While Ryan Murphy may claim that he has taken a backseat when it comes to showrunning “Pose,” he is not shying away from bringing his own particular experiences to the story of 1980s ballroom culture in the LGBTQ community and the fear surrounding the AIDS epidemic of the time.
“I would drive myself to the emergency room in college every 10 days even when I was celibate and get a blood test,” he said after a screening of his latest drama for FX on Tuesday. “I would wait for two weeks, lose 15 pounds, and throw up in the middle of the night in fear because I thought I was going to die. I thought that loving someone meant death.”
Specifically, the sixth episode entitled “Love is the Message” was a very emotional and cathartic experience for Murphy. In the episode, which Janet Mock co-wrote and directed, Pray Tell (Billy Porter) loses the love of his life to AIDS and has to reconcile his own HIV diagnosis.
“The speech where Billy Porter says, ‘They’ll never know what it was like to have freedom taken away and what’s worse.’ That was me. I remember feeling that,” Murphy said.
Murphy, whose desire to spotlight the trans community first sparked with the pilot “Pretty/Handsome” that never moved forward at Fox, also shared that he was inspired by the 1991 ballroom culture documentary “Paris is Burning” and sought out the team behind the project before embarking upon “Pose.”
“The first thing I did was meet with three of the survivors. They’re actually judges in every episode of ‘Pose,’ he said. “I just wanted to meet them to let them know I didn’t want to take their story but make them a part of the show and pay them for their time and energies. The first thing they told me was the story of the museum heist that opens the pilot of ‘Pose.’ That’s a true story.”
Murphy was also very specific when casting the five female leads of the series.
“What was important to me was that they were authentic and that they were trans women. We spent six months months where it was like the search for Scarlett O’Hara,” he joked. “[Casting director] Alexa Fogel and her crew spent time going to every ball and every bar posting up signs and letting everybody know that anybody who wanted to audition could audition. That’s how we found so many of the wonderful actresses in here.”
Noting that his job “is to take care of them, provide for them, and give access into the mainstream world that they have been denied for so long,” Murphy is proud that these women who never could get into the room now are the leads of a show.
“It’s been a really joyous, amazing experience I would say without question has been the highlight of my career. It’s very moving and every day we shoot, every episode we edit, we shed a lot of tears because it’s a period piece and you see how much was lost and how long the fight has been going on,” he said. He has chosen to donate all his profits back to the community.
And Mock, who was in conversation with Murphy Tuesday, admitted she never thought directing an episode of television was a possibility until Murphy thrust her into the ring without taking no for an answer. “But then you were nice and you held me and said: ‘We’re gonna do this together,'” she recalled.
After shadowing directors like Gwyneth Horder-Payton on earlier episodes, Mock showed up the first day of shooting her episode and Murphy was beaming. “She was thrown immediately into the big ballroom scenes, which are a nightmare to shoot. But as I knew she would do, she instantly took over. I was like: ‘My job is done,'” he said.
As Mock hopes to direct a future adaptation of her first memoir “Redefining Realness,” Murphy yearns for other showrunners and people of power in the industry to help bring up a new generation of storytellers like Mock who otherwise might not be heard.
“It’s important to me and, as I keep telling other people in my position, all you have to do is say yes,” he said.
“Pose” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on FX.