Arts·Queeries

Patti LuPone goes to Hollywood: The iconic actress on her big new role — and her love for Canada

Ryan Murphy's new Netflix series is delicious revisionist history, and Ms. LuPone is here for it.

Ryan Murphy's new Netflix series is delicious revisionist history, and Ms. LuPone is here for it

Patti LuPone in Hollywood. ( Netflix)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. 

Ryan Murphy's new Netflix series Hollywood re-imagines post-World War II Tinseltown as something it still isn't quite yet: a place where women, people of colour and LGBTQ folks thrive. And at the centre of this glorious alternative reality is Avis Amberg, a woman who inherits control of a movie studio when her husband lapses into a coma. She uses that power to give major opportunities to folks the industry has all but tossed aside, much like Ryan Murphy himself has in various series over the past decade (Hollywood is basically the Ryan Murphyiest show that Ryan Murphy has ever made). It all makes for highly enjoyable quarantine viewing, in large part thanks to Patti Lupone, who plays Avis to delicious perfection in yet another iconic role from a career on stage and screen that just entered its sixth decade.

I had the honour of talking to LuPone on the phone last week, the morning after her 71st birthday. We discussed — among other things — her post-birthday hangover, her role on Hollywood, her relationship with Mr. Murphy and, well, the option of me immigrating her to Canada if a certain someone gets elected again.

Patti LuPone in Hollywood. (Netflix)

Hi Patti. First of all, happy belated birthday.

Thank you very much, thank you.

I'm sorry that you have to celebrate it in the midst of all this.

Well, it turned out to be actually kind of fun. I got trashed on martinis and played Zoom bingo [laughs]. That wouldn't have happened in real time!

I'm glad that it worked out! So...I'm also in quarantine up in Canada right now and this past weekend I watched all of Hollywood in basically one sitting. 

Wow. 

I mean, I had the time. And I also feel like it's actually kind of an ideal show to watch in the middle of all this because there's something so hopeful about it in terms of the possibilities for change, you know?

Oh, thank you. That's lovely. Aw, yeah. Thank you.

My pleasure. And I have to also say you're so good in it and it really is quite the role. You play this leader in forming this new world order in this altered version of Hollywood history. I just wanted to know what it was like to to dig in that.

You know, I wrote to Ryan [Murphy] and told him how grateful I was that he gave me the best role I've ever had on television. And that's the truth. I mean, I had many other extraordinary roles, like Joan Clayton in Penny Dreadful, where I played a 200-year-old witch, but that was a one-off. This was a series regular, and it was an extremely meaty role. It had depth, it had humour, it had sensuality, it was glamorous. I mean, come on. Thank god for Ryan. 

It was also very sexy. That first episode when you're with the Jack Costello character played by David Corenswet was very hot. And it just was so fun to watch you play with that. 

Thank you. When they told me I had sex scenes I was like, "Finally!" [laughs]

With a remarkably good looking man, I might add.

Remarkably good looking. And a sweetheart!

So Ryan Murphy...you're one of quite a few people he has given these incredible opportunities to in the past decade or so. I want to know a little bit more about your relationship with him and how that started? 

I don't remember what year it was, but I got a call from my agent telling me that all Ryan wanted to do an episode of Glee around me and I said, "No, no, no, no, no. I'm a working actor." Do you know what I mean? I'm not Cher, I'm not Madonna, I'm not Britney. I have to be able to continue to work. So I said, "If Ryan wants me to be in a scene, I'll be in a scene...but the whole thing can't be around me." And so that was the first I met him. Ryan came and sat with me and I said to him, "I want to be back on television." And so the next thing was American Horror Story. I was rehearsing a Mamet on Broadway and I got a call from Ryan. We went out to dinner and he pitched American Horror Story. And then just recently, when I came back from doing Company in London, I get a telephone call and all of a sudden I'm on Pose. And on my first day of Pose, Ryan says, "Ask Patti what she's doing in September. I want to write a role for her." It then became a larger role. 

I mean, it's arguably the lead role.

Well, it didn't start out that way.

Before we go further into Hollywood, I just wanted to say, you're so good in Pose and that show is so special. I watched it last summer every week and just sobbed every single time. 

Those women [on Pose] are goddess warriors, they really are. And while I was on the set with them, so many transgender women were murdered. It's something they deal with every week. It's horrible.

And that this is still happening now as we speak.

Horrible.

Patti LuPone in Hollywood. (Netflix)

So switching gears back to Hollywood, what was the process like of approaching this character? Did you base her on anyone?

Ryan told me that it would be very, very, very, very loosely based on Irene Selznick, the daughter of Louis B. Mayer and married to David O. Selznick. She wrote [an autobiography] A Private View, which is a great read. Basically, she and her sister were the daughters of Louis B. Mayer, and they were at the very beginning of Hollywood. They were there in the 20s and 30s and so it was really interesting to read about that. And then she married David O. Selznick and she was kind of the brains behind David O. Selznick. But in Hollywood, my character inherits the studio and makes movies about gays, minorities and women. We got one script at a time so I didn't know how the role was going to evolve. 

Well, it really evolved into something special. And for it to be coming out in the middle of all of this, I wonder if there are lessons in it for however the real Hollywood rebuilds itself after. Because I feel like in many ways we haven't really reached the advancements depicted in the show. Do you think the real Hollywood will ever get it together when it comes to the way it treats women and people of colour and LGBTQ people? 

Well, I think that will happen when the artists run the business, not the business running itself. I don't know if that will ever happen. It's difficult. I think that the people in the position of power underestimate audiences. It's overdue that we could do some work to educate the audience and in turn we are educated by them. It's been overdue for many years. But I don't think anything will change until those people in power stop underestimating the audience and artists take over positions of power. We deal with the audience.

Oh, I just love Canada so much. Do you think they'll take me and my family if Donald Trump gets elected again?- Patti LuPone

An example of artist in a position of power really is Ryan Murphy. He's really built an empire of representing women, queer people and people of colour, and this show feels like a tribute to that.

You're absolutely right.

I wondered if you have any advice what people can do with their time in quarantine right now, besides watching Hollywood?

I mean, I wouldn't presume to give anybody advice. We're all trying to figure it out as we go. Each day presents another challenge. My problem is structure. If I have structure, then I feel as though I've accomplished something, even if it's dusting. If I wake up and I eat something, then I feel like I've accomplished something. But if I don't do something, I end up in bed. You know what I mean? Structure is eluding me, and that's the thing I need to keep my head from sinking into a depression. 

Yeah, I'm feeling the same way. Even just going for a walk at the same time every day goes a long way. 

Exactly.

Well, thank you so much for taking time out of your hangover to talk to me.

My pleasure, you helped me get over my hangover. [laughs]

Aw, well, thanks again either way.

Where are you calling from in Canada?

Toronto.

Oh, I just love Canada so much. Do you think they'll take me and my family if Donald Trump gets elected again?

I'll personally sponsor you, Patti.

Will you please?

Hollywood premieres on Netflix on May 1st.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag and interactive project Superqueeroes, both of which won 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also a stand-up comedian, the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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