‘Hollywood’: Janet Mock and Darren Criss Get a Chance to Rewrite History

Ryan Murphy's Netflix fantasy gives the series director and actor the opportunity to explore a diverse entertainment industry.
Laura Harrier and Darren Criss

To talk about Hollywood’s history is to discuss the erasure of minorities, from people of color and women to those in the LGBTQ community. Actress Hattie McDaniel infamously said “I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than earn $7 a day being a maid,” and, to add insult to injury, when she won her Academy Award for “Gone With the Wind,” she wasn’t allowed to sit in the front row of the auditorium with her fellow nominees. So to watch Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series “Hollywood” is not just to see a reconfigured world where a studio in the late 1940s would take a risk on an actress of color, but it’s also to fill its frame — both in front of the camera and behind it — with those the time period would have discounted.

For actress Laura Harrier, who plays fictional actress Camille Washington in the series, there was an awareness of the limitations she faced in her own career in seeking out projects set during “Hollywood’s” era. “I have always loved this era and would have dreamed to play an Old Hollywood movie star but, at the same time, I never thought I could because the lack of representation was very real,” she said. In the era of Hollywood-set biopics like “The Aviator” and “Norma Jean and Marilyn,” most actresses of color can’t even be considered for remembrances of the past. “Halle Berry [already] played Dorothy Dandridge,” Harrier joked.

This is the new way of approaching history, from “Hollywood” to Showtime’s new take on “Penny Dreadful.” There’s an acknowledgement and awareness of the blindspots of history. Murphy alumnus, Golden Globe-winner Darren Criss, says that to examine the characters within “Hollywood” is to realize how many minorities have been written out of history, whether by race, gender, or sexual orientation. His character, director Raymond Ainsley, is fictional, “but I don’t know if there were people like him,” Criss tells IndieWire — “people like him” in the sense of someone willing to go above and beyond to expand representation. “It makes me think of all the different combinations of men and women of different backgrounds that we don’t know about simply because history didn’t allow them to be a part of it,” he said.

For Criss, and the entire cast of “Hollywood,” the series offers an opportunity to give them a Hollywood history that was initially denied them. Murphy is no stranger to casting a magnifying glass on Old Hollywood, going as far back to the first season of “American Horror Story” and its brief divergence into the life of actor Sal Mineo. As Criss says, Murphy has become an advocate who not only understands his privilege as a white male but utilized it into a “bait and switch” to tell stories about the people left behind. “He crashed through and used those things [fear and prejudice] as his own personal fuel,” he said.

In fact, it’s not too far off for Criss to say the character he plays, that of an idealistic director who believes movies can do more towards representation, might be based on Murphy himself. “Here’s a guy that uses film as a vehicle for social justice,” he said. “There’s a much higher calling than just making movies which, you go ‘that’s exactly what Ryan Murphy has been doing his entire career.'” And with this season in particular, Murphy’s meta narrative comes through the casting of the people who litter Hollywood’s landscape — not just placing the half-Filipino Criss or Harrier in lead roles — but also in allowing long-time collaborator and producer Janet Mock to direct several episodes.

“[Janet] brought out levels of my performance that I didn’t know were there,” Harrier said. “And I think that’s because she can relate to Camille’s story and to the feeling of being an outsider in Hollywood, and being marginalized and having to push through so many barriers to where she is now,” she said.

Harrier says she talked with Mock about Camille’s story in a way she hadn’t done previously with other directors. “Janet had a level of personalization. We were able to talk about it on a deeper level.” She described re-enacting a screen test her character undergoes in the series; it was “heavy but beautiful,” particularly as she realized the character’s excitement about being in the room to have the audition in the 1940s and the grander implications of young black girls being able to watch an accomplished woman like Camille audition when, historically, black women routinely played maids or assistants.

Criss says Murphy was very receptive to ideas he’d bring forth about his character but one element Murphy himself was really keen to introduce was the concept of white-passing and how it applies to Raymond’s character. Criss, who calls it “a unique position to be biracial” saw it as Ryan’s opportunity to look at opposition and adversity in as many different ways as possible. “Adding a half-Filipino voice is just another unique piece of armor and sword and shield to fight against” the time period in which the series is set, he said. To Criss, the villain of the series is outdated notions of who’s voice is worthy and he wanted to focus on how youth and the resilience of optimism overcame that.

There’s even more of a sense of obligation where Criss is concerned considering that, with Murphy’s guidance, he became the first Filipino-American to win a Golden Globe. “The past few years has been a really interesting educational process for me,” Criss said. “Being biracial, being anything, is an infinitely varied experience.” But in playing Ainsley and continuing to put himself out there is creating a similar sense of connection to a grander audience. Like Harrier’s story of playing an actress and, in turn, inspiring others, Criss says he’s just happy to provide “a beacon of inspiration.” “I’ve been really proud and happy to be a source of any kind of connectivity to other people….whether they’re half anything…it’s a cape and a torch I’m learning to carry [and] I hope I’m carrying it correctly,” he said.

Harrier, who drew on performers like the aforementioned Dandridge and Lena Horne, says Murphy took to employing something he called “faction,” basing the plotline in fact but using that to create his own sense of action, truth, and revision. The hope, for her, is that viewers will ask questions and contemplate how the media landscape might be different if racist and misogynist barriers were removed. “The world, I think, would be a much brighter place had these changes been made in Hollywood from the beginning,” she said.

“Hollywood” is now streaming on Netflix. 

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