The only thing surprising about Ryan Murphy getting a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame Dec. 4 is that he doesn’t already have one.
“It’s about time!” exclaims Sarah Paulson, a frequent Murphy collaborator who’s worked with him on multiple projects since 2004, including every incarnation of “American Horror Story.” “I’m surprised people haven’t been walking all over his star on Hollywood Boulevard for 10 years now.”
One of the most prolific producers working today, Murphy has made an indelible stamp on the industry, reinventing the television landscape with every series he’s created, from 1999’s “Popular” and 2003’s “Nip/Tuck” to 2009’s “Glee” and his latest effort, “Pose.” Those anthology series that now dominate the screen? His idea. The migration of movie stars to television? Murphy again.
And now he’s set to bring his unique brand of reinvention to Netflix, where he signed a $300 million overall deal in February, the largest ever by a single producer.
“I think he’s shaped the face of television — literally,” says FX CEO John Landgraf, who has shepherded Murphy’s series at the cabler since the second season of “Nip/Tuck.” “He’s made a handful of the most defining and innovative television shows ever. It’s rare to see someone who’s that brave and that original — and also that popular.”
Most writer-producers are known for one kind of show — they lean toward comedy, perhaps, or action-adventure. But Murphy’s oeuvre gleefully (pardon the pun) spans the spectrum, a range that reflects his own incredibly varied interests.
What drives him, he says, is “a story that’s not being told.” When developing ideas, he reaches for “what’s not on the air that I would love to watch?” Every one of his hit shows is unique in its very conception — from the horror genre he revived with the juggernaut anthology series “American Horror Story” to bringing music back to the screen, whether through the bright pop of “Glee” or the 1980s dancehall tribute of “Pose.”
“I still don’t understand why something clicks and why something doesn’t,” he admits. “And I’ve never understood it. But that’s the exciting part of it — that you don’t know. It’s the unknowable part of show business that makes you so excited to get up and figure it out.”
Paulson doesn’t claim to have the answers either, but she’s learned to trust him and go along with him on the ride, whether it means playing conjoined twins, a blind witch with superpowers, or time-traveling back to the 1990s to play a permed Marcia Clark — a role that finally won her an Emmy Award.
That there’s no unifying theme, she says, is exactly the point. “If one could pinpoint that exactly, they’d bottle it and put it on the shelf,” says Paulson. “What separates Ryan from everyone else is he can admire a beautiful stone or a rock in the ground, but he’s always interested in picking it up and looking at what’s underneath it. He’s not interested in the surface of things.”
Asked which of his series he’s proudest of, Murphy picks four that he considers “game-changers,” projects that were thought impossible, but he turned them into hits: “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “Pose” and HBO’s “The Normal Heart” adaptation, which spent 30 years in development hell.
There’s no singular secret of his success — beyond perhaps his confidence. Every triumph, he says, started off as a no — but he refused to take that negativity as an answer. “I just had this resolve I was blessed with,” he says.
He credits the support of “brave” executives including Landgraf and Fox CEO Dana Walden with believing in his passion, and banking on it.
They, in turn, credit him with inspiring them. “His extraordinary batting average and success has helped inspire my own confidence and willingness to bet wholeheartedly on gifted storytellers,” says Landgraf. “That, I think, is reflected in many of our shows that are not Ryan Murphy shows that have been made during the time that I’ve been at FX.”
Working by his side since her days as an assistant on “Running With Scissors,” Alexis Martin Woodall — now an executive producer for his shingle — has had a front-row seat to his relentless drive.
“The most important thing that I’ve learned from Ryan is the only way to have singular vision is to own every aspect of your vision,” she says. “You can’t equivocate. You have to be confident in your choices. You can ask for help, you can ask for advice, but you have to follow your own instincts.”
Those instincts have been deep-seated for years. “I think that despite all of the forces against him growing up, Ryan has always known who Ryan was, and it was just a matter of time of making sure everyone else knew who Ryan was,” she says. “But he never doubted himself.”
