The budding Australian actress talks sharing the screen with legends on Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix show, working with her celebrity crush, and singing show tunes with Keanu Reeves.
As it goes for many Australian actors, one of Samara Weaving’s earliest jobs included a long-standing role on the famed Aussie soap opera Home and Away. Nearly a decade later, the actress has marked a near equivalent rite of passage in the States: being cast in a series from prolific writer-director-producer Ryan Murphy. His newest show, Hollywood, is now streaming on Netflix.
In a cast whose call sheet boasts equal parts fresh faces and living legends, Weaving stars as Claire Wood, an aspiring actress and the daughter of Hollywood powerhouses Ace and Avis Amberg (played by icons Rob Reiner and Patti LuPone, respectively). Weaving’s Claire is talented, no doubt, but struggles to find her own identity within an industry that her family practically controls. They have expectations of her, and in mid-1940s Los Angeles, those expectations were more of the “get married and have a child” variety. But when an untimely tragedy places Ace Studios in the hands of Mrs. Amberg, a shift happens as Claire and her mother become involved in creating a seminal film that will break boundaries and change movie history forever.
BAZAAR.com catches up with Weaving, who is socially isolating with her fiancé at home in Los Angeles, to discuss valuable lessons learned from screen and theater legend LuPone, why it’s always wise to have a scarf with you, and her next film—a classic reboot with the inimitable Keanu Reeves, which is sure to be a totally excellent time.
How did the project come to you?
It’s a pretty crazy story. It’s actually a very Hollywood story. I got an audition—a very mysterious audition. It had the title of something along the lines of “Untitled Project,” or something just as super informative. There was no character description or logline or story information, and the scene that they sent for the audition was from the film Some Like It Hot. And it was a scene playing Marilyn [Monroe]. So I wandered into this audition kind of winging it, which was fun in and of itself. I must have been there for five minutes, went in, bowed, and left.
I didn’t think anything of it, and then four or five months later—I had completely forgotten about it, and had probably done a dozen other auditions in between. I was working in New Orleans and I got a call from my manager saying, “You’ve booked a Ryan Murphy show.” And he was just as confused as I was. We were trying to think, “How is this possible?” And I came to the conclusion that it must have been a mistake. “You need to call Mr. Murphy’s office and tell them they’ve called the wrong lady.” And they did, and they came back and they said, “No, you auditioned. They cast you, you got it, do you want it?” And I was like, “What?” I had this very confused, elated feeling. Of course, I said yes and jumped up and down even though I had no idea what show it was, or what character I was playing.
Finally, I realized, Oh, it was that Some Like It Hot audition. Next thing I knew, I was sitting in Mr. Murphy’s office, and he told me about the show and it sounded very enticing and very intriguing. And then he told me a bit about Claire Wood and her storyline. She sounded just delicious and divine, and also you don’t say no to Ryan Murphy. I was in from the minute I got that very confusing but very exciting phone call.
Were you a big fan of Ryan’s before? He really does create such a familial feeling, casting so many of the same people and really creating these very vivid worlds.
He definitely has a specific style that’s very luxurious and rich. He really brings such a layered texture to every project he does. I was a fan of his since Glee, which I think came out the last year I was in high school. It was hard to watch his stuff in Australia and the U.K., where I lived after that. In Australia there are like, four channels, and unless you have cable, you can’t really watch those shows.
When the world of streaming came along and I moved to L.A., I actually really got obsessed with American Crime Story. The O.J. Simpson one and the Versace one. I mean, Darren Criss in Versace is mind-blowing. He’s fantastic in that and the loveliest man alive. He’s a wonderful, wonderful human being. So, yes, in short, I was a Ryan Murphy fan. And still am.
Patti LuPone plays your mom. There are so many legends on this show.
There’s also this new crop of our generation of actors. It was so fun to see them play opposite each other. What was it like being on set with everyone?
