This Emmy season, Angelica Ross made history as the first female transgender performer to be a series regular in two series — FX’s “American Horror Story: 1984” and “Pose.” In the latter, she portrayed Candy Ferocity, a ballroom performer who started her own house but was still struggling to get by. Her story showed the dangers of DIY body modification and sex work. In the fourth episode of the second season, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” her friends found her murdered in a hotel room, which shined a light on the horrific violence against the trans community that is still occurring today.
Ross: I feel like I was constantly channeling the queens before me, one in particular that I knew — her name was Baja. Baja was not considered to be a pretty queen or a feminine queen. As a matter of fact, Baja didn’t actually even care to cater to anyone’s idea of dressing as femme, so Baja, to anyone else’s bare eyes would have been a boy in a dress, but in her head and in our minds, she was the Grace Jones of the ballroom scene. It was her confidence that had her walking down the runway wrapped in all these bags attached with safety pins, being confident she was going to win the category with something she created. That is the essence of Candy: taking the scraps that life is offering her and working with it and selling it.
I think what was unfortunate about Candy’s experience — and girls like Candy’s experience — is that people don’t see the effort they’re putting into bettering themselves and into being able to compete; all they see is someone who can’t compete.
I’ve been in Candy’s shoes before. I’ve been overlooked. And I’ve had to make the world take notice — I’ve had to become an undeniable force. I learned that a little bit from my girlfriend Laverne Cox. When I was working as a career coach for a nonprofit back in 2012, I invited Laverne into speak with the group of trans women I was working with, and one of the things that Laverne said was that when it came to the audition room or when it came to going into an interview, you had to be undeniable.
All I needed was space and opportunity. I’m somewhat who was brought up in theater on the notion that there are no small parts, only small actors, and so during Season 1, as an actor, initially, I felt a little overlooked. But I have this interesting resolve that basically says, “You will take notice!” And so there were moments like [when] Candy’s thirst-trapping after the guys who are taking their shirts off. That scene started way before they called, “Action.” When I become a character, I lose myself in their world, and so in Candy’s world, she’s thirsty and she’s hungry, and that’s where I stayed. I know what it feels like to be hungry; I know what it feels like to be thirsty, too.
By the time you reach [Season 2] Episode 4, the thing that makes me grieve her most is that you realize too late that she was one of your favorite girls — one of the girls you kind of love to hate sometimes, but you still had love for her. So as I look at Candy’s last performance, the light even hit her differently.
In preparing for this, my instructions were to just be Candy. They didn’t want to choreograph it, and I was like, “Are you crazy? Of course I’m going to choreograph it!” It really is a process. When you are lip synching, you really are being an actress in a music video, but the difference in live performance is you’re sharing the emotion of the song with the audience, so when you look into the eyes of [people in] the audience, you’re giving them a private window into the heartbreak. And so with “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” it was hard because it was still a full day of shooting and there were other scenes that were being done. I was doing the funeral scene, too, and I had been crying all day, and it was absolutely exhausting and then I had to do this number, and I think I did the number three or four times all the way through — in the heels.
This was one of the hardest performances, emotionally, that I have ever done. And I believe that this role has solidified for me my purpose in acting, as well as in my Buddhist perspective. We believe as Buddhists that we’re able to step into any environment and be the calm and peace; we can go into a place of complete suffering and bring people out. And going into Candy’s pain and suffering, I don’t think I could ever fully describe how much the experience itself in the moment deeply moved me and changed me, but also how it’s ongoing. I didn’t realize fully, I think, what I was signing up for when I agreed to go with the storyline, but what I was signing up for was to carry a death with me.
There are moments where I’m laying in the casket and I’m grateful that the camera’s not on me because the body is crying. And I am having a vicarious experience. As hard as I’ve worked and the things that I’ve done, luckily there are people that give me my flowers when I’m living, but at the same time I know I will never hear some of the words from people in my life that I got to hear from Candy’s perspective, laying in a casket.
We had a serious discussion about how much to show and how much to tell about the incident, and who was our audience? We center the community when we’re thinking about who the audience is, but also when we travel into these territories, we know that this is not new news for the community. So we did not want to make this visual aspect more traumatizing for people who were experiencing it. We know that Candy is a fighter, and we all can just imagine that she fought her best, and I think that’s good enough.
By doing this, hopefully, this will echo around the world and start to mitigate and slow down the violence that’s happening against trans people. When you know better, you do better. And also I learned from Janet Mock how important it is for us to tell our stories first to ourselves and then to other people as we’re healing.
In telling this story, there was an end to one character’s storyline, but for me — Angelica Ross, the actor — I believe it was telling two stories about two Black, trans women who might have been overlooked until that moment. But now I’m going on to continue the narrative that we as trans actors don’t have to just play trans roles. The reality is, is that we could eventually get to place where cis actors can eventually play trans roles, but we’re not at that place yet because things have been so unequal and because Hollywood has been using these opportunities in order to invalidate trans people’s identities. There’s only one in particular that I can name that was as a respectful portrayal, and that was Kerry Washington in a movie called “Life is Hot in Cracktown.” Really at the base of it is that she played a trans woman, and the reality of it is it’s a woman telling a woman’s story. So many times they’re saying trans women are really men. But that’s why when you see five different main characters along with all of the supporting characters and background players in “Pose” make those portrayals pale in comparison. Because you can just see the lived experience, and it’s not something you can steal in order to get award recognition. I think that “Pose” has helped prove a point, and now we’re seeing little people and folks with disabilities and folks with various uniquenesses showing up in reality on our screen instead of people making caricatures out of them.