In Angelyne, Emmy Rossum transforms into the woman behind the iconic billboards plastered all over Los Angeles in the 1980s — yards-high renderings of a perfectly coiffed blonde with larger-than-life proportions and a knowing smile. The series delves into the background and psyche of the true life Angelyne, whose personal history is still relatively unknown, despite a 2017 Hollywood Reporter article that attempted to blow the lid off her story (and that prompted the creation of the series itself).
In addition to its themes of gender roles, fame, the weaponization of sex, and striving for the Hollywood version of the American dream, Angelyne is also a meditation on identity itself. The series sees Rossum play a current-day version of Angelyne, telling her story, mockumentary style, with many flashbacks, retellings, and trippy, surrealist scenes sprinkled in between chronologically ordered facts. The setup challenges the viewer to think about the limits of a biopic, and to question whether you can ever truly tell someone else’s story (according to Rossum, you can’t).
“This is more of an examination of fame — it's an examination of all the people throughout the last couple decades that have attempted to tell Angelyne’s story, and us pointing the finger back on ourselves,” Rossum told NYLON ahead of the series premiere. Though Angelyne signed over the rights to her story to Peacock and met with Rossum while the series was being made, in subsequent interviews (that happened after this one was completed), the 71-year-old expressed her disapproval with how it all turned out.
When reached for comment, Rossum’s rep provided NYLON a statement by Peacock and Universal Content Productions: “This series has embraced the legend and legacy of Angelyne from its inception. There have been no bigger advocates for celebrating her than Emmy Rossum and the producing team, who approached the storytelling with love, admiration and respect. We were happy to have Angelyne on board during the creative process and are very proud of this show.”
Read on for NYLON’s chat with Rossum about Angelyne’s impact on modern day influencers, social media, and the power of prosthetics.
How did this story come about?
The idea to make a show about Angelyne feels like it's been percolating within me probably since I was 13 years old, when I first saw one of her billboards. It struck me so intensely and and I was magnetically drawn to the power of her image. And then hearing all of the fantastical and contradictory stories about her that builds this myth around her that's so much bigger than even just a person. She's a mythological figure in Los Angeles. It percolated in my brain for a long time until the story in the Hollywood Reporter [about her identity] broke in 2017 and added new depth and intrigue to the mystery of Angelyne. That's when I had the idea to make a show about all of the many conflicting narratives that go into building this icon. I decided to option the article and started working on developing and pitching the idea.
I really had a lot of skin in this game. I did a shoot that I funded of me in character to sell the idea initially as a phase one. Because the idea of raising your hand and saying, yeah, I'm going to play somebody that looks so completely different than me, and is different than me and convincing people that that's possible took a lot of work. It was something that I was very passionate about and ultimately got to do, which is the actor's dream and so rarely, rarely happens, and took a better part of four and a half years.
I’ve read a bit about you meeting Angelyne and of her giving her blessing for the project. What was her involvement with this story?
Well, Angelyne is a rebel and she does things according to what feels right to her. After meeting with me and our director and our writers, she agreed to allow us to use her trademarks and recreate her songs and her iconic images and her life rights. It was really, really important to me that she be paid for her contributions to the show; she's been such a rich part of pop culture for so many decades, and has really paved the way for everyone that inspired by her came after her. There were also things that she was very specific that she wanted not in the story, and we stayed away from those areas out of respect, of course. There were names and dates, specifically, she wanted changed. And we also respected that. But I think she gave us a lot of freedom in telling the story, because although she did tell me anecdotes and tell me some stories, she really wanted us to be able to tell the story of the icon Angelyne.
Only Angelyne can tell her story. And in that way, this is more of an examination of fame ... it's an examination of all the people throughout the last couple decades that have attempted to tell her story, and us pointing the finger back on ourselves. Ultimately, you can never tell anyone else's story, and that's the ultimate failure of most straight up the middle biopics, which is why we really wanted to have a very unconventional approach to our storytelling and have moments that are really, really fantastical and bizarre, which play with control of story.
In the series, the character of Angelyne seems very aware of her impact — in the first episode, Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton are mentioned in reference to her being the blueprint for that kind of fame. Do you think she realizes or thinks about what an influence she's been on pop culture?
Yes, but I think what's very different about her, is there is an effort to preserve mystery, to not tell the whole story. She goes out of her way not to change things that are incorrect about her, because she smartly realizes that fuels intrigue and mystery and that she's an enigma. I mean, ultimately I think social media stars of today let you peek behind the curtain at the Wizard of Oz. We're in their homes, we're in their pantries, we're at their doctor's appointments. And ultimately, Angelyne does not give us information like that, and does not want to be reduced to facts because ultimately she's preserving the mystery and that sense of fantasy for the audience. And in that way, there isn't one story and she can really exist as an icon.
