Jeremy Pope: Broadway Sensation, ‘Hollywood’ Breakout, Renaissance Man

Just last year, Jeremy Pope became the toast of Broadway when, after making his debut as an ostracized queer high schooler in “Choir Boy” (a role he originated Off-Broadway in 2013), he made his sophomore outing that same season as Eddie Kendricks in “Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations.” That he was subsequently Tony nominated for both—the former for lead actor in a play, the latter for featured actor in a musical—cemented him as overnight theater royalty, and he had an eager base of fans and peers wondering what he’d do next.

Enter Ryan Murphy and his latest Netflix endeavor, “Hollywood.” The glamorous, golden age Tinseltown–tinged miniseries stars Pope as the fictional Archie Coleman, a gay aspiring screenwriter in 1940s Los Angeles. Also starring Darren Criss, Patti LuPone, and “The Politician” breakout David Corenswet (among many others), the series is a revisionist spin on the period drama, imagining a midcentury world in which the minorities who are so often relegated to society’s sidelines were instead given the microphone, the camera, and the spotlight.

Pope’s longtime friend and theatrical peer Cynthia Erivo knows a thing or two about perceived overnight successes. Her Broadway debut in the recent revival of “The Color Purple” won her a Tony, Grammy, and Emmy, and the years since have heralded her as a newly minted must-watch screen talent. (Last year’s “Harriet” earned her two Oscar nominations, for best original song and best actress in a lead role, and she starred earlier this year on HBO and Stephen King’s water-cooler drama “The Outsider.”)

“We’re both kind of eyes closed, dreaming, leaning forward,” Pope, now 27, says of the way he and Erivo operate through their artistic successes; as such, we recently tapped Erivo to interview Pope about his. Just as she has found since her Broadway breakout, the sky is hardly his limit.

Cynthia Erivo: You know what I realized? I haven’t actually asked you, like, about your life, childhood, where you came from. I met you when you were doing photography, making music videos. Then something happened, and there you were: everywhere.

Jeremy Pope: [Laughs] Well, I’m from Orlando, Florida, and I got the theater bug in high school. I used to run track, and theater and track season were at the same time, so I had to choose between running track or being in the theater program. I ended up getting a lead part in “Cats,” and the rest is history. We theater people are so weird and strange and lovely and understanding, and [I found] that at a time when I didn’t really know what I wanted to do once I got out of high school. Long story short: I ended up sneaking away and auditioning without telling my parents for AMDA [the American Musical and Dramatic Academy], and I got in. So, I went to New York and went to school for musical theater. It was challenging at first, because I didn’t really see a lot of shows that I saw myself fitting in. This was before “Hamilton,” before “In the Heights” was as big as it was; [I was] just trying to find room for me. It was kind of like, “Am I just gonna be Seaweed in ‘Hairspray’? Am I gonna be Simba in ‘The Lion King’? Is there really work for me here?” But I had challenged myself to prove to my parents that I was going to follow through, so I ended up changing my thought process about it all. Instead of trying to make myself become, let’s say, the next Norm Lewis, it was like: What do I have to offer? What tools do I have in my toolbox? My first audition out of school was for “Choir Boy” Off-Broadway; it was the first “yes” that I got in the sense of going into the room, preparing the material for people, and them [being] like, “We want you.” That made me feel like there were opportunities for me to work in this business.

CE: So, at the time that you were working on “Choir Boy,” were you also doing music and photography?

JP: Yeah, so, when I was in college at AMDA, senior year is the time when you have to prep yourself and show yourself to the industry, get your headshots and résumé ready. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any money, so I was just out there making it do what it do; I was taking my own headshots and not telling my professors. I don’t think they would’ve cared, but I felt a little bit embarrassed about that. But then my roommates were like, “Yo, can you take mine, too?” I started taking pictures for my friends and I fell into photography, and I started to succeed in it, and it was kind of a hustle to make some money. That was something that I was always doing to help make ends meet while I was auditioning and even while I was Off-Broadway.

CE: I feel like there’s been a pattern of you doing many things at once. Do you find yourself getting exhausted by it, or does it inspire you to pull from different sources of creativity?

JP: I think a bit of both, always. But I love knowing it’s possible for me to do more things than I think I can. It’s just challenging myself with my artistry.

READ: Playing a Real Person Onstage? Take These Tips From ‘Ain’t Too Proud’

CE: Fast-forward to “Choir Boy” and “Ain’t Too Proud.” You and I both know what Tonys nomination day is like, but you being double nominated for both pieces—did you ever see that moment happening?

JP: No. I think, at some point, it surpassed all of my dreams. I think I thought I could get to Broadway and have my parents see me in a show, but the rest…I hadn’t figured that part out yet. I was trying to get there. So here you are times two, and you’re like, “Now what?”

CE: At what point did you think, I might do some screen work? Had you been auditioning for screen while you were doing “Ain’t Too Proud,” or were you expecting to move on to another show?

JP: To be honest, doing the two shows, I was like, “I think I might need a break from the eight-show-a-week schedule.” We were finding projects that lent to that, and here comes this show called “Hollywood” by Ryan Murphy, and we knew nothing about it, there was no script, it was just: “Archie, an aspiring screenwriter.” And I auditioned for it the week of the Tonys—and you know that week is crazy.

