Speaking with Awards Daily, Jake Picking discusses the influence Rock Hudson has had on his entire career and the sense of responsibility he felt to ensure that while watching Hollywood audiences were shown a different side of the iconic actor that helped them understand the man behind the legend.
How does one go about undoing over 50 years of Hollywood lore to force audiences to rethink everything they think they know about one of history’s greatest leading men? That’s the challenge that Jake Picking was tasked with when he signed on to play Rock Hudson in Hollywood, the revisionist take on Tinsel Town’s Golden Age. Going beyond the handsome good looks and charisma for which Hudson was known, Picking set out to understand the man beneath the artificially constructed movie star.
In a conversation with Awards Daily, Jake Picking discussed his long fascination with the Hollywood icon and how his work on the new Netflix series inspired him to re-evaluate the star’s iconic career. He also discusses why he felt it was so necessary to portray Hudson with the uncharacteristic sincere earnestness, to deconstruct the making of the icon, and to show who he was at his core and who he could have freely been in an industry that adored him – if we had only let him.
Awards Daily: How familiar were you with Rock Hudson’s life and career when you first signed onto Hollywood?
Jake Picking: I was cognizant of who Rock was, and overall I love the Golden Era of Hollywood. I often find myself posing the question of what would these guys do: Brando, Dean, Clift, Hudson. These were the guys I looked up to. When I first moved to LA, I experienced this sense of loneliness, and these guys and their movies were my healthy sense of escapism. I developed this nocturnal schedule, and I found myself decorating my room with these neon lights all while watching these black and white movies.
When I first sat down with Ryan, the first thing that came out of his mouth was, ‘Tell me everything you know about Rock Hudson.’ It was so cool to meet someone else so fervent about that era and these stars that I loved.
AD: Going into the project did you have a favorite Rock Hudson film?
JP: I had seen Pillow Talk before, and I found myself rewatching it. I also loved Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows. I think as this experience began All That Heaven Allows was the film I drew from because his character was going through this social ostracization because of class, so whether or not he was drawing from his own personal life it was interesting. Obviously, that was the tragedy with Rock. I read somewhere that a secret isn’t real unless it is painful to hold onto, and that’s what he dealt with his entire life. That thing that made him who he was and because of that he is a hero.
AD: Clearly you were a huge fan of his even before portraying him in Hollywood, but I’m curious what that research process was like to understand him. Was there anything in particular that surprised you about him?
JP: More than anything I just developed an even deeper respect for who he was. I took a deep dive into his personal relationships. I read the biography of Henry Willson, The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson. The one anecdote that stands out the most is that, when he was a kid, he and his mother took a bus cross country to California because his dad left, and they went to ask him to come back. His dad said no, and I just can’t begin to imagine that rejection. Overall, this is a hopeful show, and I think you garner an empathy for these characters and what they go through.
AD: While I was watching the series, I was initially surprised by the way that Rock Hudson is depicted because it’s a manner in which we’ve never seen; that obvious earnestness and greenness. I found myself doing this online deep dive into his life and was surprised to see that a lot of it was clearly rooted in truth. Why do you think it was important to portray him in this way?
JP: I think that this world was new to him. He was an airplane mechanic over in the Philippines, and then he moved here and was driving a truck full of frozen peas and carrots. He was cognizant of how he looked and stood outside the studio gates with this drive to be discovered. What I have always appreciated about him is that throughout his career when people ask him what his method was he always answered ‘There is none, you just do it.’ I appreciate that honesty. He was such a kind and earnest person which adds more to the tragedy of how he was treated. It makes me wish he was here today to see how far we’ve come.
AD: The show obviously focuses on Rock’s queerness. In his real life this aspect of his identity was a secret and the only window that the public had into it was through his HIV status which became an incredibly unfair and grotesque way for people to view and judge him. This show gives us a new side to that identity, one where he is void of shame, one where he openly loves a sex worker, one where he proudly comes out at the Oscars. By the end of the series we see how that changes his career trajectory. I was curious what kind of conversations you had with Ryan Murphy and the rest of the creative team about this and if you think it will have an impact on the way we talk about Rock going forward.
JP: It was definitely hard to not show up to set that first day and not feel the presence of him watching. I knew that to successfully and truthfully pay homage to him I needed to be present. One of the things that stuck out to me was the signs of effeminacy that were eradicated to make the star that Rock was – straightening of wrists, don’t sway your hips, fix your teeth, don’t cross your legs, lower your voice. Hopefully, we see how America’s relationship with Rock went from puppy love to genuine affection.
In terms of whether it changes the way we talk about Rock going forward, we can only hope so. The battle of equal representation and opportunities are still being waged today, so hopefully something like this can make a real impact. Overall, I just tried to do the best I could to pay homage to him and whatever people take from that is OK.
AD: One of the harder storylines to watch unfold was the abuse that Rock suffered through under his agent Henry Willson, especially because of everything our industry is coming to terms with today. I don’t think this was an aspect of Rock Hudson’s career that many fans were familiar with prior to watching the show. What was that like as an actor to portray that journey and did you feel a sense of responsibility in ensuring it was portrayed accurately?
JP: It goes back to stepping on set and feeling that uncontrollable angst. I just had to remind myself to be present and hope that the audience felt like a fly on the wall. I just wanted to stay true to all aspects of his experience. This was his rise to fame and he was grappling with a lot. Unfortunately abuse of power is something that will always come back and to see someone able to confront that was amazing.
AD: My favorite arc to watch this season was the romantic relationship between Rock Hudson and Archie, played by Jeremy Pope. It was a relationship that I loved, and I found myself wanting more as the season ended. What was that like developing that onscreen relationship with Jeremy?
JP: He’s definitely magic. I actually only met him a few days before we started shooting. At that point I didn’t even realize how intimate of a scene that first experience would be in the apartment. There was a coordinator on set to help us, but we already knew we were 1000% committed to getting this right and paying homage to what Hollywood stands for. He’s a generous scene partner.
At the root of that budding love was true friendship and empathy. Remember at the end of that scene where Archie began talking about his writing and it truly excited Rock? They hopped onto the bed almost like two kids. They just loved hearing each other’s experience. If they didn’t have that genuine love, it wouldn’t have ended up the same way.
AD: Overall, is there any scene or moment in particular that you loved shooting?
JP: I think I just fell in love with the sensational tribute to the time period through the colors, the prosthetics, the hair, the makeup. It all felt time-warpy.
If I had to pick a favorite moment to film, it would probably be the George Cukor party. I loved shooting that private scene with Joe Mantello and found it empowering. Of course, I also loved the Oscar scene. You laugh and you cry at those moments.
AD: You mentioned the prosthetics you had to wear. At times I couldn’t stop laughing at the teeth they had you wear. What was that like? Did you have fun with that? Were they difficult to act through?
JP: Ha! You really just have to remove any ego. There were times where I felt like it was a lot and I would just remind myself that those were things he went through. They forced him to get new teeth and there was no way around it. I had a lot of fun with it. It took like two hours preparing everything from the teeth, to the my ears, a small piece on my nose, and even alterations to my eyelids and bottom lip. Jim [Parsons] went through even more of a transformation and we spent a lot of time in those makeup chairs together. It sounds like a lot but I loved it. That experience is an actors dream!
AD: In the end what do you hope is the one thing that audiences take away from Hollywood and the life of Rock Hudson?
JP: Don’t be afraid to be yourself. It’s ok to be unapologetic about it. That all sounds cliché, but it is the truth. A lot of people can relate to Rock’s story because they’re put in precarious situations in return for going after what they want. To have resilience through that all makes you a hero.
Hollywood is currently available to stream on Netflix.