Hurray for Hollywood.

By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 28, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX

“Sexier!”

Standing in front of the storied wrought-iron Paramount gates, surrounded by hundreds of extras in bolero jackets and fedoras, Hollywood star David Corenswet is radioed this note, via two assistant directors, from creator Ryan Murphy. This piece of direction is an apt metaphor for Murphy’s shows — his ability to zhush up any concept, be it teen glee club or a murderous asylum.

With Murphy’s seven-episode 1940s-set drama, the subject matter is glamorous in the extreme — exposing the inner workings of the studio system. Yet, Murphy has made it sexier, literally, in the show’s tackling of sex work (“the first episode has very little filmmaking and a lot of nakedness” quips Corenswet) and figuratively, in its view of a more-inclusive Hollywood that welcomed women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

Jim Parsons, who plays real-life scheming agent Henry Willson, describes the show as the four “F’s” of Hollywood: “facts, fiction, fantasy, and foul — foul language and foul activity.”

Hollywood stars Corenswet, Darren Criss, Jeremy Pope, Laura Harrier, and Jake Picking as young dreamers teamed with long-overlooked Hollywood insiders played by Parsons, Patti LuPone, Joe Mantello, and Holland Taylor. Together, they chase glittery dreams and tackle (continuing) systemic ills. “What if women, queer people, people of color are given opportunities? How different could Hollywood look now?” asks Pope, who portrays aspiring screenwriter Archie Coleman.

“We’re proposing how it can be.” Picking, who plays Rock Hudson adds, “It showcases how everything has changed and nothing has changed.”

The idea for this alt-Hollywood was conceived by Murphy and fellow executive producer Criss over rosé. As Criss tells it, Murphy was looking to do something “young, period, and optimistic.” Criss happened to be reading Hollywood pimp Scotty Bowers’ memoir Full Service and was inspired by the dichotomy between opulent dream factories and a seedier underbelly, exacerbated by the post-war milieu. “You introduce a wild polarity between people who have just seen hell and now are in paradise. What did that do to someone’s moral compass and sense of ambition and dreams?” ponders Criss, before underscoring the show’s sunniness in spite of that. “It does exist in this surreal, optimistic space. It’s candy, fantasy, and escapism at its original, most golden form.”

Murphy elaborates on this meal with Criss, and their fascination with the juxtaposition at play in this era. “I was interested in shining the light on people who didn’t have the acclaim and success [of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis] but should have. It started off with that,” he explains. “Then, we both had an interest in this gas station that existed in Hollywood, but we weren’t so interested in the famous people who supposedly went there. We were very much interested in the people who worked in the sex industry who also had dreams, who also were shamed and meant to feel like they were marginalized. Both those things came together, and they’re the same thing, which is to look at marginalized people trying to win at the hardest game in town.”

For most of the cast, that sense of striving against the odds is highly personal. Criss stars as Raymond, a director who has been passing as white despite his Filipino heritage (something the actor has spoken frankly about in his own career). “I talked a lot to Darren about what it’s like to grow up being half-Filipino and only being considered for certain parts,” Murphy explains. “For so many people who are of color or gay, you get offered less. I wanted to write all of that into the text, particularly for his character.”

Raymond is in an interracial relationship with Laura Harrier’s aspiring actress Camille. While the cast turned to everything from films of the era to podcasts like You Must Remember This for their requisite retro research, they also admit there wasn’t a firm model for this revisionist tale. “I’ve never really felt connected to [that era]; so few people who looked like me were represented on screen,” reflects Harrier. “Given censorship at the time, it seems like there weren’t interracial relationships, and there weren’t people in queer relationships, and that’s obviously not true. People have been living and loving how they are now for forever.”

Being not just accepted but celebrated for decades is a tantalizing vision. “The re-telling of history allows people to really bask in the nostalgia,” Corenswet enthuses. “There’s always the bittersweet feeling watching old movies or period pieces where you can’t indulge in nostalgia because you remember it wasn’t that great for everybody. I hope taking a chance rewriting history allows people to have more fun watching.” A guilt-free Golden Age with room for all? Now that is sexy.

 Hollywood hits Netflix in its entirety May 1.

A version of this story appears in the May 2020 issue of Entertainment Weekly, which you can buy here now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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