“Ryan Murphy has taught me how to dream the impossible,” says Billy Porter, the Tony-winning actor and Grammy-winning singer who is currently in contention for the best actor in a drama series Emmy for his work on Murphy’s FX show Pose, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s Awards Chatter podcast. The 49-year-old, who plays house ball emcee Pray Tell on the landmark program (which boasts the largest cast of trans performers in TV history), continues, “I’ve always had huge dreams, but they were always springboarded off of something that I had already seen. ‘Why can’t I be the first black Jean Valjean?’ ‘Why can’t I be the first black emcee in Cabaret? Why can’t I be the first black Freddy in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?’ ‘Why can’t I be the first black Hedwig?’ Always ‘the first black’ something, and never ‘the first’ period. I wasn’t dreaming as far as I could have.” He adds, “Had I gotten the career that I felt I was entitled to have based on my talent and my skill set and my dedication and my work ethic, I never would be sitting here right now.”
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Porter was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but, he says, “I didn’t have a childhood.” For one thing, he was gay, which led to bullying at school and consternation within his religious family — “The messaging was I needed to be fixed,” he says. “Something was ‘wrong with’ me.” On top of that, his stepfather, out of the view of his disabled mother, molested him, which he regards as “the highest and darkest form of trauma I think that a person can have.” His one ray of light was musical theater. Porter happened to watch the Tonys on TV in 1982, the year that Dreamgirls, a show populated with black artists, dominated. “That was really a huge transformative moment for me, just in terms of understanding that I could dream beyond my circumstances,” he says. And then he himself began participating in musical theater at his high school, where it quickly became apparent that his voice was something special.
Upon graduating from high school, Porter left home for Carnegie Mellon University, and never returned. During his college years, he would spend summers seeking theater work in New York, where his most frequent note from casting people was that he needed to rein in his flamboyance. Even so, soon after completing his MFA in 1991, he landed his first Broadway gig, a part in the ensemble of Miss Saigon; then, in 1992, won best male vocalist on Star Search; and then returned to Broadway in a 1994 revival of Grease. “I was a black man who sang like Jennifer Hudson — I could literally sing that high, that beautifully,” Porter says. It was his hope that this skill set would get him in the door, and that he could then show that he deserved an opportunity to do what he really wanted to do, which was act. But, he laments, “I was pigeonholed so quickly into the sort of sissy clown. … It was like, ‘Come and stop our show, but we don’t want to hear your story,’ and I was longing for the story to be told.”
At a low point during the run of Grease, Porter went to see the show playing at the theater next door: Angels in America: Part 1 — Millennium Approaches, which starred, among others, Jeffrey Wright. “It was the first time that I had ever seen anybody [in a show who was playing a character that was] black and gay and not the butt of the joke, but actually the moral and spiritual compass,” he says with emotion 25 years later. “It was so powerful to me. And I knew that I had some decisions to make, because here I am on the other stage, with 14 inches of orange rubber hair on my head, glitter all over my face, a white space suit, prancing around like a Little Richard automoton on crack.” Porter adds, “I just knew that I needed to take the reins. If there was ever going to be a [career] shift, it was going to happen because I knew what it needed to look like. Nobody was looking at me and seeing who I actually am.”
Thus began something of an odyssey for Porter. “When I made the demand that people see me and receive me as a full human being,” he recounts, “the work dried up, just like I knew it would.” In 1999, he returned to Miss Saigon as a replacement in a role that met his new standards, but that would be his last turn on Broadway for 14 years. In 2000, Porter moved to Los Angeles, enrolled in the screenwriting graduate program at UCLA and started directing. Eventually, despite his reservations, he was lured back to New York with a part in a revival of Little Shop of Horrors — but, along with the rest of the cast, was fired before it came to Broadway. Porter insists it was actually a relief, as he wanted to be back in New York, but not as a result of compromising his pledge.
