There I was chitchatting on the phone with the subject of Who What Wear’s May cover, Laura Harrier, about the hobbies we’ve picked up to keep busy—these normally mundane things—as if she and I were a pair of idle retirees catching up over afternoon cocktails. “I have a pottery wheel that I rented from my ceramics studio, so I’ve been trying to get back into that,” she offered when I asked about what has been filling her days. When we spoke, Harrier had been holed up in her L.A. home, like most of the country, for weeks, spending her days crafting little clay bowls by hand like she’s done on and off since high school and playing with her newly adopted puppy, whose eager barks peppered the background of our conversation.
While many of us have wiped our calendars clean and are staying inside, we’ve been pushed to look deeper and get to know ourselves a bit better. What are my interests? Who am I without a relentless schedule of travel, plans, projects, and distractions pushing me forward? Well, it turns out, pandemic or not, Harrier thrives in front of a camera. Her DIY Zoom photo shoot with us is proof enough.
Photo:Laura Harrier; Styling: Solace London Finley Ruffled Mini Dress ($491)
Under normal circumstances, I would have sat down with Harrier at her cover shoot to learn about her latest projects. I might be describing her in-person mannerisms or dropping a mention of what she was wearing (something only she could pull off, no doubt). But even through the phone lines, I could tell that there is an air of glamour about her. Or so I imagine. There is, at the very least, something poised about the way she articulates herself, and several times, I found myself transposing her voice onto the image of Camille Washington, the aspiring actress Harrier plays in the latest Netflix miniseries, Hollywood, which is set in the post-WWII golden era of movie-making. Suddenly, it was Washington I was listening to with her ’40s-style pin curls, pout of red lipstick, and opera gloves.
Harrier is the spitting image of a modern-Hollywood icon. With her soulful brown eyes and regal 5’9” frame, it’s almost as if she stepped right out of a black-and-white picture and into the present day, a comparison she readily offered. “I relate to Camille on a lot of levels,” she told me, calling attention to the elements of her experience as an emerging actress that parallel what her character went through, be it the curious way she landed the role (more on that soon) or something as big as race and representation in Hollywood. “Had I been born 80 years earlier,” she continued, this time with more urgency, “my life could have been very similar to hers. Obviously, we’re from different places and times—she grew up in coal country in the Depression, and I grew up in suburban Chicago—but I feel really connected with her, her drive, and her wish to be representative of women that she feels she never saw enough of on screen growing up, or, in her case, saw any of on screen.”
The comparison goes even further, extending to how Harrier landed the Hollywood role in the first place, which she cheekily recalled “is a very Hollywood story.” About a year ago, she auditioned for this mysteriously vague role—“It just said ‘Untitled: Old Hollywood project’ or something like that”—and never heard back, chalking it up to another role she just didn’t get. Months had passed and she simply forgot about it when an equally cryptic call came through saying that Ryan Murphy wanted to meet and that she was to go in for a chemistry read with him and would-be co-star Darren Criss—the next day. “It just felt so random,” she mused wondrously, giddy to retell the story to me. “But it went well, I guess, because the next day, I got a phone call offering me the role of Camille.”
Photo:Laura Harrier; Styling: Jacquemus La Robe Valoria Dress
Throughout our conversation, what surprised me the most talking to Harrier was how grateful she seems to be for the position she’s in. It was almost as though I was catching up with her in the wake of her first breakout role and not, say, three years later after she’s added two feature films (Spider-Man: Homecoming and Blackkklansman), contracts with Bulgari and Louis Vuitton, numerous magazine covers, and now this starring role in a Ryan Murphy series to her résumé. Words like “honored,” “surreal,” and “wild” floated easily between us, making it all the more difficult for my Friday-afternoon brain to distinguish the difference between Laura Harrier and Camille Washington.
“I honestly never thought that I could be playing a ’40s movie star, because they didn’t really look like me,” Harrier’s voice cut through my reverie, bringing me back to the present moment. She called out one of the distinguishing factors between her life and Washington’s, the detail that made it impossible to suspend my disbelief any further. For all the barriers her character breaks down in the show and all the firsts she logs, we know that being a black actress in Hollywood at that time was a very different story. “So that’s why I think this show is so cool,” she beamed, “because we’re sort of asking the question: What if a black woman in the ’40s had been able to be the biggest star? And how would the world look now?”
