Ryan Murphy on Righting Wrongs of the Past With Reimagined 'Hollywood' Ending

Hollywood -Netflix still and inset of Ryan Murphy -H 2020
Courtesy of Netflix; Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

[This story contains spoilers from the finale of Netflix's Hollywood.]

Netflix was looking for an aspirational series when Ryan Murphy pitched the streaming giant his next idea. "There have been so many dystopian shows lately, and I think this is a very utopian show," the co-creator, executive producer and writer tells The Hollywood Reporter of Hollywood, his limited series now streaming on Netflix. "They said, 'We want to do something more uplifting. Let’s lean into this idea.'"

Murphy could not have known how much real Hollywood — along with the rest of the world — would appreciate the escapist and hopeful message of Hollywood when it would launch months later amid the global coronavirus pandemic. "We have a period of adjustment [ahead] and I think it’s going to take a while until things return to normal, to be honest with you," he says when chatting ahead of Hollywood's May 1 release.

Indeed, the story of Hollywood — an idea that has essentially been brewing since Murphy's childhood — is coming at the right time. Interested in telling a revisionist history, Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan's period drama travels back to the post-World War II era of 1940s Hollywood to follow an inclusive group of aspiring actors and filmmakers who set out to disrupt the patriarchy of Tinseltown.

And the twist is that they succeed.

A female Hollywood studio chief (Patti LuPone) greenlights a movie, titled Meg, that is written by a black, gay screenwriter (Jeremy Pope), helmed by a half-Asian director (Darren Criss) and stars a black actress (Laura Harrier) — and the film goes on to break all records and become the biggest box office hit in seven years. Meg's success would go on to open the door for women, nonwhite artists and the LGBTQ community in ways that the real world would only match decades later — and even still, in 2020, have an entertainment industry plagued by a reprise of #OscarsSoWhite.

The finale of the seven-episode series officially rewrites Hollywood history when, during a re-creation of the 1948 Oscars, the diverse cast and crew are rewarded. "The actors were all really crying," Murphy recalls. Amid all of that, Hollywood — which features a mix of real-life and fictional Hollywood names — specifically reimagines the endings for three real-life figures whose stories have stuck with Murphy since he was a child: closeted icon Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) steps out as a gay man; marginalized star Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) becomes the first actress of Chinese descent to win an Academy Award; and Hattie McDaniel  (Queen Latifah), the first black best actress winner, is invited to the show after being segregated during her win in 1940.

Below, in a chat with THR, Murphy unpacks how it felt to give those three characters the moments they had been denied — "You realize how much of an injustice it was and how great it feels to right the wrong," he says — while also digging into Hollywood's #MeToo story about Henry Willson (Jim Parsons), whom he calls "one of the biggest monsters in the history of Hollywood. Arguably, the gay Harvey Weinstein."

Murphy also explains why he initially envisioned Hollywood as a limited series (but might be open to expanding the world) and shares his idea for what the industry could have looked like today, had dreamers like his characters been successful in disrupting Hollywood way back when: "It’s such a powerful thing when you feel represented." 

When did you know you wanted to rewrite this era of Hollywood and tell this story?

I would say, a long time. After I did Feud with the Joan Crawford-Bette Davis thing, which is a very cynical and sad story, I was interested in the idea of buried history. I was into the idea of highlighting three people that I grew up with who I was very obsessed with: Rock Hudson, Anna May Wong and Hattie McDaniel. All of whom were pioneers in their own right who Hollywood dealt a bad deal to in that they could not be authentic; they could not be who they were. They were constantly trying to be something they weren’t and all three of them sort of had very unhappy endings.

I had been noodling on that for a while and then after Versace, I had a dinner with [star] Darren Criss and we were talking about wanting to do something about youth and young people, and something happy and optimistic. And we were talking about that gas station in Hollywood [Golden Tip Gasoline] and I was very interested in, not so much the dirty side of it, but the idea that people went to that gas station because they were not allowed to be who they could be. Darren and I were talking and then [executive producer] Janet Mock and I were talking, all collectively, about how when we were growing up we didn’t really have people who we could look at and say, "Oh, there’s me. There’s a path forward. That person is successful."