The ensuing years were often creatively fulfilling, but personally trying, with Porter forced to declare bankruptcy and even experiencing homelessness as he pursued his dreams. “It got very bad,” he says. However, “There just simply was never a plan B.” Porter began to realize, after listening to an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, that he needed to embrace his true self — but it wasn’t easy because, he says, “The only thing that anybody has ever said to me is my black gayness is never gonna work.” But, sure enough, things started to turn around for him. He landed a residency at The Public under the Tony-winning playwright George C. Wolfe, and wrote a one-person show in which he also starred. “That,” Porter says, “was sort of the start of this, ‘Oh, he’s not just a work-for-hire person.'” Then, rather poetically, he landed his dream role — the same part that Jeffrey Wright had played — in a 2009-2010 off-Broadway revival of Angels in America. And then, in 2013, came the part that made him a full-fledged Broadway star.
Kinky Boots, a quirky musical-comedy created by Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper, tells the story of a drag queen who saves a shoe manufacturer in England, and Porter felt he would be perfect for it. There was only one problem: “I was out of the mix,” he says. “They had already done a couple of readings with other people.” However, he refused to give up. “Jerry Mitchell [the show’s director/choreographer] is an old friend of mine,” Porter explains. “So I just called him up on the phone. I was like, ‘Look, bitch, I know you all think I retired, and I did, but Belize is the part I want!” He was granted a courtesy audition — and killed. “I knew it was mine,” he insists with a chuckle. And now, after 14 years away, Porter was headed back to Broadway. “I was able to come back in the proper way, on my terms,” he emphasizes. “That was what was so powerful about it.” And, he adds, “Finally, I was grounded in the totality of everything that I am, without apology.”
With Kinky Boots‘ success came plenty for Porter, too: in 2013, he won best actor in a musical at the Tony Awards that took place 33 years after the one that made him want to pursue theater; and in 2014, he shared in its best musical theater album Grammy win. (Porter stayed with the show from 2013 through 2015, and then returned for stints later in 2015 and in 2017, accumulating more than a thousand performances as Belize.) But what was not impacted by Kinky Boots‘ success, though he had thought it would be, were his screen acting opportunities, or lack thereof. “Every freaking audition that I was having for film and television was a dismissal — an outright dismissal — ‘Too much, too flamboyant,'” he says. Porter grew despondent and eventually had a full-fledged meltdown to his sister. The next morning, however, he got the call for Pose.
In the beginning, Pray Tell was not even a major character on the show; Porter was being asked to read for the role of a dance teacher. He did the audition, and then said to the casting director that he felt he could contribute more to the show, having come of age in New York at the same time, and in a similar scene, as the central characters. He was told that Murphy planned to cast primarily trans performers — but Murphy then reached out and asked if he could prepare some “declarations” like the emcee gives in Paris Is Burning, the documentary that helped to inspire the show, with which Porter was already very familiar. Porter came back and convinced Murphy that the part of the emcee should be expanded and he should play it.
Porter’s declarations throughout the show’s first season are hilarious, but the meat of his performance is most evident in the sixth episode, in which Pray Tell’s lover is in a hospital ward withering away from AIDS, and Pray Tell comes in and sings “For All We Know.” “I read that script and I was like, ‘This is it. This is the thing that I have been praying for for my whole entire life,'” Porter recalls, choking up. “We shoot the episode, and Ryan takes me to lunch, and he says, ‘Okay. So, I just put it together. I just saw it. And I’m standing here to let you know that from this point on, you will never have to worry about anything again in your life. It’s that kind of transformative performance.'” Porter adds, “I was skeptical, and I watched episode six like this [looking through his hands], and I can say, without being too full of hubris, that it’s the best piece of work that I’ve ever done in my life. And I’m so blessed that the world gets to see it, and see it forever. I’ve been doing this kind of work in the theater for years, but if you weren’t one of those that saw it in the 100-seat theater off-Broadway, you don’t know.”