Pursuing Hollywood dreams means leaving behind Southern expectations

Herman Phillips IV moved from South Carolina to Los Angeles to become a production assistant at HBO. He is currently working on the shows “Insecure” and “Euphoria.”

By Virginia Phillips Blanton

The trade-offs were immense when Herman Phillips IV packed up his 2008 Honda CR-V, abandoning White Oak, South Carolina, to traverse the country, running down a dream. He traded magnolia trees for palm trees. Crockpot mac and cheese for authentic street pho. Acres of land for a rent-controlled shoebox. The boldest compromise: leaving behind the family granite business for a production assistant job at HBO.

Phillips Granite Company was established in 1933. Herman always felt pressured to take over the family business and play the role of a good, Christian, Southern gentleman. When he was 9, he told his dad he wanted to be a filmmaker.

“I had two choices. To either embrace the expectations and lie to myself and others, or leave it all behind and reinvent who I was supposed to be,” he said.

From Hunter to Herman

Dora and Herman “Grady” Phillips III have five children: Hannah Brown, Ruthie, Mary Grace, Sarah and Hunter.

Hunter started going by Herman when he was 16. “It was too much of a stereotypical Southern boy name. I realized it wouldn’t be very good branding for who I wanted to be,” he said.

The Phillips children were raised as Christians in a town of 50 people.

“Our parenting philosophy was to bring our children up in fear and admiration of the Lord,” Grady said.

“There was no part of my life untouched by religion,” Herman said. He couldn’t read “Harry Potter” because it was considered a satanic influence. Any film he watched was vetted through biblical movie reviews. Church on Sunday was like clockwork.

“I always dreaded a Sunday morning in my house,” Herman said. “I would dread the process of getting ready, putting on my tie and pushing everyone out the door. We had to drive an hour to church and an hour back. It was the most boring drive. We would listen to a sermon on the way, stay the entire service, then listen to a different sermon on the drive back.”

A passion for film

“I remember the first duck, quail and dove Hunter shot,” Grady said. “I could read that it wasn’t a passion for him like it was for me. But he enjoyed us being together. We still hunt together when he comes home.”

The one thing Herman gleefully shot as a boy was footage. He started writing little scripts when he was 7. On a personal YouTube channel, he uploaded reviews of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” His parents allowed this online presence because he spoke with a brown paper bag over his head with eye cutouts to maintain privacy. When he was 13, Dora drove him on set to be an extra in “The Hunger Games” franchise.

Going out West

The first time Herman visited California was to tour colleges. Grady and Dora accompanied him. They passed out Bibles on the street in-between tours of the University of Southern California and Loyola Marymount University. Even then, they sensed their son’s attraction to Los Angeles.

Herman’s acceptance to the University of Southern California validated every unacceptance he felt in his hometown.

“But when USC didn’t offer me any scholarships or financial aid whatsoever, everything seemed to collapse around me,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that distraught, before or since. It’s still hard to think about.”

The reality of $60,000 a year sunk in, and he enrolled in the University of South Carolina’s Honors College.

“He was very much a gentleman about it. He understood why he couldn’t go,” Dora said.

A chance encounter

Of all places, a Phillips family reunion kick-started his career momentum. It was the summer before his first semester at UofSC. He was deflated about settling in South Carolina. He had no idea his mentor was floating in the sea of nametags.

Hello My Name Is: Ben Patrick. A production sound mixer who resided in LA, Patrick connected Herman with Jim Kleverweis, a producer at HBO. Coffee and email correspondence with Kleverweis landed him a summer job working on the television series “Insecure,” directed by Issa Rae. Herman worked in LA every summer during college in some entertainment capacity.

“People have their cliques, their respective groups, their fraternities and sororities. I had never felt like I had found my people, my tribe, until I stepped on a film set,” he said. “Once I did, it washed over me ‘Oh, this is what it’s supposed to be like.’”

The City of Angels summoned him. The summer before his junior year of college, an assistant director on “Insecure” encouraged him to drop out and continue working with them. Heeding the advice, he loaded extra credit hours onto his schedule and plunged into his honors thesis, graduating a year early. His exodus from the East Coast began five days after graduation.

‘Just a bunch of weirdos’

Neighbors warned him that “traffic is going to be terrible,” and “they do it different out West.” But the difference for Herman is what drives him. Jack Kerouac-style, he sped through 10 states to his new home. The road trip was a formal education for his narrow worldview.

Los Angeles has not watered down his Southern mannerisms from sweet to unsweet tea. “Yes ma’am, no ma’am, yes sir, no sir” remain in his vernacular.

“He’s found great success in his first few years in LA, but that hasn’t changed who he is. He’s still the same old Herman,” said Matt Francis, his best friend.

A wide shot of Herman’s West Coast life doesn’t fit a single still. His White Oak routine was stagnant. Now, he facilitates physical production for the upcoming HBO series “Euphoria” with rising talent Zendaya. He just got asked back onto production for season four of “Insecure.” He grabs coffee for the directors and actors, wires mics and escorts actors to the camera. Everything is time-sensitive.

“One of the reasons he wears facial hair is to cover up the fact that he’s only 21,” Dora said. “On Monday, he had to drive 40 miles to be on location at 5 a.m. He woke up at 3:30 a.m. and got organized. Hunter is very organized. Everything is working in his favor.”

There is a familial structure on set that comforts him when he feels uprooted from his immediate family.

“We’re all just a bunch of weirdos trying to make it for ourselves,” Herman said. “We’re all here for the same reason. Because you feel like you’re contributing to something bigger than yourself. A film can change people’s lives in ways you don’t even realize. Making something beautiful is why it all works.”

Taking back the family name

Juggling a 65-hour work week, he has a standing call with his parents on Sunday afternoons, followed by another with his grandmother. This past spring, Grady and Herman went skydiving together. Herman jumped first.

“Once we were out of free fall, my tandem partner told me to look up. Hunter had jumped out first and we were the ones below him. How’d that happen,” Grady said.

The life Herman Grady Phillips IV lives isn’t guided by a predetermined headstone. “I’ve taken my family name and turned it into something totally different than what the name means in the South,” Herman said. “Even though I may not be the fourth generation Phillips making granite, I represent the fourth generation of my family as entrepreneurs.”

Etch that on his grave.

Edited by Karyn Hladik-Brown.