It was really nerve-racking right up until I met her. Those feelings of being around Hollywood and going to very fancy, elite events and meeting some of your heroes and maybe being a little bit disappointed, feeling, Oh, man, they’re not as cool as I thought they were. I kind of went in thinking, “Just be cool. Maybe she’s not as amazing that you think, or she is, but who knows.” And then I walked into the trailer, and [Patti] was singing and dancing and swearing, and she turns to me and she goes, “It’s my daughter!” And she gave me a huge hug. She is incredible. And she has so many amazing stories. She was really the matriarch of not only the show but of the cast as well. She was very motherly but also just down to party at the same time. She’s awesome. She is hands down the coolest lady.
Did you have a favorite moment with her?
I think just watching her. She takes her work seriously, but at the same time she has so much fun. I feel like a lot of actors really sit in their characters—and it’s each to their own as well—but I loved how fun she made the set and that she was just so generous to every single person and she didn’t treat anyone any differently no matter what their position was. She really humbled everyone in that sense. And I really love working with people like that. She’s just incredible. And not only that, Rob Reiner plays my father. It was insane.
You come from a family of actors. Did you feel any connection to Claire because of that? Since your character is the daughter of these studio heads …
I didn’t really draw anything from my family, because, luckily for me, we have a healthy relationship. I was actually going through the notes I was doing before we started, and I was looking at the fatal flaw of a neglected child, because her father disapproves of her too. Both of her parents are pretty neglectful, emotionally, and don’t believe in her. You know, they think she’s spoiled and big-headed. Maybe her father a little less so. He just wants her to settle down and get married. But Avis and she have this very toxic relationship.
I looked into emotional neglect symptoms. Very low self-esteem and trouble maintaining healthy relationships and depression and eating disorders. Especially in 1946, when the studios forced those drugs for those women to stay thin, and drug and alcohol abuse, and this sort of behavior. Which I think why she has this wall of confidence as a kind of coping mechanism.
Because I think with my family, we are more of a circus troupe. Everyone’s an artist and an actor, and we all are just insane clowns when we get together. With Claire’s family, especially because she’s an only child with these very important parents, she actually makes the choice not to use them to get ahead. She changes her last name. I think her ambition to be a film star is actually to get her parents approval. She kind of thinks the only way they’ll take her seriously is if she’s literally in front of them on a screen and they’re watching, because they are the head of the studio. That was really interesting to research.
It was heartbreaking to look at all these women at that time. Katharine Hepburn was sort of labeled as box-office poison and getting in trouble for wearing pants and no makeup. Hedy Lamarr invented frequency hopping, which was used in controlling drone strikes, and today it’s like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. She got laughed at because she was a woman. Lana Turner, MGM labeled her as the weather girl and she just couldn’t break out of that. Even Peg Entwistle, her own story is just tragic.
Yeah! I was researching her as I watched the show. Because there is quite a bit of revisionist history, of course, but there are also so many characters on the show who are real people. And for better or for worse, things that were going on in the ’40s are still happening now.
There are some very eerie similarities. I mean, it’s far better, but what the show does highlight is what is still going on today. It makes you wonder what today would look like if the things happening had changed then. And it also honors these people who paved the way for us in equality and started fighting long ago. This show is a great reminder to us not to take that for granted and to keep fighting that good fight, because it’s easy to forget, for me, these women like Katharine Hepburn and Hedy Lamarr and Lauren Bacall and Veronica Lake and Bette Davis, who had to really fight and put their careers on the line to make a statement, to make a room for women to be considered to direct or be taken seriously. Or not just play the seductress or damsel in distress.
When you think about what you hope the audience takeaway will be, is that kind of it? Honoring those who came before but also realizing that there’s still work to be done?
I think there’s two things going on. One, it is fun. It’s such a raunchy, glamorous romp of a show. It is a dreamland. But at the same time, yeah, I want people to have that conversation of, “Oh, my God, it looks like the 1940s, and it feels like the 1940s, and, yes, it does have this very idealized historical sort of revisionist history ending that is the Hollywood ending, but it does hit on some very relevant nerves that we need to address. It looks old but those are very modern real problems.” I want that to start a conversation, for sure.
