Nobody knew what to do, but everybody wanted to do something. The June 12 mass shooting that claimed 49 lives at a gay club in Orlando, Fla., unfolded more than 2,000 miles away from Los Angeles — but the grief and frustration over an increasingly familiar narrative left many people in Hollywood searching for a meaningful way to respond.
The recipient of many blind offers of service was Ryan Murphy. The producer’s phone rang frequently in the days following the attack at Pulse, with one call coming from Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin. The two quickly crafted a plan to recruit 49 altruistic celebrities to memorialize each of the Orlando victims by reading a brief eulogy of their lives, editing the clips to construct an 18-minute film that will live online starting June 29.
“We want to ensure that what we do is effective,” Griffin told The Hollywood Reporter on set of production. “It’s on all of us to know each and every one of them by name and for their legacies to, in part, spur change on important issues.”
One of those issues is new for HRC. The board of the largest LGBTQ advocacy group voted on June 16 to officially support the mounting case for gun control, a complicated arena that historically has lived outside its 36-year-long civil rights fight. The organization’s willingness to openly tackle the issue, once an insular battleground that other advocacy communities wouldn’t touch, is one clearly mirrored by so many actors, musicians and other public figures. “I think the topic of gun control had become something that everybody was talking about, particularly in this community, but now I feel people are very mobilized,” says Murphy. “It’s madness that 90 percent of our country wants stricter gun control laws and yet we’re held hostage by this select group of Republicans. I think people are getting angry about it.”
Anger and grief were palpable during production on the video, filmed primarily over two days on the 20th Century Fox Studios lot where Murphy produces his substantial roster of shows, which include American Horror Story, Scream Queens and the upcoming Katrina: American Crime Story. Drawing from their Rolodexes, Murphy and Griffin recruited talent to read the miniature biographies, also relying on CAA’s Bryan Lourd and power publicist Simon Halls.
The list of familiar faces that then showed up to participate in the project is formidable. Chris Pine, Laverne Cox, Cuba Gooding Jr., Connie Britton, Caitlyn Jenner, Matt Bomer and Angela Bassett make up just a sliver of the individuals who paid visit to the somber set. (The list of asks was even longer, but the timetable and summer vacations forced many to pass.)
Jane Fonda was the first to arrive at Stage 10, empty for the summer. There, a makeshift setup — a black drop cloth, two scrims and a few lights — sat dwarfed in the middle of the blank space. Dressed in all black, like the 48 who would follow her in subsequent hours and days, the 78-year-old actress sat in front of two cameras to read the story of Brenda Lee Marquez McCool. A mother of 11, McCool went to Pulse that Saturday night to dance with her son Isaiah. The two-time cancer survivor died protecting him from the gunfire.
“Jane Fonda is a matriarchal figure in Hollywood. She lent an authority to the memorializing of this woman,” says Ned Martel, the Ryan Murphy Productions writer and former journalist who shared directorial duties with Murphy and spearheaded the writing of the 49 passages. “We really relied on the legacy news organizations that spent time meeting these families at the site and at the hospital. The Orlando Sentinel did an extraordinary job. They had a full obituary for each person, which their reporter did a video encapsulation of as well.”
A number of the people who came in struggled with their delivery, hesitant over what tone to take since each installment was taped in private. Some found moments of joy. Empire creator Lee Daniels took visible pleasure in the way the late Eddie Jamoldroy Justice’s mother described his condominium as “a sky house, like the Jeffersons.” Others broke down, like actress Evan Rachel Wood, who walked out onto Fox’s New York Street in tears after her reading.
“I think it has to have gravitas, yet my young woman just lost 180 pounds,” Jamie Lee Curtis says of her reading for Amanda Alvear, who was only 25 years old. “She was changing her life. She wanted to be a nurse. That’s celebratory.”
By television standards, the procession of talent that participated on June 20 and 21 was almost disarming in its respectful efficiency. None of the troupe brought handlers or a personal glam squad, mostly arriving on time and driving themselves onto the lot. The intimate crew — fewer than 15 people, nearly all regulars in Murphy’s year-round operation, were on set during most of production — donated their time, as did the rotating team of hair, makeup and costume professionals. Fox Television Group chairman and CEO Dana Walden, a longtime friend and champion of Murphy’s, offered up the vacant stage. Much of whatever small bill remained was footed by Murphy.
There are uncanny threads connecting so many of the parties involved in the project. Both Murphy and Griffin, who had met at past fundraisers for Barack Obama, share a close connection with Martel. In fact, the writer-producer had arranged a meeting with the two just days before the tragedy. Griffin also has deep roots in Hollywood. He was a co-founder of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (the group behind the opposition to California’s now-overturned Proposition 8) with Rob Reiner.
