'Pose' Director-Producer Janet Mock in Conversation With Ally Ted Sarandos: "No Real World Without LGBTQ People in It"

Janet Mock and  Ted Sarandos -Split-Getty-H 2020
George Pimentel/Getty Images; Jemal Countess/FilmMagic

When Mock signed an overall deal with Netflix in 2019, she became the first transgender person to do so with a big media company. She talks with the chief content officer at Netflix, named by GLAAD as the No. 1 streamer for LGBTQ content for 2019-20.

When Janet Mock signed an overall deal with Netflix in 2019, she became the first transgender person to do so with a big media company. The Pose and Hollywood writer-director talks with Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix, named by GLAAD the No. 1 streamer for LGBTQ content for 2019-20 with more than 120 LGBTQ characters across its shows.

MOCK I’m so glad to have this opportunity to speak with you about allyship, Ted. I believe allies to be a vital part of progress. I see ally as not a noun but a verb. Allyship requires consistent action, including educating yourself about those you yearn to partner with and using the access your privileges (whether it’s your race, class, gender, sexuality and/or ability) afford you to shift the spaces you're engaged in and bring in those often overlooked. How do you practice allyship at?Netflix?

SARANDOS Let me start by saying that I am far from the perfect ally. Practice and learning are key because like so many in our industry I am on a journey to better understand other people’s lived experiences. Fortunately, I work in a culture that is very direct and where people tell me when I make mistakes. As a team, we work hard to find and empower creators from different backgrounds like yourself who have stories they are passionate about, and help bring those to life. We want LGBTQ storytellers to know they have a home at Netflix, whether that’s you, or Ryan Murphy, or Ryan O’Connell with Special or Hannah Gadsby with Nanette, and now Douglas. Why did you want to come to Netflix?

One thing was its slate of programming, from Orange Is the New Black and Sex Education to Styling Hollywood and Queer Eye. (It was also the streaming platform that made my show Pose accessible to a global audience!) Was it a conscious effort to be so inclusive? And how do you all plan to push that even further?

Orange Is the New Black really opened our eyes to the possibilities of a more inclusive vision for movies and television. That show and those characters were embraced and beloved all over the world. So you see a direct line from Orange to Sense8 to Sex Education to Elite and many shows in between, and again recently with Never Have I Ever. Inclusion is essential for us. You can’t be a service for the world without reflecting the world.

For Netflix it seems this kind of inclusive storytelling has been good for business, which disproves the all-too-common belief that content that centers positive depictions of LGBTQ+ characters and/or people of color won’t attract an audience. Given Netflix’s global reach and its insights into so many countries, what can you share to help other decision makers struggling with these assumptions?

It’s probably obvious by now that I’m not a big believer in conventional wisdom. It’s so important not to accept things at face value as “the way it is.” You must always ask why. We've learned two really important lessons by challenging basic assumptions about the way entertainment works. First, more people want to see their lives — and cultures - reflected onscreen. Second, great stories truly can come from anywhere. So as a creator or commissioner what I would say is, always ask why. And then make the show or the movie that feels real to you. We see time and again that the stories people love — wherever they live, whatever their background — are the ones that feel authentic and real. And there is no real world without LGBTQ or other underrepresented groups of people in it.

As a storyteller, I particularly appreciate how the company advocates for storytellers — for example: Netflix’s radical practice of giving creators a full-season pickup without pilot orders. That involves such a huge level of trust! I know this firsthand, from my experiences directing The Politician, writing and directing Hollywood, and the fact that you all believed in me so much as to green light my first feature, Janet, about former Washington Post journalist Janet Cooke. We also made history with my overall deal, making me the first trans person empowered to call the creative shots at a major content company. What efforts is Netflix making to ensure that other underrepresented creatives like myself are recruited, hired and empowered behind the camera?

We’re so proud to be your creative home, Janet. I know that your presence here and your work will inspire the next generation of creators. We’re focused on inclusion at all levels, beginning with our own executives. There are dozens of executives here with different identities, backgrounds and experiences who have greenlight power — and that’s a big part of why we have been able to get even more inclusive over time. Cindy [Holland] is a real advocate for the community inside and outside Netflix. Verna Myers, Netflix vp of inclusion strategy, and her team help us stay focused on improvement. And we take lots of bets on a lot of first-time showrunners like Laurie Nunn with Sex Education or Lauren Schmidt Hissrich on The Witcher. We also work with GLAAD and similar organizations to help sharpen our awareness. I also draw on my network of friends and colleagues around the world to gain insights and perspectives. All of them bring their insights and relationships to the table. But we still have a long, long way to go.

When I was preparing for our conversation, I discovered that we both studied journalism in college. For me, I was initially drawn to journalism because I love storytelling and I am way too nosey. This incessant curiosity and knack for observing others stems from growing up trans and always being on the outside looking at my classmates who seemed so fully engaged in the world. And because of my early experiences, I yearn to tell stories that center those outsiders. How do your identity and experiences shape how you lead Netflix?

Well, my journalism career wasn’t quite as auspicious as yours, Janet! I learned quickly that I was not a very good writer. My highlight was an interview I did with Ed Asner for my high school newspaper. It wasn’t exactly People magazine, but I loved it. It fed my curiosity. I grew up very differently than I live today. I was one of five kids in Phoenix, and my family didn’t have a lot. But my mom was sort of an early adopter and she bought us a VCR that we could not afford. I spent a lot of time in video stores, then went on to manage video stores, and I was just totally immersed in TV and movies, which led to my love of entertainment. So I think a lot about access, and how my access to all those movies unlocked something in me. I want to do that for all our members around the world. Phoenix was a pretty homogenous place in those early years, so those movies in video stores, like My Beautiful Laundrette, Desert Hearts and Kiss of the Spiderwoman, were my windows to a much bigger, more diverse world.

The Kalihi-Palama library in my hometown of Oahu, Hawaii, was very similar for me as an access point to engage in other worlds, to expand my thinking and influence the way I moved in the world. I wholeheartedly believe that our ability to bring ourselves fully and unapologetically to the work we do enables us to be more impactful. I don’t think the work I write and direct would resonate if that work hadn’t come from the most specific, most personal, most niche parts of my experiences.

Yes, it’s about that authenticity that’s so personal, but when you share it, there are so many others in the world who see themselves. Janet, what are the ways you think those of us in the entertainment industry can be better allies?

I think it's all in the doing. It's one thing to know better, to recognize that there are people out there who don't have as much access to stories that reflect their reality, it's another thing to actively go out in the world and find those people to tell their stories and to truly empower those who’ve lived it to tell their own stories. I'd also say that it's not enough to find underrepresented talent, whether that's executives or filmmakers. Once we find and recruit them, how are they being supported? Who's championing their voice? Who's developing their work? Who's placing them in positions of power and setting them up for success? I recognize that my talent and tenacity brought me here, but it's the intentional work of those people who came into my life at the exact right time, like Ryan [Murphy], and not only believed in my vision and my voice, but also did the work of saying, "Come on, girl, I'll show you the way. I'll let you shadow me so you can direct your own script. I'll back you up and support your vision." It really takes work on all our parts to make this sort of change.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.