FX’s upcoming drama series “Pose” promises to be a milestone for TV in the number of transgender actors, writers and producers who are working on the 1980s-set dance musical.
But as much as “Pose” is poised to be a mainstream breakthrough for its trans stars, it is also significant that the stories revolve around transgender people but they are not about the process of coming to grips with gender identity. The show, produced by Ryan Murphy’s busy shop, is set in 1987 New York in the ballroom culture of elaborate fashion competitions among groups of trans women.
The women of “Pose” are “pretty full embodied in terms of their gender identities,” said Janet Mock, a trans activist and writer who is a writer-producer on “Pose” during a panel at the Television Critics Association winter press tour on Friday. The characters “are beyond the struggle with their bodies, with people calling them by their right name. These are people who are creating new ways of having family — chosen family through the ballroom networks.”
“Pose” also gives the trans characters center stage, rather than being sidekicks or sources of comic relief.
“This is an opportunity to have these people sitting with one another, having problematic relationships, exploring class and gender and sexuality in a way that is accessible but also unique enough and personal enough,” Mock said.
Behind the scenes, however, Murphy was candid about the emotional process of assembling the show and working with actors and consultants who never thought they would have an opportunity to be part of a mainstream TV series. The “Pose” cast includes Evan Peters, James Van Der Beek, MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, and Ryan Jamaal Swain. Tatiana Maslany was originally cast in a key role, but she departed after the story was re-conceived for an older character.
“Pose” was created by Murphy, his longtime collaborator Brad Falchuk and up-and-coming writer Steven Canals. Murphy had long wanted to develop a story involving the ballroom scene in New York. Canals brought to Murphy a script set in similar territory that he wrote while studying screenwriting at UCLA in 2014. Murphy, Falchuk and Canals are executive producers along with Brad Simpson, Nina Jacobson, Alexis Martin Woodall, Sherry Marsh, and Erica Kaye.
Murphy said the emotional experience of assembling the show took him back to his early years when, after struggling with acceptance as a gay man from his family and others, he never dreamed that he would one day have a husband, a family and a career. He feels an obligation to open doors for others who are disadvantaged, given his success as one of TV’s most successful producers. While the trans community has made great strides in cultural acceptance in recent years, trans women of color remain among the most vulnerable people in the nation to violence and murder.
Murphy likened the extensive search process for trans actors for the show to “the search for Scarlett O’Hara,” which involved open casting calls and reaching out to the LGBT community to spread the word that “Pose” was seeking fresh talent.
“When I got to call the actors (on ‘Pose’) on the stage and say ‘Hey you got the part,’ that was a very fulfilling, emotional experience,” Murphy said. “There were times when I felt that I was never going to be allowed to show the best of who I am. Me getting to help people do that now — it’s very powerful.”
The writing process required a similar level of openness and communication to ensure that the show is authentic to the period and to the motivations of its various characters. And there were no shortage of opinions on the set. “I don’t have a lot of people who tell me ‘No.’ I was told ‘No’ 50,000 times a day, and that’s what I want,” Murphy said. “We shot ballroom scenes that had 60 trans women in the room who were very appreciative and thrilled to be there. It was a joyous, momentous occasion.”
Murphy joked that Falchuk is “our token white man.”
“It was great to be in a room with people where I had to stop before I move forward and say ‘What does this feel like?’,” Falchuk said.
Murphy said the new focus on trans rights — given the swing in federal policy under the Trump administration — makes the timing of “Pose” extremely significant. He hopes the show will prove enlightening for many viewers, in the same way that LGBT storylines did on his Fox series “Glee.”
“Now is the time to tell this story about this group of people who are sadly are more and more disenfranchised and cut off,” Murphy said. “We wanted to celebrate them. They’re part of our family. The timing of this show was very important.”