“If Chad asks me to do something, I do it,” says Reiner, who first met Griffin directing 1995’s The American President when a then-19-year-old Griffin was assigned as the production’s White House liaison by Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers. Reiner, a longtime activist, was quick to express his frustration with the National Rifle Association and the Senate’s rejection of gun measures earlier that Monday. “It’s astounding that one organization can have that much of a stranglehold on Congress. Who are we protecting here? We’re protecting gun manufacturers. It’s absolutely crazy.”
The project is not being coy about the case for gun control, with a refrain to “stop the bleeding” in the video and links on the HRC’s “Stop the Hate” website offering visitors portals to email their legislators and to donate to the families of the Orlando victims. “The NRA is one of the most powerful entities in the world today, and they truly hold many of our elected officials hostage,” says Griffin. “Many of the elected officials that are voting on behalf of the NRA are the same officials who are voting, time and time again, to roll back equal rights and protections for LGBTQ people.”
The difficulty of enacting change with what ultimately boils down to a heartfelt, star-studded PSA is not lost on anyone involved. Yet the well-known faces that give voice to the project (none of which are ever noted by name out of deference to the victims they honor) reflect a wide and inclusive demographic to make sure it’s shared with as wide an audience as possible. Those who booked the talent stressed the importance of highlighting every race and age. “For my generation, AIDS really was the cause,” says Murphy, whose connections to young talent run deep thanks to series such as Glee. “For this younger millennial group, I think gun control and gun violence is one of their causes for sure.”
Still, it’s the seasoned industry veterans who feel most discouraged by the obstacles at hand.
“I’m an old Gandhi fan, and his entreatment to people to be the change that you want to see in the world is the real way to do it,” Curtis says. “It’s grassroots. It’s feet on pavement. It’s knocking on doors. It’s marching. That will come. We’re in the middle of an election year that’s so wildly polarized. Trying to find some common link as humanity in this country right now feels difficult with the rhetoric coming out of the Republican Party, but I certainly hope a movement will come where we will all join together and say this is not OK.”
First to tape, Jane Fonda read the story of a mother who died protecting her son. “The people we got to come read have a gift of speaking that brings new interest in these lives,” says Ned Martel. (Photos by Jessica Chou)
Crew and production team from Ryan Murphy Productions donated their time, carefully pairing the 49 readings with the 49 celebrities who came in to read.
Actress Lea Michele, who’s starred on both Glee and Scream Queens,
knew much of the Fox lot crew — adding to the familial spirit on the project.
Chad Griffin, who’s worked with many of the talent involved in the project, caught up with The People v. O.J.: American Crime Story actress Sarah Paulson on the first day of the shoot.
HRC gifted everyone who came to the shoot with a “Love Conquers Hate” plush toy and a Donald Trump-spoofing baseball cap that reads “Make America Gay Again.”
American Horror Story: Hotel co-stars Cheyenne Jackson and Matt Bomer were among the many actors from Murphy’s repertory to turn out.
A rotating crew of makeup, hair and costumers with black clothing at the ready volunteered their time throughout the shoot.
“You can have 90 percent of the people in this country in favor of sensible gun safety measures, and you can’t even get Congress to move on it,” laments Rob Reiner. “You’ve got to overturn the makeup of the House and the Senate. … If we keep Donald Trump on the ticket, maybe we can flip the whole thing.”
Reiner and Griffin, friends and fellow activists for two decades, first met when a then-19-year-old Griffin was assigned to take Reiner around the Clinton White House.
Murphy, who directed the segments with Martel, offered guidance to American Horror Story and Scream Queens actress Emma Roberts.
“I grew up in St. Petersburg, so it felt like this happened in my backyard,” says Florida native Angela Bassett. “It’s horrible we have to do this, but it’s an honor.”
“We can say what we want to say and articulate it and throw up the alternative to the hate speech that is coming out of the Republican Party particularly,” offers Jamie Lee Curtis. “We have a voice.”
Actress Evan Rachel Wood and Murphy spoke before she filmed her portion of the video.
A board with each of the days’ passages and their corresponding celebrities was a gathering point throughout the shoot.
The creative team behind the project made a point of focusing the small passages on the successes in the victims’ lives and not the tragedy in Orlando.
Connie Britton, onstage, was one of the many actors visibly affected by the shoot. She read the story of Luis Daniel Conde.
Though there was no crossover inside the shoot, actors — like former Glee co-stars Kevin McHale and Darren Criss — lingered afterward to catch up and speak with the many HRC staff in town for the project.