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When Billy Porter first started to receive industry accolades for his acclaimed portrayal of the exuberant emcee and fashion designer Pray Tell in Ryan Murphy’s groundbreaking FX drama Pose, he was taken aback.
“At the Golden Globes, I saw that I was nominated in the leading actor category and I actually told Ryan, ‘I’m not the lead. It’s an ensemble show,'” Porter, 49, told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of a Tuesday night talk with Murphy at New York’s 92Y. “But he insisted, ‘You’re the lead.’ And then he explained to me that it’s about positioning — positioning me as a loud, out, black and gay actor who is the leading man. I now understand that there’s power in that. That is Ryan’s vision for me.”
Though Porter didn’t take home the Globe at this year’s awards ceremony, his star has since risen at an exponential rate. Not only has he cemented himself as a style icon — serving unforgettable fashion moments on a multitude of red carpets, such as his gilded display at May’s Met Gala — but Porter, a previous Tony and Grammy winner, made history in July as the first openly gay black man to be nominated for an Emmy in the outstanding lead actor in a drama series category. (In total, Pose is up for six noms this year, including best drama series.)
During Tuesday’s discussion, Murphy also recalled when he made it clear to Porter that the entertainer was one of Pose‘s central forces. “I said, ‘No, you’re motherfucking not [a supporting character],'” Murphy said, causing laughter from the audience. “[I told him], ‘You are the male lead of this show. This story line revolves around you being the male lead of this show.'”
Murphy went on to say that the conversation was “a breakthrough moment” for Porter’s performance in the series centered on New York’s queer ball scene of the 1980s and early ’90s, and the HIV/AIDS crisis that impacted its originators, LGBTQ people of color. It was during this era that Porter himself was finishing up drama school at Carnegie Mellon, where he once doubted his potential as an actor.
“While they were casting me as Romeo, while they had an idea that I might possibly grow up to be a leading man, I was the queen going, ‘For who? When’s that going to happen?'” said the 1991 graduate. “Because the archetypes that I had seen didn’t look like me. They were James Earl Jones, who’s the black patriarch, there is Denzel Washington, who is the sex symbol, and there’s Eddie Murphy, who’s the genius clown. They are all straight, some of them violently straight.”
Added Porter, “I abandoned all ideas of that — of being a leading man because all we saw was traditional. I am not traditional, so I couldn’t see it [until now].”
Part of “redefining what a leading man looks like,” as Porter puts it, includes his recent sex scene with Pose co-star Dyllon Burnside, who plays Pray Tell’s mentee and unsuspected lover, Ricky. Season two’s eighth episode, “Revelations” — written and directed by co-creator Steven Canals — opens with Pray Tell and Ricky, both of whom are HIV-positive, stripping down before passionately making love.
“The intention is to create a space where we have this conversation and it’s no longer taboo, and the stigma [attached to HIV] is taken away and we get to tell these stories more often [in Hollywood],” Porter told THR earlier Tuesday evening. “I hope it has that impact.”
He continued onstage, “When we have these moments where we can create a space that shows African American men trying to figure out how to love each other as opposed to trying to kill each other … I am so grateful to be a part of something that I see as a change, as a change in the narrative, as a reclamation of our power.”
Murphy revealed that the scene incited an unexpectedly emotional response from the intimacy coordinator who was helping out on set. “We were shooting Billy’s scene, which is a first, I think, for network TV in its vision and its boldness and its beauty. But at one point, the intimacy coordinator was very quiet, and a producer walked up to her and said, ‘Are you OK?'” Murphy told Porter. “And she burst out into tears. And she said, ‘I cannot believe for the first time that I’m seeing these images.’ It was so beautiful, and you did that. Congratulations.”
Toward the end of their chat, Murphy and Porter teased what’s next for Pray Tell on season three of Pose, for which production is set to begin in March. According to Porter, who plans to direct an episode, he hopes to see his character “find love and hold on to it,” as well as bring Jesus into the ballroom.
“I would love for Pray Tell to crack open the conversation between the LGBTQ community and the black church. We’re not having it. It’s the same thing. Somebody just called my mother the other day, last week, talking about, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. It must be so hard that your son is gay,'” he said, rolling his eyes. “Still, today. That was last week! That’s the shit we’re still dealing with. You’ve got to be kidding me. With all of the things that are happening in this world, that’s still the thing.”
Asked Murphy, “And what did she say?”
“She said, ‘Don’t worry about me. Get off my phone. You’re ridiculous.’ And my mama has come a mighty long way,” said Porter. In response, Murphy later confirmed, “We’re going to have Pray Tell go to church.”
The season two finale of Pose airs Tuesday on FX at 10 p.m.
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