Holland Taylor earned her eighth Emmy nomination this year for her performance as studio executive Ellen Kincaid in the Netflix limited series “Hollywood.” She is a previous Emmy winner for her work on “The Practice.”
Taylor spoke with Gold Derby contributing writers Kevin Jacobsen and Tony Ruiz about what it was like to work on a Ryan Murphy show, playing a character with “moxie” and why “Hollywood” is the perfect show for these times. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby (Kevin Jacobsen): So to go back to the beginning, this was your first collaboration with Ryan Murphy. You have certainly been adjacent to that world, of course, with Sarah Paulson. But can you talk about finally getting to work on one of his shows?
Holland Taylor: Well, I just assumed that I wouldn’t be doing a Ryan Murphy show because I didn’t [know if] Sarah and I being on the same show would be weird. So this came up and it was not going to include Sarah because she’s making eight other things at the same time. So it seemed viable. He said that, “I’m writing this part for you.” And I’ve had that said before once or twice and I’ve not really believed it, but in Ryan’s case, I did, and he said she has a lot of moxie and I sort of like that word. It’s a period word anyway. I thought it would be fantastic to play a role about Hollywood in which I was a show business professional because I am a show business professional and it would have that special meta experience, in a sense, playing the world that is your world. So that was really great, and she did have moxie and she was a wonderful character. Truly one of the most favorite characters I’ve ever played. So it was great.
Gold Derby (Tony Ruiz): Well, one of the things that I find so interesting about her is this resilience, this toughness, that also there’s a certain vulnerability to her. Did you base her on anybody in particular?
HT: I didn’t base her on one person, but I had the flavor of several people from my own life in it who were from that period. I think it really was, for me, a period piece in a significant way in terms of persona, and it was the moxie keyword that Ryan gave me right at the beginning. There’s an enormous goodwill, I think, in this show, which is one of the reasons why I think it was so welcome. But this character is a can-do kind of person where things are possible and she tries to figure out how to make things happen. It’s a very positive approach towards life and she’s very canny. Yes, she is vulnerable but she’s also tough in the sense of resilience, and that’s also the period. This is right after the war and it was the beginning of America’s great period of a much broader education because of the G.I. Bill, a whole vast middle class being built starting in this time. And there was just a tremendous feeling of positivism. And, of course, the Second World War was one of the few wars in our history, in anyone’s history where you can say that was a war that had to be fought. That was not, “I want your territory and you’re taking mine and we’re gonna have a war over it.” It was very different from that. So I think it was a period of goodness, goodwill, goodwill towards men, “I am my brother’s keeper,” countries caring for other countries that needed help. I found her very much in that spirit of wanting the best for people. And she’s just tremendously genial and warm and a hard-nosed professional in that she says, “This one is good, this one isn’t. I want this one.” It’s that kind of canniness mixed with the goodwill that was just a great combination to play.
GD (Kevin): Yeah, and speaking of period, actually, there is such a specificity to the period detail and the costumes and the hair, all the visual design of the show. How much did that help your performance as far as transporting you into this world of a studio from the Golden Age?
HT: Well, more than I even thought it would, because, first of all, I’ve always felt that was my period, even though I was an infant in that period. I’ve always felt comfortable in the movies of that period, in the literature of that period. It just resonates with me. My parents, of course, were adults in that period and they were very stylish and I brought in lots of snapshots because of the clothes. Unbeknownst to me, the costume designer, Sarah [Evelyn], decided to actually copy one of my mother’s outfits for an outfit for Ellen. It was a quite appropriate look. And so I came in one day to find it hanging in my trailer, this blazer and blouse and a pin that even copied my mother’s pin to put on. It was very, very touching and I felt really special in those clothes, not like my mother. I felt like a woman of that era, which my mother was, and had a certain composure and a certain graciousness and a certain sincerity, a real person, not a posing kind of person, very genuine person, which Ellen is. That was amazing. I responded to everyone around me in the clothes. I responded to what their clothes said about who they were and I must say, Lou Eyrich and Sarah were extraordinary in dressing the characters in this. For character, not just period. The right character clothes from the period. So that was great.
GD (Tony): I think some of my favorite scenes are when you are in those moments where you’re coaching, where Ellen is coaching the other actors, and it’s almost like this really meta thing. David Corenswet had talked about people that you had studied with and people he had admired when he was at Juilliard. So was there something really fun about those scenes where you’re basically being the acting teacher?
