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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
MJ Rodriguez (Photo: Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage via Getty Images), Billy Porter, and Janet Mock (Photos: Rodin Eckenroth/FilmMagic via Getty Images)

Janet Mock, Billy Porter, and MJ Rodriguez on Pose’s revolutionary second season

MJ Rodriguez (Photo: Jean Baptiste Lacroix/WireImage via Getty Images), Billy Porter, and Janet Mock (Photos: Rodin Eckenroth/FilmMagic via Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Season two of FX’s Pose came to a triumphant end earlier this week, but not before giving some of its characters—and viewers—a big scare. As Blanca, who’s played with tremendous grace and skill by MJ Rodriguez, prepared for a final farewell, Pray Tell (the incandescent Billy Porter) and the rest of her family gathered to lift up their sister and mother. The family reunions were exceptionally moving, but Pose, ambitious as ever, also put the stiletto on the other foot for “In My Heels”: For the first time, the MC council, including Pray Tell, presented themselves for judgment by Blanca, Elektra (Dominique Jackson), and Angel (Indya Moore).

The reversal made for some truly jaw-dropping looks, including homages to Janet Jackson and Diana Ross. Now that the confetti has cleared, Pose’s cast, creators, and directors are eyeing an equally grand fête: the 71st Emmy Awards, for which the show received a total of six nominations, including Outstanding Drama, Outstanding Casting For A Drama, and Porter’s nod for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Drama. In the wake of the finale (which aired during the final round of Emmy voting), The A.V. Club spoke to MJ Rodriguez, Billy Porter, and “In My Heels” director Janet Mock about their groundbreaking series, the obstacles that have always existed, and of course, red-carpet fashion.

Janet Mock

The A.V. Club: Pose is one of the most empathetic shows on TV. There’s an abundance of love, but it’s all hard-won. We see what these characters, these families, have to go through to stay together. How do you balance the conflict with that underlying love?

JM: For us to find that balance, I think we always want to be clear about the hurdles and the obstacles that they must face just being who they are and existing at that particular time period with the resources or the lack of resources that they have, but at the same time also being cognizant of the fact that they also do have different kinds of resources that oftentimes are not very valued in the world. Number one is that they’re living their truth: Respect that truth. After being pushed out side and marginalized in so many ways, they had each other, this idea of chosen family who come in and fill in the gap when the rest of the world just forgets about you, even your own birth family, even your own communities of becoming and growing.

In that way, for us, one storyline in the finale at least that was sparked from the very first episode of the season was Angel’s [Indya Moore] modeling storyline. It was her mother Blanca [MJ Rodriguez] who inspired her, who pushed her to go for that open model call, in the model search with Ms. Ford. It was her sibling at the time who took pictures of her, pictures that were used in that moment. It was her family that went in and took back her power in the moment in which she was disempowered and taken advantage of. That was all in the first episode, and we knew we were going to return to that story in the finale and have her have to deal with a society that wasn’t yet ready for her, as Ms. Ford says to her. Then we have the stripping away of her power again, but this time, we wanted to tell a story of what does it look like and what does it look like for you to use those resources that you had? You may be giving up, but the people around you will not give up on you. The love of her life, Lil Papi [Angel Bismark Curiel] steps in and he then finds his purpose by fighting for her and making sure that no other girl was treated this way again, at least not his, the love of his life.

For us, it’s like how can we tell this aspirational story that then ends in this major moment in the ballroom? That gives us this great, I hate the word “wholesome,” but kinda gives us this almost like a very traditional access to something very traditional—access to something that said she wanted in the first episode. She wants someone to take care of her. In the very first episode of the pilot, she says that when she’s laying in bed with Stan. She wants a home to go to and someone who’s waiting for her at home. She wants a family. She wants all of these things, and she’s building that for herself. But she’s also not second fiddle. She’s very much active. We try to clear our way through it and divert in certain ways by having her ask the question to him.

