When Ryan Murphy announces a series, there is an immediate intrigue that is often associated with it. Take a look at his track record: Popular, Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, Scream Queens, 9-1-1 and Pose. With each series, he delivered relatable stories with outsized characters through a hyper-stylized lens. He pushed the envelope and slowly doled out stories about misfits, characters we haven’t seen on TV before and allowed those in the margins to shine. His series Feud put the spotlight on a very specific era in Hollywood — an era he loves. This would essentially be a beta version of his and Ian Brennan’s Netflix series Hollywood, which gives a look at the inclusive film and TV industry that could have been during the glitz and glamour of post-World War II Hollywood.
“I grew up reading about Hollywood and being obsessed about it and there were three people that I was really, really obsessed with: Rock Hudson, Anna May Wong and Hattie McDaniel,” Murphy told Deadline. “I was always really moved by them and I never really understood why until I was older. What I came upon was this idea of not being seen and the fear of not being able to be seen, or to rise up to possibility. I feel like there’s nothing sadder than lost potential and all three of those cases… they really were not seen. They were punished for being who they were.”
Murphy related to this especially at the beginning of his career. He saw Hudson, Wong and McDaniel as heroes who were part of this buried history that no one talked about. That said, after Feud, Murphy came up with an idea for an anthology called Buried History to spotlight a figure in Hollywood history who was done wrong by the industry — but after marinating on it, Murphy felt like that was too pessimistic and dark.
When he met up with frequent collaborator Darren Criss, the Versace star, who also serves as an executive producer on Hollywood, asked him what he wanted to do next and Murphy said he wanted to do something uplifting and optimistic — and then the idea of Hollywood’s “full service” gas station was put on the table. People may think it has parallels to the real-life Scotty Bowers and the gas station during the era that has been documented as a destination where actors, many of them gay, could satisfy their sexual cravings and needs in secrecy.
“That was very famous and it’s something that both of us were interested in,” admitted Murphy. “But I was never interested in the Scotty Bowers of it. Nobody in the show was based on Scotty Bowers. I was interested in the gas station. Specifically, the thing that I was interested in, is this idea of shame and that you could only be one thing in this town to be successful which was white and straight. If you were anything else, you had to hide it.”
Murphy wanted to still ground this in buried history as well as a culture of shame — but he wanted to make it optimistic. “I came upon is this formula of taking something fictional and masking it with historical figures,” he said. “Then I decided, ‘I want to give Rock Hudson, Anna May Wong and Hattie McDaniel the happy ending that they deserved’.” In addition, he folded in fictional characters played by Criss, Laura Harrier, Jeremy Pope, Patti LuPone, Holland Taylor and Joe Mantello that would have changed the course of history.
Thus, Hollywood was born.
One of the real-life acting legends that serves as a jumping-off point to this Hollywood-that-could-have-been is Anna May Wong, played by Michelle Krusiec. Wong, a first-generation Chinese American, was one of the few Asians who were working actors during the era when Hollywood takes place. She was famously known for going out for the lead role of the Chinese character O-Lan in MGM’s adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. She lost out the role to white actress Luise Rainer, who went on to win an Academy Award for Best Actress.
In her twenties, Krusiec was asked to work on a documentary on Wong and in her research, she found disappointing stories about her and how she would get to high-level auditions, but fumble them. Many saw that she wasn’t talented enough. Upon revisiting Wong before tackling a version of her for Hollywood, Krusiec had a come to Jesus moment about how Wong’s life as an actor was documented.
“In doing really deep research now, I realized just how racist of a story she received,” Krusiec told Deadline. “It was very different than what I understood in my twenties. I really went deep and tried to understand what was she up against and how entrenched the racism was during that time.”
When it comes to writing a fictionalized version of Wong, Murphy kept authentic representation in mind and he was thoughtful in the way she would be portrayed. “Obviously, I’m not Asian, but I do consider myself to be a minority,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be othered and I know what it’s like to not get opportunities because of who I was or told to change who I was and change how I looked.”
With Hollywood‘s Wong, she is older and we find her feeling defeated after being rejected for the lead role in The Good Earth. She hasn’t found work, has turned to alcohol and does not have fond thoughts of the industry. We are introduced to her via Criss’s fictional character of Raymond, an aspiring screenwriter and director. He pitches a movie idea for her to star in and she says “They aren’t going to cast me because I am Asian and this movie will never get made.” After revealing he is half-Filipino, an enlighting and moving discussion of identity politics and being white-passing ensues (a discussion that is an enriching thru line throughout the series). The two forge a bond and he makes it a mission to give her a leading role in the movie.
When Krusiec read the exchange between the two characters, she knew she had to step up her game when it came to embodying Wong. “I was a little bit daunted by the idea of stepping into her shoes, but because the writing was so honest and it was a voice that I felt very connected to immediately, I really was excited by what [Murphy] was doing,” she said.
