How I'm Living Now: Steven Canals, 'Pose' Co-Creator

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Steven Canals

The writer-producer-director talks about the parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and the HIV/AIDS crisis depicted in his FX drama — plus, he reveals how Mariah Carey and 'The Real Housewives' have kept his creative juices flowing while sheltering in place.

With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense for how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood's writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.

Steven Canals had just wrapped filming the season three premiere of Pose, his groundbreaking FX drama with co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. Now, the New York native is sheltering at home in Los Angeles with his partner, where he's been marshalling a "very active," now virtual writers room. Canals tells THR how he's staying productive (in sweats) and refilling his creative well with Mariah Carey music video marathons, while also reflecting on the parallels he sees between the current pandemic and the HIV/AIDS crisis that inspired his show.

Let's start easy: How are you?

I feel like I finally hit a wall with being indoors. I'm always on the go and I'm always telling myself that I can't wait for a moment where I can just sit; now that we're all homebound, the thing that I want more than anything is just to get out.

The grass is always greener, right?

Always. Production on Pose had just shut down in New York and my first days back in L.A. were a little rainy. But, lately, it's been beautiful. I can tell from my windows that the weather is really nice.

What were those last days on the set of Pose like before you had to shut down? You were just getting started. Were you concerned about losing momentum?

The Pose crew is a tireless group. I think we could all sense that shutting down was inevitable, so everyone was in positive spirits and doing their best to get through as much work as possible. 

Since Pose centers on the HIV/AIDS crisis, has experiencing the coronavirus pandemic in real time made you think differently about how you might approach the show? 

We have a clear arc for the third season and won't be shifting it significantly, as we've already laid ground work for it in the premiere — which has already been filmed. But I'd be remiss if I didn't note the parallels to both the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the coronavirus pandemic. Once again, my beloved New York is the epicenter, and the reports of bodies being buried in a park or at Hart Island is a stark reminder that we aren't that removed from the narrative we've been capturing on Pose for the past three seasons. 

How do you think this coronavirus period will impact storytelling in Hollywood going forward? 

The best art is a reflection of who we are as people — where we've been, where we are, and where we want to go. My hope is that the art created during and after this period continues to reflect our truth, as a culture and as a people. Now isn't a time for deception.  

How is the Pose writers room working now?

The Pose writers room is still active right now — we're finishing up the remainder of season three. We've already broken an episode together already. Janet Mock and I recently spent some time using FaceTime and a Google Doc to outline an episode. That took up a day, as opposed to other days when I wake up and I use that day to refill the well.

And how do you refill your creative well?

I'll either watch some movies or TV, or I'll read a couple chapters of a book just to make sure that I am keeping the creative juices flowing. I've always said that my creativity feels a lot like an iPhone battery. It slowly drains, and you've got to find a way to recharge. I've found that being indoors, the draining is happening a lot faster. On the low end of the scale, I'm an extrovert. I definitely get my energy from being around people, so it's been a little tough to be indoors all the time. So, keeping those creative juices flowing is essential.

What are you watching, reading or listening to right now?

The New York Times' "The Daily" podcast has been sobering these past few weeks because most of the episodes have been about the pandemic. So that's been tough, but also really important for me to be aware of what's going on. I've also been reading Making Movies by Sidney Lumet, and The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto. And then I live on YouTube and it runs the gamut from Mariah Carey music videos, her performing in 1990, to old episodes of The Real World: New Orleans. It's so bizarre, but I fall into these very specific rabbit holes. In terms of TV, I've been catching up on Drag Race and Top Chef. I love reality competition shows. Funny enough, I personally don't feel like filling the well has to involve watching the last Emmy- or Oscar-winning thing. It can even be an episode of The Real Housewives. I can pretty much watch anything and gleam pieces of inspiration.

Have you gotten into The Tiger King yet?

No, but it's on my list. I can't wait. I've been watching Little Fires Everywhere, too, and that's been really good.

Other than taking a beat to read or watch something on TV, how else do you keep your creativity up?

