American fashion designer Halston helped define the 60s, 70s, and 80s, from creating Jacqueline Kennedy’s iconic pillbox hat for JFK’s inauguration, to dressing his Halstonettes—the actors, socialites, models, and muses who surrounded him—like Anjelica Huston, Babe Paley, and Lauren Bacall, to his nights out at Studio 54 with famous friends such as Warhol, Liza, and Bianca Jagger. At his side was fashion illustrator Joe Eula who worked as Halston’s creative director throughout the 70s.
Halston’s life and career, including his collaboration with Eula, is chronicled in the stylish new limited series Halston, executive produced by Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Christine Vachon, which launches globally on Netflix today. Scottish BAFTA-winner Ewan McGregor plays the legendary gay designer and two-time Tony-nominee David Pittu stars opposite him as Eula, bringing warmth, humour and nuance to the role.
A New York-based writer, actor, and director, Pittu received his first Tony nomination for playing Bertolt Brecht in LoveMusik directed by Hal Prince and his second for taking on multiple roles in the Mark Twain comedy, adapted by David Ives, Is He Dead? He won the St Clare Bayfield Award for his work the Public Theater’s 2009 Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night starring alongside Anne Hathaway and Audra McDonald, and the Best Ensemble Drama Desk Award for David Hare’s Stuff Happens, also at the Public. His big screen credits include Men in Black 3, Peter Jackson’s epic King Kong and John Cameron Mitchell’s queer classic Shortbus, with guest appearances on acclaimed television shows like Sex and the City, The Sopranos, The Good Wife, and Damages.
Ahead of today’s launch of Halston on Netflix, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with David Pittu about why he felt he was meant for the role, Eula’s extraordinary life and his relationship with Halston, forming a close bond with Ewan McGregor and the rest of the cast, shooting those Studio 54 scenes, and his love for the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: How aware were you of Joe Eula before you were approached about playing him and why was Halston something that you wanted to be involved in?
“The people who were involved was one draw and the part itself was another. I’d always been very much aware of Warhol and Halston. I was only a kid when that whole world was happening, but I had a brother and a cousin who were both about 10 years older than me, so I got to live vicariously through them. They brought Interview magazine into the house and so I was aware of Studio 54 and that scene. I knew who Joe Eula was, mostly because of the illustrations that he did for Liza Minnelli, but once I got to research him I thought, oh my God, I have to play this guy! He’s from Connecticut, like me, and when I was a kid I was really into visual art before I was interested in theatre. I would do caricatures of people and I always did the program art for the high school shows that I was in. Actually, I’m still a pretty good sketcher, though I would never put myself in the same realm with Joe Eula. So there were all these things that made me think, it has to be me. Then when I saw what he looked like I thought, let me grow a mustache and voila!”
As you were preparing to play him and doing research on Joe was there anything that you found to be particularly insightful?
“Everything about him was fascinating. He’s one of those people that the more you read about, the more you realize what a varied and accomplished life someone can have without necessarily becoming a big name celebrity. When he was a teenager he fought in World War II and got a bronze star. Then after the war the G.I. Bill provided a way for him to get into The Art Students League of New York and he started working almost immediately after that. His most prominent position early on was as the illustrator for the New York Herald Tribune. Eugenia Sheppard was a famous fashion columnist there and Joe would go to Paris to sketch all of the fashion shows to accompany her columns. Halston would go on buying trips for Bergdorf Goodman, so that’s how they got to know each other. Joe had a great collaboration with the photographer Milton H. Greene. He was the stylist for that very famous black and white Marilyn Monroe photoshoot where she is sitting in fishnets.”
“According to Bob Colacello in his Warhol biography, Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up, Joe Eula was famous for his parties. Anybody who was anybody was on Joe’s invitation list, like Liza and Marisa Berenson and Andy Warhol of course. There’s a really great exchange in Holy Terror where Andy says, ‘We’re going to Joe Eula’s’, and Bob, who’s younger, says to him, ‘Who’s that?’ And Andy was like, ‘Oh my God, you don’t know who Joe Eula Is?! Joe is the most famous person in New York.’ So he was this real figure in that old New York way that I don’t think exists anymore, when there was an underground culture simmering under the surface of the mainstream.”
