Tue. Oct 27th, 2020

Interview: Jeremy Pope on ‘Hollywood,’ the Oscars and validation through telling Black stories

Jeremy Pope is a two-time Tony Award nominee. With Broadway musical roles in Choir Boy and Ain’t Too Proud, it seems fitting that a triple-threat performer should star in a series set in Old Hollywood. When Pope talked to me by phone, in many ways he mirrored the ebullient loyal character that marks his television debut. In Ryan Murphy’s seven-episode drama Hollywood, he plays Archie Coleman; a Black openly gay aspiring screenwriter bouncing through tinseltown with only his talent and drive, and a bit of luck, to guide him. To these ends, a struggling actor Jack Costello (David Corenswet) offers Archie a job as a gas-station attendant at The Golden Tip. Here, like the other employees, he doubles as a male escort to the closeted creatives who pull-in to visit “Dreamland.” It’s how he meets Roy Fitzgerald (Jake Picking), who later changed his name to Rock Hudson.  

Not limited to the Golden Tip—Archie also has a screenplay called Meg—based upon Peg Entwistle’s deadly leap from the Hollywood sign, which unbeknownst to him, will soon land him a deal with Ace Pictures. Throughout Murphy’s series—a follow-up to other hits like Glee, Nip/Tuck, and Pose—Archie confronts racism and homophobia by relying on his inner-strength and the support of his friends. He’s the heartbeat of Hollywood; a drama whose thesis revolves around the question of “What-if?” What if talented gay men and women and people of color were given a chance to display their ability freely? What would happen? Here, in this series, is such an alternative history. 

Pope was a star before this series began, even if we hadn’t yet fixed our telescopes in his direction. But he’s even more so now. With a plethora of breathtaking scenes—composed of extreme yet easy emotion and entrancing aura and charm—he fills every second of screen time like MGM once filled their movies with giddy extras. He does so with the lesson Murphy’s Hollywood hopes to impart: Good people do good work, if given the chance.       

So to begin, I want to start with how you crafted Archie because everyone in the series has clear historical parallels when it comes to their characters. At least within the confines of Old Hollywood. However, there really wasn’t an Archie, then: what examples did you find in your research that you based the character off of?

For me, this is kind of a dream. I got to create my own backstory for Archie that informed me to research what his fashion was like, who were writers he looked up to. But I found I was able to work with the costume department because I needed Archie to have so much swag. That was just because I knew that he had to have an equal amount of confidence in who he was. Here we are talking about this Black openly gay man in the 40’s. That’s two strikes on him. So I knew he was going to try to navigate on a thin line, making it in Hollywood. He was going to have to come in correct—looking his best—feeling his best. 

One person that I admired—who Jeremy Pope admires—who I felt Archie kind of resembled—is James Baldwin. Someone who I think was ahead of his time, and had an understanding of the culture in the way he was able to speak out about it; and kind of changed the way people saw themselves—and the way they looked at the world. I felt like if anything that’s what Archie needed to feel like—that type of love and understanding—empathy and compassion for the world. And kind of like this activist for changing and breaking the mold—breaking the things that are customary. “Black writers have to write Black scripts. What if I don’t do that?” You put that all together and you get Archie Coleman.

When I look at Archie, I see someone who’s ebullient and empathetic, but also a little road weary and experienced. There’s this moment where Camille wants to star in Meg, and Archie is initially resistant to changing the script. It feels like that’s partly born from being afraid that there’s not enough room for two Black people to shine. How often have you felt that in your career?

Yeah, absolutely. I moved to New York City right out of high school. I was in theater, from where I grew up, and I was the only Black kid. We were like, “We got one.” So I was kind of holding down that position. But then you go to New York and you realize there’s so many more of us.

There is this moment when you’re like, “Fuck. I’m trying to grind it. I’m trying to drive this thing.” It becomes this crabs in a barrel. There can only be one of us celebrating at a time. Because a lot of the time, there basically is only one position at all. That’s a common struggle. It is tricky because Archie is like, “Hey friend. Hey sis. I don’t even know you: And I’m sure you’re lovely—and I’m sure you’re great—because you’re the only Black girl under contract at the studio—but what I’m trying to do is break the mold, and I don’t know if I can do that with you on the team.” 

