Filmmakers Explain Why They Were Drawn to Hollywood’s ‘Con Queen’

11 Min Read

In “Hollywood Con Queen,” director Chris Smith chronicles one of Hollywood’s most daring scams involving an imposter posing as executives from top entertainment studios to defraud aspiring performers. Based on the original reporting of entertainment journalist Scott Johnson and his book “Hollywood Con Queen: The Hunt for an Evil Genius,” the three-part Apple TV+ docuseries features first-hand accounts and insights from Johnson, private investigator Nicole Kotsianas, the alleged con artist, Hargobind Tahilramani, and his victims.

In 2018, it was revealed that an imposter posed as a number of well-known female Hollywood executives and their assistants in an attempt to lure victims to Indonesia with the promise of work. Tahilramani became something of a media sensation when it was revealed that he had posed as women such as former Sony chief Amy Pascal, Marvel Studios executive VP Victoria Alonso and Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy, and NBCUniversal Studio Group chairman and chief content officer Donna Langley to defraud unsuspecting people . film industry workers who believed they would get their big break. (Tahilramani was arrested in 2020.)

In the docuseries, Smith interviews a handful of Tahilramani’s alleged victims, one of whom lost hundreds of thousands of dollars while flying around the world “on assignment” for Amy Pascal. The agreement was that the victim would send Pascal an invoice after the ‘research trip’ had ended. Another victim in the series tells how he was pursued by Doug Liman, who would also be impersonated by Tahilramani, for a role in a film starring Tom Cruise. Tahilramani posed as Liman and instructed his victim to watch several films a day and write a character analysis for each film. The victim was also told to hire a trainer and audition for Donna Langley.

Tahilramani, who also happened to be a food influencer in London, is said to have kept this scam going for almost a decade.

Smith is no stranger to the doc of con artists. In 2022, Netflix released its docuseries “Bad Vegan,” which explored how a famous restaurateur went from queen of vegan cuisine to fame as a “vegan fugitive.” And in 2019, the streamer debuted Smith’s “Fyre” about the breakup of the Fyre music festival.

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Variety spoke with Smith and Johnson, who served as executive producers on “Hollywood Con Queen,” about why the series isn’t your average con and whether they ever felt cheated when speaking to Tahilramani.

Chris, what appealed to you about this story?

Smith: I didn’t mean to make a scam story. I tried to go in different directions, but then I had a conversation with Scott and he explained to me why this story was different and it convinced me. That took us on this multi-year journey around the world, trying to understand it all.

Scott, what made this story different from other con stories?

Johnson: A couple of things. First and foremost, it always struck me that this wasn’t really about the money. There are so many disadvantages, and as a result they are quite basic and simplistic and there really isn’t much more to them. But this one seemed from the start to be not just about the money, but about all these other things. The manipulation, the deception, the psychological complexity, the games and the gamesmanship.

I felt terrible for the victims, but I was also a little surprised that some of them who are in the industry would believe that Amy Pascal or Donna Langley would personally call them out of the blue and keep calling them. Did that surprise you?

Smith: It’s complicated. When I was an independent filmmaker who had done next to nothing and lived in the Midwest, I came home one day and got a voicemail from Michael Moore asking me to shoot his next feature film. I saw his film when I was in high school, and it felt like I was plucked from the ether… But the executives had assistants who also communicated with the victims. So it wasn’t always the studio director who made the call. There were often three-way conversations with the studio director, the assistant and the victim. As far as we know, the assistant and the studio director were the same person.

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Johnson: I think it’s tempting for a viewer to say, “Maybe this guy had a blind spot.” Or: “That would never happen to me.” But one of the things I explore in the book is how often and how often this has happened to so many people. It is truly staggering.

Why do you think the scammer mainly impersonated high-level female executives and not male executives?

Johnson: He had great admiration for these women. To him they were captains of industry. Creative, influential and powerful, they were the masterminds behind many of the films he grew up with and admired and cherished as a young person.

While watching the series, it becomes clear that the person behind the con is a sociopath who wanted to become a star or at least be part of Hollywood. Did you ever have any reservations about realizing his dream by making him the star of this series?

Smith: Considering the psychological toll these victims felt, it felt like their stories were worth telling. It also felt like it was worth it to give (Tahilramani) the opportunity to represent himself, which we did. The bigger picture of these types of stories, which I think is true of most scams and con stories that come up, is that they are educational for people. This scam lasted almost ten years and involved hundreds of victims. If this information doesn’t reach the public or if people aren’t informed about these kinds of things, these kinds of harms can be perpetuated. While counter-narratives have received a lot of attention, I think they serve a valuable function in that they help educate people so that people might think twice when presented with an opportunity that may seem too good to be true. With everything happening with AI and technological advancements, this story almost feels foreign. So for those reasons, it made sense for us to make this film.

Have you approached executives like Amy Pascal for an interview?

Smith: When I first talked to Scott about this, I remember thinking internally before we talked that if his intention was to interview all the people who were being impersonated, then that wasn’t interesting to me because they wouldn’t have anything to do with had to do with the scam. They themselves were only victims. Their story was pretty clear to me. I was much more interested in the people who had gone to Indonesia and had these experiences that we learned about while making the series. That and the people committing the scams were the two things that were most interesting to me. I was pleased when Scott and I talked that he seemed to share a similar perspective.

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Do you think Hargobind Tahilramani was the only person involved in this elaborate scam?

Johnson: Based on everything we know, years of reporting and our best efforts to get to the bottom of it, it was essentially one person. There were people on site who participated in a limited way as drivers or whatever. We never found any evidence of an organization.

You talked to Tahilramani a lot throughout the Doctor. He called you at all hours of the day. Did you ever feel like he was trying to scam you?

Smith: No. I don’t feel like this person did things that weren’t calculated. So I think a decision was made to communicate with us, and I don’t quite know what the motivation behind that was because there’s no way to know. But for me, that’s just something that’s intriguing and interesting about the film. My favorite documentaries are the ones where the ending feels convincing, but still leaves you with a lot to think about, talk about, and discuss. I definitely think this movie falls into that category.

Chris, in addition to ‘Hollywood Con Queen’ you also directed ‘Devo’, a documentary about the New Wave band of the same name. The film premiered at Sundance in January. Have you found a distributor?

Smith: No. It seems like everything is moving a little slower than a few years ago, but no, it hasn’t found a home yet.

“Hollywood Con Queen” begins streaming May 8 on AppleTV+.

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