HT: Oh, it was just tremendous. It was very, very fun. Some pieces of some of that coaching stuff was left on the cutting room floor and it really upset me because it was very, very accurate. She talks about how the acting style was changing. This was the advent of Marlon Brando on the stage, mind you, and stage acting that was becoming more realistic, and that influenced movies, not the other way around, which is kind of interesting. But of course, Brando and others went to the movies shortly thereafter. But Ellen talks about the changes in the style of acting, becoming much less presentational and theatrical and more inner. And, of course, the movie camera does see what you think or it sees that you are thinking. It can see so deeply that really, just being there on camera is a special talent. Not all actors have it. I did not start my career doing work in front of the camera. I was a stage actress for almost 15, 20 years before I started doing film and I’m a completely different actor from those who were brought up in front of the camera. Sometimes you watch in the scene and you’re standing on the sidelines watching, you’re not sure quite what’s happening, then you see it in the finished product and it’s just a tremendous performance because it is so inner. So there is a conversation about that in the show. That was great fun to do. My teacher was Stella Adler. I almost said “is” because Stella Adler and her teachings are so present always in my mind. So that very much affected how I was talking to this young actor about new styles of acting and telling him how to act more genuinely than he was in this audition in which he was posturing and trying to get him to be in himself and responding to the person from eye to eye. it was great fun to play because I know something about that and there was a sense of genuineness of it. I wasn’t doing it as Holland Taylor at all. It was in Ellen Kincaid front of mind but it was great.
GD (Kevin): There’s also this interesting element to the story of revisionist history, which can be a tricky thing sometimes. I don’t know how much of an appreciation you’ve had just for Old Hollywood. You said you kind of grew up in that era. But what did you think of how the show approached rewriting history?
HT: Well, when you’re in the middle of it, I sort of suspend any assessing because I want to be in the character’s frame of mind and playing the beats of the scene and playing the purpose of the scene. So I didn’t formulate a judgment about it. Now, in the aftermath, I see that it fell on welcome ears and the audience wanted this. I think it’s just been an enormous success for Ryan, this show, and I think Ryan was pulling the tiller in that direction to make, “What if it were like this? What if one person said, ‘You know what, I’m going to cast it this way because it’s the true way to do it and I’m just going to do it and I’m going to trust that the truth of it will carry the day.’” And then, of course, that happens. You think, “What if people had done that?” Because I’m sure there was precious few in that era who did feel that way. I have no assessing judgment of it now but I see that it was very, very welcome. I think these stories serve their purpose. I would imagine that right-thinking people seeing a fantasy of how something could have been would then be even more encouraged to follow their wish for what society would be and to do whatever they can do to help it along that way. So I think it was very useful and its enormous popularity suggests that Ryan’s pulling the show that way, because I think it did move more and more into that as we went into production, some of that was created on its feet and he hit a real nerve, a positive one. So I loved being part of that. It was great to be part of that show. We all were so sad when we wrapped, especially, I think, the elder group, because, well, I was mostly playing with Joe [Mantello] and Patti [LuPone] and it was just very sad to have it come to an end. We had a ball together. Great time.
GD (Tony): And I think one of the joys of the show for me was seeing you reunite with Dylan McDermott.
HT: Oh, well, I don’t quite think of Dylan is an elder. He has a little catching up to do. Joe too, as a matter of fact. Joe is an elder in the sense that he’s just such an enormously powerful and skilled and talented professional. So he’s at that level. Dylan and I of course had our history on “The Practice,” which has to be 20 years ago when I played Judge Kittleson on “The Practice,” and we had a few run-ins that were kind of interesting at the time. And that was groundbreaking back in those days. That character, Roberta Kittleson, was this judge who was a very skilled judge and [David E.] Kelley made it clear that she was more, that she was a top professional in her field. Very, very smart. Very, very capable. And she just happened to be a woman in her 50s who still had an active sex life. She was busy. And you just didn’t see that on straight, legitimate shows like that. It was very groundbreaking. I remember getting a script when I came home one night. I came home very late, like 2:00 in the morning. There was a script for “The Practice” and when I read it, because I instantly read a script, “What’s going to happen in this episode?” And that was the one in which, on paper anyway, she was to say, “I gave him the greatest blowjob known to mankind.” And I said, “I’m going to say blowjob on American network television!” I was so excited. I couldn’t believe it. And it was 2:00 in the morning, so I couldn’t tell anybody about it. I have a very good friend, an actress in London who was up so I called her and I said, “Listen to this part!” It ended up I had to say fellatio. But the import of the scene was still the same. So it was pretty wild.
But yeah, Dylan I go way back. It was thrilling to be back working with him. There’s something great about a long life in show business is that you do work with people over and over again. And even if you haven’t seen them in the interim, something has happened. You both have gotten older and you both have had life experiences and you come together and you are the same person and you are a new person, and it’s very rich. In the theater I’ve worked with many people multiple times, three, four times. It’s one of the pleasures of being an actor, I think. We have so many different jobs and get to know a lot of people and reconvening with them is really sweet.
