Dylan McDermott has a juicy supporting role as gas station owner Ernie West in Netflix’s limited series “Hollywood.” This is the actor’s latest collaboration with Ryan Murphy, previously working with the producer on “American Horror Story” and “The Politician.”
McDermott recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Tony Ruiz about how he characterized Ernie, why “Hollywood” is the series we need right now and whether he would do another season. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Dylan, one of the things when I was watching the show is Ernie is so multifaceted. He starts off as one thing and by the end of the series he in many ways seems to be the heart of the series. When Ryan Murphy first came to you with this, what did he tell you about Ernie?
Dylan McDermott: Pretty much the whole gas station adventure that Ernie was running this gas station and there was prostitution involved and that Ernie was a fascinating character, the Scotty Bowers of it all. So I mixed Scotty Bowers with Clark Gable but it really was a tale of Hollywood, what Hollywood looked like, the movie stars, and then he added on top of everything the cherry on top, this revisionist story, which I thought was absolutely fascinating. So what would it be like if things were different? I thought really that’s the most amazing thing about the series is this revisionist tale. “Faction” is what Ryan calls it.
GD: That’s such a great term. I love that term because in many ways, the series is, as many Ryan Murphy shows are, so carefully detailed and exact. What was it like being in that universe with those sets and costumes? It had to be almost an immersive experience.
DM: It was. I was very specific about the way Ernie looked. Ryan initially wanted him to have a crewcut and I wasn’t sure about that. And then the poster of “The Misfits” sits in my house and I look at Clark Gable every day and he became a muse for this character. I went to Ryan and I said, “You know, I think he looks more like Clark Gable. Can I show you this look?” And I showed him the mustache and he was like, “Yeah, let’s go with that.” Every detail of Ernie, it was a science, even down to his underwear. I had underwear made that were from the ‘40s. I wanted every detail of this guy from his jewelry to his necklace to his hair to his mustache — that mustache took forever to trim every morning — there was an impeccability about Ernie that I really, really enjoyed. That’s just the look, of course, but the thing that was different about him was his optimism. He had a great optimism, even in the struggle of life and everything that was happening to him, I enjoyed playing him because he had this incredible optimism about him. That was just so much fun to play.
GD: You touch on something that I wanted to touch on because he is certainly an optimist but then at the same time, you also get these outright comedic moments and then at the other end of the spectrum, there’s a certain tragic element to him. How do you even go about balancing those elements and does one appeal to you more than the other?
DM: I’ve made a decision in my career along the way… somebody wrote about it, I don’t know who it was, maybe “The Hollywood Reporter,” but I made a decision to make a comic pivot in my career. That really started with “The Campaign,” working with Will Ferrell. I had hosted “Saturday Night Live” years ago and I worked with Will Ferrell and Zach [Galifianakis] and I had done standup when I was a kid and I had moved away from all of that and became a serious actor along the way. But then I was like, “You know what, I was happier before when I was in the comic world,” and then I did “L.A. to Vegas” and even on “American Horror Story: 1984,” I just let myself be my funny, weird self and Ernie was certainly a part of that. I sat down and I tried to meditate on these characters and I really wanted Ernie to have everything you just described. I wanted him to be funny. I wanted him to be tragic. I wanted him to be elegant. I wanted him to be a bit of a thug. I wanted him to be an actor, a producer, a showman. All those things I discussed with Ryan and then tried to piece them all together in what is Ernie West. So that was really fun. I always look at a role as a mathematical problem, so the math of Ernie was really interesting to calculate and to put it into motion and to add it all up and you get Ernie, which is such a fun, amazing character. I said the other day that even when I was done with work I would sit in my trailer and I didn’t wanna go home because I still wanted to be him.
GD: There certainly is this kind of P.T. Barnum sort of element to him and he really is like this ringmaster who also, in a certain way, really seems to develop a caring relationship, almost a paternal relationship with these young men that work for him. Did that relationship also include your working relationship with some of the younger actors that you worked pretty closely with?
DM: Yeah, it was a mix. There’s also the genius of Ryan, I have to say. He could’ve made Ernie an opportunist and to exploit these guys and that would’ve been the easy way to do it. That would’ve been what we’ve already seen somewhere along the way, some guy exploiting men or women for money and what he did was something so cool. He made Ernie tolerant of the guys of that era and I just thought that was amazing, to have somebody be tolerant of a gay man in the ‘40s is kind of unheard of. That’s the genius of Ryan. He made Ernie that character rather than someone who just exploits.
