There were a few light moments as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ronan Farrow interviewed prolific television creator Ryan Murphy on stage at the Beverly Hilton’s International Ballroom at the Hollywood Radio & Television Society’s Newsmaker Luncheon Wednesday.
But the hour-long conversation delved mostly into heavy subjects — from a lack of fatherly love in childhood that Murphy discussed as a motivating factor in his career to changes taking place in the entertainment industry in the wake of the #MeToo movement that Farrow helped spawn last fall with his New Yorker expose of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct with a number of women who told Farrow their stories.
The two men are friends, and Murphy alluded to new information that will be coming out regarding what Farrow endured while bringing the Weinstein story to light. The story was originally quashed by NBC, where Farrow was a commentator on MSNBC, before it appeared in the New Yorker.
But Murphy, the man behind shows including “American Crime Story,” “American Horror Story,” “Glee,” “Nip/Tuck” and the new “Pose,” which was just renewed for a second season, made some headlines of his own during the discussion.
He seemed to renounce graphic violence and sex that were key elements in some of his productions, most recently in “AHS,” in favor of a kinder, gentler approach that also includes advocacy for the LGBTQ community and other oppressed groups that have not had a voice.
“I’m not interested in shock value anymore,” said Murphy, after admitting he’s an excessive person who likes things that are big and extravagant, concepts he learned from his adored grandmother. “I’ve gotten away from sexuality and violence and how far I can push the envelope.”
Farrow segued the conversation into Murphy’s new deal with Netflix and how he manages his day, which that morning included giving notes on three scripts before heading over to the Beverly Hilton for HRTS.
“I’m working with young talent, trying to get them in the system and trying to change the system,” Murphy said.
Much of that impetus came from working with the cast of “Pose.” “Directing was a very paternal energy with a lot of tutorials and being patient, kind and present,” he said of the transgender and LGBTQ actors on the FX musical dance series. “They were so moved to be seen and treated well — and now I’m interested in showrunning as advocacy. I was so moved by them and the community. They’ve struggled and to now be on a network and on magazine covers — it’s a gift to give back to them. I burst into tears when we got Season 2.”
Farrow asked whether an early version of “Pose” had a young Donald Trump as a character. Yes, that story is true.
“There was indeed a young Trump,” Murphy admitted, adding, “Then I thought, I just don’t want to see him. I didn’t want that presence to pollute the show because when you hear the name it’s almost Pavlovian and I know it was the right decision.”
His remarks drew applause from the audience as did his comments about efforts to bring gender parity to hiring with his company’s Half Initiative.
“I have been around many powerful men but it’s women who have helped me the most,” Murphy said. “For the ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia’ [Clark] episode of ‘[ACS: The People v.] O.J.,’ the female director broke her leg and I had to step in. I realized it would’ve been better with the female director. I should’ve realized this before but I only had 15% women in my company. I was mortified. I thought back to 1999 and I went to an audition with a group of straight white men all over the age of 50, yet I have been able to monetize my pain and my minority status. I called Dana Walden and asked about what if we had a simple rule of hiring 50% women. John Landgraf had started that at FX. We announced it and then 500 women emailed me. Now 65% of our shows are directed by women and minorities.”
Murphy also spoke revealingly about his childhood and his early days in the industry, when he was a journalist, which included interviewing Meryl Streep for the film “Heartburn.” He sold his first script in 1996 — and the rest is history.
“My experience mirrors that of many people. I grew up wanting love and attention from my parents and I didn’t get it,” Murphy said. “I moved through the world trying to find people who love me. On good days, I get a huge amount of love thrown back at me, which makes up for the bad days when there are a lot of haters. It’s a wonderful industry, a dream.”
Murphy also attributed his changes in philosophy and becoming “a softer person” to being the parent of two young boys. He closed out the conversation by again discussing “Pose.”
“It’s been the highlight of a career,” he said. “To read young people’s essays about it and to know that I’m a part of something and that they are not alone is so moving.”