One of the most famous stars to emerge was Rock Hudson, a closeted gay man who starred in films like Magnificent Obsession (1954), Pillow Talk (1959), and Lover Come Back (1961). Though he was out to most of his friends, the world never knew of his personal life until he died of AIDS complications in 1985, an event that changed the course of history and placed tremendous pressure on Ronald Reagan to address the crisis.
In his latest Netflix series, Hollywood, Ryan Murphy asks very specific questions: What if LGBTQ actors and producers in the mid-20th century rebelled against the closet and succeeded? What if a woman ran a major movie studio? What if a top studio cast a Black female lead during the age of Jim Crow? Where would we be today if Rock Hudson was unapologetically out from the beginning of his career?
The series isn’t trying to show what Hollywood is but rather what it could be. It’s clear from the start that Murphy is sketching a world of his own making, one tailor-made for marginalized artists who’ve long existed on the sidelines.
More importantly, Hollywood aims to remind us of the actors of color whose shoulders we stand on, like Hattie McDaniel (Queen Latifah) and Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec), two trailblazers who were undervalued by the Hollywood system at the time.
In Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, queer writers, actors, and producers decide they are not going to be forced into the closet, and other marginalized groups rise up as well. Their queerness, their Blackness, the other aspects of their identity are a source of pride and act as the driving force behind all of their subplots.
Add heavy hitters like Patti LuPone, Jim Parsons, Darren Criss, Dylan McDermott, Holland Taylor, Rob Reiner, Mira Sorvino, Samara Weaving, and David Corenswet, and you have a true Hollywood smash.
Jake Picking, the young actor tasked with bringing Murphy’s Rock Hudson to life, spoke with The Advocate about exploring the anguish and exploitation the star endured.
The Advocate: Take me back to when you first came to Hollywood.
Jake Picking: When I first started acting, I was in high school and my math teacher said, “I don't know if anyone can tell if you're being serious or not. So you should try acting.” I was at [New York University] studying business but found myself skipping class to get involved in all the student thesis films and, you know, I caught the bug and knew that’s what I wanted to do.
I moved to L.A. without knowing anyone. I’d seen all the pictures, it's sunny, and all the stars, but then you show up and it was kind of flipped on its head for me. … The mentality I came with was, “OK, I’m willing to sleep on the beach and make this happen if need be!” You know, couch-surf and eat out of tuna cans, that kind of thing. But a healthy escape for me was film itself.
I hear you’re a fan of old movies.
I was already enamored with the golden age of Hollywood. I was cognizant of who Rock Hudson was, and I found myself often posing the same question: What would these guys do in this day and age? I looked up to Paul Newman and James Dean and [Marlon] Brando. They’re heroes to me.
What is it about the golden age that you like so much?
I think the simplicity of the stories. I find myself laughing and crying in those movies more than in today’s movies.
Being on a show that reflected an era I was already in love with was surreal. The era itself was incredibly romantic, the colors, even in the way people spoke…. There’s a certain level of obligation I felt, playing someone who’s such a hero, an icon, but also working with the likes of Jeremy Pope and Patti LuPone, Joe Mantello, just kind of takes my breath away. It was hard not to, in the first few days on set, to feel the presence of Rock watching, and I had to remind myself to just be present and listen.
How did you go about researching Rock Hudson, besides reading his biography All That Heaven Allows by Mark Griffin?
I watched his films on silent to study his body language. I listened to his interviews while I was driving in my car to study how he speaks. I think what surprised me most was the anguish that came from his personal life and the relationships with his father and stepfather, the rejection that came with that … I read somewhere that a secret isn’t real unless it’s painful to hold on to, and I think that’s what he had to do. He felt socially ostracized, but at the same time he was a hero in my eyes. It was an honor to play him because I think he progressed through [his pain]. He was resilient.
Given that the show takes its own artistic liberties, did that free you up a bit as an actor?
We really wanted to remain true to the essence of who Rock was first, and what most people don’t realize is that in his growth to fame, he did go through a lot. His relationship with [agent] Henry Willson, just little things, signs of femininity had to be eradicate. His wrist was slapped, hips straightened this way, never cross your legs, fix your teeth, lower voice, all this stuff. To finally break away from that, that arc was appealing for me. But I think it shows how everything and nothing has changed in the industry, and that the abuse of power, unfortunately, is pertinent.
What was it like working with Janet Mock [an executive producer on the series]?
She’s a legend. I met her on the same day as Jim Parsons and I had to basically scream at Henry [Parsons’s character]. She would come up to me and ask, “How are you feeling?” And I’d be like, “I don’t know, am I getting this?” And she’d say, “Jake, that’s what Rock would be feeling…”
She’s an actor’s director. She’s completely cognizant of your emotional state and engages it in a way where sometimes less is more. She knows when to step in and when not to. Already being someone who’s so friendly and open-minded, she just gives so much trust to an actor that you can’t really ask for much else.
There are scenes that, I imagine were hard to shoot, especially the scenes with Henry. Of course, Henry Willson was known in the industry to have groomed several or all of his male clients to perform sexual acts to get ahead in the industry. Rock was certainly no different, and it’s touched on in the show. Were those scenes hard to shoot?
With Jim, I felt so safe. We both had to wear prosthetics, and we were in the hair and makeup trailer for hours before the scene. On a personal level, he's someone who is a real friend to me, so there was a comfortability there. I think that's necessary. There was a mutual understanding that we wanted to just bring truth to these moments.
I imagine there were talks with Ryan about the sensitivity of those scenes, particularly those that push the boundaries of consent.
Ryan told me there are going to be difficult things to do and “Are you willing?” I was like “Yes.” I think there was so much sex appeal during that [era] and I think Rock was cognizant of that. For example, he was on an aircraft carrier in the Philippines, and when he came to L.A., he would drive a budget packing truck [with a cargo] which consisted of frozen peas and carrots and he would dress up in a uniform to kind of hang around the studio gate looking dapper, bumping heads with someone influential, so I think he was aware [of his own sex appeal].
Do you have any advice for other young actors with dreams of coming to Hollywood?
Find out one thing that that you're willing to put yourself on the line for. Just find that one thing and go after it, no hesitation.