Four of the stars of Ryan Murphy's stylish drama, set in New York's '80s ballroom scene and featuring five transgender actresses as series regulars, reveal what it's like to be part of the groundbreaking series.
Ryan Murphy and FX made history when they put together the team behind Pose, the cable network's drama about New York's ballroom culture in the 1980s. The prolific creator employed an exceptional amount of LGBTQ talent both behind and in front of the camera, including five transgender women of color in series regular roles — an unprecedented number for a scripted show.
Mj Rodriguez — who shines bright as Pose's central character, the nurturing Blanca Rodriguez — tells The Hollywood Reporter why her role in the acclaimed series feels particularly meaningful.
"There's been such an influx of love because of Pose. A lot of kids tell me that Blanca reminds them of their own mothers. Or they tell me that their parents didn't accept them when they came out as gay or trans, and that watching this show helped their families come around," she says. "Those stories make my heart swell. I've always wanted to be a voice for my community and now that I have the opportunity, it's hard to explain just how amazing it feels."
Read on for more from the show's cast.
Pose's significance in 2018's political climate, marked by the government's repeated attacks on trans citizens, is not lost on its leading lady, Rodriguez. "This show feels like a form of activism," says the star, whose "supportive and loving" mother inspired her portrayal of Blanca, a trans house mother silently living with HIV while looking after LGBTQ youth rejected by their families. Season one explores the juxtaposition between the late-'80s LGBTQ ballroom scene and the rise of the luxury Trump-era universe, highlighting discrimination against gay and trans folk amid the HIV/AIDS crisis.
"Our community has made great strides through our own advocacy and hard work over the years," the 27-year-old notes. "But the show comes at a time where the stakes are high again and our rights are at risk." After a signed ban on trans people serving in the U.S. military, a leaked memo showed that President Donald Trump is threatening to define gender legally as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth. "That broke my heart," says Rodriguez. "But Pose gives me hope that we can change people's hearts and minds." Through its "fair and accurate" depictions of LGBTQ lives, Rodriguez believes Pose has the power to trigger empathy. "At the end of the day, we're all human."
Though Moore says now that she "couldn't love Angel more," she was initially hesitant about slipping into her character's faux furs and stilettos. Having already played a trans sex worker in 2017's musical fantasy film Saturday Church, Moore thought she might be perpetuating an "unfortunate stereotype" by taking on the role of Pose's resident call girl turned peep show performer.
"I have to be honest. I was nervous," Moore says, noting that trans actresses are frequently relegated to prostitution storylines in Hollywood. "I grew tired of seeing trans women sexualized and demonized." But, after recalling her own experience being "forced to participate" in sex work, the 23-year-old Bronx native decided to let Angel take flight inside her soul.
"The pain that I went through accelerated my maturity and helped me get a good sense of where Angel was. For being so young, she's got a pretty good moral compass," says Moore, who is determined to shatter stigmas associated with sex work through her portrayal of Angel. "She's not defined by her occupation. And I now understand that her journey is an important one to share."
Pose follows Angel as she and Evan Peters' Stan — a WASPy suburbanite who works for the Trump Organization — jump into an unexpected affair that begins as intense sexual attraction but quickly turns into a complicated friendship. Moore says that her character's interaction with Peters' is an example of how "two very different walks of life" can come together during divisive times.
"Both parties are equally interested in the other's life in a way that is layered and nuanced. But, no matter what, their interactions always come from a place of love and respect," she says of Angel's onscreen moments with Stan. "When the left and right sides of politics are constantly clashing, their relationship is proof that bridges can be built. We need to stop treating respect like it's a privilege. Respect is a responsibility."
A lifelong activist, Jackson — who plays the shrewd, intimidating ballroom legend Elektra Abundance — sees her role in Pose as a unique opportunity to change young transgender lives. "I didn't have a show like this when I was a kid. I had no one to look up to," she says. "I hope Elektra's story can help others navigate their own trans experience."
Even with her overflowing confidence, Elektra is secretly hypersensitive about her physical appearance. Her desire to have sexual reassignment surgery causes her romance with longtime love Dick Ford (Christopher Meloni) to implode, an experience Jackson, 43, can, unfortunately, relate to.
"That arc was really difficult for me because I was reliving an actual truth. People told me that if I were to become post-op, that they would have nothing to do with me," she says. "Trans women are often fetishized, which sometimes makes us feel important in a world that doesn't always accept us. So, it's a tough decision to come to."
Although Meloni's character attempts to convince Elektra not to go through with the surgery, she pushes forward. "It was emotional for me, because I know how life-or-death it can feel to receive these necessary surgeries," says Jackson, who believes Obama-era health care protections for trans people might be in jeopardy. "It's concerning."
In April, the Trump administration revealed plans to roll back a rule issued by President Barack Obama that prevents doctors, hospitals, and health insurance companies from discriminating against trans patients. Jackson has a feeling that Murphy and Pose's trans writer-producers Janet Mock and Our Lady J will consider Trump's strikes against the LGBTQ community when season two of Pose takes shape.
"I know they're going to tap into this moment," says Jackson. "It's more important than ever for us to use our voices and to be visible. We are human beings, we matter, and we will not be erased."
"I lived through the HIV/AIDS crisis," says Porter, who plays Pray Tell, the exuberant ballroom emcee and fashion designer. "So, Ryan and the rest of the team entrusted me with telling a very specific story."
Pose's first season sees Pray Tell lose his partner, Costas (Johnny Sibilly), to AIDS during a time when President Ronald Reagan was reluctant to admit the severity of the disease's impact on the LGBTQ community. "It was ugly, and it was scary," Porter, 49, recalls. "Many of my friends didn't make it. As a survivor of that era, I feel honored to tell this story. Everyone I lost, I felt their spirits with me the entire way."
As Pray Tell mourns the death of his lover, he learns that he is HIV-positive. Devastated by the news, he contemplates whether to reveal his status to his ballroom family. With consolation from Blanca and her children, Pray Tell finds the strength to tell his truth and soldier on.
As Porter explains, his character feels obligated to "choose life, love and joy" despite the once-crippling ignominy of living with HIV. "It's time for everyone to step up again," the Tony winner says, adding that his character's narrative feels "eerily relevant" in Trump's America. "We must continue to resist."
Porter says "the universe was waiting" for a show like Pose. "We live in a time when religion is being weaponized," he explains. "Pose is about family, our chosen family who we turned to when our own loved ones turned their backs on us. I hope people hiding their bigotry behind 'religious freedom' watch the show, see the hatred targeted at the LGBTQ community and ask themselves, 'That's how God wants me to behave?' "
A version of this story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.