License to Thrill
As FX’s Pose returns for season two, its cast and creators reflect on a TV success that few others could have foreseen: a drama set in New York’s LGBTQ ballroom scene, with the largest cast of trans actors ever in a scripted series. It’s a thrill not only for the trans community, but for anyone committed to inclusion and holding onto hope.
M j Rodriguez is sitting at a vanity mirror — intermittently glancing at a Janelle Monáe video on her phone as a makeup artist applies touchups — when Indya Moore comes up behind her and breaks out in a flurry of twerking.
It's her way of saying hi. ("I'm totally twerking all the time," she subsequently explains, laughing.) The two Pose actresses (Rodriguez plays Blanca, Moore is Angel) are entirely at ease in their own skins, which right now are on generous display. "Everyone deserves to feel comfortable enough to dance around," Moore says. "If someone is uncomfortable with me being comfortable, then they're the ones with a problem."
It's a photo-shoot afternoon in a New York rehearsal studio. After trying on a few new outfits (including a very sexy corset), Moore takes a break with her fellow cast members to reflect on why their FX disco-ball drama is such a game-changing show for the trans community.
Season one of the series — which burst onto screens with eight episodes last summer — is set in New York's late-'80s underground ballroom and voguing scene, a cultural refuge for LGBTQ nightlife addicts seeking to construct new kinds of families. Pose's divas and dancers are played by the largest cast of trans actors ever assembled for a scripted series.
Most of them never dreamed there could be a critically acclaimed mainstream TV show centered on trans people as leads, not as freaks or martyrs, or that they could be a part of it.
Now, in revisiting the liberated and flamboyant world of vintage ballroom competition, they're helping tell the compelling tale of an era characterized, to some extent, by disenfranchisement, bigotry and pressing questions of "realness" and passing.
And it is by these means that the show — which won a Peabody Award in April and returns June 11 for a 10-episode second season — is also able to explore the larger sociopolitical issues of the AIDS crisis of the Reagan era.
Rodriguez recalls a moment at the end of season one when she had just finished shooting a dressing-room scene at a vanity mirror — not unlike the one before her.
"We weren't going to have a wrap party, so I got up and addressed the room kind of spontaneously," she says. "I told everyone how I never thought a girl like me would ever be in a position to be on television. There was a time when no one had ever seen a black man onscreen before, and then there was, and now we're breaking this barrier, for trans women of color.
"I was crying, trying to get it all out, and thanking everyone for helping us show that we're more than just stigmas."
Naturally, it all started with the writing.
Cocreator–executive producer Steven Canals, a queer Afro-Latino screenwriter from the Bronx, was getting his MFA in screenwriting at UCLA when he wrote the original draft of what would become Pose.
He sent it out to a couple of networks, but feedback was unenthusiastic. "The feeling was that it wasn't a show," he recalls. After a few revisions, he tried again, and then he started getting meetings. But the response wasn't what he expected.
"I was receiving a lot of coded language," he says. "It was 'too urban,' 'too niche.' The subtext was that it was too black, too brown, too queer, too trans."
Some executives stated that outright. "I think they thought they were doing me a favor," Canals says. "They would be like, 'Can we have an honest conversation?' And it was always couched in how I needed to make this script more palatable for a mainstream audience… white and straight."
Frustrated, but unwilling to give up, Canals continued to send out the script, even after he scored a gig with the Freeform supernatural series Dead of Summer. Then he landed a meeting with executive producer Sherry Marsh, who owned the life rights to a trans model in the ball community.
That was on a Friday. By Monday, Marsh was putting out feelers for anyone who might be interested in partnering with her and Canals on this unique project. Ryan Murphy responded, and after a confab with Canals, attached his name as executive producer. This, everyone involved says, gave the project its much-needed lifeblood.
(Ultimately, Murphy and his creative partner, Brad Falchuk, would share creator credit on the series with Canals; they executive-produce with Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Alexis Martin Woodall and Marsh; Murphy also directs. Pose is produced by Fox 21 Television Studios and FX Productions.)