When you don't know all of the itty-bitty specifics about her, you can be inspired and have her image speak to you on a personal level as the viewer and that can be different for each person. In the way that Marilyn Monroe and Bette Davis and Grace Kelly, and those people had enigma, mystery, and distance, but still a fascination and a warmth from the public. I think she has created the camp performance art version of that. And in that way, she may know that the women that have come after her who also drive pink cars, who also court attention, who also want the love of the world, and are hyper feminine and sex goddesses, if you will, that they came after her and might have taken tips from her. But I think she's probably more akin to performance art and that level of mystery is very important. And I think that's really what sets her apart.
Angelyne’sa sex symbol, but in the series we never see her having sex, despite all of the men around her trying. Was that an intentional choice?
Very much. I think that Angelyne is somebody who, especially at that time, when she at first rose to power, the patriarchy was firmly in place in a way even more than today. And I think that she knew people would underestimate her based on how she presents. All I can say is that when I first put on the body, the way that it felt to me was like my femininity was weaponized. That I could no longer be vulnerable anymore. That you're almost so much woman, that it's intimidating, in a way. She talks about idolizing the Barbie doll, that there is a superhero-sized proportion of femininity that almost renders you invulnerable. And I think that level of control over her body and her image, although I do assume that Angelyne has had personal intimate moments, that ultimately is not what we were interested in showing. We were interested in showing her control over her story and her narrative.
It was interesting because the first time I put on the prosthetics, I walked across the Universal lot. And I've had people stare at me before because I've been in films and TV for, I suppose, 20 years now, but the way in which I was received in that body, with that hair, in that costume, with those proportions, it was unlike any stares I had ever gotten before. And it was really empowering and it almost felt like a shield, like a Superman cape in a way. I imagine for somebody that can be very empowering.
There’s a line about her being a pink Rorschach test, it might be hard to sum up at this point, but I'm curious what you personally see when you look at the Rorschach? What do you see when you look at Angelyne having been so close to her and the project?
I suppose I see a true artist. I see someone who's taken their life and made absolutely the most of it, who is an inspiration to a lot of different communities. She's a gay icon. She is an old Hollywood throwback. She's a savvy business woman. It's not for me to determine exactly what the one instance, if there even was one, of sorrow that she often alludes to, because I don't think that any human being can be summed up with one sorrow or trauma. I think that she has risen from that. And I think she has squeezed every ounce of juice out of life. And I think she has devoted her life to performance art. And I think she's a survivor.
She describes it as survival. And so surviving from what I don't want to say, only she can say that for herself, although we posit a lot of theories. I think, for me, one of the most poignant aspects of the story was the connection to, or I should say that connection to pain in your past. I think that we all have sorrow and immense loss and things that make us afraid. And I think ultimately the refusal to be dominated by that, to be defined by that, and to make your own rules about life and make your life what you want it, that is true survival and that is true success. And in that way, I think, something that feels so niche and culty could feel so incredibly universal. I think that's why she touches so many people.
With a Barbie movie and a new Marilyn Monroe biopic coming out, it feels like we're revisiting this American archetype at this moment. And in the series, there's a comment that LA needed Angelyne when she came out because of how things were in the city at the time. Do you see any parallels or have any thoughts on why this is such a potent topic for us right now?
Well, specifically with our culture right now and with our show, I think about the power of an image. I think about social media and how we put images out that are filtered and curated, hyper-curated. What we're looking for is somebody to double tap, and when they double tap they put a heart on it, and that heart means love. And so we are constantly receiving or not receiving love or a representation of love for an image that has been curated. I think there is a danger in that. I think that when you think about the statistics of teens or even younger people, that are putting images on social media that are already doctored at such a young age, I think, that scares me. That scares me for how we metabolize and need love and approval based on an image that has been so carefully selected. I think about fame and how fame is in our country potentially the most powerful currency and how addictive that can be.
And I think we're also looking at a moment where we're examining identity and broadening our understanding of that, thinking about who gets the right to define identity. Are you [inaudible 00:18:14] information of historical facts about your life, or do you get to define that for yourself? And I think that Angelyne is really an investigation of all those things more than it is at all a biopic.
How do you feel about how the way things turned out for Angelyne?
I think she's on a rocket ship. I hope this takes her national and global. I really do. I think that what she represents and who she is is really powerful. And I hope that it adds to the echo of her power.
Angelyne is now streaming on Peacock.