Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood is an ambitious, grand attempt at imagining what Hollywood could have been like if those who were historically blocked from entering the studio gates—queer people and people of color, specifically—were given a chance at success.
A well known real-life figure, however, provides an anchor to the real history of Hollywood: Rock Hudson, the all-American heartthrob for Tinseltown’s golden age.
Jake Picking is the 29-year-old actor chosen to play Hudson as an up-and-comer, before he was Hollywood’s go-to leading man. “There’s always that certain gravity or level of obligation that you feel,” Picking said on the phone about a month before the series premiered on Netflix. “That was truly an honor to play someone like Rock Hudson. He’s a legend. I’ve had some experience with playing real people in my other films, but this one was special, for sure.”
Picking has been living in Los Angeles for the past six or seven years, but he, similar to Hudson, is definitely not a native to the West Coast. He grew up around Boston, then attended New York University for a year before dropping out. “I was studying business and playing hockey there. I was basically skipping a lot of class to be a part of all the acting stuff and student projects,” he explained. While he was in the process of transferring to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to get an acting degree, he realized he might as well just move out west. “I just couldn’t really afford it and I was just like, ‘I don’t know. I might as well take a risk. I’m going to come to LA anyway,’ so I moved out here without knowing anyone,” he said.
When he finally made it out to L.A., the aspiring actor found himself experiencing unparalleled amounts of loneliness. “That loneliness, that’s one of the things that Rock experienced when he came to LA,” he said. “He was driving a budget packing truck full of frozen peas and carrots and would show up in his uniform in front of the studio gates. That was just one of the things that connected me with Rock.”
When Picking heard Murphy was working on a project, he was instantly intrigued. Not that he knew exactly what it was that he was auditioning for—it was Murphy’s reputation as a provocative, dedicated showrunner that piqued Picking’s interest. Luckily, he was soon called in for a general meeting with the creator.
“He’s really serious and I think the reason why he’s such a successful person is because he’s very specific and he knows what he wants,” he said. “On top of that, he’s always willing to take a risk. I sat down with him and the first thing to come out of his mouth was, ‘Tell me everything you know about Rock Hudson.’ So he got down to brass tacks right away, which I appreciated. There’s no filter there and he’s actually a pretty funny guy too. A lot of people don’t know that. He’s got a really good, dry sense of humor.”
What exactly did Picking know about Rock Hudson? Well, not nearly as much as what he eventually learned from playing the role, but he was “cognizant” of the actor’s presence in the golden age of Hollywood. “I had an affinity for that era already. I told Ryan the story how I moved to LA and I experienced that existential angst,” Picking explained. “Every day is a perpetual Saturn. There’s no seasonal changes. I remember going on a nocturnal schedule for a few weeks, which was pretty weird, but I sat there and I watched a bunch of movies from the ’50s, ’60s, ’40s, so I loved Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, Robert Redford.”
After taking the plunge into Hollywood, Picking quickly brushed up on his Rock Hudson history. He started with his films. “I think my favorite one was All That Heaven Allows with Jane Wyman. Then Magnificent Obsession, and Pillow Talk with Doris Day. I watched them on silent as well, just to study his body,” he said. “When I was driving I would listen to a lot of his interviews just to hear his voice. I read The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, which was Henry Wilson, who is played by Jim Parsons [in Hollywood]. Then I read a biography of Rock by Mark Griffin, and the show itself was loosely based on Full Service by Scotty Bowers, so I read that.”
Before Rock Hudson was “Rock Hudson” he was Roy Fitzgerald, a gawky, ham-fisted amateur from Winnetka, Illinois. (And before that, he was born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr.—Fitzgerald was a legal surname given to him when his stepfather adopted him without his consent.) “When we think of Rock Hudson, we think of him at the height of his stardom, but this is the story of his way to stardom,” Picking said. “I got to learn a little bit more about his history with his father, which is not really touched on that much in the show. But his relationship with his father was maybe a little distant.”
This father-son relationship has been chronicled in a couple of biographies on Hudson. He was an auto mechanic who lost his job during the Great Depression and abandoned his family in Illinois. “Rock went with his mom cross-country on a bus and they found his father and basically asked him to come back and it was a no-go,” Picking explained. “Can you imagine that bus ride back with your mom? That kind of stuff just hit me just because he became such a mogul and a lot of people don’t know the weight and pain that he was carrying on a personal level,” he went on.