You’ve obviously worked with so many legends. Do you have a dream collaborator?
Greta Gerwig is up there. I think Yorgos Lanthimos. I love him. From Dogtooth, I was just a huge fan. And Lisa Kudrow.
What an interesting trio. When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I don’t have a light bulb moment that I can recall, but I do remember a very strange feeling after coming out of theater. We had just watched Pirates of the Caribbean. And I think I was around 11 years old. I had an out-of-body experience. I was in that world and I was mad that it had ended and I need to do whatever it takes—like, whatever they’re doing, whatever that was, I need to be a part of that world.
Do you remember the worst career advice anyone’s ever given you?
I’ve had a lot. I think someone in drama class was trying to convince the entire class that they should always drink white wine before they go into an audition or a meeting. Which doesn’t sound like a great idea.
Hopefully you didn’t take that. What about the best advice you’ve received when it comes to your career?
A lot of good advice. Always bring a scarf with you, because if you’re nervous, you can use it to scream into in the bathroom right before. And if you need something to fidget with, it’s there. If you’re cold, it’s there. It’s a very useful tool. Always bring a scarf with you, everywhere you go.
Can you pinpoint the biggest high of your career so far?
I think when it first started dawning on me that I could have a career in Los Angeles, here. I think that was right after I booked The Babysitter, and the script by Brian Duffield was on the blacklist, and it was this big director, and I was kind of walking around Hollywood and everything just felt very exciting and full of potential. I think that was the literal biggest high. It wasn’t necessarily that I had done anything, but it was the hope and the idea that it was possible.
The biggest accomplishment would be different, but the physical feeling, the elation I got when I realized these dreams that were just dreams could become true and that the door was opening a little bit, I remember that feeling. I remember exactly where I was.
It’s the most comforting background noise. Who was your first celebrity crush?
Do you know what’s really embarrassing, because I worked with him, but I think it was Adam Brody.
From the O.C. days?
Yes. My parents didn’t let us watch television, but he was in an Australian magazine called Girlfriend. And there was a photo of him and I remember just being like, “You’re dreamy, you’re going up on my wall.” And then I worked with him. He doesn’t know this. Adam, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.
No! I feel like it’s flattering.
I mean, actually, my first crush was probably the guys from El Dorado. Like, I think it was a cartoon. For sure, it was some prince in some Disney thing that got me going.
I get it. You have Bill & Ted Face the Music coming up. I need to know what it was like to be a part of that franchise, working with Keanu …
It’s wild! I was unaware of Bill and Ted and the extraordinary universe that it is. I got an audition and I asked my fiancé, “What is this Bill and Ted?” I’ve never seen him jump so high. It was like he turned into Michael Jordan for a second. And he started doing this weird voice. Then we watched both of them back to back, Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey, and I didn’t realize what a cultural phenomenon it was. There’s so much slang from that film that is still used today. I didn’t realize that it all came from that film.
How was it working with Keanu and Alex?
They were fantastic. It’s nerve-racking, because me and Brigette Lundy-Paine’s characters were, essentially, we’re like mini versions of them. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in terms of how we see the world and how we speak and talk and act. It’s one thing to audition and do the voice and the physicality of those characters in front of the producers and directors. But doing it with the originals was so nerve-racking, because you’re like, “Am I doing it right? Am I doing okay?” They were lovely, and we had some really fun, fun times.
Keanu Reeves, I remember it was a really long day, and he had printed out the lyrics to “It’s a Hard Knock Life” from the musical Annie, and he handed it around to everyone and went, “1, 2, 3 [begins singing], It’s a hard knock life,” and we all sang “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” We were all smushed in this truck. It was so much fun. He knows how to get people’s energy up. Because you needed a lot of energy to get through that film and to do what’s owed.