In Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, currently streaming on Netflix, the golden age of Tinseltown gets a revisionist and idealized makeover, becoming a place where women, people of color and LGBTQ actors and filmmakers become center stage instead of outliers waiting in the wings.
For actor Jake Picking, who plays Rock Hudson before he hit the big time, the road to Hollywood wasn’t always the most direct path. He born in Germany, an army brat to a military father, but grew up Boston. He listened to Kid Cudi and made his own music using Garage Band. On the advice of a math teacher in high school, Jake avoided a path of goofing off to try acting and make good use of his antics. He entered New York University for business and to play hockey but it didn’t feel right. That nagging thought of the creative thrill of acting kept nagging at him so he dropped out and entered the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. He was finally inspired to be doing what he wanted to do but financially he was on a precipice and again, dropped out. But something had clicked over in him and, and classic Hollywood fashion, he packed his bags and made his way to Los Angeles despite having no contacts or connections. He slowly built his resume with bit parts in 2013’s The Way Way Back and a trio of films in 2016 – Goat, with Nick Jonas, Dirty Grandpa with Robert De Niro and Zac Efron, and Patriots Day with Mark Wahlberg, that returned him to his Boston roots.
This year, he was seen in Netflix’s Horse Girl, with Alison Brie, where his musical talents were on display, but is really breaking through starring as Roy Fitzgerald, aka Rock Hudson, in Hollywood. I spoke to Jake about the daunting task of playing such a complicated and iconic actor, working with Jim Parsons and Jeremy Pope, who he admires and wants to work with in the future and his biggest film to date, the Christmas release Top Gun: Maverick.
What brought you from Boston to Los Angeles? What’s the Jake Picking origin story?
(laughs) Well, I really listened to my math teacher in high school who said, ‘I don’t know if anyone can tell if you’re being serious or not, so you should try acting.’ And I guess I realized I had an ability, you know, when I was joking or whatever with my friends, but the stakes were always really high in my head, like you have to believe in that kind of thing. I ended up taking a class in Boston at the same teacher that taught Damon and Affleck [Carolyn Pickman], who I looked up to at that time and she said, you should do this. So I ended up going to NYU and kind of caught the bug there there but I ended up just dropping out after a year and just moving to LA.
Let’s jump right into Hollywood. How much did you know about Rock Hudson before taking on the role?
I was cognizant of who Rock was. That was a big part of you know, Brando, Newman, Dean, these are all guys, you know, Montgomery Clift. These are all guys that I looked up to. I mean that’s a little further on, in terms of era, but I often find myself posing the question ‘what would they do?’ When I first moved to LA, Ryan [Murphy] asked me a similar thing. I had that kind of loneliness and existential angst and those became some of my favorite things to do is I kind of ended up going on this nocturnal schedule and putting these neon lights up in my room. I would watch black and white films, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I loved that. I had watched Pillow Talk before and then, you know, more recently All That Heaven Allows and Magnificent Obsession, which were Rock movies. Ok now I feel like I’m rambling. But yeah, I love those guys. I love this era.
I recently read that Ryan Murphy saw 150 actors before settling on you, what do you think put you over the top?
(laughs) Ahhh you know what I really liked when I first met with Ryan? Beside the fact that most people don’t know that he’s really funny and has a dry sense of humor, he’s super fervent. Like there’s this dichotomy between him being funny but then he’s very serious and has carried that gravity that I like.
We sat down and we kind of cut down the brass tacks and he was just was like, ‘Tell me everything you know about Rock Hudson.’ It was like, boom, right off the bat. That was kind of inspiring to me. I liked being put on my toes. There’s almost a feeling of like claustrophobia where I was just like, ‘Yeah let’s go.’ I love that.
How did you strike the balance between and interpretation of somebody as famous as Hudson was?
Man, that’s a good question. I think when I sat down and talked to Ryan, he was like, you just want to capture the essence of who Rock was, on his rise to stardom. I think that entailed me, you know, I watched all his older films on silent by the body language, looking to interviews, but more than that was just delving into his personal relationships and his history.
One anecdote that stood out to me was as a kid his father left him and his mom got on a bus, they went cross country California and said, ‘Hey, can you come back?’ He said, no. So I just can’t imagine that at a young age, your father rejecting you, it’s just not a good, it doesn’t fit well. And then on top of that, his stepfather came in. I read somewhere where it’s not a secret unless it’s painful to hold onto. And I feel like that’s what Rock was constantly doing, holding onto something. And you know, and being ostracized for something. But through all of that, I still believe he was a hero because of how resilient he was.