I firmly believe in that idea that if you can see it, you can become it. So I had this eureka moment of putting all this stuff together in a story where you get to rewrite the ending of so many of these legends. And then you surround them with fictionalized characters who change the landscape and are rewarded, and start sort of a revolution. It's this revisionist history idea that I was really into, and it took a couple of years for it to all click into place. But that’s common with me. I had just finished doing Ratched, which comes out in September [on Netflix], which was very heavy and very dramatic. I just wanted to do something lighter and more optimistic, and this was that. I shot Ratched and Hollywood sort of back-to-back.

Hollywood is your debut series for Netflix under your pact with the streamer. Why was Netflix the right place this show?

It’s an interesting thing. I’ve never in my career done full nudity before. I’ve always had the cable restriction. And sexuality is a large part of this story. It’s not everything. But I signed a deal there to create a lot of different shows and to be able to basically follow my interests. And everyone who works there instantly said "yes" to this because it was a very fun, sexy and also hopeful idea. 

Did you have more help from intimacy coordinators than you usually do in order to create the series' most intimate moments?

Yes. That’s the world that we live in now and I am completely appreciative of that. We had a couple of really great intimacy coaches. All of the scenes with the actors were very talked about, discussed and filmed on closed sets. And then in the case of the George Cukor pool party scene — where we literally, at one point, had 100 people walking around naked (laughs) — at first, you were shocked by it and then it was like, "Oh, just another day at the office." Everybody was very respectful and covered up between takes. I’ve always been that way with sex scenes. When I was growing up in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, there was a tradition of sexuality expressed, and that sort of stopped happening. In my work, even starting with Nip/Tuck, I’ve always wanted to highlight [sexuality] because I think it’s real and human, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It was a component of this show, both pro and con — both free, happy sexuality and sexual abuse were part of this story.

When it came to portraying the stories of Hudson, McDaniel and Wong, were there any hurdles, since they are real figures? Did you reach out to any family members of the real people who are mentioned?

No, because, to my knowledge, there aren’t a lot of family members for those three people left. In the case of Rock Hudson, when I first moved to Hollywood in 1989, I knew some older gentlemen who were friends with him and who would tell me stories about him. But [Hudson, McDaniel and Wong] are all deceased and they’re all legends and in the public domain. We were very, very careful, however, that anything involving them was very heavily researched and vetted. For example, the Hattie McDaniel stories about the Academy Awards and not being let in — we checked and double-checked the details, down to the color gardenias she wore in her hair. We were very, very specific. In the case of Anna May Wong, we found bits and pieces of her screen test that we studied. At one point, I was looking at seven different accounts of people who had been in that screen test and talked about how she was told she didn’t get the part. So we recreated all of that very painstakingly. And in the case of Rock Hudson, everything in terms of his relationship with Henry Willson was sort of documented and people had talked about it, down to the very idea that Henry Willson made Rock Hudson pull out all of his teeth and wear false teeth and caps because Henry just didn’t think he could be a movie star looking the way that he did — which was preposterous. We spent a lot of time making sure that all of that Hollywood lore stuff was very, very true.

Even in the post-#MeToo era, the harassment and abuse experienced by gay actors goes under-addressed. What do you hope will come by exposing what happened in this time period through the Henry Willson storyline, and can you talk about the hopeful ending that you rewrote for him? 

All of that stuff about what Henry Willson did is absolutely true. He was one of the biggest monsters in the history of Hollywood. Arguably, the gay Harvey Weinstein. He was that person. He would sign young actors if they agreed to sleep with him; he would exchange sexual favors for access. I thought it was a very interesting story about Henry Willson. Like all monsters, there was a source from his pain in that he had had a relationship with a young actor earlier — and Jim [Parsons] has that monologue about Junior Durkin, who was killed in a car accident — and then Henry Willson became an alcoholic. Nobody just wakes up and becomes a monster; there’s always something about them. What he did was horrible and we wanted to document that and I feel like a #MeToo story is a #MeToo story. It doesn’t matter what sex it is, it doesn’t matter what gender it is. It’s a violation in that way and what he did was incredibly extreme.

