By Crystal Bell
Laura Harrier never dreamed of becoming an actor; it was more of an abstract fascination.
Growing up, she put on plays and skits for her neighbors, eventually funneling that flair for exhibitionism into a successful teen modeling career. When after high school she moved from the Chicago suburbs to New York City — she was accepted to New York University but never attended, deciding instead to pursue modeling full-time — she thought she had her future figured out. But that’s the funny thing about dreams: Sometimes you don’t take them seriously until a tangible opportunity arises.
After a few small-budget student films and a regular role on One Life to Live, Harrier felt the creative pull of Hollywood. It took years of supporting indie roles and abandoned pilots until she landed her breakthrough role in Spider-Man: Homecoming. One Spike Lee movie and a reluctant cross-country move to Los Angeles later, Harrier is now the star of Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, Netflix’s fantastical tale of a group of marginalized dreamers in the late 1940s who rewrite Tinseltown’s history with a single film. For Harrier, who stars as actress Camille Washington, the initial appeal of the project was simple: “If Ryan Murphy is making something, I think, as an actor, that’s an instant yes,” she tells MTV News.
But she saw a lot of herself in Camille, too. Camille’s dream of starring in a major motion picture and the adversity she faces to become the first Black woman to do so were relatable for Harrier — and so was the realization that for women of color in Hollywood, in 1948 or 2020, it’s always so much bigger than one role or one film. Over a call with MTV News, the L.A. resident with a New York state of mind reflects on her dreams, working with Janet Mock and Queen Latifah on the set of Murphy’s revisionist drama, and how her Hollywood expectations match, or don’t, her reality.
MTV News: Hollywood depicts a lot of the sacrifices people make for their dreams. Are there personal sacrifices that you’ve made to really make things happen in your own career?
Laura Harrier: Leaving New York. That was not something that I really wanted to do but felt necessary, and I’m very happy in Los Angeles. I do like living here after a bit of hating it. It definitely felt like a sacrifice, moving across the country and relocating to a place that was more conducive for my career, but probably not where I initially wanted to be.
MTV News: I feel like everybody says that moving from New York to L.A., people find L.A. to be really lonely, at least in that first year. It’s really hard to adjust.
Harrier: That’s really how I felt. At first it really feels isolating. Honestly, I didn’t realize how different it would because I was like, “Oh, it’s really all the same people that you see in New York.” But it couldn’t be more opposite. There’s a lot of loneliness, especially now with the coronavirus. But I just celebrated my second year [in L.A.], and it definitely feels a lot more comfortable.
MTV News: In an interview from 2019, you mentioned that you say no to a lot of projects. So I was curious what you say no to these days and what made the material in Hollywood stand out?
Harrier: Well, the reality of being a person of color, and especially a woman in Hollywood, is that a lot of things that you receive and a lot of scripts that people send are [for] stereotypical roles. I’m fortunate that that’s happening less now in my career. I’ve worked with amazing people and been part of amazing projects. So for that, I’m really grateful. But that’s where a lot of the nos come from, just roles that don’t feel fully rounded or feel like a stereotype. But then, you get a person like Ryan Murphy or Janet Mock who really knows how to tell stories in a way that’s exciting and fun and beautiful to look at, but at the same time has that weight and history and understands representation.
MTV News: What appealed to you about it outside of getting to work with people like Ryan and Janet?
Harrier: If Ryan Murphy is making something, I think, as an actor, that’s an instant yes. I’ve been watching his work for really long time, from Glee to The Assassination of Gianni Versace to Pose and American Horror Story. He’s so smart. But honestly, going into this, I didn’t know what I was auditioning for. It was a funny Hollywood story in itself that I got this audition about a year ago. It just said “Untitled Hollywood Project” or something like that, and they gave me dummy sides from a movie from the 1940s. I went in and did the scene and didn’t hear anything at all. So I just kind of figured that it was another job that I didn’t get. And four months later I got a phone call saying that Ryan Murphy wants to meet me and that I’m going to do a chemistry read with Darren Criss. So I went in the next day and met Darren for the first time, and Ryan was there sitting silently in the corner. I was super, super nervous. But I guess it went pretty well because, the next morning, I got a phone call offering me the part of Camille.
MTV News: Having a writer and director like Janet, while also having writers who can speak to a diverse spectrum of experiences, is really important. Did you get the chance to sit down with the writers and talk about Camille’s arc?
Harrier: Janet and I worked together really closely throughout this process. I am so appreciative of her, her creativity and her intelligence, but also, I think she is really able to connect with Camille’s story in a deeper way than other directors might be able to, being a woman of color and having gone through so much adversity and worked so hard to get to where she’s at. She really worked for it and was marginalized and had a lot of adversity in her way. So working with her, if anything, I was able to deepen Camille’s experience because we were able to talk about it in a way that I might not have with another director.
MTV News: Did you see a lot of yourself in Camille? The through line for the characters in Hollywood is that they all have dreams of making it. Camille dreams of seeing herself in a leading role on the big screen. Is that something that you could relate to?
