By Crystal Bell
No one is perfect, but David Corenswet comes close. Of course, the 26-year-old balks at such a suggestion (he’s humble, too!) but the facts speak for themselves. While he was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia-born actor auditioned for the drama division at Juilliard; he graduated from the famed performing arts conservatory in 2016. (“We’re 98 percent sure that I did in fact go and graduate from Juilliard,” he jokes.) He’s also a self-proclaimed Star Wars nerd who started his own a cappella group in high school with his three best friends. “We were briefly called Three Card Monte, and then we added a fourth [member], and so that ruined the whole thing,” he adds. And right now he’s making pesto. The recipe was passed down from his aunt, who he only recently found out is a complete imposter.
“We just discovered over Passover that her special recipe for matzo balls, which are the greatest matzo balls you’ve ever had in your life, is actually just the recipe on the back of the Manischewitz matzo ball mix box,” he tells MTV News. “So she’s been revealed as a fraud. I don’t know which back of what box she got this amazing pesto recipe from.”
It’s this charisma that makes him such a standout on Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, a revisionist take on Tinseltown’s Golden Age in the late 1940s. Corenswet plays Jack Costello, a tall, dreamy young actor whose sincerity and crystal-blue eyes pierce through the screen, with or without Technicolor. Hollywood is Corenswet’s second Murphy project after appearing in The Politician last year. His breakthrough performance landed him a recurring role in Season 2, which recently premiered on the streamer. But Hollywood is more personal for the actor. It’s his first major executive producer credit — a testament to Murphy’s faith in him not only as an actor but also a storyteller — and it depicts a time period that Corenswet immersed himself in as a child whose only real sources of entertainment were screen legends of the 1930s and 1940s.
Speaking with MTV News, Corenswet opens up about his childhood imagination, his own Hollywood dreams, and why he’ll never say that he’s made it.
MTV News: Jack has a dream of being an actor. Was it easy to see yourself in a dreamer like him?
David Corenswet: Definitely parts of him — his dream of being an actor, his experience growing up watching movies on the big screen, and the way movies made him feel like there was meaning out there in the world that he had not found yet. That’s really central to him. And I don’t think I have quite the same connection to films as he does. But it’s hard to have the same connection to films that he does nowadays because it’s such a different experience.
For somebody in Jack’s position in the 1940s, the one movie theater in their small town was their only access to movie stars and these fantastic stories. For me, it’s a combination of two things. On the one hand, my mom and dad raised us watching a bunch of old movies. So we grew up watching the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and Singin’ in the Rain dozens of times. We liked comedies. That was all we watched. We didn’t have cable, we weren’t allowed to watch television, but we could watch those movies just about as much as we wanted to. It really narrowed the pool of other eight- and nine-year-olds who I could relate to on that level, because how many eight- or nine-year-olds were watching the Marx Brothers?
MTV News: When did you discover Star Wars?
Corenswet: I have a memory of renting the VHS tapes at Blockbuster. It was rent one, get one free for a week, and I rented Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. I would watch them back-to-back, and then when I got to the end, I would feel so emotionally connected to the characters and the world, and I would have such a feeling of wanting to live in that world, that I would go back and start the movies over again right then. And that really connected with my imaginary use of play, especially as a young kid. I spent a lot of time by myself in my basement pretending to be a Jedi. That really drew me. I started acting orthogonally to that.
MTV News: So you didn’t grow up with the dream of wanting to become an actor. It was more that you just loved immersing yourself in stories.
Corenswet: I didn’t have a dream of being an actor, even though my dad was a theater actor for many years. When I auditioned for my first play in Philadelphia when I was nine, he knew the territory a little bit. He understood the culture and the logistics of it. But the meeting of those two things was this very practical thing. I wanted to spend as much time around the world of Star Wars, or other worlds that I loved — James Bond, Indiana Jones. I wanted to be as close to that as much of the time as I could be. So I started putting all these hours in as a young actor in Philadelphia, and then doing musicals at my school. It all eventually merged into this thing of, I guess I should keep pursuing this because I have some experience in it, and I’ve built up some momentum in it, and I also really love movies and love watching them. And it turns out — I didn’t discover this until I was maybe a freshman in college — I love making movies, every aspect of it.
