The Ryan Murphy protege on acting opposite Patti LuPone, putting those Superman rumors to bed and what he’s cooking right now
Words by HELENA DE BERTODANO
Portraits by ZOEY GROSSMAN
By now it is well known that almost everything Ryan Murphy touches turns to gold, and his latest project, Hollywood, an alternate history of postwar Tinseltown, is no different. The creator of a string of television hits, including Glee, Pose, 9-1-1 and American Horror Story, he was hired by Netflix in 2018 in an unprecedented $300 million five-year deal to spin more of his magic.
Murphy often picks little-known actors whom he turns into stars — like Sarah Paulson and Darren Criss. David Corenswet, 26, is his latest star creation. Best known for his turn on Murphy’s Netflix hit comedy-drama The Politician, he comes back as the lead in Hollywood, debuting May 1. The son of actor-turned-lawyer John Corenswet, who died last year, David grew up with his older sister, Amy, in Philadelphia and first appeared aged 9 in a local production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.
He attended The Juilliard School in New York City and has appeared on House of Cards as the college boyfriend of Robin Wright’s character, Claire Underwood, as well as starred in Affairs of State on Amazon Prime.
His classic good looks sometimes draw comparison with Armie Hammer or British actor Henry Cavill of Superman fame, and there has even been talk that Corenswet himself might one day take over the role. Murphy, in the meantime, has compared him to Leonardo DiCaprio. “He’s that unicorn in the business,” Murphy has said of Corenswet. “He looks like an old-time movie star, and he can act, too.”
Last year was pivotal for Corenswet. He filmed The Politician, then went home to Philadelphia for several months to nurse his father, who was dying of cancer. After John’s death in June, David moved to Los Angeles full time to work on Hollywood, which wrapped filming this past January. Shortly afterward, taping of the second season of The Politician concluded. Since then, he has been in lockdown at his L.A. apartment.
“Corenswet’s that unicorn in the business”
In Hollywood, Corenswet portrays Jack Castello, a young man who is trying to establish himself as an actor and finds himself forced to make a living on the side as a male prostitute who picks up clients at the gas station where he works. “Why, yes,” his character says. “I’ll do whatever it takes. This is Hollywood, after all.” Starring alongside Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor, Corenswet more than holds his own. A thoughtful and entertaining exploration of the power dynamics in the movie business, the series demonstrates how little the industry has changed in the last 75 years. Full of glamour and humor, it is an ode to the Hollywood of yesteryear but without the rose-tinted spectacles; instead it seeks to expose, rather than hide, the industry’s seedy underbelly.
C Magazine speaks to the actor at the end of April as he self-isolates at home in East Hollywood.
Ryan Murphy has compared you to Leonardo DiCaprio. To whom would you compare Murphy?
I think Patti [LuPone] said this first, but I’m totally going to steal it: Andy Warhol. [Murphy] is an artist who truly understands pop culture.
Why do you think he compared you to DiCaprio?
I don’t know, that’s absurd. Maybe if I get him with a couple of glasses of wine, I’ll ask him. Or I’ll just bask in the glory of knowing that he said it. You don’t want to poke the bubble. … There’s no downside to being compared to people as long as nobody expects me to live up to anything. … I would be very happy to be 70 percent of the actor that Harrison Ford is.
DAVID CORENSWET in the series “Hollywood.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.
What was your first impression of Murphy?
The first time I met him was when I auditioned for The Politician. It was an icy first meeting, because I came in and read for a different role [Ricardo], and I think all he said to me was, “Do you have a change of clothes?” Knowing Ryan now, I know that was a perfectly pedestrian thing for him to say, but meeting such an intimidating figure for the first time, I just felt: I’m screwed. But then when I came back [to read] for River [the role he landed], we had a lovely conversation about school.
Murphy has a reputation for championing actors who haven’t had a chance to shine before. How did it feel to be handpicked by him?
The question is: Is he picking them out right or is he making them into the best? And I think it’s a little bit of both. He has a great eye for unseen or overlooked actors especially. But he also puts actors in really good positions to shine. He really trusts actors and loves to see them stretch themselves. Having had a pretty short career — which may only be getting shorter — I have decided that if Ryan is the only person who ever hires me again, that would be a blessed life. He gets shit done. To say he is a teddy bear is a bit of a cliche, but he’s like a big kid who really knows what the hell he’s doing, and part of what he knows is that he doesn’t know everything. He’s not at all a dictator. He’s wonderfully open, and he has really talented people around him, and he delegates really effectively.
“I would be very happy to be 70 percent of the actor that Harrison Ford is”
Did your father inspire you to act?
My dad was mostly responsible for taking me to all my theater gigs when I was a kid. I did a lot of regional theater in Philadelphia. And he would give me one of those old New York subway tokens as a good luck charm. He said he would always have them in his pockets when he went to auditions. When I was going through his apartment with my sister [after he died], I found a vintage ’70s subway token lying in a box with a little chain, and I felt like he left it for me to wear. So now I wear it all the time. He didn’t get to see The Politician, and he died before I started working on Hollywood, but he knew about it and saw it as my launching point. And he was very appreciative to Ryan for having recognized in me whatever he recognized in me.