GD: Yeah, exactly. You could’ve easily been twirling the mustache as well as anything else. This collaboration with you and Ryan Murphy goes back quite a number of years now through various number of projects. What is it about your working relationship with Ryan that just keeps you going back to that well?
DM: There’s nobody like him. You wanna work with the best people in the business and I always say that Ryan is the Andy Warhol of our time. He just understands pop culture in a way that nobody else does and he’s able to translate that. He has these ideas that he’s able to put on film and that’s why I love working with him. I really believe he’s a genius and he allows me to create characters like in “American Horror Story,” the three characters I created there which are all very different, and then “The Politician” and now “Hollywood.” He gives me things to do that no one else does. I think that’s why actors love him. I think we all love him because he gives us opportunity and he trusts us, and that’s something that’s very, very rare, to have somebody do that.
GD: You work with not just these younger actors like Jeremy Pope and David Corenswet and Jake Picking but you also have somewhat of a mini-reunion with your “Practice” co-star Holland Taylor. You have some sweet moments. Your working relationship with her obviously goes back a number of years but how is this different? Did this have a different feel for you, working with her this time?
DM: Yeah, you know how life is. For me at least, I’ve evolved so much and changed so much over time and over the years. Who I was, that young man in “The Practice,” is far away from who I am now. It’s great to work with the same people because you get to mark the way you have changed and I could see my growth as an actor all that time away from “The Practice,” which is like 2004 maybe it ended until now, which is now 16 years later, which is crazy. I can see my change as an actor and how I’ve deepened and gotten better, ‘cause there’s no there there with being an actor. You never arrive. You never figure it out. It’s always a dangerous game, acting, ‘cause sometimes you think you have it and you don’t have it, you lose it, you get it. So it’s great to find those people to work with again so you can see your trajectory as an actor and how you’ve gotten better or worse.
GD: Because you’ve had such a long and varied career, you talk about those changes with you as an actor and yet the industry has certainly changed in terms of the platforms that are available. How do you see that change? This is a show that in many ways lends itself to this kind of streaming, binging thing that we have right now. How do you feel about how the industry has changed in terms of the opportunities and the way media is delivered?
DM: Well, now we’re again in another change. When I first came up, I started in the movies and then I had decided to go to television when back then, it was a marker that your film career was in trouble, but I kind of saw the future and this was the late ‘90s before it exploded, and then everything became streaming. Jump on that bandwagon. And now we’re in another change. What is television gonna look like during or after the pandemic? Where is it going to be? Is it going to be like this like we are now? Small studios, smaller crews, cheaper content? I don’t know. I think we’re always evolving, we’re always figuring it out and now here we are again trying to figure it out. I have a couple of shows that I’m producing and trying to figure out what that looks like. I think the industry’s always gonna change. There’s always gonna be something different. The great thing about us as people, and I was just saying this yesterday, is we adapt. We adapt to whatever you give us. No matter what’s happening in the world, the greatest thing I believe about people is that we just figure it out.
GD: So, with all of those options and opportunities and things like that, are there certain types of stories or characters that you’re particularly drawn to?
DM: I think complex characters more than anything else. We’ve all seen so much. We’re all critics. Very little impresses us anymore, so how do you play a character that is riveting and complex when you’ve seen everything? A character like Ernie certainly was a feast to play. You look for those characters which are very few because everything, a lot of times, is a cliche.
GD: There’s also the good side of the cliche, and coming back to “Hollywood” because particularly in the time period that we’re living in, it seems like it appeals to, “Here’s the world we wish we could have.” What is it about the show that you think will just draw people in?
DM: We’re living in a time now where we kind of needed this. I think “Hollywood” is, oddly enough, arriving at the perfect time because I think we need a little bit of entertainment right now in our lives. I think we’re all in a tenuous place physically and emotionally and it’s nice to escape. I think that Hollywood, funny enough, it really is the dream factory. It started off as the dream factory and I think that this show will let you just forget for a moment. The best thing about entertainment, for me, is when I watch something and I forget about everything else and I’m just in this world of these people, this time period. That’s the most exciting thing and I think that this show really supplies that.
GD: There’s been rumors, I don’t know if this is true or not, that there’s talk of “Hollywood” becoming like an anthology. Is that something you would be in for, should that come to pass?
DM: I mean, yeah, if there was another season of it, absolutely. Whatever Ryan asks me to do I say yes. I don’t even have to read it. I’m just like, “Yes, of course.”