What united Canals, Marsh and Murphy was a shared love of the 1990 ballroom documentary Paris Is Burning, by director Jennie Livingston (who became a consulting producer on Pose).
Not only did that doc inspire Canals's script, Murphy already had an option on the film and was looking to develop a show based on it. ("Perfect timing," Canals says.) Murphy's original idea was to base the show's characters on the people in the documentary, but then he began to see ways to merge his idea with Canals's script.
"I had originally positioned the character Damon as a sex worker," Canals explains. "Ryan pulled that out. He said, 'I don't think Damon should be a sex worker. I think we should create a new character who is.'
"At the end of Paris Is Burning, a young trans woman named Venus Xtravaganza is killed. We talked about what her life would be like if she had lived, and so our sex worker character Angel emerged out of Ryan's desire to imagine Venus's life."
There are other echoes of Paris Is Burning throughout Pose. Livingston introduced Murphy to several subjects of her film; some became consultants on the project and others have made cameos as judges. Executive producer Brad Simpson actually wrote his college thesis on Paris, and the ideas in his dissertation became a major influence on Pose's second season.
"It was a semiotics program, so it was heady stuff," he says, laughing. "It was about the ways in which the film helped popularize voguing and took it into the mainstream — but also appropriated the aesthetics of a marginalized community and left that community behind."
Simpson is still amazed that his thesis topic has become a mainstream TV series. "If you had told me that there would be a series with a trans, queer, people-of-color cast set in this world, I would have said you're crazy," he says. "It was unimaginable."
Canals, Murphy and Falchuk realized early on that they would need more diverse voices in the show's writers' room. "I was the only person of color in the room at the start," Canals says, "and we needed writers who could speak to the experience of being a trans woman."
After scripting the first two episodes, they recruited both the white trans writer Our Lady J (who would become a supervising producer) and the black trans author and activist Janet Mock — making Mock the first trans woman of color ever to be hired fulltime into a series writers' room (she is also a coexecutive producer and director).
These five writers poured their own histories into the characters' stories. Murphy's coming-out experience, and his father's violent response to it, became Damon's story. Canals's memories of feeling rejected by West Hollywood gay bars became a storyline for Blanca.
Even a true-life tale from the Paris Is Burning subjects found its way into the show (the museum heist that opens the pilot episode). "We all just came so open, and used it all for raw material," Canals says.
Nailing the tone was the hard part. "They wanted to make a show that was hopeful," Simpson says. "And a lot of material about this world is not hopeful. We needed to put these characters into narratives they don't usually get to be in. We needed Blanca to go in and argue with the head of the dance school [to say] that Damon needed to audition. You needed to root for these characters."
The head of the dance school, by the way? That part almost went to Billy Porter, who had won a Tony and a Grammy for Kinky Boots on Broadway in 2013. He auditioned for the role with casting director Alexa Fogel, but then decided to try to get the production to see him in a different way.
"Earlier in my career," Porter explains, "if I'd tried to voice that, I would have been considered out of line, or difficult. But I've been in the business long enough now, and I have a reputation for my work. And I had won a Tony Award, so it's no longer considered overstepping my bounds.
"I thought it would be ridiculous for me to be on this show and not be in the world that it's about, since I lived that world."
Three weeks later, Porter got a call saying Murphy wanted to meet with him, and the impresario character Pray Tell was born. "It blows my mind every single day that this is the story we get to tell," Porter says, "and Pray Tell is the character that I get to be."
Outside of Porter's Pray Tell (and supporting characters played by cisgender, white talents such as James Van Der Beek, Kate Mara and Evan Peters), the show's main parts went to unknowns, many of them from the house and ball community.
The scene-stealing Elektra is played by Dominique Jackson, who, as Tyra Allure Ross, was not only an icon in the runway and face competitions but also a "mother" (the revered leader of the house) of dozens of her own "children" (ballroom novices). "These people did their research," Jackson says. "There were things that, as a child in ballroom, I would stand to the side and actually witness."