I enjoyed the scene where Joe is talking about his Studio 54-inspired disco musical and wanting to put it on Broadway.
“Oh God yeah! That was another thing he did, yet another phase in his career. He was running a modeling agency at that point.”
Did you get to read it or hear anything from the musical?
“No, but I did speak to a guy in my neighborhood who was a hairstylist back then and someone else who lives in my apartment building who’d both had something to do with it and they told me about it. It was very short lived. If you’ve ever seen the Village People movie Can’t Stop the Music, I think that’s kind of what it was.”
In the scene where Joe is talking about the musical, Halston is pretty dismissive of it and makes Joe turn off the music, which is quite typical of Halston in that he isn’t supportive of other people around him, their friendship feels a bit one-way. Could you give us an insight into their relationship as you see it?
“I think that what started to happen with Halston, as is shown in the series, is that around that time all of his relationships were affected by his instability and his drug use. It’s not like Joe was never at Studio 54 doing coke, because he was, and I don’t want to speak for Joe but I don’t think he needed it like Halston did and he didn’t become an addict. He didn’t have what we think of as a sad ending to his life. Joe is on the record as having said that when they moved to Olympic Tower he realized that things were falling apart and saw the writing on the wall, so that’s when he got out of there. We’ve taken some dramatic liberties with the relationship in terms of their reunion. In real life I think they only had a reunion by phone with Elsa before Halston died. In the book that the series is based on, there is a scene where Joe feels bad and says to somebody, ‘Tell Halston I’m here’ and offers him an olive branch, then Halston says, ‘Tell him I don’t want anything to do with him’. In a documentary that I watched about Halston, Joe Eula always comes back to Halston’s talent and says that he had the hands of a genius. He would never take that away from Halston. I think that’s one of the things that I find so poignant about their relationship.”
“There was also a very personal connection to this world for me in that my brother died of AIDS in 1990, the same year that Halston died of AIDS. It wasn’t until I was working on this that I realized that. My brother was a great artist and I always thought he was a genius and he also had some difficulty with drugs. When someone who has that personality, where there’s this great person there but the thing they’re doing is pushing you away, that’s a really dramatic human thing that I don’t think gets portrayed very well or very often on screen. I think it’s done well in our show.”
I love the rapport between you and Ewan McGregor in the series, what was it like to create that onscreen relationship with him?
“Ewan and I immediately felt a connection to each other and really enjoyed working together and respected each other deeply as actors. It was important for me to have that connection with him and he was wonderful to create that relationship with.”
I think he’s very good in it and he’s got quite a hard task of playing someone who is projecting a persona, so he has to capture the person behind the persona at the same time.
“Yes, and that’s a really hard thing to attempt because Halston is so flamboyant and so grand and mannered, and I think Ewan found just the right balance.”
Halston refers to his design team as “merry misfits” at one point and I really enjoyed those scenes in the studio in New York and in Paris, which capture that sense of them working under pressure and trying to be creative. It feels like you all knew each other well, was there a chance for you as a cast to get to know each other before you shot some of those scenes?
“One of the best things about Daniel Minahan our director is that he really doesn’t expect you to make it out of thin air. Dan cast it really well with smart people who were going to do the research and then he did something that I’ve never experienced working in TV or film before, he managed to corral us together away from the set and that really helped. He was almost like a den mother and managed to find time for us to be together. We had cast brunches and early on we all went to Bergdorfs together and we took a Halston tour of the city, we went to his old apartment on East 63rd Street and went to where Olympic Tower was.”
“Elsa Peretti and Joe Eula used to cook these fabulous meals together, so one night Rebecca Dayan, who plays Elsa and loves to cook, made this French dish for us and we all started to find texture with each other and as a result I think we’ve really made bonds and we’re all still in touch. Ewan is very busy with Star Wars right now, but we’re all very reluctant to let these characters and these people go because I think they represent in many ways what we’re all trying to do, which is a little bit of art and some commerce to keep it going. Plus the pandemic on top of it really bonded us in another way. We were all scared and I think when actors are afraid they give better performances than when they are complacent.”