GD (Kevin): Well, I also think one of the more memorable scenes, honestly, of the whole series is with you and Joe Mantello, where you are confessing your love and he can’t really love you in that way. It’s so rare to see a woman of a certain age expressing that kind of a desire onscreen. What was that scene, in particular, like to shoot with Joe?
HT: We had this wonderful relationship over the episodes in “Hollywood,” and it was just so clear that they adored each other and they also were so easy with each other, finishing each other’s sentences and are like-minded about everything, a certain humor, a certain kind of a banter that goes between them. And so it comes to this point where she’s going to change the whole tenor of their relationship. And of course, she’s terrified that she’s going to destroy something in the effort to see if there can be this different relationship and the delicacy of that scene, Joe and I were quite nervous about it. We weren’t sure it was in the writing and we weren’t sure, “Wait a moment. At this point, what has happened? And then the new understanding at this point is this,” and we were sort of parsing it out and at some point Joe, who, of course, is a great director, said, “Look, we’ve been playing these parts. We know who they are. We’re already there. We have them. We’ve don’t have to figure that out. So we know roughly where the signposts are, where their turns in the road are. We’ll be fine. Let’s just play it. Let’s just go into it.” So we didn’t rehearse it or try and break it down too precisely. We just got out there and it was really something to play.
It was a journey that I remember the feeling of to this day from point to point, measuring each other, being aware of each other, responding, being cautious, moving ahead, being scared, backing off, but reaching out. I mean, it was just an incredible balance and both of us were so utterly connected. It was one of the most wonderful acting experiences I’ve ever had, certainly on film. I just loved it. I loved it because it was so adult and it was so not typical of American television. As you say, I mean, unusual to have a scene of that kind between two such people, particularly at my age, to play that scene. It was just a joy. One reason why we were, I think, so sad about that show ending with that Joe had, of course, his extraordinary big scenes with the Rock Hudson character and with the Jim Parsons character, but these were really rich things to play with adult concerns, mature, culturally sophisticated concerns and that just doesn’t come every day.
GD (Tony): The show has such a sense of optimism in a way that I think a lot of modern television isn’t necessarily as optimistic. Do you think we need more optimistic type of shows regardless of the time that we’re living in?
HT: You know, I was going to go on Twitter and say, “Somebody suggest to me a great novel,” because I wanted to read. I’d sort of lost track of reading. I wanted to read a great book. “Somebody suggest a great piece of literature that is not something that’s going to leave me lying on the floor gasping for air, like, how can we live in this universe any longer?” So I think that there has to be, I think in this time, particularly, we have to try to find creative pieces of work that do give us a fighting chance of surviving as a species because there is so much that is horrible right now. This pandemic is once in a century, and when something is once in a century, that has a portent and a weight to it that is extraordinary. Once in a century. In 1918, this pandemic killed, they don’t even know how many, between 20 million and 40 million. They don’t know. Now, this experience is different from that. Modern times has made it vastly different. But it’s the same in the sense of where’s it going? We do not know. We don’t know. All predictions are meaningless. We don’t know what’s going to happen. So we’re living in a really terrified state and yet, somehow we’re still living every day. One foot in front of the other. I’m sitting in my house as though there’s nothing wrong. I have food. I have water. I’m here in my house. I can walk outside. I live in a pretty area. So to try to live in the moment and to have that be as real and nourishing as it can be but also an understanding of what world you’re living in is really the challenge. I think it would be good for any creative people who have an urge to produce something that is wholesome and positive and considers the fact, considers the reality that things could turn out better than our fears would suggest is a good thing.
Certainly this show, “Hollywood,” was suggesting that society does progress, society does move forward. What we can do to speed that rolling, what we can do to help that rolling forward, we should do it and have some courage to do it. I think that’s happening this time, too. It’s really something to live in interesting times, because I was an active person politically in 1968, which is considered the year of the greatest upheaval, the civil rights upheaval, the Vietnam War, the political horrible things that were going on, the corruption, the White House, all these extraordinary things are going on in ‘68. I remember it well and I think this period of tremendous upheaval along the same lines is different. The obvious thing that makes it different is social media. We’re having public conversations with many, many more people than ever before. Millions of people are talking via the internet and we’re seeing those conversations often and I really think that this, in terms of Black Lives Matter, there’s no going back from this moment. So much was still unchanged from ‘68. Not anymore. Not anymore. We can’t go back from this. We can’t unsee what has happened. We can’t unlearn the beginnings of the lessons that white society’s learning. So I actually think this is a time of tremendous hope for our society. Tremendous goodwill being seen now. It’s visible. It’s visible on the internet and vast numbers of people surging forward to support this movement. That’s my sense of it. So yeah, I’m all for encouraging stories.