Laura Harrier on Rewriting Hollywood in Netflix’s ‘Hollywood’
Laura Harrier on Rewriting Hollywood in Netflix’s ‘Hollywood’
This interview contains spoilers for the series finale of “Hollywood.”
Laura Harrier was in high school when she first learned about the Oscar-nominated actress Dorothy Dandridge, and she was immediately drawn to her beauty and talent. So when Ryan Murphy cast her in “Hollywood” as Camille, a 1940s starlet inspired by Dandridge, it “felt like a gift had fallen from the sky,” she said.
Inhabiting the role, however, meant tapping into experiences very different from her own. She had earned acclaim for breaking racial barriers as a love interest in the blockbuster “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” The pioneering black actresses of Dandridge’s generation had to face cross-burnings and boycotts. In order to play a woman like them, Harrier looked to their lives and films for inspiration.
“I also drew a lot from Lena Horne,” she said in a phone interview just ahead of the series debut. (All seven episodes arrived to Netflix last week.) “I looked at both of them to understand what it felt like to have a dream to be a leading lady and yet have nobody to look to onscreen.”
“It’s not like when I was growing up and could look at Halle Berry, Angela Bassett, Nia Long and Jada Pinkett Smith,” she added.
Finding herself in Camille’s perfectly polished heels was a process that began with a cryptic audition for an untitled project about a year ago, followed by several months of radio silence. One day, she was brought in for a chemistry read with her co-star and executive producer Darren Criss, and the next, she received a call informing her that she had been cast. It all happened so fast, but Harrier was excited for the challenge.
“When Ryan Murphy asks you to do something, you don’t say no,” she said.
Harrier was then thrust back in time more than 70 years to play a woman quietly fighting the system — much as women like Dandridge and Horne had to fight in their day. She immersed herself in their world and transformed herself on set, down to the impeccably tailored outfits, the coifed curls and the internalized discrimination.
“It really felt like I had lived in the 1940s for about five months,” Harrier said. “It was very cool, but it was funny going back to real life.”
But “Hollywood,” which Murphy created with Ian Brennan, is ultimately a revisionist history, and the plot takes a sharp turn from reality: Camille pushes to play the title character in “Meg,” a fictional big studio drama that earns her an Oscar in the final episode. As inconceivable as that triumph seems — in real life, a black woman didn’t win best actress until Halle Berry won in 2002 — it was eye-opening for Harrier to consider.
“This revisionist history of Hollywood makes me think about what it would have been like today had this happened back then,” she said.
Back in the present day, from her adopted home of Los Angeles, the Chicago native reflected on her whirlwind ride on “Hollywood.” Several weeks into the pandemic quarantine, Harrier was “grateful,” she said, to have a house and a backyard where she could chat by phone about what still makes her happy: movies, fashion, inspiring the next generation and rewriting Hollywood history. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Besides the Ryan Murphy factor, what drew you to the project and Camille’s story?
I was really interested in telling a story of old Hollywood that was different than we’ve seen previously. As an actress and someone who loves film, I loved living in that era. It’s so glamorous and beautiful. But growing up as a black woman, I never saw myself represented. So, it was something that I admired, but never fully connected to. Getting to tell a black woman’s story really excited me.
As glamorous and victorious as the series is at times, it’s also bittersweet and heartbreaking because black women like Camille never got their due in real life. How did you strike that balance in tone?
Yeah, there’s such a heaviness to that period against the backdrop of World War II. It’s the antithesis of what we’re used to seeing onscreen. We’re also looking at the stories of real people who led really tragic lives. I really wanted to examine it more deeply through their lens.
Since you’re not playing a real-life person, did you have more leeway to add to the portrayal?
I was definitely able to build Camille and make her her own character. But my research started with Dorothy Dandridge, who was a very similar figure. She was so talented, intelligent and beautiful, and had quite a bit of success. But she hit a glass ceiling and was never fully celebrated for the artist that she was. She was oversexualized and occasionally cast in racist roles. I watched a bunch of her movies and listened to podcasts. I wish I had known about her when I was a little girl. It would have inspired me as a young girl to see someone like her so early on.
I felt a sense of hopelessness watching Camille help try to get a film like “Meg” made, knowing that it could never have happened. It was easier for me to digest the penultimate episode, when the film is burned, than the triumphant finale. Maybe I’m just conditioned to unhappier endings.
I was in the same boat as you when I read that penultimate episode. It’s horrible, but it’s also unfortunately been the history of people who’ve been marginalized in Hollywood to not have happy endings or achieve success. I really loved that Ryan, Ian, Janet [Janet Mock, an executive producer, writer and director] and all the writers made it a celebration of happiness and hope.
There’s often been criticism of revisionist history onscreen and how it can sometimes sanitize the way things really were. Were you ever worried about that?
I wouldn’t say that it was something that I was concerned about, given the people that I was working with and their body of work. I know that they have always been on the right side of things. Ryan has been such a pioneer in representation and escapism that is also grounded in reality.
The costumes in the series also show such respect for each character — regardless of race, class, gender and age. How did they help you authenticate who Camille is?
As soon as I put on the costumes, the hair and the red lipstick, as well as the silk slip and garters, it changed the way I walked, my posture and how I carried myself. Camille had respect for her clothing and understood the importance of being put together. She knew what it conveyed at a time when people of color were not universally respected by society and the powers that be.
It was really important for Camille because she was going into the studio system as the only black girl. So she had to be a beautiful, glamorous version of herself to show the world that she belongs here.
There’s a great scene with Camille, the screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope), and her boyfriend and director, Raymond (Criss), when she champions herself to be the lead in “Meg.” How does she toe that line of respectability?
Camille advocates herself the best way that she can. She is unfortunately not able to go to the studio. So she knows that she has to talk to the people who are available to her and use her personal relationships.
I admired that Camille is rescued in “Meg” in part by a male love interest (David Corenswet), because we often see black female characters either rescuing others or not surviving at all. Did that strike you as well?
We really looked at that last scene in “Casablanca,” where Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart are staring at each other and about to kiss, as inspiration for that romantic climax in “Meg.” But I like to think that Meg saves herself because she realizes that if she dies by suicide, all that will show is a black woman giving up after being rejected in Hollywood. Persevering takes into consideration all the people looking up to her for guidance. So, I think she saves herself and all the dreams of little girls.