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In Halston, executive producers Dan Minahan and Ryan Murphy saw an unlikely parallel between the mononymous fashion legend who lost control of his own name and the culture of 2021 — one that often seems equally interested in turning people into brands and in tearing them down over the right misstep.
“He seemed to be the template of all of that stuff,” says Murphy. “It just felt modern, like a great big cautionary tale about the power of your name — and of selling your name.”
Speaking with THR earlier in June — Murphy, on a break from directing Impeachment: American Crime Story, and Minahan, having directed every episode of Halston after first shepherding the project back in the ‘90s — the pair reflected on casting Ewan McGregor (a straight actor) as the gay icon, the shifting conversation around LGBTQ representation in entertainment and the decision to highlight one of Halston’s most famous surviving pals — Liza Minnelli.
Ryan, so many of your history-based dramas — particularly American Crime Story — have a timely peg. What about 2021 made it a good time for Halston?
Ryan Murphy When I sold my very first script to Steven Spielberg, it was in the trades the same day it was announced that Dan and Christine [Vachon] were doing Halston. That was … 25 years ago. The story now feels more relevant than ever in a way, because Halston was, in some ways, the first influencer. He was also kind of the first person who was canceled. Nobody really spoke about brands back in Halston’s day, but now it’s all anybody talks about. He seemed to be the template of all of that stuff. It just felt modern, like a great big cautionary tale about the power of your name — and of selling your name.
Dan, I can’t imagine that the word “influencer” was on your radar when you originally started working on this.
Dan Minahan No, that was really part of the appeal of telling this story today. When we originally started, the thing that struck me was the idea of separating a person from their name. He signed a crazy noncompete and was left with no ability to create. He was erased. I think the idea of self-invention that we explore in this show is everyone’s experience — especially now, when people are branding themselves and performing their lives on social media.
You can romanticize that self-branding back in the day, but it is essentially the same thing that’s happening on Instagram or TikTok now.
Minahan All they did all day was document their lives! There was a fascination with fame. That made our jobs a lot easier as we re-created the world. At one point, we were just sitting in a huge room with tables and tables full of photographic research, and it struck me that these people were photographed all the time.
Tell me about casting Ewan. He said he wrestled with the decision to play a gay icon, and lot has been written and said in recent years about straight actors getting gay parts and who can play what. What’s your take on the debate?
Murphy Well, I can speak about that only from my own perspective. I believe that actors are people who can play and can’t play everything. In the case of Ewan, when this project came to me, he was attached — and I thought he was just brilliant. When you look at that performance, when you see what he did, I think he was the only one who could possibly play the role in the way that Dan and Christine envisioned it. It’s about balance. In my company, the thing that I feel that people never talk about, is the idea of gay actors playing straight. Nobody really talks about the power of that and how much that matters. That’s one of the things that we all fought for for so long.
When actors would come out of the closet, as many people in my generation did — like Zach Quinto, Neil Patrick Harris, Jim Parsons, Sarah Paulson and on and on — there was a fear that a lot of their opportunities would go away. “I’m only going to now be able to play gay characters.” What I try to do is cast the best person for the job. That is first and foremost, but also try for an ecosystem that is balanced and fair. The thing I’m directing today, Impeachment, stars two queer women playing straight women. Seven years ago, could that have happened? Anne Heche, after she came out of the closet, couldn’t get any roles. Everybody has a very strong opinion on this topic. I respect everyone’s opinion. But that’s my opinion. That’s how I run my business. That’s how I cast actors. There has been such a level of starvation in the culture for representation for so long. I think the way to move this forward is to examine it from all angles.
When Six Days, Seven Nights came out, the press narrative was basically that it was weird that Anne Heche was playing a romantic lead opposite Harrison Ford while she was in a relationship with Ellen DeGeneres.
Murphy It wasn’t too long ago. Look at someone like Sarah Paulson. I think of all the roles that I’ve written for her … Half are gay and half are straight. That’s what she wants to do as an actor. She wants to play the world and have access to the world. And I think, in the case of Ewan, again, it just goes back to, “Who’s the best person for the job within an ecosystem of equality?”
What have you learned about yourselves over the past year in terms of how you want to approach storytelling moving forward?
Murphy This, to me, was a joyful process, because I love Dan’s directing. I try and get him to do everything that I’m doing. He’s a snob and passes on so much of it. But in a good way, and I don’t blame him. (Laughs.) We’re always trying to work together. When this came to me, it was Dan and Christine’s project. I was there to serve. Usually, with my work, I write it and then I direct the first or several episodes. I loved letting someone of Dan’s caliber just completely go to town. My methodology about was, “Do whatever you want. Nothing is sacrosanct to me. I trust you implicitly.” That’s kind of a new thing for me, and I really loved it. I’m open to working with other people in that way. I found it to be truly interesting. I felt like I let go a lot with this project, and that felt good. I felt I’ve learned to trust a little bit more.
Minahan It was my first time directing an entire series. And Ryan, over dinner one night, said, “Are you sure you want to do all five?” Those words came back to haunt me certain days where I was like, “Wow … this is a lot.” I feel like I grew 10 sizes as a director on this project. Being given the reins in this way was such a blessing, and so much fun. Normally when you come in, you try to serve the look of the show that’s already established. This was an opportunity to just completely start it from the ground up.
Murphy Working on Halston, Pose and Versace even … the world has changed. It used to be that if you had any LGBTQ-themed project, getting a green light was almost impossible. It was immediately seen as small and niche. And if you did get the green light, they’d say, “Well, here’s one 10th of the money.” I grew up with that energy. I think that Dan did, too. Now, we can do something like Halston and actually have Netflix say, “This is going to be expensive because we want to get it right. Here’s the check.” Ted Sarandos is such a champion of making sure everybody has a place at the table. We got to make it look like a million bucks. And it had to. That’s how Halston lived. That would not have happened even five years ago. It’s been a real evolution in terms of how LGBTQ stories center in on those heroes and heroines.
I imagine the cheap version of Halston would be underwhelming and kind of contrary to the point.
Minahan Yeah. If the focus is on one little part of his life, then you’re doing a disservice to the rest of it — to the real story.
Has there been any word from Liza Minnelli’s camp? Do we know if she’s seen it?
Murphy Ewan met Liza. Dan and I are always like, “What happened? What did you guys talk about?” But, you know, that was a private conversation that was really Ewan letting Liza know that we were taking great care of their relationship. She was very appreciative of that. There’s a group of people around Liza who’ve asked to remain anonymous. I sent them all the episodes very early. The plan was that if they liked them and approved, they’d watch them with Liza. I knew it was working when I sent the first three, and then I got a call saying, “Wait, can we have the next two tomorrow?” I thought, “Oh, this is great. They’re going to sit and watch it with Liza.” And then I got another call saying, “Liza is not yet ready to watch.” She had such a deep connection with Halston. I think there’s a lot of pain there. I think she misses him very much, so she has not watched them yet. But I do check in, and they get a little closer to that “yes.” I hope that sometime this summer, she’s able to sit and watch the five episodes. We love her, and we want her to love it.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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