As a journalist and author, Janet Mock has always searched for the truth and she has brought that sensibility to bear in a new direction this year as a writer, co-executive producer and director of Pose, created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals. The series has broken new ground for LGBTQ storytelling—specifically around trans people of color and the destigmatization of HIV—and continues Murphy’s pledge to be a driver of representation on screen. The episode titled “Love Is the Message” marked Mock’s directorial debut, and it was received with tremendous critical acclaim.
The sixth episode of Pose’s first season marked your first time behind the camera. What was it like for you on the first day?
What’s so great is that, as a director, your first day is your prep. As someone who is such a type A, it was so great to have those eight days of prep. I had eight days to scout locations, eight days to sit in the space and think about where I would want the actors to be positioned, where I would want the cameras to capture them, the kind of moves that I wanted to make, the kind of dream shots that I would love.
What was the first scene you filmed?
I remember one of the first scenes was probably the simplest—but the most difficult to think about—and it was the cold open, at the top of the episode. You have two characters sitting in a diner—two characters who had never met before—who both were kind of sizing each other up. There was great tension. It was the first time we ever did a cliff-hanger; from Episode 5 to Episode 6. I knew that I had to pay that back to the audience, to make it worthy for a week.
Because it was so simple and they were just sitting there, I was thinking about the kind of moves I wanted to make and I remember just thinking about Ingmar Bergman’s Face to Face. In it, he has these really tight close-up shots of the women, and of the characters talking to one another. And I thought I wanted to end it after Angel makes her revelation that she’s trans. I wanted it to be just closely on both of their faces—these two beautiful women who had this man in common; this confused man who doesn’t know who he really is. And their struggle with that and how it has affected them. And then, in a sense, colored their relationship.
That is a very demanding first scene to film as a first-time director.
For me that was the most intense scene to get on because Ryan [Murphy] is such an overachiever and wants that for me. We scripted a fight scene for me, a couple of ball scenes for me, and musical numbers as well. That episode really was our most ambitious of the season, beyond the pilot. It was the one that we knew would become our calling card. The way that I approached that first day was just with that weight on my shoulders. If I don’t do this well as a person of color, as a relatively young person in this position, as a trans person and as a woman, they may not let someone else like me back in. And so we have no choice but to slay, right?
How do you pull from your own life experiences to bring these characters’ stories to life?
For me, there’s no character closer to me than Angel [Indya Moore]. She is so much of my own self. When I was younger, I had been just as lovesick as she was, wanting someone to stand by me and embrace me for who I am. I wanted partnership; I wanted grander dreams for myself. And so her reaching, her hoping and her longing represents me in so many ways.
There is a moment where she asks Patty [Kate Mara], “Do you think he can love you and love me too?” That’s so complicated. I remember being in those spaces. Not in that same way, but in the sense of being with partners when I was younger who kept me as a secret and then had a girlfriend in the daytime. And so that part of that piece, I know that so many trans and queer people know how that feels, to be loved in secret, to be loved in the dark. So much of Angel’s journey in Season 1 is about that. I know that feeling so much and so I pour myself into that.
Considering the title of the episode, music is a big part of this story. From “Love is the Message” to Whitney Houston’s “You Give Good Love” to “Home”, what was the thought process in picking the music for this episode?
One of the biggest things that I fought for in this episode was Blanca [Mj Rodriguez] having a semblance of a romantic storyline. That was so important to me, because it was like, we’re talking about Pray Tell [Billy Porter] and his journey losing and letting go of love and wondering if he could even love again. Then we have the journey of Angel and Patty. We follow Patty—who is a protagonist in this episode—on her journey. She’s doubting whether her love is real. And then we have Blanca who goes on this romantic quest of like, “Wow, can I love? Can this be the one? Can he be the one to want me? I can’t believe someone wants me.”
My favorite musical moment in that episode beyond “Home” is when Blanca is at the ball and Darius is whispering in her ear; he says, “I’ll see you at six o’clock,” and that Whitney Houston song comes on. I literally screamed when I saw the cut of it because it wasn’t scripted in there. That’s the genius of our executive producer Alexis Martin Woodall. She picks all of the music with Ryan for these but she finds those little moments and she’s like, “How do we want this to feel?”
How did the song “Love is the Message” come into the mix, and how does it push the story forward?
If you’ve heard that song, you may not really know the song because it’s not really in lyrics, but it’s just like this beat and it goes on forever. It’s played in Paris Is Burning. So the song is omnipresent in the ballroom space. We built the whole episode around that one song. And that’s kind of helped the whole arc of everything about this; the different points at which our different characters are dealing and grappling with love.
When the episode came out, there were a lot of critics saying that this was one of the best hours of television in the history of the medium. What was your initial reaction when you first heard that?
It’s so wild, because for me that episode aired in the summer and then those “best of the year” lists started coming out. That’s where I started hearing all of this; it wasn’t in my calculation. All I was trying to do was do the work and be true to the world. Be true to the script that I wrote with Ryan, and be true to our characters.
I remember the first time that I ever got praised for it, and that was when Ryan called me after he saw the director’s cut. He said, “Janet, this is probably going to be the best, most important hour of television I’ve ever produced in my career.” I remember him then saying it again publicly before the episode even came out, on stage at the Trailblazers event for VH1, where he was being honored. I was too close to the material to know that it was that good, so I wracked myself with self-doubt. As an artist, as a storyteller, you don’t think that you’re killing it and slaying it, and because I hadn’t done it before, I didn’t know if maybe I wasn’t equipped.
I remember the kindness that came from the network—from John Landgraf, who took me out to lunch and told me, “You need to keep on directing. You’ll always have a home here with us, if you ever want to create anything or direct.” He said he was in awe. I think that speaks to the power of giving people a chance—and not only giving them a chance, but equipping them and training them and giving them tools so that they can show their perspective.
Speaking of perspective, Season 1 leans into an HIV narrative in a way television has never seen before. What do you hope other TV shows and films learn from Pose when it comes to queer, trans and HIV stories?
Shattering stigma. You know, that’s the number one thing for me. You shatter stigma by empathically telling a story that enables people to understand those unlike them. And then you realize, through that unlikeness, you find the likeness. And so for us, all of that is the same thing.
Being trans is seen as a stigma—you should be ashamed of being trans, you should be ashamed of being queer, you should be ashamed of loving a person of the same gender. You should be ashamed of contracting HIV/AIDS and living with that. We’re told constantly to just be quiet, to go live in the dark, to be secretive about who we are. And if we step forward, we’ll only be punished. With our show, when you step forward and be who you are, you’re met with love. You’re met with acceptance. You’re embraced, and you’re embraced for all of who you are. We’ve had so many moments like that in Pose.
You’ve grown as a writer, and now a producer and director. But how has Pose changed you on a personal level?
This show has empowered me. There are so many things that I had never done before and I felt so uncomfortable doing. I showed myself, because someone supported me; because I had these collaborators; because I had this amazing cast to work with. I showed myself things that I never even dreamt that I would be able to do.
I have a whole new career that I never thought that I would even have, and now it has come to fruition and there is something that stays behind. Even long after we are all gone, I imagine that young people will watch this in the same way that they watch Paris Is Burning. Years later, they can fulfil themselves watching Pose. We’re archiving ourselves, and so in that sense we’re all saying collectively that we did something; that we’re here and that we’re deserving of taking up space. Pose made me solidify my own identity as a storyteller and as an artist, and there’s been no greater gift than that.