Most of your scenes in Hollywood are with Jeremy Pope who plays your boyfriend and Jim Parsons, who plays your agent. Tell me a little bit about working with each of these guys.
They were a true joy. I mean, you know, Jim and I are have a lot of scenes that are kind of, you know what’s the word?
Yeah tense, sure. Risqué. At first I feel like it became this whole salacious nature about it. But then what I think what it becomes is a love story. But basically my point is I feel very safe with both of them and we just know that we want to pay homage, especially playing a real person, you know, so like we were a thousand percent in. Even on the first day with Jeremy, it was a very intimate scene and there was a coordinator there and everything. But we knew that we were willing to do whatever it takes to try and make the audience feel like a fly on the wall and really pay homage to these guys. And at the end of the day, I think the sentiment of the show is hopefully something to root for in these like darker times. I think to judge anyone really on what makes them who they are is pretty toxic. I think that that’s what this [show] stands for, hopefully, you know?
The series presents an idealized, ‘what if’ version of golden age of Hollywood where women and people of color and LGBTQ actors and filmmakers are really represented, how different do you think the landscape would be now if this had actually happened?
I think a lot different. Maybe we wouldn’t have seen the Me Too thing, you know? I think it’s super groundbreaking for Netflix first of all to empower someone like [series director] Janet Mock. Like you said, the battle for equal representation and opportunities for people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ community is still being waged today. I think that this is a triumphant ballad here.
Did you have a favorite scene or sequence from the series?
I just love the set itself. Even from two hours in the makeup trailer next to Jim, putting on our face prosthetics just to stepping into such a timewarp. The colors, everything’s just so romantic from that time. Did I have a favorite scene? I don’t know. Even my first day with Jim was like I had to meet him and then yell at him for an hour. I don’t even know if that made it in. I think the scene where Joe Mantello says basically it’s okay to be who you are to Rock. It’s just funny how like one word of encouragement, a few words of encouragement, you know, even the decisions that were being made in the boardroom for Hollywood, like how it can have that domino effect, you know?
I think this kind of the whole show does is present the idea that one decision can completely impact a life on a small and a large scale.
Yeah, it does.
So did you see Rock Hudson differently since before you started?
I think I respected them more, you know, showing up every day. I mean, not to sound too actorly, but just feeling that anguish of like feeling like you have to hide something and that feeling of not being accepted by your own dad and stepdad. I just really respected his own resilience. Everything that he went through. I think America’s relationship became less about puppy love and more about genuine affection. I think what I appreciate about Rock was like, ‘just do it.’ When people asked him about acting he would say, ‘There’s no secret, just do it.’ He was very blunt and honest in that way. I really respect that.
You’ve also got a part in Horse Girl, which is on Netflix as well, where you sing and rap. Where did the inspiration for that come from?
I think it’s just a part of some of the high schools in Boston and then some of the locker rooms, there was a lot of freestyle rapping. I was kind of that loner in high school I would go back to my room and do Garage Band and like listen to like Kid Cudi stuff. So it was my healthy form of escapism kind of the way that acting can be. I just started making songs by myself and [Horse Girl director] Jeff was cool enough to put those sounds in the movie. Yeah, it is cool.
I understand you have some new music coming out.
Yeah. I mean we’ll see. I’m really just trying to get over that notion that, you know, I’m not giving up, you just got to pull the trigger and just like, just do it, like Rock would, kind of thing.
2020 is definitely a breakthrough year for you because not only do you have Hollywood and Horse Girl and your music, you’ve got Top Gun Maverick this Christmas. What was that like?
Oh man. I’ll tell you what, like the filming sequences are unprecedented. That’s like the main thing that I think that’ll translate and the camaraderie on set was incredible. All the actors got all real training from pilots. That was probably the coolest part.
Well, everybody knows that Tom Cruise is pretty insistent on doing as many stunts as he can. Did that push you and everybody else around to match that?
I think so. Everyone just has that respect for him, obviously. He has that old school work ethic. He has a great work ethic and mentality, you know, and he’s real; he looks you in the eye and he always shows up prepared.
Who are some directors and actors that you want to work with in the future?
Oh man, I just want to do good work, that’s such a hard question! I really like, I really respect Timothée Chalamet a lot. I think the work he does is really present. Jennifer Lawrence has always been, I like Winter’s Bone, she’s so present. David O. Russell I’ve always wanted to work with, Scorsese. I should just cut now before I start rambling.
No, this is good. You know, somebody will hear it and think, ‘Hey, wait a minute. I want to work with that guy too.’
(laughs) Let’s hope so!
Hollywood is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.