Harrier: I could definitely relate to Camille and I think, had I been born 80 years earlier, maybe we would’ve had similar lives. Like Camille, I didn’t come from a place where I knew people in Hollywood. I definitely wasn’t born into it in any way. So I could definitely connect with her [and] her understanding that this is about more than herself. Obviously, she wants to be in films and she wants to be an actress, but she also realizes the weight of her being the first and how revolutionary it would be for a Black woman to be seen on screen as intelligent and strong and glamorous and beautiful. And that had never happened before. Prior to that, Black women had only been playing maids. So she would have recognized how this is about more than herself, that little girls watching her on screen can aspire to do something more than society has previously told them that they can be.
MTV News: I particularly love the scene in a later episode between Camille and Hattie McDaniel, played by Queen Latifah. That really depicts how it’s so much bigger than one role.
Harrier: Exactly. I was so excited to find out that Queen Latifah was going to be playing Hattie McDaniel. That was a surprise for all of us. I have been such a fan of hers and loved her for such a long time, since I was a kid in the ’90s. It was really such a dream to get to work with her. There are a lot of parallels in that scene. Queen Latifah’s been incredibly successful but she definitely went through a lot of adversity to get to where she is now. And I think she’s somebody that I admire so much. So I really could just sit there and listen to her story, the same way that Camille listens to Hattie, someone she looks up to. I just had to be present in the moment because it was all right there.
MTV News: Was being an actor always the dream for you?
Harrier: I definitely did not grow up wanting to be an actor. I didn’t know that was an option, honestly. I grew up in the Midwest to a very normal middle-class family and that just wasn’t something that seemed within the world of possibility. It wasn’t until I went to New York to go to school and had friends who were in film school at NYU that it became a possibility for me. But no, I definitely wasn’t that kid who wanted to be an actor. Maybe subconsciously. I was always putting on plays and performing for everybody and making everybody sit down to watch me, always putting on a show. So, it was something that I think was always there, but I just didn’t know that it was in the realm of possibility.
MTV News: Was there a specific role or an actor that you remember feeling inspired by when you were younger?
Harrier: Halle Berry was the biggest movie star when I was growing up. I think I was 12 when she won Best Actress, and seeing a Black woman win Best Actress at the Oscars was incredibly inspiring. It’s crazy that it took until 2002 for a Black woman to win Best Actress. But I definitely felt inspired by and looked up to her and felt represented by her in a way that I was thinking about a lot for Camille. What would it have been like if that had happened in the ’40s and Camille knew the weight of that moment and how important that would be? What that would mean for representation, what that would mean to so many little brown girls growing up in this country, if they had been able to see that the way that I was able to see Halle Berry having that.
MTV News: Did you rewatch her speech in preparation for Camille’s?
Harrier: So many times. And I’m crying. I cry every time I watch it. It’s so moving and so powerful, and she’s just so lovely.
MTV News: There’s a moment in the finale where Camille gets to deliver her own acceptance speech at the Oscars, which I would imagine for any young actor is a dream scenario. What was that like?
Harrier: It was pretty cool. I’m not going to lie: It definitely was nice standing up there with that little gold man. Like I said, I was coming at it from a place of this is exciting and something that every actor wants and something that Camille would’ve wanted for herself, but at the same time, I know just how revolutionary it felt when it happened 80 years later. Just knowing how important and groundbreaking that would have been and how it would have really changed history had there been a Black woman winning Best Actress in 1948, I think the world would be a very different place and definitely Hollywood would’ve been a different place.
MTV News: I think a lot of the show is this idea of what you think Hollywood is versus what Hollywood actually is. As someone who has packed her bags and moved across the country to chase her own dreams, what’s your expectation versus the reality of Hollywood?
Harrier: I had no expectations because Hollywood’s something that everybody grew up seeing. Everyone grew up watching movies and seeing these actors. And I definitely still have those pinch-me moments of being in the room with every person that I ever grew up seeing in movies and being at the Oscars. It definitely feels surreal at times, and weird, honestly. Sometimes I have these experiences, but at the same time it’s all totally different because, from the outside, it’s beautiful and glamorous and everything’s exciting, but then being there, you realize that people are just people and everyone is real and has insecurities and emotions and has shitty days and doesn’t wake up looking like that all the time.
MTV News: When was your last pinch-me moment?
Harrier: It’s been so long since I’ve been outside. But definitely last year doing all of the awards season stuff with BlacKkKlansman. That was my first time being at all of those ceremonies. And I went to all of them. So that was a pretty surreal few months of sitting in the room with all of these actors that I’ve admired for so long and being there with an Oscar-nominated movie. And I got to wear a lot of really pretty dresses. That all definitely feels a bit like a dream, especially given the current state of the world.
MTV News: All of the characters are working towards something, but what are you working towards? What’s your dream now?
Harrier: I just want to continue doing it! I’ve been so fortunate to work with amazing people like Ryan and like Janet and Spike Lee. That’s really it for me. Getting to collaborate with these incredible creatives and with these artists who have been at the forefront of their career and of Hollywood and of storytelling for so long, that’s what I enjoy the most. So I just want to continue, hopefully getting to work with amazing people.
MTV News: Does it make you want to tell your own stories?
Harrier: That’s something that I’ve been thinking about. I’m working towards starting to develop my own projects and starting to think about the stories that I want to tell. That’s definitely a goal of mine.