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Meet the Compelling Young Stars of Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood”

Meet the Compelling Young Stars of Ryan Murphy’s “Hollywood”

Somewhere out there in the cloud—or perhaps on a forgotten bit of Netflix B-roll—there’s a recording of David Corenswet, Jeremy Pope, and Darren Criss, the three young stars of Ryan Murphy’s new limited series, Hollywood (Netflix), performing an impromptu off-script soft-shoe tap routine. “We were hoping we were going to have a musical number, so we choreographed our own,” remembers Corenswet, a native Philadelphian whose stage-actor dad raised him on a diet of classic movie musicals. “I think we made a good pitch for our own spin-off show?”

In the meantime, there’s Murphy’s latest (with cocreator Ian Brennan), his first soup-to-nuts endeavor with Netflix. He calls it a “love letter to old Hollywood,” a lighthearted revisionist history that poses a provocative question: What if the minorities, women, and queer people whose stories and contributions have always gotten short shrift had been allowed to shine in their industry’s so-called Golden Age? Murphy calls this speculative genre “faction,” a mix of fact and fiction in which made-up characters intersect with historical figures: Hattie McDaniel, Anna May Wong, Rock Hudson. The last, whose death from AIDS in the mid-’80s shook Hollywood, is a particular touchstone. “What happens if Rock Hudson is out of the closet and successful in the 1940s?” Murphy wonders.

In this alternate universe, a very young Hudson (Jake Picking) falls in love with a gay, black male prostitute named Archie (Pope), who is actually a down-on-his-luck screenwriter. Archie works for Ernie (Dylan McDermott), who runs a gas station as a front for an industry-facing prostitution ring. (It’s not dissimilar to the operation Scotty Bowers describes in his 2012 memoir Full Service.) Archie’s coworker Jack (Corenswet) is his straight, white foil: an aspiring actor who gets his big break when a client, an aging silent-film starlet named Avis (Patti LuPone), hooks him up with a contract at her husband’s studio. (“She didn’t mind throwing in one-liners” during sex scenes, says Corenswet, “some at my expense, some very complimentary!”) Meanwhile, Criss, who is half Filipino, plays a biracial director whose ability to pass as white affords him opportunities denied his Asian peers.

It’s fun, naughty, and kind of zany,” says Criss, a Murphy veteran (Glee, American Horror Story, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story). At 33, he’s the trio’s elder statesman, while Corenswet and Pope, like their characters, are Hollywood greenhorns. Corenswet, 26, a lantern-jawed Juilliard grad whom Murphy compares to Leonardo DiCaprio, had a breakthrough last year in The Politician. (“Breakthrough implies there’s something on the other side,” he demurs. “I relish every moment on set, assuming I’ll never get another.”) For Pope, 27, an Orlando-born, twice Tony-nominated Broadway star with smooth, matinee-idol good looks, Hollywood is only his second screen-acting credit.

Of the three male leads, it’s Pope—who in many ways identifies with Archie—for whom Hollywood’s revisionist premise hits closest to home. He describes being a young musical-theater student in New York City, suddenly made all too aware that leading roles for black actors were few and far between. When Murphy, a fan of Pope’s Broadway work, approached him, the actor knew what to ask: “We’re talking about this black gay writer in the ’40s. Are there going to be people in the writers’ room who represent that voice?” There were, and his rapport with Corenswet and Criss was another boon. “We talked music, we talked food, we began immediately to soft-shoe our way through life,” Pope effuses. “Ryan gives all types of artists a lane to drive in.”


American Buffalo: Darren Criss on his ‘Heavy-Hitter’ Return to Broadway

American Buffalo: Darren Criss on his ‘Heavy-Hitter’ Return to Broadway

Over the course of a few months in 2018 and 2019, Darren Criss won the Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG award for his portrayal of serial killer Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story—and checked off nearly every red carpet best dressed list, to boot.This spring he might have to brace himself for an even busier season. In May he will star in and executive produce Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood series for Netflix; he is the star, executive producer and writer of Royalties for Quibi, which launches April 6; and beginning March 24 he will return to Broadway for the revival of David Mamet’s 1975 play, American Buffalo, alongside Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne, with direction by Neil Pepe.

Criss will play Bobby, the youngest of a trio of petty thieves who conspire to steal a rare coin collection. Last seen on the Broadway in 2015, dancing on top of a car in six-inch metallic heels in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Criss is itching to get back on stage. “I’m excited to get my hands dirty and put all the pieces together,” he said on a recent phone call while driving around Los Angeles, where he’ll spend another few weeks before moving to New York to start rehearsals on the hustler drama. “It’s all speculation until you really get there and see the characters on the page and how they live in the world.”

Criss has had his sights on American Buffalo for a while now—eight years ago, he first did a reading of the Obie winning play, but nothing came of it. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” he says. “When I found out about the revival, my tail was wagging off of my body.”

American Buffalo opens April 14 at Circle in the Square Theatre.

What is your relationship to American Buffalo?
I always say that American Buffalo is an American standard, in the same way that we have jazz standards. If you’re a musician, you have a pretty comprehensive familiarity with Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, and if you’re studying theater, American Buffalo is a really big fixture in a drama student’s upbringing. It’s a heavy-hitter play.

How were you cast?
I did a reading of American Buffalo around eight years ago. It was put together by Jeffrey Richards, who is now the producer of this play. Being in that room was wildly exciting to me. I remained in and out of touch with Jeffrey, and I remember reading an article online that Sam Rockwell and Laurence Fishburne were going to star in a limited run of American Buffalo, produced by none other than the same Jeffrey Richards. Within three minutes, I emailed Jeffrey and asked, ‘Hey, do you guys have a Bobby yet? Did my window of opportunity close eight years ago?’ I thought that ship had sailed, but they were very receptive of my enthusiasm and we made it work. It was hot and heavy very quickly.

When did you first meet David Mamet?
We all met for the first time a few weekends ago while we were doing a photoshoot. I was thrilled to be able to connect the dots between the playwriting voice and the human voice. He was very lovely to me and I was thrilled to have the support to be in his play.

Have you ever seen a production of American Buffalo before?
I’ve read it two or three times in the past, and I’ve seen people do scenes, but I’ve never actually seen a full-blown production of it. That’s neither a good or bad thing. There’s this learning curve of how the play exists in time and with audiences now—you have to work the piece itself as you work on your character. Getting to put my own DNA and fingerprint on these notes is a really cool assignment. And getting to do that at the highest level possible with Neil Pepe, who is the Broadway Whisperer, and with an American master writer and two American master actors is a real honor.

Did you know any of your co-stars prior to being cast?
Well, I have a lot of great memories of dancing with Sam at the Vanity Fair party the night he won his Oscar [in 2018 for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri]. I’m a massive fan of Sam’s—we’re both from the Bay area and he has always checked all of the boxes for me. He was a character actor who wasn’t necessarily mainstream, but was widely respected by his peers, and he was always working on cool projects that were wildly different than the last. I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve and have been profuse about my admiration for him. And of course Laurence Fishburne is no slacker, either. He’s a hugely magnanimous actor that has influenced a lot of people, much less actors.

How do you feel about heading back to Broadway?
I do a play every two or three years and find any excuse I can get to be back on stage—it’s an opportunity I relish. I’m all about taking hard left turns and hard right turns, and versatility, dexterity and unpredictability is kind of the name of the game for me. When I found out that they were doing the play, I couldn’t believe it. It was just too perfect.