“Going from the hitchhiking serial killer who loses his thumbs to the pimp with a heart, what’s better than that?” Dylan McDermott says of his roles on American Horror Story: 1984 and Hollywood. With a career as varied as McDermott’s, it’s no surprise that he could easily compartmentalize such strikingly different roles when the two shows shot at the same time.
McDermott was one of the first to see the true potential of television, working on ABC’s popular series The Practice—a performance which won him a Golden Globe and earned him an Emmy nomination. “I saw it coming in the late 90s,” he says regarding our present television renaissance.
After working on American Horror Story and The Politician, McDermott collaborated with Ryan Murphy for a third time on Hollywood. Hollywood centers on the film industry in the 1940s and tinkers with history as it explores racial and gender inequality. McDermott plays Ernie, an ironically compassionate pimp. He operates his business in a brothel masquerading as a gas-station as he exploits struggling male actors.
McDermott spoke to Awards Focus about his long-standing relationship with Ryan Murphy, his character’s custom-made underwear, and the line that shaped his entire performance.
Awards Focus: How did you first hear about Hollywood? Can you tell me about the first conversations you had with Ryan Murphy?
Dylan McDermott: I ran into him at a Vanity Fair party, and he said “I’m going to write something for you.” Then I didn’t hear from him for a while, but eventually he asked me to come in and read the pilot for Hollywood. I thought it was incredible, and the part was wild. It was all at Ryan’s whim and discretion. He has an idea, and the next thing you know, you’re getting fitted for it. We’ve had a long-standing relationship for over 10 years now, so I completely trust him. I know if he thinks of me for a part, then it’s going to be spectacular. That’s always proven to be true.
AF: You’ve worked with Ryan Murphy three times. How has that creative relationship evolved over time?
McDermott: In any relationship, the most important thing is trust. Ryan and I both trust each other. I trust that he’s going to write a good role for me, and he trusts that I’m going to deliver for him. He knows if he’s going to give me something, he can relax, and I’ll take care of it. That’s what you want in any relationship. You don’t want to worry about: Are they going to show up? Can they deliver? That’s why you work with the same people over and over again. Once you trust someone, you know that you’re in good hands, and Ryan and I both know that we’re in good hands.
AF: How did the process of bringing the character to life compare to the previous times that you worked with Ryan Murphy?
McDermott: I had my own ideas for Ernie. Ryan initially wanted him to have a crew cut, but I saw more of Clark Gable-esque kind of elegance. We agreed that I should have grey hair. In The Politician, Ryan wanted me to wear yellow sunglasses, and I loved that. In American Horror Story 1984, we thought I should look a little like a porn star. Usually he has amazing ideas, and I’m happy to fulfill them for him. There’s always a negotiation process: we throw things around and try to figure out who these people are as we go.
AF: Ernie definitely has a very distinctive look.
McDermott: I was very specific about the clothes. Everybody wanted Ernie to look like a movie star. I can’t even tell you the number of costume fittings I had for him. I even got underwear made for Ernie because I wanted everything to be authentic. Everything about him was completely tailored, completely fitted. In the 40s, people had an elegance that we don’t have today. That style was a really big part of who people were back then.
AF: Did that aesthetic impact how you viewed the character?
McDermott: It did. When you look at people like Clark Gable and Fred Astair, they are always so impeccably dressed. Even though Ernie was very sick, he still got up in the morning, showered, and shaved. That’s how it was back then: no matter what you had going on internally, you presented well externally. You didn’t show the world how you felt. That was a big portion of who Ernie was. Slowly it unraveled for him, but he always presented well.
AF: Your character is loosely based on Scotty Bowers. How did his influence impact your performance?
McDermott: I always say if Scotty Bowers and Clark Gables had a love child, it would be Ernie. Scott said something that resonated with me: “I’m up for anything.” And boom, that was it. When you’re doing research for a character, you’re always looking for a golden nugget like that. He could tap dance before he sat down to lunch. He could be with women, he could be with men. There was a freedom and ebullience about him. My whole performance was really based on that one line.
AF: Ernie’s a pimp, but he isn’t your stereotypical, evil pimp. He’s remarkably open minded for that time period.
McDermott: When you play a pimp, you can fall into the trap of twirling your mustache and just being evil. But we stayed away from that. Ryan and Ian made him tolerant, and he really did care about the boys. That humanized him in such a wonderful way. He has that speech about how the great artists of our time have to hide who they are, and that was really beautiful. When I got that script, I knew we were avoiding any cliché.
AF: You were filming Hollywood at the same time that you were filming American Horror Story: 1984. What was it like juggling those two roles? How did you compartmentalize?
McDermott: It was the happiest I’ve ever been as an artist. I didn’t mix the characters up, because they were so different. Going from the hitchhiking serial killer who loses his thumbs on 1984 to the pimp with a heart on Hollywood—what’s better than that? I tried to find the humor in both of them, but I’m at a particular point in my life now where I’m not interested in people’s opinion of me anymore. So I was just there to please myself and to make myself laugh. My rule of thumb is if I make myself laugh throughout the day when I’m acting, then I’ve had a good day. And I was cracking myself up with both of those characters.
AF: Were there any scenes that you anticipated one way while reading the script that evolved differently on set?
McDermott: That scene with Holland Taylor (who plays Ellen) really resonated with me. There’s something about him finding love late in life, while he’s dying and only has a certain amount of time left. After many years of being without love, he gave up on it, but he finally found it. With that scene, I didn’t know what to expect. After being with Holland on The Practice for so many years, we had a built-in relationship already. But then suddenly, we were in a love relationship. The concoction of all those different factors made that scene very special.
AF: Hollywood brings up a lot of issues about racism and inequality. How do you feel when you look back on that era of Hollywood and compare it to today?
McDermott: My God, how unfair it was that people of color couldn’t be the leads in movies, and that people couldn’t openly be a gay man or a woman. Everything was secret and hidden, and inequality was rampant. Hollywood is a remarkable show because of its revisionist factor. It’s incredible that Ryan, Ian and Janet Mock came up with this idea for the show. I’m hopeful that there will be more people of color in front of the camera and behind the camera, and that in time, they will have equality. I think that’s what we’re all hoping.