In Hollywood, what starts as a glitzy filmmaking saga transforms into a “what if” fantasy where studio heads and executives take chances on casting roles for queer artists and people of color. At the very center, the limited series is the production of a film based on the death of Peg Entwistle, an aspiring actress who throws herself off the Hollywoodland sign. As characters become more ambitious to change the course of Hollywood’s history, the more Peg changes, and Jeremy Pope’s Archie Coleman is the man with the powerful pen to make a huge mark in this town.
Archie is a young man who becomes the creator of his own destiny. Early in the season, Darren Criss’s character asks Archie how he came to writing a story about an ambitious white girl trying to make it in Hollywood, and Archie replies, “When I think of Peg Enwhistle, I see myself. I understand her rage. Talented as the next gal but never appreciated. Never accepted…someday I won’t be a black writer writing about some white lady. I’ll just be a writer.”
Archie’s story is a literal example of what Hollywood can do to elevate stories from people of color. Archie’s romance with Rock Hudson (played by Jake Picking) is another example of Hollywood’s rewrite. Imagine if young queer people could see that romance on the red carpet as they go in to support a film with a diverse cast with serious Oscar heat. Pope is one of the most charismatic television screen debuts in recent memory. His Archie is optimistic but his anger is justified towards a system that is determined to leave him out. After a performance like this, no one will be counting Pope out of the conversation.
Awards Daily: What’s it like playing a fictitious character surrounded by so many legendary Hollywood icons?
Jeremy Pope: For me, it was a dream, because I got to create my own backstory. I did research on what it was like in the ’40s, what kind of movies would be made, what the politics were. I was trying to understand what it would’ve been like for this fictional, black character to be navigating these tricky times. It was freeing unlike some characters where the path is set out for you. It is fantasy but there’s a part of it when you’re playing someone and you have to be true to who they are. As an artist, it was fun to be really “yes and” to find more colors and find more interesting things about him.
AD: You don’t have to worry about impersonating someone.
JP: Yeah, yeah. For sure.
AD: The first time we see Archie, he’s cruising in the movie theater. I think we sometimes forget what gay men had to do in the 1940s.
JP: Absolutely. Episode 1 was directed by Ryan Murphy so we were still figuring out what the project was. It was evolving as we were filming because at the time we only had episodes 1 and 2 idealized. We were talking about this gay, black man, but Ryan wanted it to feel that although it was a period piece, he didn’t want me to put on any dialect. We just understood that there was a lot at risk here. Because gay men couldn’t be out and walk around and hold hands with someone they were dating. Everything had to be done in secret.
JP: So here we meet Archie in this place that is kind of like his day job. Men show up wanting an experience at this movie theater. We knew there would be this confidence of walking into his space—his arena. There were a couple of takes where they are all kind of watching this pornography, I guess, of these men working out. If you look at it, it’s very silly—men lifting weights, kind of wrestling, and playing Spin the Bottle. Ryan wanted me to take humor in it all. Archie finds it all very amusing, but he knows this hustle is how he’s going to make money. It was tricky in how gay men had to navigate. There were only a few places they could congregate or meet up or have sexual experience.
AD: Ryan’s projects—especially in the last five or six years—do a good job of not letting us forget the struggle of the community.
AD: I just think that’s very important to not take that for granted.
AD: There are a few moments where Archie talks about rage. He mentions it first when he talks to Darren Criss’s character about how he relates to the character of Peg that he’s written. It comes back up when Archie’s name is taken off his script. He’s not allowed to react in a way that he should be able to.
AD: How do you keep that inside of you?
JP: Archie has to navigate on this thin, thin line. In order for him to see success or these goals or these dreams, he has to play the game. He’s trying to occupy space or be in the Hollywood business when it wasn’t built for him. They aren’t making pictures for colored people, and if they are, there’s a separate market for that. There’s struggle where he wants to do something that’s never been done before. We’ve had Langston Hughes and Oscar Michaeaux, but we’re talking about race pictures—movies that can only be run in certain parts of the country. Archie wants to be the first black writer to change the idea that he’s not just a black writer. Maybe if you don’t see my face and you just see my work first…maybe if I write a story from the narrative of this white woman that everyone can identify with, maybe they will fall in love with it. Maybe they’ll give him his chance? It then becomes tricky when it becomes, “Yes, we’ll take your story, but we won’t take you. We won’t take all of you.”
JP: Sometimes black men—and I’ve felt this—and marginalized groups…they want to take the struggle and not take all of you. Here, he was writing this story about white people to try to give them a way in—that similarly paralleled how they feel with people ostracized—and yet it still isn’t good enough. I can’t be at the table. If they are going to take my name off of it, it furthers that fire for Camille to get the job. We need them to see one of us. It was his intention to break barriers for black people in the industry. It’s an interesting struggle. Even when he has that moment with Dick Samuels and he tells him that he can still keep the money and he can still be there on set. Janet Mock directed that episode and I thought it was brilliant that she kept the camera on Archie as he is getting that news.
AD: Yeah, that really struck me when I watched it.
JP: It’s so moving and heartbreaking because I’m not saying anything. He’s internalizing all this anger and fear. He’s so upset and hurt by it, but he takes the high road or a different route instead of shouting and seeing this white man see his pain again. He has to go to a safe space to express that.
AD: I was looking through all the tweets online from when the cast did the live viewing of the season.
JP: Oh, yeah!
AD: And I saw that Janet tweeted about that specific moment, how she didn’t want to cut away. It’s just so infuriating.
