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This partnered feature is produced by Hollywood Reporter editorial staff in conjunction with a paid brand partnership with FX.
Burning bright and fast, FX’s Pose — a landmark series for trans representation — came to an end after three seasons on June 6. Bittersweet until that very last episode, Pose often walked the line between joy and tragedy — mirroring the journey of so many individuals in the world of New York’s ballroom culture at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Speaking in May, one day after the THR cover story in which he revealed he’s been living with HIV for 14 years, Pose actor Billy Porter was joined by co-star Mj Rodriguez and creator and showrunner Steven Canals to talk about their series’ legacy and what’s next for LGBTQ POC representation in entertainment and for themselves.
I am catching you at the tail end of a huge journey. Has it sunk in that it’s all over?
BILLY PORTER For me, it has. As we all know now, it was a heavy lift for me — playing Pray Tell, while in my own life, being [HIV] positive. It was, ultimately, very healing. Art can heal trauma, and I used Pray Tell as a proxy to do that.
Mj and Steven, tell me about the reaction on set when Billy shared this news with the cast and crew?
MJ RODRIGUEZ I had actually known for a while. That’s something that’s very sacred, something you keep to yourself until the other person is ready. So when that happened at the end of the show, I was so proud and happy that he got to say it for himself — that he did it on his own terms. Now he’s changing the world for everybody, so I’m here for it. Billy is my boo. If anybody has something to say, well, you got to deal with me.
STEVEN CANALS Similar to Mj, Billy disclosed his status to me in the very beginnings of filming the first season. Once I began directing episodes, it was important to me to make sure that I was holding space — because I was aware that, narratively, what we were doing was asking you to either revisit old wounds and traumas or asking you to possibly visit fears that you may have. A lot of the show felt like therapy, for all of us.
The series balanced the historical trauma these characters would have endured during the ’80s and ’90s with joy and even elements of fantasy. Was it important to show both?
CANALS In the first season, it felt tricky because we recognized that we were playing with these tonal shifts. It’s always trying to find the balance. When thinking about the show overall, though, and certainly this last season, the truth is that it really wasn’t that hard to lean into the joys and the traumas because that is what it means to live a life. We, as a community, as Black and brown people, as queer and trans people, we are resilient. This [show] didn’t have to be solely a story about our traumas. We could honor our existence.
PORTER I question “fantasy.” It’s not fantasy. As Black and brown people living in this world, we choose joy and we choose life every day. What you saw on that screen is not fantasy at all. It’s a choice. And that’s what we’re trying to teach. There are parallels to this moment, right? The parallels of HIV and COVID. You have to choose life. Yeah, it’s hard. The Buddha says life is suffering. When you can lean into that reality, you suffer less.
Mj, when you signed on for the show, was it important for you to have assurances that there would be that balance?
RODRIGUEZ Extremely. I did my due diligence by looking up a lot of women who were in the ballroom scene before me. One of the poignant figures that spoke to me the most was Angie Xtravaganza. Back in 1984, she was a woman who was living on life’s terms, but she chose the fantasy and she went into the ballroom. That’s where the fantasy lived. I think the balance was knowing that out in real life, there may not be a space of comfort.
How did the vision for the show, particularly with these final episodes, evolve from the inception or that pilot script?
CANALS The very first draft of Pose that I wrote was much darker than what the show became. I saw Pose as being a companion piece to The Wire — really, really dark and gritty. That’s typically the type of stories I like to tell. And then, when we began breaking the show, Ryan [Murphy] gave me a note. He said, “The joy that you have being a queer person of color, I want to feel that joy on the page.” That changed everything. We went back to that original pilot and revamped it. One thing that never changed was that we always knew that the end of the story would be ’95, ’96, to tell the story of the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Billy, you came to this show after spending so many years on Broadway. With theaters reopening, are you going back or staying the course with Hollywood?
PORTER Hollywood, child. Hollywood! I did Broadway for 30 years. Don’t get me wrong. I love my Broadway peeps, but eight shows a week? I did it. I did it for decades. So now I’m ready to be in Hollywood. I’m ready to have the larger reach.
Janet Mock touched on this when she spoke at the season three premiere — the idea that Hollywood has a history of mistaking one example of change for actual change. Are you optimistic that this show will have lasting impact for trans representation?
PORTER Change is only consistent when we are vigilant. Frederick Douglass said eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. I apply that to every part of my life. Having been in this business, having come out in 1985, the possibility of Pose and all these characters was impossible. I didn’t even know how to dream about it. But I stayed vigilant, and I kept pushing for the change. Now Pose is here. So, no, it’s not perfect. There needs to be way more representation. But I’m going to borrow from Kamala Harris: We may be the first, but we’re definitely not going to be the last.
CANALS I think that what Janet highlighted, what’s so important and key, is that there is a burden of representation. When it comes to Hollywood, there’s only ever enough room for one. If you are an LGBTQ+ person, a person of color or a woman, you’re likely going to be in spaces where you are the only. It’s a lot of work to represent an entire community. It’s exhausting.
RODRIGUEZ Though change is slow, it’s still happening. I think we are the examples of what change looks like when we actually show up and do the work. I may possibly be the only trans woman on a new [series] I have [an untitled Maya Rudolph comedy for Apple TV+], but I’m still there. I get the chance to actually hold space with others who are not like me. I never thought that that would happen in a million years.
PORTER Dreaming the impossible, honey. That’s what Pose did.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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