Jeremy Pope’s television debut, in ‘Hollywood,’ lands the stage actor an Emmy nod
“Hollywood” actor Jeremy Pope was having a great year in 2019. He was nominated for two Tonys: for playing a bullied gay man in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” and for portraying Temptations singer Eddie Kendricks in the musical “Ain’t Too Proud.” Then he got a call from his agent, who wanted him to make an audition tape for one of the most powerful producers in Los Angeles.
“My agent said this project came in, and there’s no script,” recalls the 28-year-old actor. “All we knew was that it was a Ryan Murphy show about the golden age of Hollywood. So my good friend Taylor Symone [Jackson], who was also in the Temptations musical, did a quick reading of a three-page script with me. The next day, my agent called and told me I had the part!”
Pope, who is competing with industry veterans such as Jeremy Irons, Mark Ruffalo and Hugh Jackman for this year’s lead actor in a limited series or movie Emmy, reflected on his successful leap from the stage to a hit Netflix show in a recent interview with The Envelope.
You talked about not knowing many details about the role before flying to Los Angeles to start work on “Hollywood.” How did you prepare for the job?
Ryan Murphy told me about his vision for the show and sent me the scripts for the first two episodes. He told me that Archie was a Black, gay screenwriter who was unapologetic about being himself. I was very excited but had only one hesitation: Did the show have people behind the scenes who were going to represent that narrative or was it going to be another instance of a white man writing about the Black experience? This was a period piece about the 1940s, and Black people had to move and act differently. I wanted to make sure I was protected both from a production and a writing standpoint. He assured me that it was going to happen.
Before production began, I had a great conversation with Janet Mock, who was a writer and producer on the show and directed two episodes as well. We really got to connect and discuss who this character was and had the right language to articulate the true Black experience. We didn’t have all the episodes given to us, and sometimes we would get the scripts on the same day we were filming. So I didn’t even know the trajectory of my character and that the story would have a hopeful ending. I needed to have the right language for what it was really like to be a Black artist trying to work in Hollywood during that era.
What was it like to share the screen with veterans like Patti LuPone, Holland Taylor and Dylan McDermott?
You know, that cast was so great and the series was such an ensemble piece. I got to work with some incredible humans and artists, both on camera and behind the scenes, and they were all very gracious with us. We were all transported into this time. The costumes were so fine. I had three- or four-hour costume fittings, which I hated at that time. But ultimately, it made it such a great experience. I could walk on set and we had Archie’s closet and I got to pick whatever I wanted to wear on that day. It was such a dream for this to be my television debut, to go back in time to rewrite some wrongs and create this hopeful narrative. We got to address systemic racism and oppression within the industry. It felt important to have a show come out in the middle of this that allows us to aspire for something better in our entertainment industry and for our world.
These days, creative people in positions of power are finally being held more accountable to have diverse representation in their work. What was your experience like as a young Black man hoping to make it in the business?
I moved from Florida to New York to study musical theater. It was hard for me to find myself in musical theater. I wanted to find characters that resonated with me at that time. There wasn’t a lot of material for me, so it made me doubt that I could be successful. I thought, “Well, I guess I could be in the ensemble if they give the one Black person a shot in a show or maybe I could be Simba in ‘The Lion King.’”
Then I got to meet Tarell McCraney, who wrote the play “Choir Boy” and the Oscar-winning movie “Moonlight.” He made me more aware and more comfortable in my skin. “Choir Boy” was about being raised a Black youth, which was something I knew and experienced. I began to feel visible and felt the impact it made. People would come to the stage door after the play and would tell me, “This is the first time I’m seeing myself in the theater.” That provided a lot of healing for me. I felt so hopeful knowing how powerful just one show is for a group of people. We may not have a thousand “Choir Boys” or “Lion Kings,” but seeing that one, knowing that you’re allowed to be in that space, kept me inspired.
What was the most memorable reaction you received to your performance in “Hollywood”?
A fan put together a virtual book of people from all over the world wishing me happy birthday in July: There was one specific message from a young Black guy who thanked me for the story of “Hollywood.” He said it was illegal to be gay where he lives. He said to watch this triumphant story, to watch my character win, made him feel that he was enough. That brought tears to my eyes, because that is the whole point of why I do what I do.
How did you like working with Ryan Murphy?
I love him! He’s a man of few words. He doesn’t say much on the day of the shoot, so you kind of think you’re trash. Finally, he says, “You’re fine, Pope!” That’s all he says. He’s such a brilliant content creator. He has these vibrant ideas in his head and knows what he wants, even down to the color palette of the wall. He brings together the people he likes and watches them throw paint on the wall.
When you were a kid growing up in Orlando, who were your show business role models?
There was one movie that I watched over and over again: “The Preacher’s Wife” with Whitney Houston, Denzel Washington and Courtney B. Vance. I watched it all year ’round, although it was a Christmas movie. They had a son named Jeremiah, and I would think, “That’s me: I’m supposed to be Whitney and Denzel’s son!” Recently, someone asked me who would be my dream actors to costar with. I told them, “I don’t know what the plot would be but I want to be in the same movie as Martin Lawrence and Meryl Streep. I guess it would have to be a dramedy. And Viola Davis and Regina King can play my mom and auntie!”
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