AVC: The moment Angel hears the world isn’t ready for her is so gut wrenching, especially since it took so long in real life to have a show like Pose despite the talent being available. Did you ever have that? Has someone ever told you that the world wasn’t ready for you?

JM: I’ve heard that over and over again throughout my career and even just throughout my life. But I’ve also been met with such kindness in my life. Most of the time, when something bad has happened to me, there’s always been some person who was silently advocating for me. When I was in school, there was someone who was part of the faculty who—I remember there were bathroom issues and she advocated for me. I didn’t know she was advocating for me, that there were access to bathroom issues as I was transitioning. That someone was silently advocating for me, but she was also super real with me; she said “you’re gonna face these obstacles because you’re a different kind of girl. Our school is not set up to be ready for you yet, but you belong here.” In the show, it’s Papi who tells Angel, “You belong here. You deserve this. You’re a model if I’ve ever seen one. You have 10 more years in the game.” Sometimes you need someone else to wake you up and to help embolden you right when you believe that you’re not worthy. Even today in my work, I’m doubted at times I’m sure. I’m underestimated and I have to just continue to do the work and continue to tell stories that matter to me.

That’s just what I’ll continue to have to do. I think that today we exist in a space in which it’s a little meta sometimes because Indya Moore has gone on and become a model for Louis Vuitton and Ray-Ban and Calvin Klein and all the things that they’re doing in the world. They exist in the world. But we have to remember there was a time when being trans publicly was not an asset, and it still isn’t for many people who are not living in the public eye, in their small communities and their schools. The world still isn’t completely equipped and ready for them. I hope that with the portraits that we’re creating and the stories that we are telling on our show, whether they’re aspirational or not, that they inspire these young people to say, “I’m deserving. I’m deserving of being here. I’m deserving of taking up space. I belong.”

AVC: The show has already been renewed for a third season. What are your hopes for those new episodes?

JM: It’s different compared to last year where we didn’t know if we got a pick-up for another season. We told what could have been a standalone story. This year, we wanted to create a sense of new beginnings for these characters, despite the fact that they’re no longer in this home together. Because our heroine is mostly Blanca—she’s who we follow. Everyone else feeds into that in some way. We branch out and tell stories about all our other very important characters too, but our through-line is Blanca. Blanca was losing faith, which is something she never loses. The finale story is about her losing faith, her questioning her mortality, and wondering what her purpose is.

We ended the season telling her, this is your purpose. There will always be children in want and need who need mothers and you are a mother. Your children are doing well now in the world. They’re okay. Damon has his own family in Paris. Angel and Papi are building their own home and business together. For season three is to create a space for new beginnings. Are there new characters for us? Are there new houses for Angel and Papi? What does that look like? What does their relationship look like? What is Damon doing? We have Pray Tell and Ricky, as well and Elektra, the MC council, all this stuff. For us, we’re just going to go deeper into these characters’ stories. We don’t know yet. We will go back into the room most likely right after the Emmy’s. Hopefully we just have fun at the Emmys, we celebrate, and then we go back to work on continuing to tell these stories with the characters that people love so much.

Billy Porter

The A.V. Club: There are a lot of big moments in the season-two finale, but one that really stands out is your character, Pray Tell, walking the runway. What was it like to channel Diana Ross for that scene?

BP: Listen, I got to be Diana Ross for a day, live out my Diana Ross dreams for a day. My actual makeup artist from Kinky Boots was there that day, subbing, so she helped me transform.

AVC: How does it feel to be more than halfway to an EGOT?

BP: Well, it’s amazing. It’s like all my dreams are coming true. It’s really awesome. I’m able to live my dream in this really specific and authentic way. And I’m just grateful that I’ve lived long enough to see this day, because it wasn’t always like this.

AVC: Well, that’s something that comes up in the episode, when Angel is told that the world isn’t ready for her, an openly trans woman, to be a successful model. But given the response to the show and all the talent in front of and behind the camera, it does feel like the world we live in is ready for Angel.

