Although he’s been acting for over 30 years, it wasn’t until FX’s Pose that Billy Porter got the widespread notice he deserves. In the groundbreaking, critically-acclaimed series set in the late ’80s New York ball scene of vogueing and strutting, Porter slays as Pray Tell, a resident emcee and father figure who will slap you with the truth and hug you after. The show proved so popular it was remembered by the Academy despite premiering last summer—a long time ago for an Emmy campaign. Renewed for a third season, with its second airing now, surely Porter’s star can only continue to rise.
What most excited you when you heard there was a show about the ball scene in New York?
I was the most excited that finally, LGBT queer people of color were going to be at the forefront of the storytelling, because as a black gay man in this business, that has never been the case in the mainstream. I was also really excited that Ryan Murphy was doing it, because he’s the man that has the power to actually make it happen. I was truly excited by those two things. I just think he’s a genius and I’ve been trying to work with him for decades.
Did you have any concerns or reservations about the series?
No, I don’t have reservations about the choices that I make. Once I make them, I make them. I knew we were in good hands. It’s Ryan f*cking Murphy. What reservations are you going to have? He knows what he’s doing, he knows how to do it, and he knows how to create the team and the space to do it properly, as the whole world has seen. I saw who he was surrounding himself with. Steven Canals created the show. [Ryan] took it and said, “OK, now I have the power to make this happen.” That already relinquishes any reservations I would have.
How do you think Pose has affected the perception of the LGBTQ community and the HIV stigma?
I really don’t know. I mean, my hope is that it creates empathy, and it creates a conversation that moves us forward. That’s my hope. From what I see and hear on the ground, people seem to really be responding positively to it. I’m not sure if we’re not just simply preaching to the choir still. I don’t really have control over that. I would hope that we would be able to maybe affect some people who never heard of this before and create a space for change. That would be my hope.
Have you seen any movement of the inclusion needle since the show?
I don’t have time to look around. That’s not my business. My business is to just show up and be a representative of what’s going on and do my part to make the change. I don’t mean to sound flippant about that but trying to figure all of that out slows me down; it slows my work down.
What I do know is that the industry masquerades as being inclusive. There’s a lot of talk about it, but there’s very little that’s done until they can see the money. It’s all about money. It’s all about commerce. If you’re going to bring in the coins, then we’re going to be diverse, period. That’s just how it works.
Ryan Murphy has assisted our community; his presence and his muscle has assisted our community and it’s beginning to generate the possibility of being bankable. When we can be bankable, then it changes. So many times, I’ve heard there are no stars to do this. It’s like, “We need a star, we need a star, we need a star.” So, we’ve got to start making stars out of the people whose stories then need to be told. That’s a part of the vicious circle. That’s a part of the Catch-22. You’re not giving the black queen a job so that I can become a star, so that I can then tell my story in this major playing field. So, you’re stuck.
I was stuck for so long. Now all of a sudden, I can make some money. My name can greenlight queer projects because everybody knows it now. That took me 30 years in this business. I’m going to be 50 in September. No complaints, but just we have to be honest with the business part of it. I’m not blaming anybody—I’m not. That’s the reality of it. It’s happened with every marginalized culture, from black people to Latinos to Asian people.
When Crazy Rich Asians was released, they kept saying that this was the first major studio film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years. I was like, “Has it really been that long?”
Right. It’s interesting because every white person I talked to who are allies are like, “Oh right.” You don’t even have to think about it. Even in your support for me you don’t have to think about it. You see me and you think it’s all happening. I have never been on a television show as a series regular until now. I’m 50.
Was there a particular scene, show, episode or moment in Pose that made you realize you were part of something amazing?
I would have to say it was the first two episodes that we shot in the fall of 2017, and Ryan Murphy directed both of them because he was setting the tone. We were finding the language. We were just finding all of that stuff, and he was helping to set that so that he could then pass it on to different directors to continue the vision. I just knew at that point. I was like, “Right, this ain’t some low budget, we’re going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks bullsh*t. This is the white people coming in and going, ‘We doing this like we do it for the white people.’” Sorry, but that’s the truth. Tell the truth, shame the devil. That’s when I knew. I was like, “Oh, they’re spending money on us like they spend it on the white people.”
You lived through this defining era of queer culture. Was there a scene or episode that hit way too close to home?
All of the intense sickness stuff can be hard. Episode 6 in both seasons were both very hard for me because they were both at the hospital. My boyfriend is sick in Season 1 and then myself being sick in Season 2. The HIV diagnosis things are really hard. It’s so real for me because I lived it.
This past week when we did the condom on the house [protest]. there were young queer people that were like, “That’s ridiculous!” It’s like, no, it actually happened; it’s an actual thing that happened and the reason why we can’t get gun control, and the reason why we can’t get these children away from the borders, and the reason why we’re losing all of our rights, is because nobody’s engaged in the way that we used to be.
We’re in this middle space of trying to figure out how social media and activism unite. Where do they come together for modern, real activism, not just likes on Instagram? I don’t know what the answer is. I’m trying to figure it out, but until you get out on the streets, nothing changes. Until the people get out on the street, nothing changes.
Has Pose changed you as an actor?
I think that the change came, for me, 20 years ago when I looked at what I was doing, and I looked at my future, and I chose myself. I chose my authenticity over the possibility of whatever masculine version of myself could have garnered. Therefore, I believe that Pose came to me as a result of those choices. Everything that’s come to me since, came to me as a result of those choices. I came into this situation as the changed person, which is why it came to me, if that makes sense.
Had I not made those choices all those years ago to be authentic… I’m one of five black men in the business who are working consistently who can say, “I chose this 25 years ago. I’ve been gay. I didn’t just get gay.” I didn’t just come out. I’ve been out. I took all the hits that came with that because you all weren’t coming for me for decades. I think the change is Pose has made me bankable. Pose has made me see how people see the money.
Now that Pose has two seasons under its belt, what do you hope happens with Pray Tell in future seasons?
Oh God, I haven’t even thought about that. I’m trying to be in the minute that I’m in. I’ve just got the first Emmy nomination and you all asking me about next year [laughs].
I would hope that he would find a space to explore relationships so that we can show how difficult that is. I think those of us who are my age who lived through it, we still have PTSD and we’re still trying to figure out what that means. What does it mean to be in a same-sex relationship, let alone marriage? That wasn’t stuff that we even had any context to begin dreaming about. There was no dream about it because there was no context to even think about the possibility of that. I always talk about this a lot. How Ryan, this company, this show, and all these people have taught me to dream the impossible.
I’ve never dreamed that the kind of success that I wanted in this industry could look like this, could be this version. I was trying to create some masculine alter ego so I could work. To meet some standard so that I could literally just get a job. It’s all so fresh and new and all so unbelievable to me that I’m trying to just stay present and walk through with a little grace and style.
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