“He’s made a handful of the most defining and innovative television shows ever.”
Murphy has become a regular fixture at awards shows, earning countless trophies including six Emmy Awards, but as someone who grew up loving show business, he confesses it’s incredibly meaningful to him to have that success cemented with a star.
One of the first things the Indiana native did when he moved to L.A. in 1989 was visit the Walk of Fame. “I went to look at all of my favorite stars,” he recalls. “I never imagined I would have one.”
His advice to those coming up behind him: Be bold. “The only thing worth making is something that feels scary to you,” he says. “Sometimes I’ve tried that and failed, but most of the time, it’s worked.”
Murphy credits the rise in premium cable and streaming with opening up creative opportunities beyond tales about straight white men. “There’s such a hunger for content that the streamers and premium cable outlets are willing to take chances on things that they maybe wouldn’t have before,” he says. “You can be a niche show, writing about niche things, and be a mainstream success in a way that you couldn’t be before.”
With his legacy long-assured, Murphy says he’s now modeling his career on Norman Lear, who used his fame to champion causes he believed in.
“He picked people and communities that were neglected and underrepresented, and he used his power to get those stories on the air,” he says.
Murphy’s following his lead: just as he did when he plucked out the spec script by Ian Brennan to create “Glee,” he put his considerable weight behind Steven Canals’ script for “Pose.”
“I want to bring up a new group of people who are not like me, who have different stories to tell, and give them power and financial equity,” says Murphy, pointing to the creative team behind “Pose,” including along with Canals, writers Janet Mock and Our Lady J.
That’s also the drive for his Half Foundation, which he launched in 2016 — well before the Time’s Up movement exploded — to create more opportunities behind the camera for women and people of color.
|Ryan Murphy, left, adapted Augusten Burroughs’ “Running With Scissors” for the big screen in 2006.|
“It’s not a strategy, it’s just smart business sense,” he says. “Now when you walk into a room and it’s all men, it feels weird.”
Those are the projects he’ll be looking to support at Netflix, an industry-shaking move he made for the opportunity to branch out — on his agenda are documentaries, music specials, all under one banner. His slate is already jam-packed with six series and two films in development, but he’s not afraid of taking on more. “Netflix and I are in the volume business,” he says. “And they’re going to be looking for me to do bigger, better, bolder storytelling.”
And, he admits, he’s also looking forward to being free of the daily ratings report card. “The weekly report card is crazy, because it’s not accurate. It’s not a metric of the true audience of a show,” he says. “People like to watch things in their own way; they don’t want to be told to watch it right now.”
He’s also set a goal at the streamer of continuing to work with not just his frequent collaborators such as Paulson and Evan Peters, but bringing other A-list names into his tent. His unrivaled powers for securing talent have brought stars including Lady Gaga, Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett all to the small screen, to name but a few.
At the top of his list: Barbra Streisand. “I’m optimistic that will happen in some capacity,” he says. Then there are Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Hugh Jackman and “Meryl [Streep], of course, obviously.”
They’d be wise to agree, believes Paulson. “I’m not a fool,” she says. “I know how rare and special it is to work with someone who truly sees you. He sees things in you that you don’t even know you’re capable of. I would be an absolute nut-job to not answer his call every time.”
And he’s always full of surprises. “You can get a script and think it’s one thing, and by the time you get to page 25 you go, ‘I’m a man?’” she jokes. “You just never know.”
All eyes will indeed be on Murphy as his new slate unfolds. “He will be involved in some things during his new deal that will surprise me,” says Landgraf, “but I will tell you that I will be paying attention.”
His ambition may not stop here. “I always wanted to drive into Ryan Murphy studios, with a big archway like at Paramount,” says Paulson. “But it would say Ryan Murphy.”
For now, a star will have to suffice. But knowing Murphy, not for long.
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