Playing a role in Netflix limited series Hollywood has not only been “truly, one of the happiest jobs” ever for Holland Taylor, and the source of her well-deserved eighth Emmy nomination, but she also found herself personally very moved by the series’ revisionist history. In Ryan Murphy and co-creator Ian Brennan’s version of 1940’s tinsel town, racial and gender biases are challenged and beaten, and Taylor’s studio exec Ellen Kincaid is a key agent of that change. In a role Murphy wrote specifically for her, Taylor leans into Ellen’s heart-rending romance, whip-smart professionalism, and nurturing strength. Here, she discusses the deep meaning of the role and why, if there’s a Season 2, it would be an entirely new experience.
Deadline: Ryan Murphy wrote this role with you in mind. What did he tell you about Ellen Kincaid in the early stages?
Holland Taylor: Well, I do know Ryan somewhat, through Sarah (Paulson) of course, and I wouldn’t think it would be right to be on the show if she wanted it. So, I just didn’t… because she works so consistently for him, so many wonderful projects. She has the new impeachment one that she’s going to be working on soon for him, for American Crime Story. I just never thought that I would be in a Ryan Murphy show, and so when this came up, I was intrigued. Sometimes, producers will say, “We’re writing something for you,” and that’s, “Is it true or not true?” But in this case, in Ryan’s case, I thought he actually was. Really, all he said was, “A wonderful character, right up your street. She has a wonderful quality of moxie,” and I was intrigued.
Deadline: Did you know the full premise of the story then?
Taylor: I think he sort of pulled the tiller away from the direction it was originally going to be—a straightforward love letter to the period, which was the ’40s, in the Golden Age of Hollywood. That’s how we started, but I think Ryan really can’t resist trying to do something with his shows, as he does so many of his others, trying to pull the tiller towards creating some voice, or some themes in the culture that will be helpful or supportive or innovative or reassuring. Really, he knows his power is significant. I think he just thought, “How can I bend the direction of this somewhat to serve some purpose?” I’m assuming this myself somewhat. So then they added the quality of this revisionist history to some of the events that are in this series that involve how people are cast for starring roles, and how Hollywood does educate the public, how Hollywood does lead culturally. And it does, and it can, and I suppose it could do harm in the same way. But certainly, the public is, to a degree, lifted up by stories of great purpose that Hollywood tells. And so, it moved in that direction. And of course, it was very suitable for my character, who was a woman who tries to make things happen in Hollywood, and the fact that she herself is just a character of enormous social goodwill. This is a woman who is very smart. She has an overview of Hollywood’s place and what Hollywood can do, and she has her own feelings about what purpose people have and what would be a positive result of casting a role in a certain way in a movie, how society could be inched forward, pushed forward, by such an event. She is, of course, serving as the elbow of the Joe Mantello character, Dick Samuels, who is essentially the guy who’s running the studio. Those two work as a team.
She is a woman who was highly respected, but sort of behind the scenes, which would be true of any powerful woman in a Hollywood studio. But there were many powerful women in that era, and this one of them. She is a person of enormous goodwill and personal warmth, and it’s such a joy to play someone like that. People who get nominated for awards for acting are usually playing great roles. They would tell you, if they were honest, that to a degree, the role plays itself.
Deadline: Well, you say that, but it was a wonderful performance. I felt the warmth radiating from her.
Taylor: I had a real blueprint for it. There’s a lot of heart round the intentions of this series. Just ironically, or just as a matter of fortune, we were enough into the American reaction to the pandemic, that a show that was human and humane and had this warmth and then this goodwill people really fell on it gratefully. It was very exciting to watch it. It was very moving to watch it.
Deadline: You were personally moved watching the finished show?
Taylor: When you do a film series like this, you don’t know what the other characters are doing. You’re doing your part. And it’s as much of an eyeopener and excitement for us to watch these things as it is the public, because we haven’t seen the whole thing. You have to really play one of the starring roles to be in all of it. So, I myself was really swept along by it, and many people I know were truly swept up by Hollywood. It’s wonderful to be in something like that.
