We’re just over halfway through the year, but it’s hard to imagine any TV series beating the leading contender for the year’s most moving scene.
On the sixth episode of the groundbreaking FX series Pose, star Mj Rodriguez, one of the show’s history-making transgender leads who plays the character Blanca, sings the ballad “Home” from The Wiz in the AIDS ward of a hospital. The boyfriend of Pray Tell (the transcendent Tony-winner Billy Porter), Blanca’s own combination brother-father figure, is one of the dying patients. When it seems as if Blanca is going to break down midway through the song, Pray Tell joins her at the microphone, and together their duet becomes a rallying cry for hope and resilience.
The scene encompasses what, for all the importance of its historic casting and storytelling, is its most progressive mission. Set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis in 1987 New York, Pose is, at its heart, a radical celebration of joy, hope, dreams, and resilience. The performance of “Home” is the perfect embodiment of that.
For Rodriguez herself, it was the moment she knew she would have to find her voice, and what that would mean for her community. Because of the mark made by Pose, but also with the cisgender casting of trans roles remaining a major issue in the industry, we may be at a “transgender tipping point,” to borrow the controversial pronouncement TIME made 2014. As Rodriguez looks back on that moving scene and the first season of Pose, the conversation naturally encompasses what her performance would mean for the future of transgender actors in the industry.
“I was always scared about my voice,” Rodriguez tells me when we meet at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, where the cast was doing a victory lap of press at the Television Critics Association press tour. (About an hour later, these critics would be in engaged in a collective group cry, along with the Pose cast, when the “Home” scene is shown again to promote the show.)
Rodriguez had sung professionally before. Her breakout came playing Angel in the 2011 off-Broadway revival of Rent, she made headlines for being the first transgender performer brought in to audition for Hamilton, and her film debut was in the indie musical Saturday Church. “But the one thing I thought I would never be able to do was sing on television,” she says.
Despite her musical success, she’s always been scared about being judged for her voice.
“Even when I had gained the confidence to be like, ‘It’s a voice, y’all. It don’t have no gender to it. It’s a voice,’ I was still scared,” she says. “But I got up there and I took some time to myself and said, ‘Girl, you are about to change many lives. You have to go do this. You can’t feel scared, because then it won’t be conveyed how it needs to be conveyed.’”
And she did it.
“It was the most life-changing ever,” she says, then, perhaps summing up the Pose manifesto: “I was able to do that on a television screen and go into people’s homes and change their hearts.”
When we ask how she felt about the song choice—“Home” is also the first song that Whitney Houston sang live on television, arguably launching her career—Rodriguez once again embodies the magic of Pose: talking about something meaningful and life-changing, while at the same time being real damn fun.
“I say this all the time. I’m gonna say this and I hope y’all hear in the recording,” she says, leaning into our audio recorder and carefully enunciating for dramatic effect. “Ryan Murphy is the Clive Davis to my Whitney Houston.” She makes an explosion gesture with her hand: “Bam!”
Murphy co-created Pose with Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals, and hired Our Lady J, an alum of Transparent, and activist Janet Mock to the writers’ room. It was Mock who directed the episode in which Rodriguez and Porter sang “Home.”
When we talked earlier this summer, Mock called Rodriguez one of the most “brilliant, untapped, unmined gifts that our show has gotten.”
“To me she is a revelation,” Mock says. “She is the bleeding, pulsing heart of our show. She’s a darling, too. We have her playing way older than she actually is,” she continues, alluding to Blanca’s main storyline, in which she becomes a House Mother to homeless LGBTQ “children” she houses, cares for as her own, and coaches for ball competitions. There’s an undeniable flavor with which Rodriguez spices Blanca’s inherent warmth. Mock half-jokes that on set, there would be a drinking game—“or at least a cookie-biting game”—each time Rodriguez says, “As a mutha…” in her indelible way.
For all the ways in which being cast in Pose fulfills a dream for Rodriguez, it’s the fact that she gets to play a mother that is the most unexpected.
“I always wanted to be a mom,” she says, her eyes welling up a bit. “It was a wonderful gift to receive motherhood in this capacity.”
Rodriguez has been vocal about her own mother being a positive person in her life, whether that was enrolling her in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, supporting her when she first became involved in the ballroom scene at age 14, or cheering her on through her audition for Angel at the NJPAC production of Rent when she was 18. Fredi Walker-Browne, who played Broadway’s original Joanne, saw her in that production and recommended her personally to play Angel in the 2011 off-Broadway version that would give Rodriguez her big break.
It was after that run ended that Rodriguez decided to transition. When she was ready, she told her agents she would only be auditioning for female roles from now on—something they embraced without hesitation. Her family and friends, she says, have only shown support, something she channeled when she thought about what it means to be a mother as Blanca.
“It’s not the general or normalized of what a biological motherhood would be like,” she says. “These kids are finding refuge. They’re trying to find something outside of what they couldn’t get from their biological family members, and I really had to dive into that. I had to make sure that I did it the right way. Being that my mom is a positive person in my life, I also had to show the other spectrum of it and I had to give my mother through my character, too.”
In the season finale of Pose, Blanca is awarded Mother of the Year.
The triumph is meaningful, as triumph is woefully rare for trans characters in television, let alone Hollywood. “It’s good to land on a positive note with anything, especially with a show like this where people don’t have an understanding of the community,” Rodriguez says.
In that respect, the last two months that Pose has been airing has been a time of celebration of all the progress it represents. But those two months have also included the controversial casting of Scarlett Johansson as trans man and crime kingpin Dante Tex Gil, a role that Johansson pulled out of after hearing the ensuing debate—debate educated by the work of the actors on Pose.
Still, the fact remains that there are so few trans performers in major roles—only 1.9 percent of scripted primetime characters are trans, according to GLAAD. The question now is how to keep the industry conversations started by the landmark nature of Pose going even as the show is on hiatus until season two.
“Hopefully I can play a role where I’m not stigmatized to just being a trans woman,” Rodriguez says. “I’m not talking about Pose. Pose is a wonderful show, and we’re speaking through a historical lens. Right now in the hiatus, I want to see if I can get a huge movie opportunity. I feel like my art speaks volumes. We, through our art, speak volumes. And when people see someone in a place they never thought they would see before, that’s activism in its own way.”
It echoes something Rodriguez’s co-star, Indya Moore, said speaking to TV critics later that afternoon when discussing The CW’s landmark casting of a transgender actress as a superhero on the upcoming season of Supergirl.
“You know how when you have a situation where it’s just like you’re like (exhales)? Like, that’s what that experience was for me when they announced that a trans woman would be playing a superhero in Supergirl,” Moore said. “Just seeing that there is a trans woman finally cast as a superhero was just really affirming for everything that I wanted to see just in general, but also for our future as actors and actresses.”
Similarly, Rodriguez knows she now has the opportunity to be an advocate, both on- and off- screen.
“I’m trying to change the world, right now before season two happens,” she says, before erupting into a laugh. “Because it’s going to be busy and I’m not gonna be able to change the world as much. I’m gonna be changing the world through my art.”