Movies have always blended fact with fiction. To watch a Hollywood biopic from the 1940s is to realize you’re getting a real-life figure mixed with a heavy dose of romanticism and erasure. It’s the route taken with Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix limited series “Hollywood,” and as actor Darren Criss says, it’s appropriate. “[Hollywood] is the godfather of revision…we’re literally giving Hollywood the Hollywood treatment.”
To Criss’ point, the Hollywood treatment has always been a double-edged sword, one filled with as many fairy tales and happy endings as there are outright omissions and fabrications. But when it comes to the real-life figures Murphy portrays in the series there’s an interesting dichotomy presented, one that’s at times painfully bittersweet as it is completely invented.
For Michelle Krusiec, who portrays Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, and Jake Picking, who plays Rock Hudson, it was an opportunity to give their real-life counterparts an agency they were denied in life. “It was painful to research her, and learn her story, and to try and figure out what the uplifting moment in her story was because I felt she was so betrayed,” Krusiec told IndieWire. “I was really in the moment learning her history was getting to be rewritten. And it was very healing to see that wrong being righted.”
Krusiec, who is Chinese-American, didn’t know much about Wong outside of the fact that “she was an icon” and that, allegedly, Wong’s career ended because she wasn’t a good actress. “I was always told that Anna May Wong…didn’t really have what it took to be a movie star — she just wasn’t that good.” After Krusiec did some research and immersed herself in the few films, books, and literary articles readily available on Wong “I started learning about all of the things that were against her. I started to realize ‘no wonder she couldn’t succeed,'” Krusiec said.
And, for the “Hollywood” actress, playing Wong brought up commonalities with her own career and experiences in the entertainment industry. “The material just hits home for me,” Krusiec said. Drawing on her own experiences as both an Asian American and a woman, she says there was a catharsis doing the sequences where Wong gets angry about her situation and speaks her mind, especially since Wong, in reality, probably wasn’t allowed to vent. “She had to maintain a certain kind of poise, and elegance, and class,” she said
Saeed Adyani / Netflix
In performing the character and resonating with her, Krusiec explained it’s hard to believe there is change happening. “The question I face all the time is ‘Is the industry really changing?’ The fact that very little has changed from when she [Wong] was around to today was really tragic and eye-opening,” she said. It’s why the Krusiec is currently working on getting back into screenwriting and directing with the hope of doing more good as a creator.
Real-life figure Rock Hudson and his agent Henry Willson also receive the revisionist treatment, taking a narrative that is darker in a different way than Wong. Actor Jim Parsons, who portrays Willson in “Hollywood,” says he was initially worried about how he would be portrayed in the series — if he was going to be a comic villain or an overwrought caricature. “There’s certainly a lot of fun had through the character, and even comedy through his villainous ways at times, but there is a darkness and depth,” he said. Parsons made clear that the audience doesn’t pity Willson, who does some heinous things throughout the series; instead he wanted to focus on what a broken figure he was.
This comes across clearest as the fictional Hudson and Willson’s relationship changes through the series. Parson says Picking, who plays Hudson, never acted in a way so that the audience feels sorry for Willson. Instead their relationship highlights how “fate had brought them together in this business,” says Parson. And for all their animosity and the realities of their relationship Parson says: “It was such an interesting and complicated relationship. Rock needed him as well, Rock got something out of that relationship.” Willson died penniless in 1978 — spending every last dime on transforming his clients — and while Parsons emphasizes he wasn’t a “fairy godfather” to his clients, he wanted to showcase Willson’s commitment.
And for Picking himself, a key component of his performance and technique was to focus on his vulnerability. “I read that he bit his cuticles,” Picking told IndieWire. “Any signs of ‘effeminacy’ was eradicated. I feel that’s tragic to have to change who you are.” The role seeks to remind people of the battles women and the LGBTQ community are still waging, Picking says. “I wanted to pay homage to Rock.”
“Hollywood” is now streaming on Netflix.