We all know the allure of Hollywood is smoke and mirrors. The parade of glamour is irresistible by design, distracting us from everything we resent about the mundane — an illusion veiling the inner workings of an industry that rarely deals in fairytale endings. But sometimes, the movie moment happens for real.
“It’s a very Hollywood-esque story,” Samara Weaving warns. “I got a call from my agent. [They] said, ‘Oh, you’ve booked a role on Ryan Murphy’s new show’. I was dumbfounded, very confused, and said, ‘Could you double-check? I don’t recall ever auditioning for this. I’ve never met Ryan Murphy before…” It transpired she actually had auditioned a few months prior, for what was then framed as an “unknown project”, where she’d gone in blind to read scenes from Some Like it Hot. The offer couldn’t have arrived on better timing, lifting Weaving, who was looking to explore different territory from the horror films she’s recently starred in, into the perfect palette of Murphy world — this time set in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Following a group of young actors, writers and producers hustling to catch a lucky break, Hollywood explores industry power dynamics with sharp insight and comedic pace that, in classic Murphy fashion, verges on satire. 20 minutes into the first episode, it’s said outright: “Make me feel like I matter, even if it’s a lie.” Sex is framed as currency — literally — as Hollywood hopefuls take side jobs at a gas station run by the charismatic Ernie (Dylan McDermott), selling their time as a secret extra service; codeword: dreamland. Elusive notions of the American Dream feel ever-present, as the will to make it — to be desired and powerful, or at the very least, to simply be seen — drives each of its characters. For aspiring actor Jack (David Corenswet), it’s disguised as a valiant effort to provide for his family, while for screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope), producer Raymond (Darren Criss) and actor Camille (Laura Harrier), it’s tied up with a sincere and unprecedented push for equality. For Weaving’s character Claire, it’s a cry for attention.
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The daughter of an influential studio director, Claire wants desperately to be cast in a film against both of her parents’ wishes. “I sort of looked up what happens when a child is neglected, and considered that her harsh overconfidence was a way of coping with loneliness and being looked over,” Weaving says. “The fact that she was so ambitious to become an actress was because, possibly, that’s the way her parents would take her seriously. [To] be seen — being literally in front of them on the screen as they watched. So I knew that she had this hard shell, but that there was a very sort of brokenness inside of her.”
Murphy filtered his scripts to the cast gradually so they didn’t know how their characters would evolve — an approach Weaving says was new to her, and one that’s noticeable watching the series. Each story arc moves rapidly as our feelings towards the people on our screen change, mostly for the better, in ways we never anticipated in episode one. The development of Claire feels especially unpredictable, as her self-possessed front gives way to insecurity that’s palpable on screen. Through subtle changes in physicality, posture and facial expressions, Weaving conveys a sense of anxiety that feels crippling, showing us Claire’s inner conflict without having to speak a word of it. “Ryan described her as the spider, kind of always watching and lurking and quite still,” she explains. “And she does; she hears and picks up rumours, she’s always listening to the gossip in and out of the studio. I think she knows everything, and she uses that to her advantage.”
When Claire’s relationship with her mother (fiercely depicted by Patti Lupone) takes a sentimental turn, her whole agenda and self-conscious demeanour dissolves and out of nowhere, we warm to her too. “She realises that’s not her priority. That’s not actually what she wants,” Weaving affirms. “She doesn’t want fame and fortune. I think she realises that what she needs is love. The relationship between her and her mother shifting, and having a willingness to be open and listen to one another is really beautiful.”
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Murphy’s finale episode, ‘A Hollywood Ending’, sees the characters we’re rooting for granted similar happy ever afters. After a group of industry gatekeepers defiantly release Meg, a film challenging the deep-rooted racism in post-war America, we’re taken to an opulent Oscars ceremony to await the Academy’s verdict. Here one of Meg’s actors proudly walks the red carpet hand in hand with his screenwriter boyfriend, the film’s African-American lead takes home the prestigious award for Best Actress, and Meg picks up a number of awards including Best Picture — between which we even get a co-star marriage proposal. Its commercial success defies the societal oppression of the day, highlighting that grass-roots demand for cultural change was there all along, if only Hollywood’s most powerful were willing to tell stories about people who don’t look like them. Murphy’s message is positive, but draws critical attention to what could have been done to incite change all those years ago, and the persistence of those shortcomings today.
“He refers to it as ‘faction’. There’s that Quentin Tarantino-esque Once Upon a Time in Hollywood [format], where it’s rooted in the period,” Weaving says, referring to Murphy’s depiction of screen legends mixed with fictional characters, creating a kind of alternate reality of how events could have unfolded. “Real people, mixed with anomalies of others who represent the overshadowed people at that time. And there are really eerie similarities to today…” she adds, framing the series as ultimately honouring those who did pave the way for change. “This show is sort of a great reminder for us to not take that for granted, and to keep fighting the good fight. I think it does that really well, in a really glamorous and heartbreaking and raunchy [way].”