What did you like to watch when you were a child?
At home we didn’t have cable, we didn’t watch television, we didn’t really go to the movies very much. We just rented VHS [recordings] of old 1940s movies. We grew up watching the Marx Brothers. We saw all of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ movies multiple times. Singin’ in the Rain was a staple in my house, and we would watch that every few weeks.
>DAVID CORENSWET and PATTI LUPONE in “Hollywood.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.
What did you learn from actors like LuPone and Taylor?
Just watching great actors is an education in itself. … It’s like watching a master sculptor work: You don’t quite see what they’re doing until the shape reveals itself. Patti and Holland are the most professional, down-to-earth [people]. They love what they do, and they’re really committed to doing it. And to watch them voice their opinions and to have Patti say, “What do you think about this moment?” — that’s awesome, to feel like you have something to contribute in a room like that, with incredible people who really know what they’re doing.
Had you met LuPone before shooting the first episode’s sex scene with her?
I had met her once, when we shot the scene [later in the series] where I’m shtupping her from behind on the staircase. So we had broken the ice. We had shattered the ice. There was no ice in miles …
What are your acting ambitions?
Well, I would love to feel like I had a convincing enough British accent that I could play a British spy in a Cold War-era espionage thriller. There are so many great British actors who come over and take our great American roles that we should start returning the favor. Power to them, they’ve got great accents, but I think we American actors have to step up and get on the offensive.
How about playing James Bond?
I don’t think you can have an American play James Bond. That’s sacrilege.
Is there any truth in the rumors that you might become the next Superman?
None of it’s real, but it’s all of a ton of fun.
What are your personal goals outside of acting?
I definitely would love to direct and produce more. [Corenswet executive-produced Hollywood.] I have some very talented friends from school who are in various levels of acting or writing comedy, and it would be great to continue to make stuff with them. I love cinematography. … Also, before everything got locked down, I was looking toward getting my pilot’s license. I flew a plane, and I got totally hooked, so that’s definitely [at the] top of the list as far as irrational, adventurous things to do.
Where are you self-isolating?
I’m in my apartment in L.A. I’ve just finished making some pesto, using my aunt’s pesto pasta recipe. I’ve never really had a view before, but by sheer luck, I’m looking out at the Capitol Records Building, which is quite an iconic L.A. landmark. It’s pretty far in the distance, but it really reminds you where you are and hearkens back to an older time.
DAVID CORENSWET on the set of “Hollywood.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.
“I have no interest in being famous, but at the level I want to be at, it comes with the territory”
Do you live with anyone?
The parties in question would have to sign off on it before [I could say]. I’m under no misapprehension that anyone particularly cares who I am or what I do with my private life. Essentially, I have no interest in being famous, but if I’m going to be working at the level I want to be working at, it sort of comes with the territory. I’m a very cautious person, so I err on the side of politely nodding and moving on.
DAVID CORENSWET in “Hollywood.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.
Who do you hang out with away from set?
I’m not a party animal. Most of my free time is spent at home. When I was shooting The Politician, I was with that group of people, and if they were going somewhere, I would go with them, and then I would be the first to leave to go home and go to bed. I definitely appreciated being dragged out of my comfort zone, but it takes a few people dragging pretty hard. But it was a fun time: A couple of times, we went dancing, which I had not done very much of. We went to Oil Can Harry’s, which I think is one of the first gay bars in Los Angeles. It’s in Studio City, and every Saturday night they have ’70s Night, so we would go then. And top of the list [of my favorite places] is Tramp Stamp Granny’s, which is Darren Criss’ piano bar in Hollywood, which is super fun, with live piano and singing.
Which shows, films or podcasts do you recommend?
Old movies are what I’ve gone to recently, the classics that I wanted to rewatch. I rewatched Rear Window and The Conversation. And I’ve found Arrested Development to be a really good quarantine show because it’s very light-hearted and hilarious. One of my classmates from Juilliard has a podcast called That’s What She Said, which I would highly recommend.
Have you developed any new skills while self-isolating?
Most of an actor’s life is spent unemployed, not acting. So I was already well versed in the “staying at home, trying to make good use of your time” paradigm. I’ve got some paints, and [I] watched some Bob Ross and painted some mountains, and, you know, they’re not bad.
What would you be doing if you hadn’t become an actor?
I would have applied to law school. Both my parents were lawyers, and my sister is a lawyer. But who the hell knows if I would have gotten in anywhere.
Do you feel your future as an actor is secure now?
No. Nothing in life is permanent, and nothing’s secure. We must live in the glorious “not knowing.”
Do people recognize you on the street?
I’ve had three or four really lovely experiences of young people coming up to me — once in Philadelphia, a couple of times in New York, maybe once in L.A. — and saying that they liked The Politician. But other than that, people couldn’t give a shit about me. I can’t even get my mom on the phone half the time.
Feature image: Actor DAVID CORENSWET stars in Netflix’s new series Hollywood, debuting May 1.
April 30, 2020
Discover more CULTURE news.