I love the cinematography aspect, I love sound recording, I love the art director who’s in charge of everything, making sure everything runs on time. It all converged on this strange path of being an actor and, hopefully, at some point, a director. I did get to be an executive producer on Hollywood, but hopefully at some point, [I] will be playing a bigger role than just an actor in fun, big worlds, like the ones that Ryan Murphy creates.
MTV News: I saw that you recently directed a music video.
Corenswet: That’s been super fun, because that’s very easy to do without any help. It’s hard to make a narrative film without other people doing other jobs, but music videos can be kind of catch-as-catch-can. I have a couple of friends who make music that I really, really like, and so I get to practice with my camera and practice my editing, and they get a music video out of it.
MTV News: A lot of filmmakers cut their teeth directing music videos. Paul Thomas Anderson is still directing Haim videos.
Corenswet: Right, yeah. All you have to do is do it with an eye towards story. And there are so many parallels and so many skills that translate to the big screen.
MTV News: Every character on this show wants to make it in Hollywood. That doesn’t sound so much like your dream, or that was never really your dream to begin with. But you are booking notable roles, and your career is on the ascent. So what is your dream? What do you want to do with this career you’re making for yourself?
Corenswet: The dream is to make movies and tell stories with the myriad of interesting and talented people who I have crossed paths with along the way. One of the reasons I love making movies — and it’s true in the theater as well, but I think it’s truer of film and television — there are so many people who are so good at their one job, but the other thing they have to be really good at is interfacing with the other people who are really good at their jobs.
On a film set, you have somewhere between 50 and 75 people who are all oriented toward the same goal but have totally separate, individual jobs to do. And even just watching that network of skill and vision come together and intersect at the single point of roll cameras, action, there’s just something completely magical and very human about that.
So my dream is to do that with my friends. Most of my friends are not famous, and I feel like I have discovered an awesome little secret in the fact that I think they’re all genius. And I think the ideas that they have, and the stories they would tell, would be different and great and important. A lot of those people I met at Julliard. Spending four years, hours and hours and hours and hours and hours with the same people, you really get to know them. You really get to know all of the crazy, silly, and amazing thoughts they have as artists and as storytellers. There’s no substitute for shared history when it comes to collaborative art and creative pursuits, to be able to go deeper and farther in projects like that.
MTV News: And that’s so much a part of Hollywood, and what the show is about. Jack finds a support system in people like Archie and Avis, but also a creative, collaborative team. How important is having a support system for you?
Corenswet: It’s the ultimate thing. It’s more important than having any one success. Definitely more important than awards or even acclaim. Obviously, there’s the desire for the people at large to appreciate your work, but that’s very difficult to control. And I’m weird enough to have no confidence that anybody else thinks that my ideas are interesting or cool. So what’s really important is finding the people who you can work with and working towards making stuff that they get and appreciate and want to be a part of, because that is sustainable over time. That’s an achievable goal. Whereas, making a brilliant film that thousands, millions of people love, I just don’t know how you do that.
MTV News: Ryan Murphy is pretty great at fostering creative partnerships. Your breakout role was in The Politician. For someone who isn’t so interested in the idea of fame, what made you want to jump into not one but two Ryan Murphy universes?
Corenswet: I mean, when you’re an unemployed actor, and somebody like Ryan wants to work with you, you don’t say no. I auditioned for The Politician out of nowhere. I auditioned with the casting director, Alexa Fogel, who I had gone in for many times before. Actually, I auditioned for two different roles in The Politician, and River had a couple of things about him, or the role required a couple of things — specifically, a certain stillness and quietness — that happened to be acting challenges for me. When I was in school, I had a moment where I was doing a play, and I realized that I didn’t know how to stand still. I always felt awkward not doing something, or I felt like I needed to put my hands in my pockets or something. I had spent several years trying to figure out how to not do that.
