Hollywood breakout and double 2019 Tony nominee Jeremy Pope had just started work on another Ryan Murphy series, Pose, when COVID-19 ground production to a halt. So, with not much else to do, lockdown gave the actor the space to really engage with the May 1 release of his Netflix miniseries.
Playing a gay Black screenwriter in late-1940s Los Angeles, all of the cards seem to be stacked against Pope's character — though, in the show's fantasy take on the time period, he ultimately finds success. There have been many different takes on Murphy's decision to tackle a revisionist history, considering racial parity in actual Hollywood is still far from reality. But, as Pope sees it, there is no downside to putting out the hopeful image of a Black man winning an Oscar — whether it's a real one or a fantasy. The actor recently spoke with THR over the phone while on a road trip from Los Angeles to his hometown of Orlando, and he had plenty to say about the discussions he's been having around the series and how they've evolved now that America seems to be confronting its issues of systemic racism on a scale unlike any seen in the past.
You came to this show immediately after back-to-back Broadway gigs. Had you had many Hollywood ovations or was Ryan Murphy the first?
My team and I hadn’t been entertaining too many conversations at the time about movies because we thought I’d be stuck in that eight-show schedule. As soon as Choir Boy ended, I was doing Ain’t Too Proud. And as anyone who’s done Broadway knows, they usually like to hold the cast for a year — but I had been in so many cities with Ain’t Too Proud before it even got to Broadway that our producers were nice enough to let us know we could start having conversations about doing other things any time after the Tonys. In comes Ryan Murphy, the week of the Tonys, offers me this TV show. So it wasn’t a conversation of, “Hey, I need a few weeks off.” It was, “Hey, I’m putting in four weeks notice and moving to L.A. to start this TV show.” It worked out in the end. I know the producers weren’t too happy about it at the time, though they were happy for me.
How did Ryan pitch this show to you — because it’s hard to condense in a log line and I know it evolved a bit from start to finish?
A lot of what Hollywood ended up becoming we found on the journey. When I met Ryan, he knew it would be these three guys — Darren Criss, David Corenswet and myself — and he wanted to talk about the sex industry, particularly this gas station. He said, “I want to talk about old Hollywood and I want to re-right some wrongs.” That’s what he gave me. I’d heard from other friends who had worked with Ryan that he likes to work with people who are down to play. I was excited about that, and I do think we found a lot of the magic and figured out the revisionist history of it once we got all of the players. I started to see, basically from episode two on, Archie’s narrative kind of switch from where it started. I think that’s because Ryan was paying attention to my conversations with him and my hopes for the character.
How did you feel about the revisionist history, given that Black and queer people had little to no agency at the time this story takes place?
For me, being a Black man, I knew that I was playing this man in a time where it wasn’t catered for him to succeed. I knew that he would have to navigate it in a specific way. To protect that and to make sure we had an open dialogue about it, my first question to Ryan was, “Are there going to be Black writers and creatives on the team?” As a white gay man, he was very happy about the idea of showing a Black gay man thriving, but I knew there were going to be some things that he didn’t understand. I needed to be able to have complete conversations. And his response was that that was the whole point of it. I got to meet Janet Mock and work closely with her. She was my right-hand superhero because she was an EP, the director on two of our most ambitious episodes, and in the writers room. A lot of those conversations I could have with her about how I could make this story feel authentic even though it was a fantasy.
What are your thoughts on the criticism of the fantasy, since the world is still grappling with the ramifications of our actual history?
I love having conversations with people who enjoyed the show or struggled with the idea of, “Why create this fantasy?” You just have to remember that, a lot of the time, we are connected to experiences and ways of life via media — what we see and what we see to be tangible. And in our story, Archie is a screenwriter who — spoiler alert — wins an Academy Award in 1947. We know that’s not true. But it would have made him the first Black man to win an Academy Award for screenwriting. Here, in our time, we didn’t see that until 2018 with Jordan Peele. That is 70 years between our fantasy and when I got to see it in real life. Something in my heart and my gut tells me that, had we just seen that there were opportunities for Black writers to exist in Hollywood, we wouldn’t have had to wait 70 years to see it in real time.
