- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Pose has been a life-changing experience for co-creator and showrunner Steven Canals. The FX series, which has earned an Emmy nomination for outstanding drama series for its third and final season, is set against the Harlem ball scene in ’90s New York City. Featuring an incredible ensemble cast led by Emmy nominees Billy Porter and Mj Rodriguez, the series centers the stories of Black and Latinx queer characters — boasting not just a cast largely made up of trans performers, but a crew that is primarily queer as well. Canals, who himself earned Emmy noms for writing and directing, tells THR that it was in Pose‘s collaborative environment that the most authentic and honest storytelling came through.
When did you first start working on Pose, and what was your inspiration?
Pose came to me in 2004 when I was studying cinema at Binghamton University [in upstate New York], and I saw Jennie Livingston’s wonderful documentary Paris Is Burning. I didn’t know anything about this community. I grew up in the Bronx, and my parents were raised in Harlem — in fact, my father actually grew up just around the corner from where the balls took place. I was like, “How did I not know that this community existed?” That really stuck with me. Cut to a decade later: I was working on my MFA in screenwriting at UCLA. As someone who grew up in housing projects in the 1980s, it was really important for me personally to have a story that highlights how difficult that period of time was, especially for Black and Latinx people.
What were some of the challenges that you faced when you were pitching the show, and what did Ryan Murphy bring to the project when he came on board?
It was a really long process. A large part of it has to do with the fact that I was still new to the industry. I didn’t have a proven track record. Even after I had my first staffing opportunity, the feedback that I was receiving was still similar to what I heard before I had been staffed on a show. “I don’t know where a show like this lives, who the audience is for a show like this, this is a period piece …” There was a lot of coded language that was used — “it’s too urban,” which I now know means “so many Black people, so many brown people.” After two and a half years and literally taking 166 meetings, I finally met Sherry Marsh. She was really the first producer on my team to say, “This is more than just a sample. This is a television show.”
Do you think the culture had changed by the time the show went to air in 2018? Were TV audiences ready by then for stories about characters like there are in Pose?
One of the things that Sherry Marsh said to me was, “Timing is everything.” We went out to pitch this show in August, into September of 2016. Ryan had just acquired the rights to Paris Is Burning, because he had planned on creating a television show that was a faithful adaptation of the documentary. And then he happened to hear, through Sherry, about me and Pose. We wound up settling on not utilizing the doc and not making an adaptation, but creating something completely original with our own characters.
I don’t know how anybody gauges when the time is right. What I’ve now learned after three seasons, and having worked as a professional writer in this industry for five years, is everyone’s definition of “the right time” is going to be different. I don’t know if there was something in the water at the time that Pose was made and released because the truth is, there really weren’t a lot of shows like it. And there really aren’t a ton of shows that put trans people at the center of the narrative, and then have queer and trans people both behind and in front of the camera, in all areas, aiding in the production. I suppose it’s less about timing and it’s more so about this period of Peak TV — there are so many outlets and places for content to live.
Queer people have historically learned our history from entertainment. It’s not something that we learn in school, we have to find it on our own, often through the movies and TV shows that we watch. How often were you thinking about what the audience might already know about this culture and what you felt you had to teach them?
An important part of my ethos and my practice as a storyteller is that I always want my work to live at the intersection of education and entertainment. If I happen to enlighten [the audience], that’s the cherry on top. I look at Pose as being so much more than just a television show, and it was so much bigger than just my career. To me, it was a form of advocacy. It was a form of allyship, especially to the trans community, coming from a queer cisgender person. And it felt like an opportunity to create a new historical record, a new visual record of what that time period looked like for our community. This was an opportunity for us to not rewrite history but to have that story be told from our own voices.
Paris Is Burning served as inspiration for some of the characters and storylines, but did any of the cast or writers’ personal experiences make their way into the show?
We didn’t ask the cast for stories and narratives to create the show. I know that Billy [Porter] definitely had conversations with both Ryan and me about what he really wanted us to tackle on the show — like the relationship between the queer community and the church. We never asked the actors [to give us pieces of their life] — we never wanted them to feel exploited. There were a lot of times when we’d go into a table read, or we were on set and about to film a scene, and one of the ladies would say, “I had this exact thing happen to me.” It required them to take a minute to really recalibrate before filming, because sometimes those moments could be really triggering.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that, particularly in our first season, I spent a lot of time talking to our consultants, especially the late Hector Xtravaganza; he had a lot to share with me about the ballroom community in the ’80s and what it was like surviving the streets of New York as an HIV-positive queer person. There’s a lot of what he shared in those conversations with me during our first season, just before his death. He really influenced the story even in the second and third seasons.
This was your first show in which you served as co-creator and showrunner. What was it like to take on that role and learn on the job?
Pose was super collaborative. I never felt like I was alone. I always had an incredibly supportive and hardworking team around me. And the truth is, we were all equally doing the heavy lifting. Ryan Murphy has been doing this for more than two decades, and he’s so accomplished — at any point that I ever needed support or had any questions, I knew I could go to him or Brad Falchuk. It was a team effort. It’s really hard for me to talk about the process of being the one and only person at the center of it all, because the truth is we all collectively work so hard together.
That mirrors the theme of the show, which is how important and life-saving a chosen family can be.
Completely, that’s the thing that’s so beautiful. There are so many individuals who have been working on the show from the very beginning. We built a strong support network and a family. I jokingly said to a few people that I feel really spoiled by the experience. I know that not every job, not every opportunity is going to be able to resonate this way. I’m really just honored to have been part of it. I’m really, really proud to have been one of the architects.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
Ending after just three seasons, Pose hasn’t been around long enough to develop an informative Emmy track record. Billy Porter nabbed a lead actor win for the first season, but season two went largely unnoticed by voters. In season three, its best drama nomination — and a historic mention for lead actress Mj Rodriguez — could reap a swan-song win. That would be an unexpected turn of events, albeit not a total surprise given the drama’s legacy of inclusion and sustained industry affection. — Mikey O’Connell
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
The Black List