BP: Well, the world has caught up and we get to be the beneficiaries of that, this generation. I am on the older end of the cast, so I was around when a show like Pose wasn’t even—I never dreamed of it, because there was no context to dream it. There was no context to dream it. It was like marriage equality; I never dreamed of marriage equality, because there was no context to even start thinking about it. There was no base to even–you just didn’t think about something like that. So, the fact that it exists at all, takes my breath away every time I think about it. Because no, I never dreamed that success in my career would look like Pray Tell, would look like Pose, and in turn, look like Billy Porter, as I am today. Never dreamed that it could look like this.

AVC: The very nature of the show means there are so many, for lack of a better word, important moments—earlier in the season, you revisited the Act Up demonstrations. There are also scenes that are more quietly revolutionary, like the love scene between Pray Tell and Ricky in “Revelations.” It felt groundbreaking because we so rarely see that portrayed on TV.

BP: It was really an out-of-body experience for me. It was the first time that I had ever been called upon to do anything like that. So, I was way too concerned with looking good, and hoping that I was engaged enough to get the scene across. Now that I look at it, and now that I’ve been able to watch it, it really is life-altering. I do have to say though, it’s not the first time that it’s been on television. There were two other shows: one called The DL Chronicles and the other called Noah’s Arc, which was on Logo about 15 years ago. They had black boy-on-boy sex on those shows. Now granted, it was a much smaller audience, and it wasn’t in a mainstream forum, like we have been blessed to be a part of. But we are picking up the torch from these shows—I just need to say that out loud.

AVC: From the beginning, Pose has explored the levels of privilege and oppression within marginalized groups, and there’s a key scene among the MC council members in the season-two finale that furthers that discussion. Pray Tell is asking them to consider what it’s like for the trans women who helped birth ball culture but have never found themselves on the other side of that judging table. When one of the other council members says “Well, that’s not our fault,” Pray Tell replies, “But it is our responsibility.” What do you think “responsibility” means there?

BP: Well, we are responsible for each other. We are responsible for those, especially those in our tribe. Nobody does this alone. It takes a village, this life thing, it takes a village and we have to be present for each other. We have to be available for each other. We have to be able to lean on each other to make it through this thing called life. I just think that Pray was speaking to that. Pray was speaking to the idea that we’re, these ladies are already alone. Yeah, and we’re the ones that are supposed to be their family. It’s our responsibility to make sure they’re taken care of. I think that’s what he’s really kind of trying to remind the council of. That’s the theme, and I think that’s what continues to connect people and keeps them coming back, that it always is about family. Family fights. But, family is family. You can fight, and heal, and makeup, and still be family.

AVC: Looking ahead to season three, what kind of stories would you like to see told in the third season of the show? Is there something you’re very excited to get into, whether it’s a historical point, or just something you’d like for your character?

BP: I would love for my character to find love—for the world to see a real, same gender-loving, African American relationship work. I’d like to see that. I’d also like to see the show tackle the conversation that the black community needs to have, the black queer community needs to have with the black church. We haven’t really tackled those issues yet. I’d like to have that. I’m ready to do that.

AVC: You know I have to ask this: have you already picked out what you’re wearing to the Emmys?

BP: [Laughs.] Yes, darling! I will be wearing Michael Kors, custom couture. And that is all I’m saying. [Laughs.]

MJ Rodriguez

The A.V. Club: As Janet Mock herself put it, Blanca has been the through-line for the series so far, holding up so many of her family members. So it was really gratifying to see them all swoop in to help her in the finale.

MJR: I think it’s beautiful to see that the family comes together in times of need, to see that somebody is coming to help her given that so many people come to her for guidance or help or getting out of a niche. It’s beautiful to see her brother Pray Tell and her kids come and support her and lift her up in times of need. It’s just a good message to people out there that when there is something going down, you should always look for the people who have become closest to you. I think the show is doing a wonderful job in doing that, in rooting the show in family situations and showing how family overcomes.