When Ellen and Avis (Patti LuPone) are offering the role of Lee Miller to Jeanne (Mira Sorvino) it’s so moving. You see Jeanne thought her career was sliding away as the years go by, and she wasn’t feeling valued, and then to be cast as Miller, of all people? It’s such a great scene.
Taylor: It was very moving to play it. Both Patti and I were quite emotional playing that scene. Good scenes where there’s emotional content are often underwritten. They don’t spell it out, because people don’t always say the fullness of what they’re feeling. In fact, certain types of personalities would rather not. They’re shy of expressing their feelings, wearing their heart on their sleeve. Mira Sorvino was so spectacular in that scene, because her character was of few words, actually, in the scene, but she came to it with so much fulsomeness of heart, and really all of the inevitable feelings that that character was going through, all the quickness to accept defeat, [saying] “Yes, I know. I understand. You won’t be using me.”
Deadline: It’s so sad seeing her so beaten, giving up so fast.
Taylor: I mean, she’s trying to be so gracious in what she imagines is going to be a rejection, and when it turns out that she’s been given a role where she gets to discover an important woman, her excitement and her gratitude, it was a very, very moving scene to play. I was kind of blindsided by it. Sorvino was a fantastic presence. That is an actress who truly plays something fully, with a total commitment that is inspiring.
Deadline: What’s great to me about her declaration of love for Joe Mantello’s character, Dick, is that she doesn’t just wither away when he can’t love her back. She gets back out there and enjoys her life and loves Ernie (Dylan McDermott). She just gets on with it.
Taylor: This is the moxie that Ryan said was an essence of her. Also, she has a whole scene where she talks about how she loves her work. Again, it’s an underwritten scene that you have to bring the passion to. She had a wonderful life. She herself says, “I loved my studio life,” because she had a life full of meaning from work. Freud says, “We need to have love and work.” Love is not enough for a human being to be sustained by. You have to have some industry, something you apply yourself to through your brain and your heart, your creativity, your effort. Even just keeping a garden is work. People need to have some sort of involvement with something that they are applying themselves to, realizing themselves. So, she actually would have been okay, even if Ernie hadn’t come along. And also, she continued on with Dick. They had a great working partnership that they’d had for 30 years. And so, I think they continued on essentially as the couple they always were.
Deadline: Yes, she’s at Dick’s funeral, talking about him lovingly.
Taylor: And she introduces his partner. So obviously they continued on, which is amazing. And the scene where she confesses her feelings for him and what she hopes for, which he so kindly excuses himself from. He makes it clear. I mean, she cries out, “Have I ruined us?” He is so sweepingly reassuring that nothing could ruin them. Actually, it’s bringing tears to my eyes right now thinking of it, and of course, playing it was so… Mind you, Joe is probably the premier Broadway director right now. I knew Joe first as an actor, many, many years ago. But when you know someone for a long time, even if you don’t see them, somehow your friendship becomes deeper for the years that have passed. And so, when we started working together, I was so thrilled to work with him, to work with this man who had become a much bigger person than before, an extraordinary, developed talent.
And I myself, hopefully, have grown over the years, and we come together at a later time to do these roles. The major scene that we have, again, as all good scenes, where a lot happens emotionally, is not still down to dialogue. That’s not how people are. So, you have to bring a lot to the party, and Joe was a very helpful guide as we went into that. We were both nervous about it, I more than him. I said, “How shall we do this and how shall we do that?” and he said, “No, no. We know the ingredients. We know where our characters have to go. So, let’s just start at the beginning and just go through it.” And we just did it a couple of times, they filmed it, and we were very, very, lucky. It was a very easy day, actually. It was an emotionally certain day where we just marched through scenes and played all those moments as they came up, and it was very clear that it was happening in a very real way.