Though the majority of stories in film are still told from the perspective of white, straight men, Weaving is navigating an industry increasingly held accountable to this fact. “It’s extremely important and wonderful to watch,” she says on her own experience of this shift. “I remember when I first saw Wonder Woman (2017) for the first time and in the opening sequence there were only women. I start- ing balling and I couldn’t really understand why, and then it hit me that I hadn’t seen an opening of a huge studio movie with action and strikes and power all encompassed by a multitude of women, rather than men. It was something I had never seen before.” Though she emphasises there’s significant progress still to be made, Weaving is noticing efforts to promote “social equality, racial equality and gender equality” in the scripts she’s sent too. “We do get further in hacking away at what’s wrong and what needs to be changed about the industry, so I hope that this reignites that in people.”
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“Yeah, there has been cases where I haven’t been heard, or been overlooked, or haven’t been respected the way a person should be,” she says, when I ask if there’s been situations where she hasn’t felt her voice valued on set. “It’s a tricky question. There have been both sides and I’m lucky enough to have worked with so many fantastic directors and producers who really respect and listen, [who] take my notes seriously and take my thoughts seriously and actually incorporate them. I love pre-production because that’s where you really do get to play with the script and the character and try to figure out who the person is, and when you’ve got an open and willing crew surrounding you as generous actors, producers and directors. I think that’s a team effort. You have to be able to trust and lean on one another, and when that trust is taken away then it gets rather sticky.”
Weaving cites her latest film, Last Moment of Clarity, as an example of a strong team built on mutual trust. “It was a small cast, and we really got to know each other. We all stayed in the same building,” she says of the fast-paced thriller, where she plays an elusive aspiring actor who mysteriously reappears with a glamorous new identity after being murdered — maybe — by the Bulgarian mob in New York. “Those two directors [Colin and James Krisel], they really heard and listened to my ideas as well.”
A more surreal pre-production experience happened on the set of action-comedy GUNS AKIMBO, released earlier this year, in which her character Nix is locked into a live-streamed fight club with a reluctant video game developer (Daniel Radcliffe), who wakes up with guns bolted to his hands. Weaving, a low-key Harry Potter fan, spent weeks of stunt training hiding her Deathly Hallows ankle tattoo from him with long socks. “Then one day, I forgot to wear my socks,” she winces. “I turned to him and said, ‘Yes Daniel, and it’s not about you! It’s about JK Rowling, OK? Let’s get this straight!’ But he was so much fun. He was wonderful; he’s such a talented actor and a really, really hard worker.”
Weaving clearly never thought she’d be working with Radcliffe, but she has always wanted to act. Growing up with creative parents who moved between Australia, Fiji, Singapore, Indonesia and Italy when she was young, playing characters became her way of adapting to new environments. “I hear stories about me from being little and it was always ‘she was very shy’, and ‘she had trouble introducing herself’, and ‘making friends took a long time’. My parents put me in drama programs and I think, even as a kid, I knew that ‘I’m now not being judged as Sam, I’m being judged as this character’, so I had the freedom to be silly and be out there and be extroverted and playful. That’s how I would socialise, or at least break the ice, by joining drama clubs.”
“But then later in life I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, so that makes a lot of sense as well as to why,” she adds, laughing but not wavering on bringing it up. “With general anxiety there is such a spectrum that it can be confused with just being shy or introverted. Onset I think I take the job very seriously; especially if you’re number one on the call sheet you’re essentially a leader and you need to set the tone for the cast and crew. Even if I feel like I just want to sit at home and read a book I’ll make sure to go above and beyond; I’ll make sure everyone feels comfortable and check-in with everyone […] I think a lot of actors are introverts, so there’s always a connection that can be made purely through the fact that we’re all drawn to the same field.”
Weaving is an actor who doesn’t seem so worried about ‘making it’. Her own Hollywood world feels a far cry from Murphy’s make-believe one, and her rise within it not driven by an agenda for glory or glamour. “There’s a difference between success and fame. I think if you’re trying to be famous then that’s tricky because fame is fickle, but if you’re trying to be successful that’s a good thing,” she reasons. “I just love what I do and if I can keep working then I’ll be happy, but I think if I was searching for fame? That would not end well…” With the success of Hollywood and plans to venture into producing, Weaving is positioning herself as someone who can open doors for others coming up with her — a power she leaves no doubt she’ll use in the right ways.