Darren Criss on how Steven Spielberg inspired his Hollywood character
Truth may be stranger than fiction, but in the new Netflix series Hollywood, the two butt up against each other with ease.
The seven-episode Ryan Murphy limited series follows a group of dreamers in 1940s Hollywood, trying to push back against the biases and intolerances of the studio system. The show includes plenty of real people from Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) to agent Henry Willson (Jim Parsons) to Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), but then there are many inventions as well, including Darren Criss' Raymond Ainsley, a young aspiring director, and his starlet girlfriend Camille Washington (Laura Harrier). Higher up the food chain, there's wife turned studio boss Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone) and producer Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello).
Even these imagined characters have a grounding in reality. As Murphy explains, "I wanted to try blending real and fictional people, so even the fictionalized people have some real-life qualities." The people he chose to model characters after aren't all from this Golden Age era of filmmaking either.
Criss tells EW that, surprisingly, he found the most inspiration from a young Steven Spielberg. "There's plenty of filmmakers from the time, [John] Huston and [Cecil B.] DeMille," Criss says of his influences. "But Ryan, early on, was recommending I watch interviews of early Spielberg, which obviously wasn't from the '40s, but there's a classicism to him and his resolve and drive and ambition that are pretty similar to all the other great filmmakers of that time."
For Harrier, who plays up and coming actress Camille Washington, her inspiration was more specific to the 1940s. Murphy says he borrowed from two major black film stars of the era, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, in writing the character. That's just who Harrier turned to when it came to digging into her research.
"I've never felt incredibly connected to that era because of the lack of representation," she admits. "I started doing research on Dorothy Dandridge because she and Lena Horne were such pioneers and so brave to be actresses at that time when they didn't have the role models I have to look up to. They didn't have Halle Berry, Angela Bassett, and people that I connected with growing up. I just really wanted to pay homage to them and to tell a part of their story through telling the story of Camille. I did as much research as I could on those women and what it meant to be a black woman in Hollywood during the '40s."
Harrier was also influenced by Dandridge's numerous relationships with white men since her character is also in an interracial romance. "She had a quote saying, 'People are upset that they're not seeing me with a black doctor, a black lawyer, but I don't know any of those. That's not my world. I meet people in Hollywood and generally, those are white men,'" Harrier says of Dandridge. "Doing that research and understanding people did love each other even though it was technically illegal, I've felt really proud to be able to tell some of these stories we haven't seen before."
LuPone's Avis is a mix of two women, one modern, one from the past. "Patti LuPone['s character] is loosely based on an amalgamation of Irene Selznick and Sherry Lansing," Murphy details. "I'm friends with Sherry. She was the first female studio head and so brilliant, and I was paying tribute to her."
While Lansing made history as the first female head of production in Hollywood at 20th Century Fox and went on to become Paramount CEO, Irene Selznick worked more in the shadows initially. Daughter of Louis B. Mayer and wife of legendary producer David O. Selznick, she was largely perceived as a socialite until she separated from Selznick and became a theater producer. She certainly provided superb fodder for LuPone though. "I became obsessed with Old Hollywood," she says, explaining the impact of Selznick's book A Private View on her process.
"My research was the best thing ever. I got to re-watch all the great movies and have an excuse to watch a bunch of the classics I had not seen," David Corenswet, who plays aspiring actor Jack Costello, says. In particular, he turned to Jimmy Stewart movies to infuse his character with an aw-shucks optimism. But there was also one key moment in On the Waterfront that helped unlock the role for him.
"The scene where he says, 'I coulda been a contender,' I just watched that over and over again. It's shot so simply and there aren't a lot of bells and whistles, and it just feels like another scene. But the writing and acting really hit home," he reflects. "That was actually the moment that I took the most inspiration from because Jack being a character who doesn't know very much and is kind of naive and earnest, and had a lot of very kind of vague ideas about what life would be like for him when he becomes a movie star and has reality smashed in his face. He just wants to do something that matters and he doesn't know whether he's going to get that chance. That was a good touchstone.
"Jack is a lot more temperamentally like Jimmy Stewart than he is like Marlon Brando," Corenswet takes care to point out. "Much more happy-go-lucky and never quite sure whether he'd done something wrong or whether the world is just crazy."
While all of their characters were only loosely inspired by these real Hollywood legends, the cast now has a deep affection for the era and a wish list of real figures they'd like to portray someday. While Picking is happy to stick with Rock Hudson, others, as discussed in the EW Around the Table video above, get more creative.
"I've auditioned for Marilyn about five times," reveals Samara Weaving, who portrays her own version of a fictional platinum blonde bombshell in the series. "But Ingrid Bergman would be great. She had such a story as well. There are so many amazing women from that time who were more than just a pretty face."
While Harrier echoes her dedication to Dandridge, she also dreams of playing another early black star, Josephine Baker. "I want to see you in the bananas," adds LuPone, referencing Baker's iconic banana skirt. LuPone then chooses two mega-legends, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, while Jim Parsons goes for someone even more unexpected — Katharine Hepburn.
We can just hear him saying "the calla lilies are in bloom again" now.
Watch the video above for more. Hollywood hits Netflix May 1.