“We shot earlier last year and then when we came back in September, to be wearing masks and shields and to be sequestered away from each other and to eat all of our meals alone and to be tested every day, to be very strictly kept away from the crew, was quite draining. Usually it’s mingling around and walking by each other, and you eat your meals together, and you’re constantly talking to the other actors, so that’s another chance for real bonding between the cast. The most liberating thing was when we were actually able to take everything off and get in front of the camera and shoot. I was so glad to see everybody’s faces!”
I love the studio 54 scenes, what were they like to be a part of?
“That was amazing, those scenes were some of the most fun things to shoot. As is always the way we filmed a lot more than is actually used in the show. There were a lot of lookalike extras floating around on set like Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Jones, and Mick Jagger, but it probably would have become like Madame Tussauds if they used too much of that. But we did have a real horse to recreate that Bianca Jagger moment, and that was really camp and a lot of fun.”
When it comes to depictions of complex gay characters on screen it feels like things have evolved over the years, and in Halston there’s a good balance between portraying his work life, his personal life, and his sex life. Perhaps it comes down to having LGBTQ creators like Ryan Murphy and Christine Christine Vachon involved, and also the fact it’s streaming on Netflix rather than on network television, it doesn’t feel compromised at all.
“I wondered about that when I was watching the series and I think there’s a difference between when something is purely a writer’s choice in creating a fictional character versus when you’re trying to interpret a real life public figure who existed. Does it come under the same scrutiny? I mean, if you see somebody having sex in an alley and doing poppers and someone invented that scene, might some people then say, ‘Oh, what a horrible depiction of gay life that is’? Or in this case, are we just showing what 70s gay life may have been like? As far as Victor Hugo goes, in real life he was making paintings with Andy Warhol and cumming and peeing on them, so it could have been really raunchy.”
“I was pleased with the amount of sex that ended up being in this series and it’s suggestive. Sometimes I feel like people are so influenced by porn now that there are mainstream shows that have fucking in them for no reason. You’re like, why do I care? Is this really revealing of character? That’s what I like about the depiction of sex in this series, because there are questions raised about somebody like Halston and the sort of self-destructive nature that’s built into the kind of sex life he has with Victor. It raises questions about a person’s character. We see everything now through the lens of AIDS, but they weren’t thinking like that. Were they the true pioneers, being as liberated as they possibly could be or did they know that they were speeding up their own demise? You see Ed Austin in Halston’s life, who seems so down to earth and lovely, then this hustler shows up. Why is it that Halston prefers to pay for it? What is it that makes someone not want something genuine? Why does this start out so transactional? There’s a scene where somebody else comes up to him, and Halston’s like, ‘Are you for rent? That’s the way I like it.'”
“I’d rather not know about an actor’s personal life. I want to like them based on their personality and what I consider to be good acting. I think we are in dangerous territory right now with this kind of clinical classification of people. I find that to be the antithesis of what acting is all about because by its very basic definition it’s make-believe and if you’re going to limit that and only allow people to represent what they are in real life then that’s not art. I get it, no one should be discriminated against, but I believe everything should be based on ability. It shouldn’t be based on whether or not you’re gay. If there is a real distinct, lopsided thing where a lot of straight people tend to be cast as gay and not the same amount of gay actors are cast as straight then I think it needs to be addressed because it should work both ways. You should be able to be a blank slate as an actor, because you want to be able to be a chameleon and I think we’re losing the respect for that part of the craft. In TV everybody gets narrowed down to a type so that becomes your commodity, but I’ve always tried to fight that because my heroes are the ones whose personal lives I don’t know anything about. With someone like Meryl Streep, I vaguely know she has a family, but I haven’t seen her get interviewed that much and so every time I come to her I’m able to accept her as whatever it is she’s trying to be. I just feel like we lose that more and more all the time, especially now with social media where everybody’s advertising their private lives.”
What is your favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“I love the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, I’m a Huge Fassbinder freak. He was a very strange, sometimes cruel, but brilliant artist and his body of work, and Berlin Alexanderplatz in particular, were life-changing for me. When I discovered his work I went through through all of it. As far as gay culture goes he’s a big one for me.”
By James Kleinmann
Halston launches globally on Netflix on Friday May 14th 2021.