Some of that personal baggage that dogged Hudson until his death in 1985 (from AIDS-related complications) involved his sexuality, which he was forced to keep a secret if he wanted to keep his career. “Obviously, we’ve made social progressions that way,” Picking said. “I read somewhere it’s a tragedy that it’s not really a secret unless it hurts to share it or to hold onto it. I feel like that’s a weight that Rock was carrying in terms of his sexuality, which was a shame.”
Hollywood may now be widely considered a progressive utopia, at least compared to the rest of the nation, but in mid-20th century America, queerness was policed just as harshly there as it was in other parts of the country. The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, was implemented from 1934 to 1954, after a string of scandals both on-screen and off tarnished Hollywood’s image. Suddenly, there were a lot of guidelines and boundaries that could not be crossed, and that meant that not only could homosexuality not be overtly displayed on screen, but it was assumed that actors could not be out either.
Hollywood is a semi-revisionist and fictional account of factual events, but it does not hold back when it comes to showing the abuse Hudson sustained at the hands of Willson, his agent who coerced him into performing various sexual favors in return for a successful film career. “It’s relevant for audiences today because it’s kind of synonymous with #MeToo, but it’s not the same thing. It just showcases how everything and nothing has changed in the entertainment industry, and society as a whole,” Picking said.
Willson represented a lot of the beefcake sex symbols of the time—including Tab Hunter and Robert Wagner—and made them change their given names to stage names that wielded more star power. He did whatever he could to take someone like Roy Scherer, turn him into Rock Hudson, and mold him into leading-man material. That meant he harbored the secrets of all of his clients, often blackmailing them the way he blackmailed Hudson, and selling some of his clients’ secrets to the press in order to keep the tabloids away from others. “Watching some of that stuff was definitely uncomfortable. It’s not something that feels good in your stomach thinking this person had to go through that,” the actor continued, referring to scenes in which a naive Rock is taken advantage of by his agent.
At the end of the series, we see a formerly meek Hudson emerge as a more confident version of himself on the red carpet at a movie premiere. “When Henry invited him to his house for the first time—and this was in one book that I read— he turned the sprinklers on on purpose or something and told Rock, ‘Let me help you out of that.’ Knowing that stuff, it makes it so that once he’s on the red carpet, I’m just applauding that much more internally for him to be standing up for himself,” he said.
It’s a triumphant imagination of queerness in mid-20th century Hollywood, but that’s also what contributes to Hollywood falling under the category of “revisionist” history. “I just wish he was able to see how far we’ve come, the open-mindedness that we’ve adapted,” Picking said.
Though the spread of the coronavirus has prohibited many movie theaters from releasing new films, Picking has his fingers crossed that audiences will be excited to see Top Gun: Maverick, a follow-up to the 1986 classic which stars Picking alongside Tom Cruise, in December. “My dad was in the military so I definitely watched Top Gun a bunch growing up,” he said. Not much can be be divulged about the film, but Picking promises it is a visual delight. “The aerial sequences are insanely cool, truly. That’s what Tom is all about and he wanted to stress that the aerial sequences are literally unprecedented, it’s never been done before and that all these actors got real training, so it’s pretty insane,” he said. “Joe Kosinski, the director, he’s also a pretty visual guy, kind of like Ryan.”
“I just want to work with great people,” Picking admitted, citing Cruise as an example. The acclaimed actor is known for sending a white chocolate coconut cake to his co-stars across Hollywood, and Picking was lucky enough to be one of them this past December. “I call it a Cruise cake,” he laughed. “He’s so old school. He has that mentality where work ethic is above everything. He really is a consummate professional.”
There is no way to know for sure how Hollywood could have changed, or how things could be by now, as a result of the dream factory being more inclusive of queer individuals at an earlier point in its century-long history. But that’s the point of Hollywood, which lets viewers run away with Murphy’s imagination of a more inclusive era in film.
“Growing up, when I watched a movie with my dad, I wanted to laugh and cry in the same movie. I want to make those kind of stories that will inspire people,” Picking went on. “I think that’s important right now, and that’s why I truly cherished playing Rock Hudson because I think he’s a hero, he really is.”