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Laura Harrier Wants to Tell the Truth — On and Off the Screen

By Terence Poh

On Laura Harrier: Bottega Veneta coat, shirt and pants; Lisa Eisner necklace; Khiry rings.
 
On Laura Harrier: Bottega Veneta coat, shirt and pants; Lisa Eisner necklace; Khiry rings.

In May 2020, Ryan Murphy’s miniseries, “Hollywood,” premiered on Netflix, starring the American actress Laura Harrier. Playing Camille Washington, Harrier manifests on screen a familiar picture, set in the 1940s, of women of colour in the film industry: a Black Hollywood starlet frequently typecast in supporting, comic-relief roles in white-led films. Yet Camille eventually scores the lead role for a film written by a Black screenwriter, produced by a major Hollywood studio.

Among the unfulfilled ambitions that Murphy explored and reimagined in his alt-history period series is an industry-wide undermining of the black community’s successes in film. The character of Camille — based on the true story of the Oscar-nominated actress Dorothy Dandridge, a bitter truth Murphy rewrote — is christened, in the finale, at the 1948 Oscars. She gains access into the theatre venue, sits front-row, and receives the award in a long, pink tulle dress — a series of events Dandridge never experienced in reality.

Bottega Veneta dress. Edas earrings.
Bottega Veneta dress. Edas earrings.

For Harrier, “Hollywood” has been a transformative experience in numerous ways. “It was really sort of this art-imitating-life scene that felt really real, true and grounded,” she says, about her on-set relationship with Queen Latifah, who plays the legendary Black actress Hattie McDaniel in the show. “It was incredible to be in the character of Camille listening to Hattie, having her give advice and share her experiences in Hollywood and what her struggle was.” And this was a serendipitous moment for the 30-year-old actress: While Camille learns from a veteran African-American actress how she collected her “Gone With the Wind” Oscar in a segregated hotel, Latifah tells Harrier on set about her own wide-ranging, real experiences in the industry. Speaking with Queen Latifah as someone who grew up watching and looking up to her is one of those pivotal moments for the young actress, who had just experienced her acting breakthrough in 2017.

On the set of T Singapore’s October issue cover shoot, the actress Laura Harrier talks about working on the set of “Hollywood” and the transformative power of the show’s period garments.

 
Bottega Veneta shirt, pants and boots. Lisa Eisner necklace. Khiry ring.
Bottega Veneta shirt, pants and boots. Lisa Eisner necklace. Khiry ring.

The show also allowed Harrier to slip into period garments — and slip into her character, one of a bygone persona. She reveals, “As soon as I put on the red lipstick, the perfectly curled hair, a pencil skirt... and I would have stockings, a garter, and all these things that put you right in the state of mind and change how you walk or carry yourself. It completely informed that character and helped me so much in finding who Camille was — because I felt completely different than what I would roll up to set that morning, in sweatpants and a hoodie.” The costumes, a collaborative effort led by the costume designer in dialogue with the director and actors, together with set design and styling, recreate and allow the show to right, if only onscreen, a history of blatant injustice.

Louis Vuitton top, pants and boots. Khiry ring.
Louis Vuitton top, pants and boots. Khiry ring.

Born to an African-American father and a Polish-English mother, Harrier grew up in a town called Evanston, outside of Chicago, “where ‘Sixteen Candles,’ ‘The Breakfast Club’ and all of John Hughes’s movies took place,” she says. “So, it was really this sort of Americana upbringing.” Harrier loved Chicago but always dreamt of leaving, going to New York, travelling the world and having a bigger experience than what she had been born into.

“My parents were really supportive of the things that I wanted to achieve in my life, and I’m so grateful to them for that because we travelled a lot as a family, and they supported me moving to New York at a young age.” Her curious personality, which she credits to being exposed to art and different cultures from a young age, still drives her to learn about people from diverse facets of life.

Left: The Row jacket, vest and pants. Brother Vellies heels. Comme Si socks. Lisa Eisner bracelets. Right: Christopher John Rogers suit. Edas hat.
Left: The Row jacket, vest and pants. Brother Vellies heels. Comme Si socks. Lisa Eisner bracelets. Right: Christopher John Rogers suit. Edas hat.

