"He was a hero in my eyes," Jake Picking tells PEOPLE of Rock Hudson, whom he plays in Ryan Murphy's Netflix series

By Robyn Merrett
May 08, 2020 10:44 AM
Jake Picking
| Credit: David Livingston/Getty Images

Nearly 35 years after his death, fans of Rock Hudson get to see him in a new light as actor Jake Picking plays a re-imagined version of the movie star in Netflix's Hollywood.

In Hollywood, created by Ryan Murphy, Hudson — who died of complications from AIDS in 1985 at the age of 59 — is openly gay and in a relationship with fictional screenwriter Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope).

Life for Hudson in Hollywood was drastically different from his reality, as the star was never open about his sexuality, even briefly married to a woman named Phyllis Gates in 1955. Although the real Hudson was closeted throughout his career, "he was a hero in my eyes," Picking tells PEOPLE. "He progressed through judgement, he was resilient."

For Picking, taking on the role of a real-life icon was certainly daunting, but "the goal was just to pay homage to the legacy of Rock."

Much like Hudson, who was born in Winnetka, Illinois, Picking also moved to Los Angeles at a young age to pursue acting.

"I'm from Boston, and I listened to my math teacher in high school who said, 'I don't know if anyone can tell if you're being serious or not, so you should try acting,'" Picking tells PEOPLE, adding that he ended up going to New York University and was taught by an acting teacher who'd worked with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

Jake Picking, Rock Hudson
| Credit: Netflix; Hulton Archive/Getty

"I dropped out after a year and moved to Los Angeles, and I've been here for six or seven years now," Picking says.

As a fan of Hudson's work prior to landing the role, Picking explains, "I pretty much tried to do everything I could. I watched all of Rock's films."

During filming, Picking shares, "It's hard not to feel a presence of Rock watching."

"I wish Rock was alive today to see how far we've progressed socially," he adds.

Keep reading below to learn more about Pickings' portrayal of Hudson in Hollywood.

It can be daunting to play real life people, how were you able to get in character to play Rock Hudson?

I think the goal was just to pay homage to the legacy of Rock, and when I first sat down with Ryan, it was just about capturing the true essence of who Rock was on his rise to stardom. But yeah, it is extremely daunting, especially showing up on set — on a Ryan Murphy set — and the people I was working with. It's hard not to feel a presence of Rock watching. You kind of need to remind yourself [of that] in order to be present. You just rely on your scene partners. Hopefully the audience will feel like a fly on the wall. That's the goal.

Rock Hudson
| Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty

Were you able to relate to Rock Hudson in any way — with both of you starting out young in Hollywood?

I think the loneliness that I experienced. I'm from the East Coast, and I associate season changes with what's going on around me. I was at NYU doing business but skipping classes to do acting. The energy was so high [there], and so moving to Los Angeles and experiencing Hollywood and the stars and getting that existential angst because every day is the same season ... so I think that and the initial loneliness that was the main thing. When I read more about Rock, that was one thing I could connect with.

Were you familiar with his work before taking on the role?

I had seen Pillow Talk. I was cognizant of who Rock was. I already loved the Golden Age. Those are the guys I'm always posing the question: What would they do? You know, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Paul Newman ... those are the guys I looked up to. To be able to sit down with Ryan and one of the first things he said was, "Tell me everything you know about Rock Hudson."

As an actor, you want to be walking on the edge. I pretty much tried to do everything I could. I watched all of Rock’s films. I watched them on silent. My favorite one was All That Heaven Allows. In that movie he’s kind of doing that with social ostracization based on classes, maybe he was pulling something from his own life. One antidote was listening to his interviews while driving, to hear his voice. One other thing that stood out to me when he was a kid was he went across country with his mom to ask his dad to come back, and he said no. So, already facing that rejection, I can’t imagine that bus ride back home. Then his stepfather comes in and is abusive. It’s really unfortunate. It just rings true to me, it’s not real unless it’s painful to hang on to. I feel that’s what Rock was doing, constantly having to feel he couldn’t be himself. I think he was a hero. He progressed through judgement, he was resilient. He had great success. He was a hero in my eyes.

 Do you think Rock Hudson could become as big a star as he became in real life if he was openly gay in the '40s, as imagined in Hollywood?

His whole life would be different. I can only hope that Rock would kind of cheer on this sentiment that the show stand for, that it’s okay to be who you are. You can be unapologetic about who you are. I think it’s a triumphant ending, especially during quarantine. To really judge anyone based on their chemical makeup is extremely toxic. I wish Rock was alive today to see how far we’ve progressed socially.

6. The scene where Rock refuses to accept his agent Henry Wilson’s (played by Jim Parsons) apology for sexually harassing him is so powerful. How much did you draw from the stories — if any — that came out during the #MeToo movement?

I think it’s about their relationship, and that’s what I’m drawing from. You can’t be present in a moment without knowing the history of what someone’s gone through. I feel very safe with Jimmy, he’s so much different from his character. I just think for someone to show up out of the blue and expect a genuine acceptance of apology after traumatizing and scarring someone — basically Rock was just standing his ground. I think the way we approached it and staying true to the essence, the vulnerability and naiveness was there. I think it’s a relevant message with the battle of equal representation with women, LGBTQ and people of color.

Do you have a favorite scene/episode from the series?

The Cukor party was just so extravagant, and everything from that time period is so romantic. Dick Samuels (Joe Mantello) [is] so incredible. I think that was the tipping point. Those little moments of paying it forward can make all the difference in someone’s life. And I think that’s what Dick was doing, like, don’t wear a mask and be who you are. We can only hope Rock would stand for the same.

Jeremy Pope and Jake Picking
| Credit: Netflix

Have you become close with your costars?

Jeremy Pope and Jim Parsons — both who I had the most scenes with. They’re great friends. I trust them. Jim and I were putting prosthetics on our face each day before our scenes. With Jeremy, there was an intimacy coordinator, but I had a sit-down with Jeremy before and we were both 1000% in. The first day there was an intimate scene, and we knew we were going to be friends.

How has it been to have the series be released during lockdown amid coronavirus?

It is weird. It feels it’s appropriate in terms of lifting people’s spirits. It juxtaposes the darkness of quarantine as the show is triumphant. It stands for something great, and it’s a fun ride.

Hollywood is streaming now on Netflix.