CE: It’s nuts! It’s ridiculous. I know.

JP: It was the Sunday a week before the Tonys, and I came in early and [asked my cast mate], “Can you just put me on tape for this thing?” Shout out to Taylor Symone [Jackson] for hooking that up. The next day, we sent the tape off, and on Tuesday, my agents called. I was walking back from our Tony rehearsal at the theater, and they were like, “Hey, we just heard from casting, and they’re interested in you for ‘Hollywood’—so interested that Ryan offered you this part.” The Saturday before the Tonys, [Ryan and I] met, and he pitched me on what he was wanting to do and asked me if I would be interested in it. I was super excited about this idea, and that was kind of what I took with me on Sunday to knock out the Tony Awards.

CE: How did it feel to make that transition from stage to screen? I get asked that question a lot.

JP: It’s just so wildly different, in that theater is a thing where you just are, you are where you are. And when you’re working in TV or film, your audience is the camera, so there are certain things logistically that you have to be aware of. I remember my first day, thinking, We’re at Paramount and we’re setting up my coverage; it was exciting! This was something that I had dreamed of. I remember having conversations with Ryan early about who this character is, what does he want, and how does he go about getting these things? So I felt very grounded. What I learned in creating “movie magic” is you have to trust your director. A lot of these things, you can’t see. So, trusting their vision, not being afraid to ask questions. With theater, you have your beginning, middle, and end, and you just do it. But with TV and film, you’re shooting things out of order—you’re like, “Have we met? How much do we know about each other?”

CE: What’s your name again?

JP: Exactly. [Laughs] You piece it together as you’re filming. You have to have that freedom of just trying things. It’s a bit of an improv, it’s a bit of trusting your scene partner.

CE: I watched the whole thing, and you’re beautiful in it. I love the fact that it rewrites history; it’s the what-ifs. What about this particular piece made you decide: This is the thing that I’m going to start my screen career with?

JP: Early on, I hadn’t read a script, it was just Ryan kind of pitching me the three characters played by me, Darren Criss, and David Corenswet. And he was talking about Archie and being this black, gay writer and how that person would have to navigate in the ’40s and ’50s, how confident he would have to be. And I think in a similar way to how Archie feels; I often wondered if there was space for me in the industry that I was pursuing, whether it be musical theater or theater, or TV, or music—whatever. I feel this fire in my belly and this creativeness that I want to share with the world, but will it be received with grace and love, or is it just the thing that I keep to myself? And I loved this idea, as you said, of a revisionist history where, had people—women, queer people, people of color—been given the opportunity, how different would our history look? How different a feeling could it be? It felt like a story where I was going to be used for the greater good. It wasn’t about Jeremy Pope being in a TV show, it was about this young black character finding a voice. We were able to tell a very inspiring, hopeful story—how things have changed and haven’t changed. I mean, let’s be very real: From your personal experience, a couple of weeks ago, you were holding it down at the Oscars, a lead actress in a movie. I feel like there were so many women, so many young girls, who felt seen, felt heard, who were rooting for you just because you were in the room. And you felt that.

CE: Yeah, I did.

JP: And I feel that with the show “Hollywood,” that it’s bigger than just me. We’re lending a voice to so many people out there who want to be heard and seen.

CE: I feel like the projects that you pick aren’t necessarily for yourself or for the enjoyment of it, but because as long as it serves a greater good, that’s what you’re leaning toward.

JP: Yeah, that kind of revealed itself to me in the past couple of years. It has to be for the greater good, because if I don’t feel invested in it, I don’t think the work is going to be good. I just know how powerful it is that we’re able to create. I feel like that’s kind of what I’m called to do.

CE: So, if you were to write a blurb of your dream for the next few years, what would it look like?

JP: I just hope that in all that I do, I am able to bring up my brothers and sisters to inspire the next generation. There is space for you, and if you speak just a little bit louder, people will want to hear what you have to say. And if people don’t want to hear what you have to say, find some people who will—I think that’s something that I learned about New York City, that you build a community of people who understand where you’re at in the moment and who accept you for who you are and accept you for the person you will end up becoming. Sometimes, we’re so tempted to want to look up at who’s up there instead of looking across and around. There are so many great people around you.

CE: You know that you serve as an inspiration to many young people in this industry. Someone who’s starting, who doesn’t necessarily know the ins and outs of it all but wants to be a part of this world—what would you say to them?

JP: Try it all. That is important to do as an up-and-coming artist. Stretch yourself. See what you can find and what characters you can play, and challenge yourself in that way. Another thing is just to own everything that you are, all of the unique qualities about you. It’s OK to not be a carbon copy of so-and-so. Find what you have to give.

CE: The special thing that you’ve got.

JP: Some people may be for it, and some people may not. And that’s OK. That’s art. But know that it’s OK to share your art in whatever capacity that is.

This story originally appeared in the May 14 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Photographed by Jeremy Pope 
Additional images by Raul Roma and David Urbanke