My favorite part about the ending of that story is that Henry asks Rock Hudson for forgiveness and Rock Hudson says, "No. I won’t." I thought that giving Rock Hudson that empowerment was interesting and hopeful. Rock Hudson in real life was able to break away from Henry Willson later in his career, and Henry Willson had a very horrible ending where he basically drank himself to death and was destitute and lived in an apartment where he had paid his maid in furniture until there was no more furniture left. He had a very sad, tragic ending in which he was abandoned, and rightly so. I was more interested in Rock Hudson getting that moment than anything. I was more interested in Rock Hudson finally being able to be free and be who he was, and not having to pretend that he was straight and lie. Rock Hudson married Henry Willson’s secretary to cover; he had a beard.

When I was a kid, I was just so obsessed with Rock Hudson because my grandmother who raised me — and I don’t even know how she knew this, but — in Indiana in the ‘70s, she literally said to me once when we were watching McMillan & Wife, "You know that Rock Hudson is a poof in real life, right?" I was like, "What do you mean?" And she said, "He likes the guys." I remember I was very young, about 7. I knew who I was and I remember thinking, "Oh, so he’s like me and he’s successful and so good-looking, and maybe I could be who I was." I had a very interesting connection with Rock Hudson that I wanted to explore in this work, and so I did. And I found it very cathartic. I moved out here [to Los Angeles] in the late ‘80s and I got to be friends with many legends of that time, like Bette Davis and Robert Wagner, and I just missed him. Rock Hudson, of course, died in the mid-'80s of AIDS. But I always felt a connection to him.

He is one of the characters responsible for changing the face of Hollywood in this revisionist story — for gay men, for women, for the LGBTQ community. Can you paint a picture of what Hollywood would look like today if these major moves had actually been made in the '40s?

We talked a lot about that. I love when Eleanor Roosevelt says in episode four, "I used to think that government can change the world and now I don’t. I think that the thing that can change the world is Hollywood and the images that you put out." I think it’s very true — that Hollywood teaches. Hollywood has always told us from film and television how to love and how to be friends; what we’re interested in. It’s always been that way. Because if you can see it, you can be it, right? We joked about it and I can only say what I hoped would have happened. Look, Hollywood is all about commercial success. I don’t get to continue to tell these stories because they like me; I get to tell the stories I want to because my shows are successful and make money for people. So if that movie had been made starring an African American woman, written by a black gay guy and greenlit by a woman? I think that it would have ushered in a completely different, much more progressive era. Because suddenly, you can make money. Wow! Who knew that you could make money with a movie starring a black woman and Anna May Wong and on and on and on?

There would have been things for me and Janet Mock to watch when we were growing up to say, "Oh, there I am. I see myself here." I think it would have changed a lot of the social fabric of this country because it’s such a powerful thing when you feel represented. People didn’t greenlight those movies for a long time because they didn’t think that they could make money. So I think it would have been a very different world. I think politics would have been different — we talked a lot about that. We talked a lot about the idea that gay people would not have been instantly let through the door, but I think that the liberation would have maybe happened in the '60s instead of post-AIDS. It would have had a lot of ripples and I think that a lot of things that you can’t even imagine would have happened from such a thing.

In the finale, you rewrote the 20th Academy Awards. How did your years of experience in Hollywood lead to what transpired onscreen, and what was the vibe like on set when playing out this alternate version of the 1948 Oscars?

There’s always that topic every time there is an awards show, which I think is very fair and accurate: Where’s the representation? Also, where are all the gay people? Where are all the black people and all the people of color? We saw that this year with Parasite that when something breaks through, you just can’t believe it because it is a world that has been controlled by straight, white men for so long. If you look at the voting membership of all these academies, they’re mostly straight and white and old. This episode for us was sort of saying: It matters. It matters when you see somebody like you win. We have all those cutaways of the families watching and rejoicing because you finally see a path forward — not just in terms of in Hollywood, but in your own career. "I can be who I want to be. I can be a winner and try something and follow my own dream." Because that’s always what these awards are — they’re about following your dreams.

