By Crystal Bell
Jake Picking's acting career started in an unusual place: goofing off in a high school math class. "My teacher told me, 'I don't know if anyone can tell if you're being serious or not, so you should try acting,'" the 29-year-old actor tells MTV News over the phone from his dad's house in Thousand Oaks, California. Like many others, he left his apartment in Los Angeles a few weeks ago to shelter in place with his family amid the coronavirus pandemic; now, he's taking this time to reconnect with his two little brothers and decompress. He's determined to stay present, to breathe. After all, this is the calm before the storm.
On Friday (May 1), Ryan Murphy's Hollywood, a colorful reimagining of Tinseltown's post-World War II Golden Age, hits Netflix. When the masses get a hold of Picking's chiseled jawline and scene-stealing presence as screen legend Rock Hudson, then it's only a matter of time before the internet crowns him a heartthrob — not unlike Hudson's own coronation 70 years ago (sans social media thirst traps). But that transition from secondary studio player to strapping, leading man is not something you can prepare for. It's not like the Boston-born performer ever saw this coming.
Growing up, Picking never fantasized about seeing his name immortalized on the big screen. He idolized Kid Cudi, not Marlon Brando. He didn't even know acting was a possibility for him until high school, and despite encouragement from Matt Damon's and Ben Affleck's former acting coach Carolyn Pickman, he enrolled at New York University to study business and play hockey. But being surrounded by creatives and free spirits made him want to finally get serious about his craft. He started skipping class to join student productions, but when a transfer to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts threatened to break the bank, he did what any young person chasing a dream would do: He dropped out, packed his bags, and moved to L.A. However, it wasn't the easiest transition.
"I didn't really know anyone, so it was lonely," Picking says. "You think of Hollywood and you think of the glitz and glam, and, like, the stars. It wasn't that at all."
But the loneliness that permeated his new reality helped him realize a few things. One, L.A. was kind of like Saturn — beautiful to look at, void of seasons, and too hostile to support life; two, he was willing to do almost anything to succeed ("sleep on the beach, couch surf, eat out of tuna cans, whatever it took"); and three, he really did love movies. In fact, film became his "healthy escape" when the solitude got too loud in the early days of his Hollywood residency.
He'd spend his afternoons searching through the racks of records and movies at Amoeba Records on Sunset Boulevard and pick up take-out in bulk on the way back home. ("It's kind of embarrassing, honestly," he says now, thinking back on what he describes as his "Kid Cudi loner phase.") Then, he'd stay up all night diving into the classics. "That's what I did when I felt depressed," he adds. He'd coordinate the neon LED lights strung up around his tiny studio apartment to change colors based on his mood. Eventually, the work of Paul Newman, Brando, and Hudson flooded his imagination and his walls — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, his favorite film, was a contemplative purple. (By comparison, Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was a blazing red.) "Those are the guys I look up to a lot," he says.
Years later, when powerhouse producer Murphy turned to him during a meeting and said, "Tell me everything you know about Rock Hudson," he was able to call upon those sleepless nights watching Pillow Talk, All That Heaven Allows, and Magnificent Obsession alone in the safe neon glow of his apartment. "I felt like it was my duty to capture the essence of who Rock Hudson was and pay homage to his legacy," he says.
Hollywood's revisionist take on Hudson and the town he made his home is a potent mix of fact and fiction, or what Murphy calls "faction." The seven-episode drama, which was also written, produced, and directed by Pose's Janet Mock, imagines a version of 1940s Hollywood in which women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks were celebrated instead of marginalized, their stories and ideas taken just as seriously as their straight white, male peers. Their struggles to claim a seat at the table, and the gross abuse of power they must often face, still feel painfully familiar, even decades later. But in Murphy and Mock's Hollywood, Rock Hudson's story gets a hopeful rewrite. The closeted heartthrob, who died of complications from AIDS in 1985, is finally free to be unabashedly himself; in one poignant scene, he walks arm-in-arm with his boyfriend Archie — a Black, gay screenwriter — on the Oscars red carpet.
"I wish he was alive today to see how far we've come," Picking says, while acknowledging that there's still a long way to go. "I think that's the tragedy in his life, but I do believe he was a hero, because he progressed through that. He's just resilient, you know?"
Hollywood paints this picture of resilience with broad strokes (nuance has never been Murphy's style), a parable for the generations of young people like Hudson who hid a part of themselves to make it in an industry as ruthless as show business. For Picking, there were so many things about the real-life legend that he connected with, like how Hudson moved to Hollywood at 21 to pursue a career on screen because he liked going to the movies; how people judged him for his looks; but, mainly, how lonely he must have felt, too. "I read somewhere a secret isn't really real unless it's painful to hold onto," Picking recalls carefully. "And I feel like that's what Rock was doing."
For an actor, living in someone else's pain, real or fictional, is part of the job. It's what Picking finds most rewarding about the heightened experience. "My favorite films make me laugh and cry," he says. "It's inspiring. It makes me feel like a weight has been lifted."
And when things start to get heavy, Picking has new ways to deal with it. "At first, my support system was the people on the screen or the artists that I was listening to," he says. Now, he's been on enough sets to build a network of friends, like his Hollywood castmates and the friends he made while filming Top Gun: Maverick. "It's unique to get that support from not only your family or your friends, but also the people that you work with." Still, he admits that Kid Cudi's "Leader of the Delinquents" has been keeping him present throughout quarantine. He's been penning rap verses in his free time, adding to the 50 or so tracks he's already composed in GarageBand.
"Art, through film and writing music, is my emotional outlet. I admire the guys like Cudi and Childish Gambino, how they're so multivarious," he says. "They can do it all, and I think that's so cool. And I've always struggled with not feeling quite good enough yet, like I don't feel like my connection is there musically. It's still growing. Maybe I need to find a way to put out my music under some kind of alter ego and just drop it."
Is he being serious? With Picking, it's still kind of hard to tell.