JP: It broke my heart for Archie. There are so many that we still don’t know that were happening at that time. People’s names were taken off things or they are made a certain way. Even the Hattie McDaniel story really struck me after working on the show. In our history books, she’s the first African American to win an Oscar. Just to know that she wasn’t allowed in the ceremony and when she did win, they had a script for her, so even in a moment of celebration, she couldn’t speak from her heart. That’s an example of taking a piece of me but not taking all of me. As artists today, we are yelling a little bit louder to remind everyone that you have to take all of us. There is room and space for us all.
AD: And why not take those risks? This show proposes a very simple concept to see what the industry could’ve been like if they didn’t have those stupid prejudices in place.
JP: What’s beautiful and crazy is that we are only talking about one movie.
JP: Had we taken on one movie…we have a black writer and a black lead actress…it could’ve changed the landscape of entertainment and maybe the world. It was Ryan’s intention, but it struck a chord with me with how people in power positions need to do things just once. It could’ve had a domino effect.
AD: I want to talk about the finale.
AD: That Oscars ceremony actually had me on the edge of my seat. Everyone has told me that actually, and I think that ceremony is a lot more suspenseful than a lot of ceremonies I’ve watched over the years.
JP: (Laughs) Yes.
AD: Can you talk about that moment of Archie on stage holding that Oscar? You were just talking about wondering how the landscape could’ve been different, and the first time a black writer won was in 2009 for Precious. There has been some since then. Peg is a story about pain but it ends on a hopeful note.
JP: I remember reading the script, I was choked up by how it was ending. I was so grateful for how we were sharing that story. One of my dear friends and mentors is Tarell McCraney who wrote the script for Moonlight, and we worked together years ago on my first acting debut in New York City in his play Choir Boy. That was so personal for him and he talked about young black men and the stigmas within the community. I remember standing on that stage doing that speech a handful of times—maybe eight or nine. Every time is struck in a new way. It felt so real. I felt his struggle and his pain but also the celebration of what that would’ve felt like for him. I remember watching him win from home, because I knew he had gone through so much, jumped through so many hurdles, told no so many times. He was told that he wasn’t good enough or it was too black or it was too whatever and here he was standing in a true story that was his life. It’s about him and his struggle.
AD: Wow. Yeah…
JP: To sidebar, I felt that. Ryan Murphy gave me my TV debut. I know the power in seeing something on screen on stage or hearing a narrative. Archie says, “Don’t let your story go untold. Know that you are important.” Yes, it’s about the screenplay, but it becomes personal. I think me always kind of wondering—young Jeremy who moved to New York City—about being in theater, not necessarily seeing the projects that let me fit in. It felt like a beacon of hope. It felt like it would be tangible for people who are watching the show in real time. It becomes less about the fantasy, and in the real world we can keep fighting as activists, as artists, as people. You, too, should be in these rooms. You are important. Those words struck a chord with my heart and my being. Ryan allowed me to dig in and say something. Here, I’m not playing the sidekick and I’m not this funny guy—the roles that black people tend to be asked to play.
JP: It gave me a heart and something to lean into. That is more than I ever could’ve asked for. We should be telling these true stories. That is the heart and that is the message of Hollywood. Writing the underdogs and giving them that narrative and giving them that chance. The first take of that speech, the emotion was so pent up because of what Jeremy was feeling, I think I just sobbed the whole time. Jessica [Yu], our director, said, “Now that we have that out of the way, let’s do some work!” (Laughs)
JP: The first take was for me, you know what I mean?
JP: It was for me and every no that I ever received where you start to wear it. You start to believe you aren’t good enough. You start thinking that you may have to blend into the “blackground” as we say or the background. Here I was in my all white—feeling so swag that day—holding this Oscar and looking out to hundreds of extras throwing love and support. It felt like a real Oscar ceremony. The whole cast was there—most of the season was done in small groups. It was an amazing experience. It rings true, and I think the audience feels it. You said you were on the edge of your seat, and I was, too, even though I read the script.
AD: You have this small triumphant moment when everyone is holding their Oscar and Patti [LuPone] tells you that she’s extending your contract and you can write anything you want.
AD: And you hoist your Oscar a little higher with this huge smile.
JP: Yes. (Laughs)
AD: Normally, I am someone who doesn’t want a second season…
JP: But you want more.
AD: Yes, I want to know what the production of Dreamland is going to be like.
AD: I want a big, glossy, queer Hollywood story.
JP: (Laughs) You’re like, “Give it to us! We’re ready!”
AD: What do you think the production of Dreamland would look like?
JP: Well, it’s Ryan Murphy, so there’d be an unlimited budget. (Laughs) It’d be stunning.
AD: Of course.
JP: I was so excited because when we got the last episode—they gave it to us in parts—it’s such an ambitious episode. We were wondering how it was going to wrap up, but once we got to Act II of the finale, it becomes our mission to keep the legacy alive. We had to do what Dick Samuels would’ve done. I love how it ends with “The Beginning,” and it would’ve been so powerful for people to see that. We talk about a young Rock Hudson in our story, but then it goes into the fantasy of Rock’s first movie with an out gay character. What would’ve that been like for him? It’s the big, “what if” of is Jack secure enough to play this gay role and open visibility for so many people? It’s from a true story penned by a black writer. It would’ve meant so much to so many people. I remember that day on set on that last scene where I saw black extras and people in the background. There would’ve been more of us in the space. It’s the hope when I’m on set now to see those faces. It’s up to us to break the mold to give them that opportunity. Dreamland would’ve been beautiful—it could’ve been daring. It could’ve been a hit.
Hollywood is streaming now on Netflix.