When she was growing up in the ’90s, Halle Berry and Jada Pinkett Smith were some of the first screen stars Harrier felt she could really look up to, but she said that “it was still clear that representation as a black woman in Hollywood was lacking.” She’d argue that her acting career alone is proof of larger shifts afoot. “I think people have really been pigeonholed into the types of roles they’re allowed, or presented, to play,” she told me. “And I hope that’s changing now. I feel like it is changing now, given the fact that I can play an Old Hollywood movie star or the love interest in a Spider-Man movie.”
Photo:Laura Harrier; Styling: Callipygian top and pants
Before ultimately getting to where she is now, Harrier grew up in the midwest and then spent years in New York working as a fashion model, all the while rushing out of jobs to attend acting classes. Her buoyant demeanor and graceful charisma would lead us to believe that she simply clicked her heels and stepped into the spotlight. But when you’re at the point Harrier is in her trajectory where you’re working one-on-one with a stylist and regularly wearing custom Nicolas Ghesquière gowns on the red carpet and you still refer to these markers of status with the level of humility that Harrier does, it paints a different picture. “It’s still very surreal to me that he makes clothes custom just for me. It’s really wild.” As for her stylist, she’s worked with Danielle Goldberg pretty much from the start, and “funnily enough,” she explained, “we met years ago when I was a model. I would be leaving a photo shoot where she was the stylist to go to acting class, and I remember joking with her like, ‘Oh, maybe one day I’ll be an actress, and you can be my stylist,’ and she was like, ‘Yeah, okay.’” Like many parts of Harrier’s charmed story, “it feels very serendipitous.”
Cut back to the present where Harrier teamed up with Goldberg to execute the photo shoot for our cover story—on Zoom. Like the charming ingénue she is, the actress saw an opportunity to get creative and ran with it, wearing the most exhilarating pieces in her enviable wardrobe and giving the humble video-conferencing app what’s maybe the best performance it’s ever seen. Harrier is, after all, a former model and Louis Vuitton girl, so let’s just say she knows her angles. “I wanted to, in some way, comment on what’s going on, and I just got the idea that maybe it’s a Zoom call because I feel like all of us are existing online these days. We’re all dressed up with nowhere to go in our houses.”
If anyone knows what it’s like for your social life to be relegated to a computer screen, it’s Harrier. Just as this new normal was setting in, the actress celebrated her 30th birthday with a group of her closest friends through a webcam. “The dress code was black-tie,” she told me, and to her delight, everyone took it seriously. “Most of the guys definitely had a suit and tie on top and sweatpants (or no pants) on bottom,” she laughed, “but I put on a dress and tried to feel cute.” You might recognize that dress as the concoction of red and fuchsia satin ruffles you see here. “Oh, that was my birthday dress!” she proclaimed, her excitement bubbling over. “I ordered that for my birthday, and we ended up wearing it in the shoot.”
Photo:Laura Harrier; Styling: Area Crystal Trim Mini Dress ($421)
It crossed my mind that the Solace London number might seem ridiculous at a time when grocery stores are selling out of toilet paper. But then I looked down at my own amalgamation of track pants and tube socks and realized that she might be on to something. If I’m being honest with myself, I have felt my sense of style slipping through my fingers. “At least for me, it gets taxing,” she explained. Even though I knew she couldn’t see me through the phone, I found myself nodding along. “There’s so much that’s outside of our control right now, but putting myself together, even a tiny bit, has helped.”
The lesson I took away from my conversation with Laura Harrier? Indulging in a little escapism, be it through watching a period drama like Hollywood, getting your hands dirty in an art project, or dressing up in something that’s a touch more flamboyant than is necessary is a great way to spark joy during an uncertain moment. Getting all dressed up with nowhere to go may not be as silly a cliché as we once thought.
Creative Consulting/Stylist: Danielle Goldberg
Watch Laura Harrier in Hollywood on Netflix May 1.