I remember being infuriated at Archie because of the way that his brain had to think. But again, that is the ugly truth. And then I think it kind of switches later on when they do try to strip Archie of this success. They said, “Hey. We’re going to make the movie, but we’re going to take your name off of it. You’ll still get paid. But the thing you’re trying to do, no one will ever know about it.” Then it becomes, “If they’re going to strip me then the one chance I have is for Camille to get a shot at this role.” He goes to her and says, “I need you to get this. This is for us. Do it for us.”

It is tricky and I’ve definitely felt that. But now having worked, and been in the business, and understanding what’s for you is for you: I began to celebrate. I know instead of looking up for opportunity, I look around. I find other actors and people who I like working with. If I didn’t get something I send it like, “Yo, bro. I think you should go in for this. One of us gotta get it.” It becomes that kind of energy instead of trying to hold onto something for yourself. If one of us wins, we all win. That’s the way I look at it, and that’s one thing that Archie has to figure out. Yes, it’s about him winning. But it’s about them winning. Whatever that looks like. That is always the way to go. 

In that sense, Hollywood obviously is about talented people being given an opportunity. You’ve had so many breakthroughs in the last few years. What do you consider your big break and how did you feel when you got it?

Timing is everything, and trust in timing. From Broadway last season where I had the big splash, where most people were introduced to my work and what I do, we had this show Choir Boy, my Broadway debut written by Tarell Alvin McCraney who won the Oscar for Moonlight. But let’s cut to 2013 when I originated the role and Tarell hadn’t won. It was the same play, same heartbreaking story and message. But it was just the timing of all these things. And I was grateful to MTC (Manhattan Theater Club), which was the theater company who brought it back to Broadway. So it’s all just the timing, which led to my tv-debut with Ryan Murphy. 

There were years ago when I was supposed to do a screen test for Ryan Murphy for the show Glee. But I was doing Choir Boy at the time, and the schedules conflicted, so I didn’t end up doing it. So it’s all about the timing. I was fortunate with Ryan and Hollywood. I didn’t have a reel ready at hand to say look at all the things he can do on tv. Ryan hadn’t seen any of the productions I was doing on Broadway. It was strictly just based off of the tapes, the energy and the conversations we had. I respect him so much for giving me that opportunity, so I can really dig in and do some really good work. I feel like what we’re saying here is just so, so important. 

I want to go back to Episode Four, which I think is probably the high watermark of the series emotionally, at least until the final episode. There’s this moment where Camille struggles to cry on camera. You have a few moments where your emotions flow. What struggles have you had in that regard, and how do you approach those scenes where you have to show that emotion?

It’s weird. I’ll do all of my homework at home. And theater—it teaches you how to be consistent—and you find a way to do that and to make the story feel fresh. So it’s weird when I would be rehearsing scenes with myself: or if I had friends reading lines with me—I would never get emotional during rehearsal. But because I knew that when I get in the room, and I get there, and we’re having conflict in the episode, of course, I had the best scene partners. Everyone was so giving. No one was ever like, “This is your coverage, so I’m not going to give you what you need.” No matter where the camera was, we were all there for each other. So when I had these scenes where I’m being asked to get emotional, I was talking to Janet Mock (specifically in episode four) I’d asked her, “What do you see for this scene?”

We have this discussion, what must it have felt like for this Black man being asked in school, and his name being stripped—and then you have Jack, his “friend” being like, “Hey man, can you help me out here?” 

And he’s like, “Bro. I’m out here tryin’ to struggle just to get into the room, and you’re asking me to help you?” 

So you have those scenes with those conversations: that anger—that emotion. I felt that. It kind of presented itself on screen. I also went to the writing. The writing is there and it didn’t feel like anything I had to manufacture. I felt like I had experienced certain things in my own walking journey similar to what he was going through. So it was easy to just kind of tap into those moments and feel that for a moment. Then cut. And then wipe the tears, start laughing, and hang with my cast. Just giving the kind of visibility of what it really was like for these people during this time.

