Hollywood’s Jeremy Pope: ‘Is there room for another black man like me?’

The Broadway actor-turned-breakout star of Ryan Murphy’s new series on representation, prejudice and the high-octane world of Tinseltown past and present

‘Can all of us be in the same room at the same time?,” Jeremy Pope asks over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. It is over a month into lockdown, but he isn’t questioning the rules of physical distancing. Rather, the 27-year-old is pondering the unspoken rules of Hollywood prejudice – who gets to share a platform with whom, and whether there’s only space for one minority figure at any given time.

Pope’s latest project – his first major TV role – is in Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series Hollywood, a revisionist story set in 1940s Golden Age tinseltown, where he plays Archie, a gay, black screenwriter who is trying to break into the industry. It is a story he could relate to.

“What’s brilliant about our series is that you have a powerful man like Ryan Murphy who is capable of making any type of TV he wants, and then he makes a show like this – showing the world what it could have been,” Pope says. “And I am what it can be, he’s given me my debut TV opportunity. I often feel very similar to Archie and I wonder: is there room for another black man like me?”

Hollywood is a lascivious, lustful take on a much-mythologised era, centred on a group of fledgling stars: Pope’s Archie, whose retelling of Peg Entwistle’s suicide is picked up by director Raymond (Darren Criss), and actors Jack (David Corenswet) and Camille (Laura Harrier). Criss and Corenswet are established actors of the Murphy stable, having starred in his previous productions such as Glee, The Politician and The Assassination of Gianni Versace, yet for Pope, Hollywood – the show and the town – was an unfamiliar experience.

“I was coming to the end of what I called my marathon when I was cast,” he says. “I was doing eight shows a week on Broadway of Ain’t Too Proud and that was right on the back of Choir Boy, so when I got the call to audition, I was exhausted.” Both shows were tales of the black American experience, albeit in very different ways; Choir Boy was a journey of self-discovery set in an elite prep school and penned by Moonlight’s Tarell Alvin McCraney, while Ain’t Too Proud was a musical based on the career of the Motown group the Temptations. Both performances earned Pope Tony nominations, making him only the sixth person in its 73-year history to be up for two awards in one season.

When he was offered the role of Archie, it was for an “untitled Ryan Murphy project” and he had no idea what it would entail. “When I met Ryan, we just had a great open dialogue about the show and it was a very collaborative process,” he says. “I soon became really excited about this story and representing a powerful black gay writer in the 1940s, but I needed to be reassured that there were directors and writers that represented me on the show, too.”

That support namely came in the form of longtime Murphy collaborator and Hollywood co-writer and co-director Janet Mock. “Janet was my ride or die,” he says. “We got to really dig into these characters and talk about the racial acrobatics these people had to go through. We know how hard it must have been to just be a coloured man in the 40s but then to also be an out gay man? It’s like you already walk into a room with two strikes.”

Archie’s scenes in the show are often highly demanding and emotional, tearfully confronting studio executives who seek to erase his experience or demanding recognition in the face of prejudice and privilege, yet Pope found it disconcertingly easy to tap into his narrative. “Doing eight shows a week in theatre means I can deliver that intensity once, or eight times or even 12 – I can bring that discipline,” he says, “but even more than that, with these scenes I would just think about people like Hattie McDaniel, who was the first woman of colour to win an Academy award. But she wasn’t allowed in the ceremony and when she did win, the Academy had written a speech for her. So, I would feel the pain that she had to go through to be a beacon of light for people like me. It’s so heartbreaking and it made me ask just how high am I allowed to dream?”

For Pope, that battle to dream big continues. “It’s easy for me to go back to a moment in my life where I felt that maybe I wasn’t good enough or I wasn’t allowed to stand in my truth when I was playing Archie,” he says, referencing his teenage years in Orlando, Florida and trying to become an actor and singer. “Hollywood is a period piece but we can still identify with the struggles of the characters today – we’re still fighting for equal opportunities for women, for people of colour, for the LGBTQ community. I just hope that this show continues to inspire our generation of artists to keep fighting to establish that there is room for all of us.”

In the meantime, Pope is spending his lockdown with a well-deserved break from the rigours of filming, “making music, writing and learning how to bake my grandmother’s pound cake”. “In these past couple of weeks I’ve just been able to think of all the moments we’ve had thus far and how great they have been,” he says – taking in the entirety of his community into his third person “we”. “I know that when I get back to work, we will be on that mission just as aggressively as we were before.”

Hollywood is available on Netflix now

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