So to arrive at a role like River, which really required that, and to work with Ryan… and then when he brought me into Hollywood and said, “I want to take the next step and have you as a bigger part, and start with you and then build the cast around this central group.” It’s pretty incredible to have somebody, as an actor who’s always, for the most part, hired based on your look and your skill, to have somebody say, “I like how you work as well.” That’s always the best reason to get hired.
MTV News: And it was a world you were already familiar with.
Corenswet: Yes, and the fact that he wanted me to do this particular time period and world, which was the time period, the dialogue, the clothes and, and flare that was central to the only movies I watched growing up. The way a man handles his hat is very important to me because I’ve seen so many men in the ’40s handle their hats, that I know the difference between somebody who actually is doing it and an actor who has been handed a hat for the first time in their whole life. So to get the opportunity to put that to use, it was pretty incredible that he saw through me and saw that in me.
MTV News: Why was it so important for you to be an executive producer as well?
Corenswet: One of the things that’s unique and wonderful about Ryan is his belief in actors, and his desire to empower them and also to let them loose and bring what they have to bring to their roles. So it was important to me, because I wanted to be of as much use as I could be. And actors, even when they’re brilliant, are only made use of in a tiny little sliver of that huge process that I was describing earlier. But I love getting to be involved in all of the things that lead up to that moment of roll cameras, action, and what happens afterwards to make this little novella. And on set and in the development of it, to be able to be an extra set of eyes, looking out for things, was nice. I feel they made good use of me.
MTV News: Jack goes to great lengths to make his dreams a reality. What lengths have you gone to in your career to make stuff happen?
Corenswet: The most that I have done is bother, although you could say bully, people into either helping me with my projects or letting me help them with theirs. Most of the work that I’ve done since I graduated school was independent stuff with my friends and colleagues — little shorts and web series on YouTube that are strange and watchable. And the big thing there is, everybody is very busy and, at this level, nobody’s getting paid for what they’re doing. So to convince your friends to show up on their day off and sit with you as you yell at each other about whether this is funny or that is funny, or whether we’re going to be able to shoot in this friend’s apartment or that friend’s apartment, that, surprisingly, takes a lot, both from the people who are willing to do it and the people who have to convince the other people to do it. I definitely strained a couple friendships and formed some really strong ones in that process of holding people to account and demanding that other people hold me to account.
MTV News: The show depicts this expectation versus reality of what Hollywood is like or what making it means. As a young actor having a breakthrough moment of his own, has the expectation of it matched your reality, or is it something that you never put much thought into?
Corenswet: I think about it a lot, but I don’t form expectations too much. I try to keep my expectations more of myself. I have expectations of myself for how I’m going to work, and how I’m going to comport myself, and how I’m going to show up for the people who take a chance on me and say that they want to work with me. And my expectations of everybody else is to deliver on what they say they’re going to deliver on most of the time, but not all the time, because shit happens. And so far, I’ve done a pretty good job of meeting my own expectations. Everybody can always get better, and I’m planning on it. I feel no sense of having broken through or having made it. I don’t think there is such a thing as feeling like you’ve made it or broken through. So it’s great to just feel I have all of these great models of how to be in the world that I’m, hopefully, going to be in for a little while.
MTV News: What do you hope people take away from the revisionist fantasy of Hollywood?
Corenswet: There’s a Buddhist practice called metta. It’s a loving-kindness practice. And you basically just imagine sending good vibes. You expand the feeling that you have inside of you, of compassion and wishing well for the people that you love and for yourself — and even for the people who you don’t love so much. The point of that is that the world is the way it is, and there are problems, and there are problems that need to be fixed. But it is a useful and enjoyable thing to just experience the feeling of wishing somebody well, and hoping that things go well for them, even if you can’t solve their problems or fix their situation.
A small part of living a full life is to just feel empathy and compassion and hope for people. So that’s what I’m hoping this show does: fill people with that feeling, so that they can then go back to their lives, solving the important problems that they’re solving, and dealing with the loss that they’re dealing with. Whatever their experience, they can come at it with a belly full of compassion and hope and a little bit more energy.