Archie has a sweeping romance with Rock Hudson. To go back on the research front, how much did you research Rock Hudson before forming the chemistry between yourself and Jake Picking, or was that chemistry born out of conversations that you and Jake had?

Me and Jake had met up once before we started filming. And that’s because Ryan told me who he had cast. At this time, I had only read episodes one and two, so I didn’t know what this romance was gonna look like. I just knew that at some point they would meet… and we would see, kind of what that looked like. But we talked. I read about Rock and I knew some of his movies and watched some of them. But I knew that the Rock we were talking about… the Roy Fitzgerald… It was the new Rock that just moved into town and was trying to get his foot into the business. 

I remember on our first day of working together, we were shooting our intimacy scenes. All of our sex stuff was like the first day. We had this intimacy coach and they’re telling us so many things. It was just a lot being thrown at us. It was both of our first sex scene on camera. And I remember we sent everyone out of the holding room. We were just there for each other. I was like, “What do you need?” Because I know that we are going to have to lean on each other in such a weird way in order to feel safe and taken care of moving forward. 

We talked [about] his fears. [Jack] was anxious about just playing this iconic figure and I just shared with him my personal experience of having just come from playing Eddie Kendricks from the Temptations on Broadway. I was like, “Your job right now is to just speak from your heart and bring the essence of Rock. That’s all you can do. I just know that Ryan Murphy saw Rock Hudson in you and that’s the only ‘yes’ you’ll ever need. You don’t need the validation from anything else because you’re going to always come with truth and with understanding. You’ve done the work. You’ve done research. Now just live.” “I got you. I’m going to be there to support you with whatever you need.” 

I remember walking into that first intimate scene where we meet each other, and feeling so connected to Rock or Roy, and-or-just Jake. He’s such a sweet guy. I felt like having stepped into this crazy ass sex shit, we knew like moving forward: “We’ve been there. Done that.” We’ve already been in the most intimate space together. If anything, just always hold each other down. 

I felt like in every scene we had we made it our responsibility to really lock and load and support each other to that. Because ultimately that is what that relationship is. You see these characters going through so much strife outside of when they’re together, but they become each other’s home. They become the safe spot. So they need each other, and they lean on each other. And we knew that. That’s what we were actually doing in real life. I think when people are standing and they’re rooting for Rock and Archie it’s for that support that they have for one another.

You talked about validation, and a lot of Hollywood is about validation, and seeing yourself on the screen. The ending of the last episode has a big Oscar ceremony. What’s the earliest or most profound memory that you have watching the Oscars? Is there a specific win that you thought gave [you] some kind of validation?

For me, it really was just a few years back when my mentor Tarell McCraney won the Oscar for Moonlight. I remember just sobbing my eyes out because I knew Tarell—and I knew that this story that he had written about this Black man was kind of based on his life—and things that he went through like losing his mother to drugs. He just put so much of himself out there. And I think he was never looking at it like, “I’m going to share my story for the Oscars.” Because unfortunately that’s not how Black stories usually work. You tell it because you’re offering healing and you’re offering a safe conversation for people who maybe have experienced that—or we want to talk about just the stigma within the Black community—which is what I think he was doing.

But to know that that story resonated with so many people, it was kind of like our fairytale version of Meg. It was like people began to feel and understand and want more. [The Oscars] gave it that validation of: “We hear you, and we see you.” 

I remember being home in New York, and just the whole night I was like I just want Tarell to win that award. They don’t have to win nothin’ else. Obviously they won Best Picture, which really blew my mind. But I just wanted him to go out—and be able to stand on that stage and know that he is good enough—and that what he struggled with—and how vulnerable he is as an activist, as an artist to get to tell these stories, these humanizing stories: We appreciate that. I know, I appreciate that. It was beautiful for me.

Hollywood is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Robert Daniels is a freelance film critic based in Chicago with a MA in English. He’s the founder of 812filmreviews, and has written for ThePlaylist, Consequence of Sound, AwardsWatch and Mediaversity. You can find him on Twitter at @812filmreviews

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