I think that’s what Ryan and our team was trying to accomplish. They’re showing a fantasy world of a beloved time, the Golden Age of Hollywood, and how special and impactful it could have been if a few people had made the decision to do the right thing for one movie. It could have changed the landscape and conversations about our industry as a whole. It’s a hopeful ending. It leaves you feeling pride, at least for me, you can’t deny that last episode makes you excited. The bigger conversation we’re having now is how things have changed but haven’t changed. Here we are in 2020, still trying to uproot a system that isn’t built for equality. It’s the abuse of power, tokenism and systemic racism. We’re trying to unpack that, because it’s taken years and years. It’s taken Hattie McDaniel, Halle Berry, Denzel Washington and Jordan Peele to be the firsts who unpacked this thing so that we start to see it more. Those people paved the way for me to be able to take my position in a show like Hollywood.
Yes, it’s a fantasy and a journey we’re asking the audience to go on — but ultimately it gives us something tangible and it brings the conversation to now. What are we doing, as a whole, that we are working for equal opportunity and representation in the industry?
Being your first series, did you have any expectations of how you’d consume it when it was released? Because of the timing to quarantine, you really couldn’t avoid being in a room with Netflix if that’s what you considered doing.
I imagined that I would watch it just to see what the hell I was doing — but then after being in quarantine, I was excited that I finally had something to do. And I didn’t really see much while we were making it. It’s been the most beautiful release for me because so many people are home and available to watch it and to jump into conversations. Now, the world being in the place it is, I feel like I can put that energy and that spirit into action in real time and in real life. I reminded my castmembers that the world is crying for us to speak out about Black lives and this movement forward. We have an opportunity. We showed the world what we were looking to achieve in real life, and here we have an opportunity to continue to speak out and educate and inform people. It’s on us. We are the artists, the activists and the next generation. It’s our responsibility to move that fight forward on screen and off. It’s been an interesting journey. It’s not how I imagined my first TV series. It feels necessary and part of the conversation we’re having right now.
It's a challenging time to even attempt to promote a project that doesn’t have some cultural relevance.
It feels so timely. And people have been embracing it with love. The thing about Netflix is, you just kind of tune in when you tune in. Some people saw it early on, but then you pop on Twitter and see new people gushing about it. These are conversations we’ve been having for years. I don’t think anyone knew how timely it would be, but then the straw broke the camel’s back.
Ryan tends to collaborate with a lot of the same people, and you’re now doing Pose. Was that offer born out of a specific character they had in mind or just a desire to work with you again?
I’m a huge fan of Pose and what it’s been able to do for the actors on that show. I have a lot of friends who work there. It kind of came around as a joke, this idea of me joining, but then there was a role that Ryan got excited for me to play. It’s a love interest for my good friend Mj Rodriguez, who plays Blanca. Again, what that show represents and what it stands for and the conversations that it continues to have and the forward movement it brings to the trans community, it felt necessary.
I’m grateful to be able to lend my voice and my creativity to that project. It’s something I jumped to right after we finished Hollywood — and I was filming that right when COVID-19 broke out in New York. I’m always excited to work with Ryan or Janet Mock. I’m the biggest Janet Mock fan. He sent her in to ask me. He knew I couldn’t say “no” to her. That’s kind of how that went down.
What’s the slow-down been like for you? You went from the pace of theater to TV and now everything is kind of on hold.
I’m very grateful that I began my training in theater. I learned so much discipline and just how to show up — for myself and for my team. Making the transition to TV and film has been interesting because it’s just such a different machine. The thing I miss the most is the connection to the audience. That’s something you experience every day in theater. I’m a people person. I love to experience things with the audience. I’ve really turned to Instagram and Twitter to further the conversation and feel the energy and see what it is people felt, good or bad, from the work we created on Hollywood.
My team and I have been very specific with the work that I attach myself to. I’m a lover of all and I have a huge heart, so I want to make sure that I’m part of stories that I feel connected to and interested in. I want to make sure I’m expanding the conversation and bringing awareness — whether its speaking to a marginalized group of people, a marginalized idea or just an experience that people don’t normally get to tap into.