Initially, Harrier intended to study art history at the New York University, but ended up pursuing a modelling career. Later, she departed from modelling, following appearances in big fashion editorials and campaigns, and went to drama school at the William Esper Studio. In her early acting years, Harrier, with her youthful, doe-eyed visage, was frequently pitched in and offered “stereotypical, uninteresting pretty girl roles, which was not something I was interested in pursuing,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to play characters who felt three-dimensional, well-rounded, and who have a view of the world and weren’t just there to be objectified… I said no to a lot of things because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed — into just a ‘model trying to be an actress’ role.”

In 2016, Harrier’s supporting role in the Marvel film “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017), her first major gig, was revealed along with the film’s title. Playing the love interest of Peter Parker (Tom Holland) remains the most challenging task she has undertaken as an actress so far. “Maybe just in terms of sheer terror — it was my first film and to step into my first movie as the love interest in a Marvel movie was insane and completely unexpected for me. I had just finished drama school,” she says. “I learned so much and we had such a good time all together, but I was definitely really intimidated stepping into that.”

Marc Jacobs coat, top, shorts and hat. Brother Vellies heels. Comme Si socks. Lorraine West earrings. Khiry ring.
Marc Jacobs coat, top, shorts and hat. Brother Vellies heels. Comme Si socks. Lorraine West earrings. Khiry ring.

I try to speak on my own experience, and be truthful about my own journey, what I’ve gone through and the things that I’ve learnt... And hopefully, by doing so, other people might relate and feel seen or heard.

Marc Jacobs coat, top, shorts and hat. Brother Vellies heels. Comme Si socks. Lorraine West earrings. Khiry ring.
Marc Jacobs coat, top, shorts and hat. Brother Vellies heels. Comme Si socks. Lorraine West earrings. Khiry ring.

Harrier’s approach to new projects, whether a movie or a series, is to begin with research on the characters’ origins. “I learned a lot about that from working with Spike Lee. He had me write a whole bio for my character in ‘BlacKkKlansmen’ — her whole life story, where she comes from,” she says, of her second major role portraying the civil rights activist Patrice Dumas in the 2018 film, which gained her further recognition and praise as an actress. “And I started taking that process, using it moving forward into my other projects.”

She acknowledges that watching pioneering women of colour in film continues to influence the way she navigates her career today. “Some of the actresses that inspired me the most were people that I watched growing up,” she says. “Like Halle Berry, Nia Long, Jada Pinkett and Angela Bassett. There were so few women on screen that I could connect with as a Black woman, at that time growing up in the ’90s, and they were just such strong role models… And I’m grateful because they really paved the way for me to be able to do what I’m doing now. Hopefully, I can be in their shoes one day and pave the way for other young Black girls.”

Fendi jacket. Laura Lombardi earring.
Fendi jacket. Laura Lombardi earring.

Moving into the future, Harrier is currently focussing on growing her career. “I’m so grateful to have worked so closely with Spike and would love to work with him again, or Steve McQueen, or Ava DuVernay, or Halle Berry, who just directed her first film. I’ve looked up to her for a very long time,” she says. Additionally, she’s guided by a belief that representation in all aspects in front of and behind the screen — from writers to directors to producers to studio heads — is the way forward for any lasting change in an industry that has a history of erasing accomplished people of colour from its sprawling, multi-billion-dollar economy of ancillary market campaigns, organisational unions and academy communities.

Taking an honest approach, she does her part by speaking publicly about issues of race and feminism on social media platforms. “I try to speak on my own experience, and be truthful about my own journey, what I’ve gone through and the things that I’ve learnt... And hopefully, by doing so, other people might relate and feel seen or heard,” she says. “I hope that all of these calls for greater representation, for having more people of colour in casts, crews and positions of power are seen through… They have to be at the forefront of people’s minds all the time and be constantly fought for.”

Laura Harrier fronts T’s “Independent Spirits” October 2020 issue in a Bottega Veneta coat, shirt, pants and boots. Lisa Eisner necklace. Khiry rings..
Laura Harrier fronts T’s “Independent Spirits” October 2020 issue in a Bottega Veneta coat, shirt, pants and boots. Lisa Eisner necklace. Khiry rings..
Photographs by Adrienne Raquel
Creative direction by Jack Wang
Styled by Danielle Goldberg
Hair by Nai’vasha
Makeup by Sean Harris
Producer: Tedi Tsuruda
Production: Imani Lindsey
First assistant: Aaron Morganstein
Digital tech: Phoebe Solomon
Wardrobe assistant: Zoe Heller
Set designer: Heath Mattioli
Prop assistant: Devin Tolentino