Billy Porter and Uzo Aduba on Overcoming Marginalization and Thriving on TV on ‘Pose’ and ‘In Treatment’

Billy Porter (“Pose”) and Uzo Aduba (“In Treatment”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety‘s Actors on Actors. For more, click here.

Uzo Aduba follows up last year’s Emmy win for playing Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm in FX’s “Mrs. America” with a revival of the HBO drama “In Treatment,” in which she portrays a therapist struggling with her own mental health. Such struggles have also been a hallmark of FX’s “Pose,” on which Billy Porter gives a wrenching, ultimately triumphant performance as drag ball announcer Pray Tell.

Uzo Aduba: How are you in London town?

Billy Porter: I am blessed and highly favored. I’m presenting at the BRIT Awards, and I had to come over early to quarantine. It doesn’t matter that I’m fully vaccinated. And we’re doing film and TV — we get tested every day. I don’t have it.

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Variety

Aduba: I don’t know her.

Porter: Anybody who works in film and television are the safest people, you know. How has your shoot been?

Aduba: I’ve been good. Also blessed and highly favored. I’m in Los Angeles — I just moved out here. And we just wrapped our show a month and a half ago. I’m the therapist, but I am not Gabriel Byrne’s character.

Porter: I watched that show. It came out at a time when I was really trying to find pieces that were on the air already that I could write sample scripts for. I wrote a sample script. Nobody has ever read it; nobody has ever seen it. But I wrote a sample script based on my mother, who has a degenerative condition that has never been diagnosed by the medical profession. Nobody knows what it is. And she’s at the actors’ nursing home right now.

That show just touched me. It really touched me a lot, because our mental health is the most important muscle in our body. And we spend the least amount of time on it.

Aduba: I was excited for it. I hope it resonates. I think we’re living in a time where conversations that surround mental health are not carrying the same level of stigma. If somebody was trying to talk about tackling their mental health, or even mention that they were seeing a therapist, in our community that was thought of as if you were saying you were crazy. Or you belonged in an institution. Don’t tell your therapist; tell Jesus.

Porter: Right.

Aduba: In this season, post-pandemic, we’ve all been through something. Even if you thought before no one had a problem in the world, we can all put one thing on the board now: Everybody’s been through a pandemic. I hope it will spark some conversation.

Porter: I want to say one thing about the first time I saw you, and then I’ll get to “Pose.” The first time I saw you was in a musical at the Public. Right?

Aduba: Yeah. “Venice.” You’re taking me back.

Porter: Leslie Odom Jr. was in it, pre-“Hamilton.” You walked out on that stage, and you’re playing somebody’s mama. I remember thinking, “She’s too young to play this character,” when you walked out. And then you opened your mouth, and I was like, “Oh, wow, she’s the only one.”

You’re a dark-skinned Black woman in the theater who crossed over and let the kids have it. It’s intentional.

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Uzo Aduba plays a therapist having her own mental health struggles on “In Treatment.” Courtesy of Suzanne Tenner/HBO

Aduba: Mm-hmm.

Porter: I asked the universe for this. It was “Angels in America” in 1994. I took myself to see it, by myself. I’d heard too much about it. I was sitting there, and I just wept the whole time, looking at Jeffrey Wright play the character of Belize. No shade — he was fabulous. But a straight Black man.

Aduba: That part.

Porter: Playing the one part that I could get. Because no one respected me as an actor enough to be straight. I was marginalized for my queerness. So I watched this play, and it was the first time that I had ever seen a real representation of me reflected back at me. A Black queer man.

I grew up in the ’70s. There weren’t Black people on TV until “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times.” And to be Black and queer, there was no language. There was no space. So we get to ’94 and I’m like, OK, so he’s a supporting character. However, he’s the moral compass of this play. He’s not the butt of the joke. He’s not the one that’s vilified. Nobody’s beating him up. And here I was around the corner in the Broadway revival of “Grease.”

Aduba: Playing Angel.

Porter: I think I played Ghost. But I’m a teen angel, doing my own gospel version of “Beauty School Dropout.” Prancing around in 14 inches of orange, rubber hair, in a spacesuit like a Little Richard automaton on crack. And I was not happy at all. It was not what I came here for at all. I did not show up in this business to be a clown. And it was seeing “Angels in America” that gave me clarity for the reasons why I was so unhappy. Truth be told, there was nothing for us, Uzo. You’re a dark-skinned Black woman in the theater.

Aduba: I one-thousand percent know that feeling. You were 24 years old, your third Broadway show, Carnegie Mellon trained. I studied classical voice — knowing where your voice naturally sits, but never getting the opportunity to ever sing, because what comes from your body, the package from which it comes, was not yet understood. It wasn’t computing — fine. But you love this thing that you do so much. For me, the job is not to try to find a space for myself within the thing. I’m carving out my own space.

Porter: Correct.

Aduba: “Pose” is almost closing. “Pose” is finishing.

Porter: “Closing” is theater, baby. Us theater babies crossing over to TV, baby.

Aduba: But your talent is so deep; your ability is so strong. Your craftsmanship — my friend, my brother — is with excellence.

Porter: There’s a reason. You did the same thing with Crazy Eyes [in “Orange Is the New Black”]. You know when I saw that piece, I was like, “She’s the only one that could do it.” You’re the only person who could take that role that is a trope and turn it into something that’s real. I started asking for it in ’94. It came about four years ago. The crossover success. The journey was long. It don’t always come when you want it to, but it’s right on time. When I witness what’s going on in the world, I see the platform that I have now because of “Pose.” I understand how to use it.

As artists, we’ve been called. It’s a higher frequency that we vibrate on. We have a direct connection that the regular folks don’t have. Why do you think we’re always attacked first? We are powerful human beings. That’s why I have so gravitated to you and your work. You were an athlete at one point, right?

Aduba: I ran track.

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Billy Porter closes the third and final season of “Pose” with a wrenching — and triumphant — performance. Courtesy of Eric Liebowitz/FX

Porter: You know the discipline of that. Watching your Shirley Chisholm — I saw your face, and once again, there’s no one else. Because you have created the space for yourself. I have created the space for myself, so that when it’s time for the Black queen, since that’s all y’all are interested in, I play that role better than anybody. I’m going to embrace that.

Aduba: Whatever the trope was before, you have successfully redefined it into something else.

Porter: How was it shooting a show during COVID about healing the mind when the world is in need of healing?

Aduba: It was the healing I didn’t know I needed.

Porter: Me too.

Aduba: I didn’t know how much my art was my therapy. And I think this time that we’ve been through, the slowing down of things, really forced a lot of people to have those conversations with themselves. You were filming “Pose” before the pandemic hit — you had to go on hiatus.

Porter: Seven months.

Aduba: What was it like to have been telling an AIDS story, and to fold that into the story when you came back?

Porter: It became very clear during the pandemic that I was having PTSD, based on what I had already lived through. I’m 51, so there’s a whole generation of gay men, queer men, my age who, you know, we lived through it. We survived the plague. It taught me that I needed to take care of myself. If I’m sick in the mind, if I’m sick in my body, I can’t do nothing. I can’t be the warrior that I’m put on this earth to be. So it was so powerful because it was like, oh shoot, I did the first two seasons of “Pose” completely unconscious. What now?

Aduba: What do you want to do and say with your art going forward?

Porter: I want my art to resonate in a way that inspires people to dream the impossible, because I am living proof. You are living proof. We are living proof that the seemingly impossible is very, very possible. And a lot of people need to hear that. A lot of people need to be inspired in that way.