AVC: Blanca is an empty nester for part of the season, and then there’s this huge development at the end where takes in two new kids. What was it like to learn that she gets to start over?

MJR: You want to know something? As me, as MJ, when I saw those two kids I just totally fell in love—and I didn’t know them from a can of paint. But I saw the aspiration in their eyes, and I realized that Blanca would have felt the same way. She would have seen the aspiration and she would have looked into that young boy and young girl’s eyes and seen Damon and Angel. And I’m sure Blanca would have seen it as a way to start anew but it’s also a way to keep the lineage and legacy going. To keep her hope that she’s had throughout the series alive. For Blanca, I feel she’s a very strong-willed person and I think that’s a great aspect to see of her but also to see what is influencing the kids that she raises. So starting over is a wonderful thing, and I think it’s great for her as well as the family. And it adds new additions to the family. Younger but to add new personalities and new attitudes as any kid would have. Many, many broad beautiful things to bring to a series and new stories.

AVC: The show is built on empathy, but it never forgets to be entertaining. There’s a soapiness to it along with these very grounded moments and really big and wonderful musical performances. Do you find any one of those elements more appealing than the others?

MJR: Oh my god, that’s a loaded question because I love every single part of it! But I think the really human moments are my favorite, simply because for the people who are watching this, they need to see those human moments to relate to those bigger melodramatic or the very theatrical performances. The human aspect of it is what ties it all together and shows how these characters are emulations of people who lived through 1987, who have moved on and created legacies with younger individuals who are with us today. I think it’s great that those human moments are received and seen, because they’re real. They’re not fake. I mean, yes, it’s television, but there’s so much realism within this show aside from the theatrical and musical moments. Yes, I do love every single moments of those because it heightens it, it gives it texture, but the human moments give it grit and a rawness that is needed to tell a true story the way it needs to be told.

AVC: “In My Heels” starts with Blanca in this very scary situation, but by the end, she’s not only recuperating—she’s lip syncing to Whitney Houston. How do you prepare for something like that?

MJR: Oh. My. God. So, girl, when I tell you I was nervous? I was so scared, because Whitney Houston hails from north New Jersey, where I am from as well. That was definitely on my mind. I thought, I have to do this justice because she’s from where I’m from. But also I’m someone who’s never really lip synched before. At all! It was a category that had to be lip synced, it couldn’t be sung out. That was me, that was my choice as an actress. Most of the musical scenes that I’ve done on the show, I’ve actually sung to the track. I’ve never really lip synced to it, so it was very, very scary for me to tackle something like that. It doesn’t compare to live singing. With lip syncs, you have to make sure the words are conveyed the way they need to be conveyed, but you also have to stay true to the performance you’re lip syncing to.

AVC: The season began by exploring what “Vogue” did or didn’t do for ball culture, and for the queer folks and trans folks that started it. By the end, it had introduced the lip sync, which is another aspect of queer culture that has taken on a life of its own. What are your thoughts on how the show approached the mainstreaming of these parts of queer culture?

MJR: The thing is, way back in the day—I’m talking about the ‘70s and ‘80s—a lot of trans women were performing. They considered themselves showgirls, which was another terminology for a woman who was lip syncing and giving you a show something that was beyond who they were or what they acted like on a regular day. Lip syncing has always been a thing—I don’t think it’s only tied to drag queens or trans women. I think it’s an inclusive thing for every part of the LGBTQ+ community. It just so happens that the community that honed and made it stronger was the queer and gay culture. But I think that’s beautiful and I think it’s opening up the diaspora for more trans women and maybe even trans men, because drag is a form of art. It’s not an identity, it’s something that maybe all of us can do or all of us can be a part of. What we’re doing is opening the door to show there were trans women in that day who lip synced to songs and gave performances; they weren’t necessarily singers, but it was an art form. I think it’s just opening the door for more people to understand it was not just a category for gay men—it has also been a category for trans women, lesbians, and even trans men. It is open to anyone.