I was really interested in this year of 1948 because it had the most beautiful set I think of any year. Even as a kid I was always obsessed with that sort of tiered-wedding cake stage with all the Oscars and I was excited to recreate that. And I will tell you that the tears that you see being shed in that episode for Rock Hudson and Anna May Wong and Hattie McDaniel — the actors were all really crying. Those were usually the first takes. The crew was crying. It was very emotional to have these people get justice and to be seen and to have acceptance, which everybody should have and want. It was an emotional thing to give them the happy ending that they had been denied. I felt it in the writing and I felt it when we were shooting it and, I don’t know how you felt watching that last episode, but it’s very tearful. You realize how much of an injustice it was and how great it feels to right the wrong.

That is how I felt watching it. And then I thought, "I would love to see what happens next." I know you designed this as a limited drama — are you open to expanding the world of Hollywood?

It was created to be a limited series. It was created to be one season; that’s what it was done for. I think in success? I don’t know. I could see at the end of this creating the idea of, "Well, what would the world look like?" I would never follow the characters again. But, 20 years from there? I don’t know. It’s not something I’m thinking about; Netflix and I have not even discussed it and nor would we unless it had some huge success. I’ve done these anthology shows like American Horror Story and American Crime Story, and this was not designed like that. This was designed to be seven episodes. That’s kind of what it is.

By ending the series with the words, "The Beginning,” I thought you might be throwing in an Easter egg for the future.

(Laughs.) That happened just because I saw the cut and when it said "The End," I said, "I don’t want it to end. It's the beginning for so many things." So we changed the card because I had such an emotional reaction to it, like you did, where I said, "I want these people to keep winning. And maybe in this form they can."

Aside from the aspirational tone — which is very welcome right now — Hollywood is launching at a time when all of real Hollywood is in flux and has hit the pause button. How have your other shows been impacted?

Some of them were done. The Politician [season two] finished filming, so that’s going to come out in the summer. Ratched has been done and sent and shipped, and that’s coming out in September. That has, I believe, the best work of Sarah Paulson’s career. And Finn Wittrock is amazing and all the women in that — Judy Davis and Sharon Stone and Cynthia Nixon. It was really hard to make. But boy, do I think it’s good. The Prom is scheduled to come out in December. I finished shooting everything except for two days of second unit, so hopefully this summer we can pick that up. And the other shows, I was getting ready this week to start American Horror Story and American Crime Story, and Pose had shot one episode and then that got shut down. Halston had shot one episode and that got shut down. So I have five things that are in flux. But I’m talking to the cast and crew and trying to keep roofs over their heads and money flowing, keep the faith and ask, "How can I help?" I spend a large portion of my day talking to people and asking what they need. It’s upsetting and it’s hard — we were right in the middle of it and, obviously, we will not return until this is over and then the question is: What does that look like? How do you shoot something now? What does it feel like? It’s going to feel weird. 

With Hollywood, you were able to envision this alternate universe. Can you imagine how this pandemic and current moment in time will change the future of Hollywood?

What this has made me feel is how important connection is. But I don’t think it’s going to be a connection like what we had before. I think it’s going to be much more one-on-one. I think we’re going to go through a period of homebody-ness where we want to work and love and watch things at our house. I’m not going to be quick to go out to a stadium with 100,000 people for a while.

My grandmother went through the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918; she was born in 1913 and when I was growing up, she told me stories about it. I was always obsessed with it. She felt very restrained for a couple years after that. But then, remember what followed the Spanish flu was the roaring '20s, right? Everybody wanted to party and express themselves, and be a little bit more libertine. So maybe we have that in our future, who knows? All that matters is that we save as many lives as we can. We keep being smart about it. And unfortunately, we have terrible leadership on the federal level. I look at [New York Gov.] Andrew Cuomo right now as the true president of the United States. That’s what I feel.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A previous version of this story misspelled the surname of Henry Willson.