Tiger King–themed birthday present, and why those in the arts deserve more respect.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: Hollywood is just the latest Ryan Murphy production you’ve been a part of – fans will remember you from AHS and Pose. What is it about what Ryan’s doing in the television landscape that’s drawing you to his projects?
Patti LuPone: He offers me jobs. It’s simple is that. And he offers me really great parts. I did a little thing on Glee, that was the first time I worked for him. I got a call from my agent, and they were very excited about it, they said, “Ryan Murphy wants to do a whole episode about you, Patti.” And I’m like, “No, I’m still a working actor. I cannot be Patti LuPone’d out of the business.” And they were shocked I said no. Because they didn’t know how Ryan would react. I said, “Tell them, I would be happy to do one scene, but I can’t have an entire episode.” And I did this one scene with Lea Michele and Cory Monteith. But then I was offered American Horror Story then Pose and now this.
You know what Ryan’s doing? He’s forming a repertory company on film. And that’s an extraordinary thing — that Ryan will offer you a great part in a great television show, you know what I mean? It’s just really wonderful that somebody trusts you enough to go, “Here, play this. Here, play that.” It’s always different.
This particular role in Hollywood, Avis, is so meaty. Part of it is just the clothes — which I’m still getting over because you get to wear some amazing stuff — but then you also get to have this boy toy and some pretty wild sex scenes with David [Corenswet]. And then she becomes this boss business woman. What was it like to play all these aspects of Avis?
LuPone: Well, I had an indication [of the arc] when Ryan talked to me about the part; he told me what would happen, that she would end up running a studio and making movies just for gays, minorities, and women. So I knew that that was going to be the arc of the character. And he did preface it by saying, “…and she has sex scenes.” And I said: Finally. We only got a script at a time, so I didn’t really know how exactly it was going to unfold. I was thrilled that he trusted me, and I was thrilled that he gave me meat to act.
Ryan has spoken about Hollywood as a sort of rewriting of movie history that gives people a happy ending who didn’t necessarily get a happy ending in many ways. It’s a corrective fantasy. Is there something about the entertainment industry or Hollywood today that you would rewrite, as Ryan does in the series? What would you change about the industry if you could?
LuPone: First of all, there are no showmen left. Do you know what I mean? There’s no Louis B. Mayers, Jack Warners left; there are no Irving Thalbergs left. These people had theater in their blood. And I mean theater encompassing everything, do you know what I mean? They would have theatrical blood where they could choose writers and they could choose materials; materials to give to an audience. What are we doing as far as filmmaking is concerned today? We’re regenerating cartoons.
So I would hope that artists would lead. And I don’t just mean actors, I mean anybody with an artistic bent would lead. My problem is that — and this is on Broadway as well, any entertainment aspect — we are second-guessing the audience. We are underestimating the audience. They can take a whole lot more and they need it. We need to educate, [and] they need to educate us. So, we should put everything out, much broader ideas, and let the audience decide. They are smarter than we think they are, or that we give them credit for. (Not me, because I’m on that side of the stage where I deal with them.) But we need to empower the people that green-light films so they aren’t underestimating them.
Is the problem that those particular decision-makers lack an artistic bent?
LuPone: I think that’s part of it. The other is financial. I saw it changing when I was doing [ABC drama] Life Goes On years ago. I saw it changing when the Harvard bean counters, the Yale bean counters came out and took over Hollywood and the music industry. I’d heard about it and I sort of felt it when I was in California, that was 1989 to 1993. You could feel it changing.
Also, there should be more women in every position of power, not just in the entertainment industry, but in our politics. There’s just something that the men lack right now and that’s empathy.
Ryan seems to have that quality.
LuPone: Oh, Ryan is a champion.
OK, I have to ask you about your time social distancing in Connecticut. Your home, and particularly your basement, has taken the Internet by storm ever since you appeared on Rosie O’Donnell’s live stream, and you’ve showed us your cassettes and jukebox and all sorts of things on Twitter. Are you surprised that people are so fascinated by your home and your basement and your life right now?
LuPone: Yes. Yes. Yes. But you know what, if it’s bringing anybody joy, I’m very happy to do it. It has to be when the inspiration strikes, so that there is a mood to [the Twitter videos]. And today the mood struck because we were planning this one and I had to wait until I was sort of in the right frame of mind. What happened was I got really trashed last night because it’s my birthday. I got trashed on martinis, which I don’t drink. So I’m hungover today and I said to my kid, “Let’s do it. I’m not bathing, I’m not combing my hair. I’m not brushing my teeth. Let’s do it right now.” And we did it. People wanted to know what was in the locker, so I showed him things that were in the locker.
I heard somebody wanted to see more of my basement. 😘 pic.twitter.com/fBea7emR6h
— Patti LuPone (@PattiLuPone) March 23, 2020
You now know you what I’m doing straight after this! What is a Patti LuPone hangover cure, by the way?
LuPone: Oh my God, I don’t know. I’m still hungover. I woke up so sick. Apparently, I was crazy last night. I don’t remember anything, but my husband told me. Because it was Bingo, it was Zoom Bingo. And I started yelling at the computer — well not the computer — and then I won and then I peed my pants and then I came upstairs. What the hell was happening? Maybe there’s too much information for you, but it was one of those sort of… I just passed out. Then I woke up this morning, my throat was so dry, my head was pounding. Who the hell knows?
