Ryan Murphy: 'Pose' Golden Globe Nominee Billy Porter Had No Idea He Was the Lead

The prolific creator spoke over the weekend at a GQ event in which he reiterated his priority on centering shows on characters often relegated to the "sidekick," including his upcoming "feminist horror story" with Sarah Paulson.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for GQ
Ryan Murphy at a GQ Live panel on Saturday.

Ryan Murphy has made a career out of representing marginalized characters on television, including his newly minted Golden Globe-nominated FX drama Pose. The drama, about 1980s ball culture in New York, landed the first-ever Golden Globe nomination for star (and Tony winner) Billy Porter, who, Murphy revealed, didn't realize he was the male lead of Pose until the third episode.

Murphy used a GQ Live panel Saturday to reveal the moment Porter realized Pose was about marginalized characters and individuals like the openly gay Porter as well as the joy the prolific creator gets from spotlighting "underdogs."

"[Porter] came to me and he said, 'I have to ask you a question.' And I said, 'What?' And he goes, 'Am I the male lead energy of the show?' I said, 'You are.' He said, 'You're kidding. I'm supporting right?' I'm like, 'No you are the male lead of the show,'" Murphy said. "Billy is of our generation and has never had the opportunity. And I really related to that."
Murphy, whose credits include breakout hits and awards favorites including Glee and anthology American Crime Story, noted he has always been interested in writing stories that take a "marginalized" character who, in another era, would have been "the gay best friend or plucky trans character, a sidekick, and saying to them, 'The show's about you.'"

Murphy, who is openly gay and moved from Indiana to New York in 1987, said he is closest to the groundbreaking drama that features TV's largest trans cast in series regular roles because of its message. He revealed it took years — and the painful rejection of his 2008 FX pilot Pretty/Handsome — about a man (played by Joseph Fiennes) who tells his family he's transgender — in order to have enough "juice" in his career for executives to trust him with Pose. The FX drama, which he co-created alongside Steven Canals, became the first TV series with a mostly trans cast to be nominated in any category at the Golden Globes.

"That's what the great joy of that show is for me; that I'm in a position where I can help push those voices to a forefront of the cultural conversation," Murphy said. "I was a marginalized person who somehow drifted into the center and became the establishment sneakily."

Characters on Pose — and before that, LGBTQ favorites like Kurt (Chris Colfer), Blaine (Darren Criss) and Santana (Naya Rivera) on his 2009 Fox smash Glee — were made possible by a new generation of diverse executives after those "who were very dug in about sexuality and morality either retired or died." (Murphy describes that group as "white, straight and 55, wearing a Cosby sweater.")

He revealed that one executive told him having gay characters was a bad idea and proceeded to mock Murphy's voice in a meeting. That conditioned him to have to fight for marginalized characters. But that all changed when a new group of creative executives asked to see more of a gay character.

"I had never changed, but the executives changed," Murphy said of the Glee era (he produced the first 13 episodes of Glee before it premiered, believing the musical dramedy would not move forward). "It's radically changed in the past decade."

He added the most devastating thing is "wasted potential," which has led him to cast older actresses in his projects, including Sarah Paulson, Joan Collins, Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange in FX's American Horror Story. He's reteaming with American Horror Story and American Crime Story Emmy winner Paulson on Netflix's two season, 18-episode origin story of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "She's one of the great villains. She's like a female [Hannibal] Lecter" and — like many of his characters — "very misunderstood," Murphy said of his forthcoming series. "It's sort of a feminist horror story that a lot of women are involved with. So, I keep waiting for them to tell me when something's too much."

Ultimately, Murphy said he seeks stories that move him, citing one of his favorite films of the year: The Favourite, starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone.

"In the first 10 minutes you've got powdered wigs, queens with gout, 17 rabbits in gilded cages and Emma Stone. That's a lot. So, made for me," Murphy said of the movie that made him "constantly be dazzled." He appreciated the combination of "weird things" like macarons and rabbits. "I'm really extra," Murphy laughed, saying his upcoming Nurse Ratched story is "incredibly extra" as well.