“Pose” creator Steven Canals wrote the very first draft of his ballroom culture drama in 2014, on spec, while he was in the graduate program for screenwriting at UCLA. Although his professor Neil Landau gave him “really great feedback” on it, which fueled his confidence to take it out into the industry, once he stepped into meetings, “it was just sort of met with a thud,” he says.
“It was opening up doors for me, but it wasn’t keeping me in the room,” Canals tells Variety about his period piece set in 1980s-New York City that centers on a number of gay and transgender characters, some of whom are HIV-positive.
But what a difference a few years can make. Canals connected with Sherry Marsh, and then Ryan Murphy, with whom he shared “a real moment” about why they loved and were inspired by this community. “At the end of our first meeting, Ryan said, ‘We’re going to make this show together,'” Canals says. And they did, ultimately selling the project to FX, where it debuts June 3.
Here, Canals and his cast talk with Variety about what the show — and its place on television at this time in history — means to them, and what conversations they hope it will inspire.
What does being a part of the show mean to you personally?
Steven Canals: I grew up in New York City in the 1980s and my life was directly impacted by both HIV/AIDs and the crack epidemic of the time. And so I’ve always wanted to tell the story of the men, women, and children who went through and were impacted by the experience of those two epidemics. …Specifically with the ballroom community, my first interaction with the ballroom community came in my early-20s, but I wasn’t out. And the thing that was so incredible and the thing that moved me so deeply was that both of my parents were raised in Harlem. And so the Harlem balls were happening right around the corner from where they grew up, and yet I never knew about this incredible LGBTQ subculture. I took strength from their strength — that’s what inspired me to come out and be my authentic self. “Pose” is not only a way to highlight a particular experience that these black and brown queer and trans people were having but also a way to say thank you to this community that inspired me.
Dominique Jackson (Elektra): Being a part of this show means that I am assisting in bringing visibility to trans women and men of color who thrive every single day despite feeling ostracized by family, religion, and society for living in their truth! It means to me that the young homeless trans women can see me and know that I made it despite all of the obstacles I faced and that giving up is not an option.
Indya Moore (Angel): Being a part of “Pose” means being trusted with a unique and powerful responsibility. It is a responsibility that the world once told itself that someone like me could not carry. It means I am validating an inevitable evolution in thought and compassion. “Pose” is centering the perspective of people who have been silenced, ignored, and rejected for generations. Having the opportunity to use my talent as an actor to bring a full life to your living rooms, bedrooms, and waiting areas is existentially the most affirming thing that could ever happen to and for me. My role of Angel in “Pose” is dedicated to Naomi Hersi. She is a black trans woman of Somali origin who was murdered in her London hotel simply because of who she was. The fact that so many trans women and ballroom legends are not here to see “Pose” makes my heart tender. But I know things will change and people will take accountability for their own lack of humanity when they see our humanity represented in the stories we tell. Cheers to the future of healing, expansion, and “humanship.”
Billy Porter (Pray Tell): About 20 years ago, I rededicated my life’s work to service. My challenge to myself was how could I be of service to something other than my ego and my bank account in an industry that is inherently narcissistic? This is how!
MJ Rodriguez (Blanca): Being a part of “Pose” means being a beacon of light to others, and hopefully inspire them to be, to live, and exist authentically.
Ryan Jamaal Swain (Damon): Being a young kid in Alabama, I hoped to one day help the world through my art. What Ryan Murphy, Steven Canals, and Brad Falchuk have created has been such a blessing to step into each day. This show means the world to me. To be able to be a part of such a special project, not only for the community but for America, is a huge honor and privilege. I often have to take moments to myself on set just take it all in, because it is still pretty surreal. Being a part of this work means that little boys and girls who are struggling with their identities, no matter what race, religion, or creed, could find a voice in me that says “Finally, I have the will, power, and sheer fearlessness to step into the fullness of my truth.”
What does it mean to you that this show is on in this current television landscape and at this time in history?
Canals: Countless times I would go into meetings with execs where they would be like, “I don’t know who the audience for this show is. I don’t know where a show like this lives.” And that was really tough. And at a certain point, to be honest with you, the questions became blatant racism, homophobia, transphobia — I had execs who were saying, “It’s too black, it’s too brown, it’s too queer, it’s too trans, it’s a period piece.” The reality of what’s happening right now with “Pose” is so much bigger than I ever allowed myself to dream.
Jackson: It means that we have not given up because the Trump administration is trying to roll back our rights as human beings! It means that people are hearing us, seeing us, and understanding that we are here, and we have always been here. In this time, a show like “Pose” sends an extremely strong message of inclusion and more, so that despite whatever we may go through that family is extremely important to give us all support to survive in this world.