These days it’s just kind of like every night could turn into that if you let it. I haven’t seen a movie collection necessarily or DVDs or VHSes in your basement. Do you have one and what might we find in it?
LuPone: Yes. And you know it’s in the corner? It was by Nipper [her statue of the RCA dog]. But we’ve just gotten rid of a lot of VHSes as well — actually we haven’t gotten rid of the VHSes yet, because we’re going to transfer them to digital — but [we have gotten rid of] a lot of the DVDs because they’re basically on the computer. We’re leaving our home to our kids, right? That’s what parents do. So my husband and I, in this time, are trying to lessen our imprint — not that we’re going to die anytime soon, but you know how you collect stuff? We’re in the process of purging a lot of stuff that is not necessary anymore. So a lot of the DVDs went south. I’m not going to watch the movies again, or if I want to, they’re on Netflix or YouTube. So the physical movies are gone. I mean, I just got rid of a bookcase: 12 boxes of books that I got rid of!
Oh no! But that’s good. You’re doing your part. Is there a film that you’ve returned to or a TV show that you’ve returned to during this time? Or something new you’ve discovered?
LuPone: I’m watching Babylon Berlin and My Brilliant Friend and Grace and Frankie, and now I want to watch Unorthodox; oh, somebody told me about Sex Education. But what I’m doing is reading, I’m reading a lot. I’m reading the latest translation of Madame Bovary, which I’d never read. Then starting on Hilary Mantel’s The Light and the Mirror.
I’m reading that at the moment, actually. Did you see the Wolf Hall miniseries?
LuPone: I did. And at first, I didn’t understand what Mark Rylance was doing [in the role of Thomas Cromwell]. But I think Mark Rylance is one of the great actors. I didn’t understand what he was doing, and then… Oh, Oh. It deeply revealed itself. I mean, he’s extraordinary.
And I know you’ve watched Tiger King…
LuPone: Yes, I did. You know what I got for my birthday from my kid? I got an authentic bumper sticker that says “Joe Exotic for President.” But it’s one of those authentic ones from 2016.
That’s amazing. Ryan is reportedly working on series about Joe Exotic with Rob Lowe. Is there a role that you would covet to play?
LuPone: Maybe Saff. Saff Saffery. [Laughs] I should play Saff; I’m too old to play Saff. Um… Yeah. We’ll have to find a role for me. I don’t know. I can’t be Carole Baskin…
No, it’d be a challenge. On a more serious note, there’s been a lot of talk these last few weeks about how important the arts are — we’ve all turned to TV and film and music and reading to keep ourselves sane. Do you think there might be some sort of landscape change in terms of how government and people just view writers and musicians and filmmakers when this is all over? More respect? More funding?
LuPone: Not as long as we have the present government. Not at all … I do not think so if the Republicans hold power; I think we will sink further, further into obscurity if they hold on to power in 2020. And I think we are taken for granted, and we are also treated as third-class citizens in this country. That’s been my experience my entire career, in various ways. So I don’t think so. But other countries? Probably so, because they’re just smarter than we are. And more cultured than we are.
I’m wondering if you can expand a little for someone who’s reading this and doesn’t understand perhaps what you mean by “third-class citizens.” The perception might be, Patti LuPone or Ryan Murphy, et cetera, all live wonderful lives. Can you unpack that a bit?
LuPone: Theatricals have always been treated with phenomenal distrust. The actress on stage, she was considered a prostitute; they were the first people that wore makeup and she was… they were sub-society. I remember when I was performing, The Acting Company was performing at the Ford Theater, the reopening of the Ford Theater during Jimmy Carter’s administration. And the Carters were coming to the performance that night, and we were invited to the White House to meet the President. Basically, it was the clearing out of the social calendar and there were some celebrities there: Alexis Smith, Henry Fonda, John Houseman. And just as they got to Henry Fonda and John Houseman, the military guards stopped the receiving line. I actually said, “No, no, you can’t do that. They’re coming to see us tonight.” And we were escorted off the property, basically. We’ve always been considered… do I want to say “non-essential”? Even though it is.
I have said forever, it’s an inherent right: The arts are an inherent right in human nature. And they keep de-funding the National Endowment for the Arts. I mean people were bitching that they gave the Kennedy Center $25 million in the first stimulus package. The arts are crucial for mental and spiritual health. Yet we are, like I said, taken for granted. Or put in situations where we are totally dismissed. I have felt it my entire career. And, yes, I make a living. [But] I don’t always make a living. There’s that expression, “You’re only as good as your last shift,” and I’m going to be in financial peril if this goes on too much longer. I’m no different than anybody else.
Finally, we know that one of your theatrical pet peeves is when people put their phones on in the theater — you famously grabbed a phone from an audience member during a performance of Gypsy on Broadway. Do you have any pet peeves when you’re going to the cinema? Things that really bother you?
LuPone: The same thing. People talking during the movie or people texting during the movie. It’s the exact same thing, you are together in a proscenium environment. And it’s public manners. We, in this country, have forgotten our public manners — that other people exist besides ourselves. So, it’s how we conduct ourselves in theaters, all kinds of theaters. Movie theaters, legitimate theaters. It’s the same piece.
Hollywood is available to stream on Netflix from Friday, May 1, 2020.