Warning: Spoilers for Netflix’s Hollywood ahead.
In 2018, TV host, author, and former magazine editor Janet Mock became the first transgender woman of color to write and direct an episode of television with her work on Pose. The following year, Mock signed a multimillion dollar overall deal with Netflix. She’s now an executive producer on the streamer’s new series Hollywood, which has her reuniting with Pose producer Ryan Murphy. Together, the two are breaking down barriers in Hollywood and literally rewriting history. But, as it turns out, changing the past proves to be far easier than changing the present.
Hollywood is set in post World War II Tinseltown, where a racist, sexist, and homophobic studio system keeps anyone who isn’t a straight white man out of the halls of power. Throughout the series however, Mock and the rest of the Hollywood team spin reality to give the marginalized dreamers of the era happy endings in the form of Oscars and clout.
Yet beneath the surface and the show’s feel-good finale, it’s clear that Hollywood isn’t just an indictment of the way things were in the entertainment industry. Rather, it’s a reminder of just how far we still have to go. For all the progress real Hollywood has made, it’s still guilty of whitewashing roles, failing to nominate or reward people of color at the Oscars, and placing too few women in positions of power. Under Murphy and Mock’s guidance, the Netflix series calls out these modern-day shortcomings, despite the fact that the show is set 70 years in the past.
Over the phone, Mock tells Refinery29 about the Hollywood storyline that broke her heart, and why casting Scarlett Johannson is a good litmus test of where Hollywood is actually at.
Refinery29: Is there a moment in Hollywood that you find particularly heartbreaking because it didn’t happen that way in real life?
Janet Mock: “One thing that always stands out for me is the whole sequence we do in episode 2, with Anna May Wong and The Good Earth screen test. To me, that is the thesis of the show. It’s not that the talent isn’t there, that the craft isn’t there. People of color weren’t given the opportunity to show what they can do. Even when they do have that opportunity, the door is still shut. They are invited into the room to watch, and someone else is rewarded.In episode 2, you see that Hollywood is so much more than the gas station. It’s so much more than the glamour of making movies. It’s about the people who have not been invited in, who haven’t had a seat at the table.”
Do you think that’s something Hollywood is still guilty of?
“Today, [you have] trans actors not being cast in trans roles, or gay actors not being cast in gay roles, or Scarlett Johansson playing all of these different roles that have nothing to do with her background. To me, it speaks to that: The idea of authentic storytelling. Hiring people to live their own story. That’s the only reason I’ve been able to thrive. I’ve been given the opportunity and I’ve been recruited to tell my own story.”
A big plot point in Hollywood involves a gas station as a front for a sex work operation. The sex workers on this show are treated with respect — they’re not shamed for taking this job. Was that important for you to showcase?
“Sex workers are doing actual labour and work. They’re also people, despite the fact that even today, we don’t give sex workers rights and that makes them vulnerable. We, as a society and a culture, place a lot of stigma and shame on their work. We don’t value their contributions, we don’t value them as humans.
“We’re uncovering buried history on this show, and one of the services of Old Hollywood was Scotty Bowers’ gas station, and the way in which these Hollywood outsiders were able to become insiders because they provided a service at a time period where queer people were outlawed. To be out was not always an option — you were under surveillance and policed. For us, it was a great opportunity for our series to start in this space. Gas station owner Ernie [played by Dylan McDermott] could be the most ‘woke’ character of our series. He has his weird misogynistic sexist thing of the time period, but he has such a liberal and non-judgmental worldview. To him, the greatest insult would be that you are an uptight, judgy person.”
Do you think thatthe entertainment industry as we know it today would be completely different, and more inclusive if the events in the show had really taken place?
“There’s an optimistic part of myself that thinks, had this really happened in Hollywood, it would have changed everything. The world and the industry would be more open. Yet another part of me knows that even with these great victories, that change and evolution doesn’t happen in a steep climb up. After Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar, she still struggled to find work. She struggled to not be typecast. There weren't a plethora of roles available for her.
“The same thing happened to Halle Berry. After she clutched that Oscar, it took her a long time to [find another great role.] I think we would still be looking at a lack of imagination from many gatekeepers, who are still entrenched in their own biases. We would still be dealing with racism and homophobia and transphobia, all that stuff. Maybe it would have made the path a little clearer, because we would have had an example for them to look to, so they could greenlight more pictures with women of color back then. We waited 40 years between Get Christie Love and Scandal.”
How do you think things could realistically change?
“When we were breaking the series and thinking about the big swings we wanted to take, Avis, Patti LuPone’s character, became a big part of that. You need an outsider in that room to make the tough decision. Without that, you don’t get great successes like Hollywood’s movie Meg. We need more people like that in the room today, but it takes time for that to happen.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.