Moore: As a society, we have seldom been more socio-politically conscious. America has never been greater! “Pose” is one of the vehicles of truth, resistance, and information that always emerges when ignorance is in power. In the medium of television, we couldn’t ask for a more powerful vehicle than “Pose.”
Porter: We get to speak our truth directly to the powers that be of this moment who are trying to drag us back to a time where our lives and humanity didn’t matter. I’m proud to be the bullhorn of progress.
Rodriguez: It means that, in this time and moment, our stories, and our lives, are finally solidified, validated, and deserved. This line of history can finally be told and give a glimpse of what happens to women who are of our experience and how much they fought tooth and nail for our rights to be present, so I can stand here today and be able to do what I love.
Swain: We are at a moment in our nation’s life where the need for something authentic, communal, and entertaining is at an all-time high. The heroes and heroines of our show — trans women and trans men — are being threatened each and every day. This show, this moment, is paramount in the life of our great nation.
What conversations do you hope the show starts?
Jackson: I would like for “Pose” to open the door to the religious folk, and get them so intrigued that they are ready to take a seat at the table and listen to us, instead of demonizing us from a place of the oppressed becoming the oppressors. I would love for this show to open the hearts of parents and relatives of trans-identified folk and start bridging the gaps, debunking stereotypes, and reconnecting families and having those families also become a part of their children’s ballroom careers.
Moore: Casting will never be the same after “Pose” nor will our friends and families. People of varied backgrounds will identify with the lives of characters like Angel, Damon, Stan, Patty, and Blanca. The situations in “Pose,” which are based on actual events, will shock our society and industries with the authenticity of not just the trans actors but also the universal stories we use our vessels to express. From sorrow to joy to forgiveness, these genuine reciprocations will sprout healing conversations.
Porter: I hope that we can help the world understand that we are all human and that we don’t have to agree with each other to honor each other’s existence on the planet. We’re not going anywhere, so get over it and get on with it.
Rodriguez: The conversation that I hope to start is, “What are the origins of voguing?” As far as the change, I hope “Pose” inspires the younger generation to fight hard to get to where they want to be — the sky’s the limit.
Swain: I want the show to create discourse around what it means to be truly seen and heard. As a people, we are all seeking understanding, refuge, and love. I hope that through Damon’s story and the show, we continue to challenge ourselves to expand our understanding — to constantly be in service to the work at hand as a community. I want this show to ignite in the most conservative people the act of compassion, because as a society, we are stronger together than we are apart.
How do you see the need for ballroom culture today as opposed to the 1980s when the show is set?
Canals: LGBT youth homelessness and LGBT youth suicide — I don’t necessarily have the resources to say it’s happening less now than it was then. I think the one thing I can say is that I think today the ballroom community is much more politically active. I think the ballroom kids of today are using their voices to highlight inequality and inequity in a way that I think it was just about survival in the ’80s — they really were just trying to survive. And now, if you’re just talking about the ballroom community in New York, most people have access to computers and to resources, and we’re still lacking in terms of healthcare for trans people, for example, but ultimately today there’s access to resources now in a way there wasn’t in the ’80s. So I think what you’re seeing now is that they’re using their voices to highlight and talk about the inequality that exists.
Jackson: The need for balls will always be strong! It is a legacy handed down by the greats. Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Avis Pendavis, Crystal LaBeija, and many others. If we stopped having balls our history will fade away and we will disconnect from the truth of our struggles to be recognized and included as human beings.
Moore: First of all, the will to live, love, and express oneself in the LGBTQ community has been preserved and revived on and on again through the ballroom scene. The ballroom scene is a legacy created by our founding mothers to preserve the most extravagant dreams, talents, and abilities of LGBTQ POC in hopes that one day we would truly be visible, respected, reciprocated, safe, and equal.
Porter: As long as there are people on the planet who think the folk with darker skin, or different cultures don’t deserve the same inalienable rights our Constitution declares they have, the need for the inclusivity of the ballroom world will be necessary.
Rodriguez: The need for balls exudes from the kids — especially for the ones who don’t have it as easy in life. They always influence me the most. Ballroom culture is a necessity when it comes to the children who don’t have a place to stay at all. It’s one of the only places they can find refuge.
Swain: The very fabric of ballroom culture was to provide refuge to the downtrodden and the rejected. “Pose” documents a certain time where those who were on the fringes of humanity sought and found love and unity. There is always someone who needs community and love. We are all after it as a people. So, there is no dwindling of the necessity of ballroom culture but instead, a cry to continue to unearth the fullness of its purpose, which is to be in service to mankind. Isn’t that what we are all after?