It was a miraculous job. Truly, one of the happiest jobs I have ever had. Some of it’s somewhat divided between elders and youngers, as far as the cast is concerned. The elders, first of all, we all know each other, have known each other socially over the decades. So, we had a fantastic time together. We were all very, very sad to say goodbye to that show. We had wonderful directors. Mike Uppendahl, director of that episode in question, the one with that wonderful scene with Joe. Jessica Yu directed the Ernie scene. That was pretty fantastic. That was, I guess, the last episode. Jessica Yu was a wonderful director, she directed that final episode, which includes the Oscars.
Deadline: That was an amazing episode.
Taylor: I just don’t know how they did that. It’s such a huge episode. It had incredibly great subtle themes in it-
Deadline: And these huge moments.
Taylor: I don’t even think she had extra days to shoot it and she did it in the normal time. Dylan McDermott and I both loved how she directed our scene.
Deadline: Would you do a second season, if Ryan came to you and asked?
Taylor: Oh, absolutely. There was talk of it right from the beginning. I think the original plan was—I have no idea, so I’m talking out of school somewhat—but the original conversation was that there would be a series about Hollywood. It would be an anthology, the same way that Horror Story is. It’ll be the same cast, but it would be a different story. It would be Hollywood, but it would be different characters. Now, a lot of people are very attached to these characters and there was always just that question in the air, would he go on with these characters? Obviously, Ryan is doing a number of shows at once, and now there’s the whole question of when productions can even happen. The pandemic is determining so much, and getting into production for any show within this time period is going to be an amazing and major challenge. They have to break a lot of ground, and they have to figure out an awful lot of things. So, Hollywood wouldn’t even be going back into production. I have no answer for you.
Deadline: In a fantasy world then, if he did the anthology plan and kept the same cast, but did different characters, somewhat like Horror Story, is there a character in Hollywood history, a real person, in the same way that Ryan depicted Rock Hudson, for example, that you would play in the dream scenario?
Taylor: Well, I have to look into that, because of my age. It’s sort of limited to playing an actual character who I could play, but that would be very interesting. Playing an actual character is really interesting to do. You often have such specific foundational stones you could expand on that you feel very confident about. So, I would be interested if there were one, but again, she’d have to be a character of a certain age.
He really gave me a great plum with this role. Really, award-winning roles are written first. I don’t think you can be nominated for a part if it’s not a good part. So, it’s not just what the actor does. The thing is, if they did do another Hollywood story, it would probably be a different epoch. And I don’t know what that might be. So, you never know. It might be a time when there might be a wonderful historical character. Ryan is a man who really likes to be helpful and supportive, and I’m sure if he said, “We are going to go ahead with another one and it’s going to be in the ‘70s or something,” Who knows what he might say? Or it could be in the silent era. I mean, who knows?
Deadline: I really want this to happen now.
Taylor: Me too. Let me do a little research and see if I can stumble on a wonderful character. But it would have to be kind of like an old lady, an older woman.
Deadline: Despite the pandemic, what do you have next in the pipeline?
Taylor: When we went into lockdown, I was literally about a couple of weeks before going into rehearsal for my play about Ann Richards, which I had done on Broadway. We were prepared to do that at The Pasadena Playhouse. I don’t think theater is going to come back quite a bit after film production will come back.
I do have something actually coming up soon that’s kind of fun, which is from the sublime to the ridiculous. From playing Governor Ann Richards earlier in the summer on the PBS Great Performances broadcast, which is very exciting—it’s still available on PBS for streaming—it’s called Ann, and it’s certainly the most meaningful work of my career, actually. This person, who was such an inspiring person, and that really just meant the world to me. But then, from the sublime to the ridiculous, I play the Great Leader in the third Bill and Ted movie (Bill & Ted Face the Music). She is the Great Leader from 700 years in the future, when the balance and the stability of the entire universe rests on Bill and Ted, and I’m the bossy woman who was making them do that, who is embarrassing the crap out of them by telling them that what’s happened to them, that they’re ending doing $2 taco night at Barstow, instead of playing great arenas. They have to pull their socks up and write this song to save us all. That’s about to come out. It’s a wonderful, goofy film, that very much is in the spirit of the first one.
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