Gian Franco Rodriguez is more than a Polaroid.
Rodriguez, who plays famed fashion designer Halston’s lover Victor Hugo on Netflix’s Halston, set the Internet ablaze when a promo photo for the show was released in the build-up to the premiere. Thankfully, he was able to let his work speak for itself once the show was released.
As the flawed, complicated Hugo, Rodriguez was determined to show off his humanity, as well. In his first television role, his performance manages to be simultaneously nuanced and boisterous, an honest portrayal of a man who very often wasn’t.
Daniel Trainor spoke with Rodriguez about the research that went into playing Hugo, filming sex scenes with co-star Ewan McGregor and, duh, the feverish reaction to that photo.
Daniel Trainor: Prior to the project, how much knowledge did you have about both Halston and Victor Hugo?
Gian Franco Rodriguez: Not much. Prior to the audition, nothing. The first time I really looked into it was for the audition.
DT: So, what was your preparation process like, especially after you booked it?
GFR: For the audition, I watched all of the documentaries that were out there and read as much as I could. Once I found out I booked it, our wonderful director Daniel [Minahan] gave me access to a lot of other stuff that I couldn’t find online. There were interviews and videos that were really, really helpful with the movement and the physicality. Hands down, the best thing that I had the chance to do was sit down with one of his friends in real life. His friend knew him before he even met Halston, so he saw him go through the entire process. And then he was actually at the hospital with him when he passed away. He saw everything. I sat down with him and asked him so many questions. He even had a box filled with some of his stuff, including his passport, which was pretty surreal for me to hold.
DT: Wow, that’s very powerful. To me, it seemed like Victor’s entire life was about the desperate struggle to be taken seriously, both in his work and in his relationships. What did you draw on for that?
GFR: The way I approach a character was a little different in this case because he was a real person. The first thing I wanted to analyze was his ulterior motive. I wanted to find out his ultimate goal, and then all of the things happening in between. Ultimately, I think he was a person who went through a lot of stuff growing up. His own traumas. He probably had somebody who made him feel like he wasn’t good enough. He needed to accomplish a lot and make a name for himself in order to feel like he was good enough. That’s why it’s so complicated for him to be in a relationship with somebody who he admired and, in some ways, was a shortcut to get to that place. But at the same time, he was also under his shadow. That gives you a very complex relationship.
DT: Ultimately, the love story between Victor and Halston is a tragic one. What do you think each of them really meant to each other? How much love was there, or was it really all about power and status?
GFR: That’s a great question. I do think there was love, but I also think these were two people who were so stubborn and had a lot of power issues. After being together for 15 years, just like any long relationship, there’s love and then eventually there’s some hate and resentment and pain. They were both alpha males.
DT: When Victor started selling stories to the papers, what do you think his end goal was? Did he really just want money, or was it about more than that?
GFR: To me, it was never just about money. It was more about power. It was about him feeling worthy and good enough. He didn’t want to just die and be nothing. He’s coming from a different country. When you go from one country to another, you’re looking for a better future. You’re looking to make a difference. It was more about how far he was able to go, to test the waters and see if he could push the buttons that nobody ever had. If you showed him that he could, that was a way for him to know that you still have feelings for him.
DT: Well, and because they were so close, he probably knew what those buttons were better than anybody.
GFR: Right, exactly.
DT: You and Ewan obviously became very intimate during the process of filming this. How did you two prepare for those scenes?
GFR: He and I just got along right away, honestly. It was funny how we met. The main cast was all supposed to meet someplace with the director, but the two of us actually ran into each other outside on the way in. We didn’t have anybody introduce us. We saw each other, we recognized each other and we arrived together. From the get-go, we just had that vibe. We knew that we were going to have to do a lot of things together. We just had a great relationship from the beginning. On days when we weren’t shooting, the director would get us all together. On the weekends, we were together. He wanted it to feel like a family. By the time I started shooting with them, Ewan said “it’s so weird because I don’t feel like this is your first day.” We always had that energy. As for the intimate stuff, it was good. It was easy because we had an intimacy coordinator on set. That was very, very helpful. It just felt very professional and comfortable. The key of the entire thing, I think, is that we didn’t really rehearse much of the sexual stuff. We would get to set and do our thing. Ewan knew Halston better than anybody on set, and I knew what Victor would do better than anybody else on set. So when we would get together to do the scenes, it was like puzzle pieces coming together.
DT: There was quite the hubbub surrounding your promo Polaroid for the show. Are you starting to relax into your role as a sex symbol?
GFR: (laughs) It’s very new for me. Not just the sex symbol thing, but it’s my first time working on TV. In general, the attention is very new. I mean, I’m enjoying it so far. Before the show, people were reaching out because of the Polaroid, saying “that’s a hot picture” or whatever, right? But once the show came out, all of the comments changed and they were like “you’re actually good on the show.”
DT: You’re also talented?! This isn’t fair.
GFR: (laughs) Yeah, that made me very happy. The conversation flipped a little bit and it was about my work, not just the picture. I definitely put a lot more work into the acting than I did the picture.
DT: I thought the scene in which Victor receives his HIV diagnosis was very moving. What was it like to get into that headspace?
GFR: Thank you, thank you. That was actually the scene that I put the most work into. Or, maybe not more work. But it’s the one that would keep me up at night the most. I wanted to do justice to the people who went through it. It’s a very heavy subject. We’re talking about a different era where all of this just happened out of nowhere. It had to be very, very scary. Whenever I had to work on set, I would get away from my phone at least 24 hours before. I would try to isolate myself and spend the day just reviewing what I had been working on. For that scene, I spent the 24 hours before just watching every movie or documentary or anything that was somehow related to AIDS. It was a heavy, heavy day. I went to bed and it was hard to go to sleep. I slept like three hours, woke up and went to set.
DT: You’re now part of the Ryan Murphy television universe, which is a pretty exclusive club. What was it like working with him? How much collaboration was there?
GFR: He’s great, man. I’ve admired his work for a long time. I think my favorite thing about him is that he doesn’t do things just to do them. He puts things out there that have a message for society. I really like that. I really admire that. Everything he does also just looks so pretty. Like you said, it’s a special club. That’s how I’ve always seen it, even before working on this. There’s a reason why you said “universe.” He’s created a different thing. I’m very proud to be part of it.
Halston is currently available to stream on Netflix. Gian Franco Rodriguez is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series, Anthology Series or Movie.
Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix