‘Pose’ Star Billy Porter Earned His Spot in Hollywood. Now He Wants to Be a ‘Beacon of Hope’
Porter’s 2019 Emmy win changed his life. Now, he discusses his second nod, the awards shut-out of his trans co-stars, and why the Black Lives Matter protests have given him hope.
“Difficult” is not a word that one should have to use in connection with an Emmy nomination. Yet, as excited as Billy Porter is feeling about his second best actor nod for FX’s Pose, that is how he described what it’s like to finally feel seen while the establishment continues to deny your colleagues the recognition they deserve.
Despite Porter’s back-to-back nominations—and his victory at last year’s ceremony, which he says “actually changed my life”—the trans women who perform alongside him in FX’s groundbreaking series have been ignored. Again. Even Mj Rodriguez, who gives the show its unflappable spirit as ensemble lead Blanca—and who, as Porter puts it, “carries this show on her back, like Jesus and that cross on the road to Damascus, honey.”
“I have to hold space for all of it at the same time,” Porter told The Daily Beast recently. “Because essentially, as a Black gay man for the last 30 plus years of my life, I have gone unseen. So I know what it looks like. I know what it feels like. I know the pain that comes along with being unseen, with being dismissed, with being ignored. I have lived it until five and a half minutes ago. You know what I mean? It’s like, it’s literally just changed for me.”
The mainstream acclaim Porter has received with his performance as the ballroom MC Pray Tell in Pose has, indeed, been a long time coming. He’s been in the business for more than 30 years, and until recently industry gatekeepers considered his identity as a Black gay man an obstacle to giving him lead roles.
Porter knows better than anyone what awards recognition can mean for people from marginalized groups—the credibility and longevity it can lend an artist. So he’s trying to be a beacon of hope for his co-stars—a sign that they, too, will one day be truly seen.
Throughout both seasons of Pose and beyond, Porter is the kind of performer your eyes can’t help but follow. As Pray Tell, he soars with larger-than-life bravado—until his character crumples under the weight he is forced to carry as a Black gay man living with HIV in the 1980s and early ’90s. In those moments, Porter brings palpable heartbreak, and—especially in Season 2—visceral, righteous rage. In those moments Pray Tell always, always gets back up—like all the indefatigable characters in the series.
Porter credits two people for the mantras that fuel his own drive.
“You know, my mentor, George Wolfe, said, ‘You can’t wait for anybody to give you permission to practice your art,’” Porter said. “‘You have to be doing that all the time, even when nobody’s listening—and most of the time nobody’s listening.’ And that goes in line with my great aunt Dorothy, who used to always say, ‘Stay ready. Stay ready, because if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.’”
“That’s what the world is seeing,” Porter said. “The world is seeing Billy Porter, who has stayed ready—who has stayed at the ready for three-plus decades.”
The result of that practiced readiness is Porter’s knack for seizing every opportunity and medium to send his message—on-screen, in these interviews, and on the red carpet, where his velvet tuxedo-gowns and Egyptian Sun God get-ups subvert all expectations of masculinity.
Twice during our interview Porter told me, “My masculinity has been in question from the moment I can comprehend thought.” When he described spending the better part of his life “trying to be masculine enough to be acceptable on this planet, trying to be masculine enough so that so that I could get a job, so I could eat,” the urgency in his voice radiated through the phone.
Over time, though, Porter realized that the quality so many had treated as a liability was actually a galvanizing purpose.
He remembers it almost like a calling: About 20 years ago, he was watching Oprah. The guests were Maya Angelou and Iyanla Vanzant, and the topic of conversation was intention—“setting intention for your life and making sure that that intention is based on service,” as Porter explains it. “Because when the intention for your life is based on service, everything else will work itself out.”
Porter tried to figure out what that would look like for him before the answer came to him like a revelation: “It is your queerness.”
“It’s easy to be who you are when what you are is what’s popular,” Porter said. But his journey was never easy. “Leaning into queerness, leaning into my gayness when there were no jobs on the horizon—when I had to file for bankruptcy, when I was hopping from sofa to sofa.”