Particularly the wives who came hunting for their husbands; in episode five, a character goes to confront her husband's mistress at the club. "They would come and go, 'What is this? I thought this was a strip club.' And it would be so much worse when they found out it was transgender women and drag queens. Although some were cool with it. They didn't see us as the degenerates that other people saw us as."
That kind of authenticity can't be manufactured, Canals says. "Either you live that life and you understand it, or you haven't, and you don't." For executive producer Nina Jacobson, "It's a no-brainer. Why wouldn't you hire a trans person to play a trans character? It just surprises me that it's taken people so long to figure it out."
Beyond authenticity, though, the production was also pushing for inclusivity, hiring trans talent to work both in front of and behind the camera. Pose has 35 LGBTQ characters and an unprecedented 140 trans cast and crew members.
"There is rhetoric out there in Hollywood that there is no trans talent, or that it's hard to find trans talent, and I reject that completely," Canals says. "If you can't find them, you're not looking hard enough."
Some of the production staff, of course, hadn't worked with trans people before. So the producers focused on answering sensitive questions of language, which would allow everyone to feel secure about working with one another.
Educator Michael Roberson Maasai Milan (who founded the House of Blahnik, Maasai and Garcon) held a seminar for the crew to talk about "not just the politics, but the reality of being trans," Simpson says. "It's important to ask questions," Jacobson adds. "If you're telling a story in a world that's not your own, you're a fool if you're not asking the people whose world it is to guide you."
The show itself is that kind of guide for the audience, and it has been shaping a national conversation about transgender issues. The five lead characters have story arcs about their dreams, their struggles, their loves and their families. Mock says she made sure each has a different viewpoint on love, sex, body image, race and class.
"That was important," she explains, "because a lot of people assume all trans women think about the same things or want the same things, and they don't." This individualized approach yields a succession of subversive storylines — an HIV diagnosis isn't the end, it's a new beginning; an aggrieved wife confronts her husband's trans mistress and then finds common ground with her.
Mock says she also wanted "a cisgender straight man who was able to speak plainly about his desire for trans women, as a foil to another cisgender straight male character who is confused and conflicted about his attraction." This offered the audience some clarity, she says, "about why a man would want that, and why men still desire that to this day."
Jackson says she loved the Elektra–Dick Ford storyline — about the transactional relationship her character shares with a man who fetishizes her — because "it was so true." She notes, "People were shocked that he didn't want her after she had the [gender confirmation] surgery. He was presented with a beautiful woman who was complete and he didn't want her.
"That's when people started to realize how deep the fetishization of trans people is."
In season two, expect more spirited disagreements, and even more authenticity: the consultants hired for season one have been integrated into the production team in specific roles. A time jump will transport the characters to 1990, the year Madonna's hit song "Vogue" put ballroom culture on the mainstream radar.
One of those consultants, Jose Xtravaganza, was a choreographer for the song's video and the tour that followed, so there's some insider knowledge at work.
Mock points out, "The show will never be about Madonna, but [it is about] how the characters view that song." Some might see it as an opportunity, while others might fear being made into a novelty. "Everyone has opinions about whether it was cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation," Mock says. ("Cultural appropriation is just a nicer way of stealing," Porter says, laughing. "I call it stealing.")
Season two will also address the role of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, an advocacy group), and the relationship between the LGBTQ community and the Catholic Church.
"I've seen some critiques about how we didn't go back to the HIV-positive story with Blanca in season one," Canals says. "But I didn't want to perpetuate the trope of that's all she's ever thinking or talking about. Now that we've brought the audience in and they've fallen in love with these characters, we can deal with these other aspects of their experience."
"It's not tragedy–AIDS porn," Porter says. "Choosing life anyway is the story. I love that we get to see these people doing that. When we didn't have anywhere else to go, we closed ranks and chose life. That's why we're still here."
Season one of Pose is available on Netflix and FX+ or may be downloaded from iTunes, Amazon and GooglePlay.
This story originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019
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