Something that's been super helpful is talking to other writer friends. I'm part of two writer groups, but one in particular is called "The Clubhouse," which is made up of queer and gay Latinx men who work in the industry. We actually had a Zoom call last week with 21 of us and it's been really nice to connect to other storytellers because we're all sort of rocking in a very similar boat, asking the same question, "How do I stay motivated?"

What's been the most challenging decision you've had to make since this whole thing started?

What was tough for me was making the decision to come back to L.A. versus staying in New York — because my whole family is in New York. I was worried about leaving them behind. But, also, my mom is someone who has a compromised immune system and I was worried because I'd been around lots of people, especially being on the set of Pose. God forbid I might have it and pass it along to my mom. So, I ended up making the decision to come back home to L.A. and not be around anybody.

How's your family in New York?

Family is good. There was a little bit of a scare, but thankfully the test came back negative. My family is about an hour and a half outside of the city now. My mom works in the Bronx as a teacher, so she kept going into the city [before the schools shut down] and that was worrisome for me. And then my sister's boyfriend is studying to be a doctor and he was working in a hospital, so he was around lots of sick folks. So, there was just a lot of anxiety and concern because there were all these different ways that the people close to me could potentially contract the coronavirus. But, so far, we've been lucky.

How would you describe your new daily routine?

It shifts depending on the day. But, for the most part, I wake up and have breakfast — fueling up, if you will. Then, let me be honest, I check my social media. But I'm catching up with everybody else. Other than FaceTiming and Zoom, Instagram seems to be one of the best ways to stay connected with other people. I usually go on just to see how friends are doing, particularly my friends who have family members who have COVID-19. I just want to make sure that they're still feeling OK, that they're recovering. After that, it's full steam ahead. I'll check my emails and then get to work on whatever needs to be addressed immediately before carving out some time to be creative.

Throughout all of this, what has been the easiest adjustment? And the hardest?

The easiest adjustment has been not having to think about what I'm going to wear for the day. I'm putting no thought into it whatsoever. It's like, "Sweats or sweats, Steven?" I love it. Product hasn't touched my hair in two weeks and it's glorious. After all of this, my hair is going to be really healthy and also really damn long. The hardest thing has just been being cooped up indoors. It's such a tease to look out the window and see the sun is shining. I saw a report that the levels of pollution in L.A. have dramatically decreased because people aren't hardly driving anywhere and I just want to be outside right now and take in a nice big whiff of all that fresh air.

What have become your go-to news sources?

I've been reading The New York TimesDemocracy Now is another big one. I get my headlines on my phone from CNN, and a lot of the liberal media. I actually think I need to expand, just to be aware of how the other side is talking about what's happening.

How has this impacted your eating habits? Any go-to comfort foods?

I've heard a few people talking about the "quarantine 15." And I'm like, wait, is that a thing? I've seen a lot of my friends posting on their Instagram stories that they're working out at home to stay in shape. But I'm not that girl, so that is not happening. (Laughs) However, I did become a vegan about a year ago, so I think that's helped. I'm eating pretty clean, healthy and obviously very plant-based. We bought a Vitamix recently, which is one of my favorite purchases. I've been making a lot of smoothies, which I love. I've had to really ration out the smoothie making, though, because it's been hard to find frozen fruit. I've recently gotten in the habit of buying a lot of fresh produce and then freezing it for my smoothies. That's a little quarantine life hack if you can't find frozen fruit at the grocery store.

With more time on your hands, are there other projects you've been able to work on? You recently signed an overall deal with 20th Century Fox TV …

Yes, exactly. One of the things I've actually been doing in this moment is trying to figure out what it is that I want my next project or projects to be. It's been great being able to spend time figuring that out and thinking more and more about my next steps.  

Is there a cause that's particularly important to you right now?

I would say UNICEF because it's crucial to think about the kids. My friend has a daughter who is immunosuppressed and also suffers from asthma, so figuring out ways to help children right now has been weighing on my mind. And then I would encourage people to get on GoFundMe.com because I've had a lot of people reach out to me with different GoFundMe pages, bringing my attention to certain families in need, or organizations that are doing great work. If you go to GoFundMe, you can see the new pages that have been set up and find one that touches you that you can donate to.

What's atop of your to-do list once this is all over?

Once this is all over, I am not going to walk but run to my friends' homes and give them all massive hugs.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.