Wong’s story arc and the general plot of Hollywood was kept under wraps and Krusiec would often find out what they were doing with her arc the day before but when she did find out, she said it was very deep and authentic. “It felt like an iceberg,” she said in terms of Wong’s narrative. “There was the top but then there was two-thirds of depth underneath. It was a really organic and exciting process to be a part of.”
Being Asian American, Krusiec felt a direct connection to Wong on that front, but found an even deeper connection to her as an Asian American actress who has been cutting her teeth in the industry for decades.
“I’m constantly being underestimated and being reduced or relegated to side parts, supporting parts or parts where the characters are in service of someone else’s narrative,” said Krusiec. “I felt during [Wong’s] entire career, she was constantly cast in these kinds of roles because it brings so much to the table in terms of what she was actually doing with those parts. She was really hard to ignore and it was really hard to dismiss her. She became brokenhearted by her career, but she still persisted.”
“As an Asian American actor, I’ve been treading that road for a long time and trying to understand my own wrestling with identity and how do I persist and how do I have resilience,” she added.
Krusiec sees Wong as a beacon of hope. But even though she is seen as an icon and legend now, the way she fell out of the cultural landscape was tragic. That said, Krusiec feels a responsibility to show up and give Wong justice. “I felt like her personal story is so sad,” she said, pointing out that she wasn’t a traditional Asian woman of the time who could be married off to another Asian man. She also addresses how many people say she was bisexual and how that added another layer of marginalization to her identity.
There was something wildly meta when it comes to Krusiec experience as an actress and Wong’s journey. Krusiec goes back to Wong’s missed opportunity with The Good Earth. There is a scene in the series where Wong is auditioning for the role and Krusiec wanted to get it right. “I really felt like she really sacrificed everything for art and particularly with that role, that scene of what’s being said, it felt so resonant to her personal life,” she said. “I really tried to work towards connecting just how believable she would have been in that scene.”
“When I watched Luise Rainer, what I saw was a person trying to portray what they thought an Asian person was, she continued. “I watched that film and I was really just shocked at how the assumptions of what Asian people are like. It was a depiction that I kept seeing over and over as opposed to the real deep struggles around culture, family and class. I feel like that’s what she would have brought to the role of [O-Lan in The Good Earth].”
This brings the topic of opportunity for underrepresented voices in Hollywood to the forefront, something that Murphy has championed. Throughout his career, he’s had conversations with executives where he asked them questions like “Why does the lead have to be straight? Why can’t the lead be gay?” and “Why does a rom-com have to revolve around Sandra Bullock instead of Halle Berry?”
“The answer was because ‘That’s what sells’,” Murphy declared. “I said, ‘Well how do you know what sells unless you put something out there?’” — and that has been wildly present in his work. He has collaborated and listened to those from communities that are not of his own such as Criss to bring forth voices that wouldn’t normally get the chance to thrive. We were introduced to massive diverse talent via Glee, we saw the trans community slay in Pose, and were presented to new voices that have been in the industry for decades but never had the opportunity to shine like Broadway star Jon Jon Briones who has been in Versace, American Horror Story and the forthcoming Ratchet.
As much as Hollywood presents a story of inclusion and allowing “the othered” to bask in the limelight, Krusiec looks at how it was back during the problematic Golden Age of Hollywood and now and realizes that not much has changed. “A lot of what Wong is facing, it really pains to me to say that it is happening in Hollywood today,” she said. “I’m always positive about [diversity], but the realities of being a minority woman opposite a white man in a leading film in Hollywood — I don’t know if you can name any. I don’t know if it actually exists. You might see them set in Asia or you might see them set in a world where predominantly the cast is Asian but in a cast that’s all white with an Asian lead or an ethnic lead, that’s very, very rare.”
Still, Krusiec and Murphy maintain hope and continue to push diverse faces, stories and characters. They champion the opportunity to give people who have pushed to the side an opportunity “to be seen.” Hollywood contributes to that clarion call.
“I think at it’s best, Hollywood will launch a conversation and I think that gradually, you just have to get used to people thinking that the way we’re doing business is not good and it’s not normal,” said Murphy. “Hollywood has many flaws, but the reason I love it is that it is able launch conversations and make people be seen. It’s a really big teacher. We learn how to kiss from Hollywood. We learn how to be friends and how to fall in love, and how to fight the good fight, and who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. We’re taught levels of behavior by what we see the images that are put up in front of us, so I’ve always been very aware of the power of it.”
Krusiec found Hollywood cathartic because it’s a positive narrative about marginalized people in Hollywood during a time when they weren’t welcomed — and we haven’t seen that before.
“When I saw Sandra Oh acting for the first time, my entire body was viscerally responding to the possibility of this world that looks like me,” she said. “I hope that when people watch Hollywood, they experience that visceral feeling and how that connection might plant the seed of possibility. There’s hope in the show…there are some real questions being asked and hopefully, the show gives the experience of what it would feel like if Hollywood were reality.”
Murphy adds to that sentiment: “It’s not the Hollywood we live in, but it’s the Hollywood we wish were here.”
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