All of the naysayers were right for a long time, Porter says—until they weren’t. “Until they weren’t,” he repeated.
But a career turnaround is not necessarily enough to erase the self doubt that spending so many years unseen can leave behind. As Pose shot its second season, Porter only found one scene daunting—the love scene between his character and the young dancer Ricky, played by an almost unbearably charming Dyllón Burnside.
Apart from playing James Thunder Early in multiple productions of Dreamgirls—in which he kissed a female performer with whom he was almost always friends—Porter had never played the love interest.
“I was never considered the sex symbol,” Porter said. “I was never considered the pretty one. I was never considered the leading man.”
Shooting the love scene was, as one expects for any love scene, “awkward,” Porter said. But he knows the game; as he put it, “Part of this business—if one ends up being successful, one may get to take their clothes off and show what love looks like.”
Another signal of success? In Pose’s third season, Porter will step behind the camera in his TV directorial debut. Unfortunately COVID-10 has derailed the show’s production one day before the season’s first episode would have been completed. The pandemic has also driven Porter and his husband to Long Island, at least for now; Porter, who is diabetic, is among those who are at severe risk, and the couple lost two people in two days early on as the virus spread.
“It’s caused me to really, truly rethink everything—you know, just how I approach life,” Porter said of the pandemic. “If you don’t have your life, if you don’t have your breath, if you don’t have the freedom—you know, just regular, basic shit… none of it really matters.” This pandemic, he added, has caused him to engage with his life differently—a shift in mindset for which, terror aside, he is grateful.
And meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter protests that have spread across the country have given Porter hope. Against this backdrop, Pose’s second season—which finds Pray Tell getting involved in the ACT UP protests to fight the AIDS pandemic—feels even more timely now than when it premiered last year. Porter was part of that struggle, and he sees the Black Lives Matter protests as a sign that people are once again engaged, in the streets, and pushing for change.
“We wanted to create a better life for our people—and we did it,” Porter said of the AIDS demonstrations. But civil rights gains for any group, he says, can also create a sense of entitlement and disengagement as those rights get taken for granted by younger generations who never witnessed the fight firsthand.
“These kids never thought that their rights would go away—and their rights are going away,” Porter said. “Everybody’s rights are going away… In a country that is built on taking rights away from people. On stolen land. And then stole a group of people to come over here and build the land for you; cultivate the land for you. And we’re still talking about rights!”
Even if the fight of today feels discouragingly similar to the fights of generations past, Porter is glad to see that at least “people are awake” now—especially those liberal allies who refused to believe Black people when they said putting a Black president in the White House did not end racism.
“I always joke—I tease and I joke, but you know truth comes out in jest… I say, ‘White people are mad now, so maybe something might get done,’” Porter said.
And if Trump gets a second term, he added, “America is done… Remember, Rome fell. Rome fell, motherfucker! Don’t get cocky.”
Assuming America does not go the way of Ancient Rome, Porter has big plans on the horizon. Just an “O” shy of an “EGOT,” the actor says he’s working on writing and directing some film projects. Soon enough he’ll play the Fairy Godmother in Kay Cannon’s musical rom-com rendition of Cinderella, and he’s also set to play the menacing (and hungry) plant Audrey II in Greg Berlanti’s Little Shop of Horrors remake.
Berlanti first cast Porter in his 2000 breakout The Broken Hearts Club. As the director rounds out his cast, he called Porter directly to play Audrey II.
Porter couldn’t reveal too much about his take on the villainous weed—but he did say this: “It’s a different interpretation.” And what came next was delightfully “Hollywood”—in that it sounds both absurd and, somehow, fascinating at the same time: “It’s an expansion of the voice of the plant,” Porter said without a hint of irony. “It’s an expansion of what the plant can be. That’s all I can say… It’s going to be full-on Billy Porter.”
Now that Hollywood is finally ready to celebrate the “full-on Billy Porter,” let’s hope that’s the only version we’ll ever see.