“Pose” co-creator, showrunner and director Steven Canals knew from the beginning that his 1980s- and ’90s-set ballroom culture cable drama was going to rest firmly on the shoulders of Blanca Rodriguez (played by Michaela Jaé “Mj” Rodriguez), a young trans woman and house mother diagnosed with HIV early on in the series’ run. He also knew from the start that she would survive, while Pray Tell (Billy Porter), unfortunately, would not.
But Rodriguez didn’t know how things would shake out for her character until they were well into filming the third and final season. When she found out, she was of course “heartbroken” that Pray and Blanca wouldn’t get to finish their journeys together, but she was also “elated and happy to see that there was a woman of the trans experience who was of color who had a strong Black man who was getting behind her, pushing her forward,” she says.
In many ways, that speaks to both how Pray encouraged Blanca, but also how Canals supported Rodriguez as they worked together.
“In the series finale, the thing that I was most excited about was absolutely centering Mj and giving her moments that allowed the audience to see how great she is,” Canals says. “That led us to the flash-forward you see in the finale where she’s still in her relationship with Christopher, graduated from school and is fully a nurse, and giving back to the ballroom community as a legend and as a grandmother to Ricky’s House of Evangelista.”
The series finale, for which Canals is Emmy-nominated in both the drama writing and drama directing categories, shot for more than 20 days on location in New York City amid the COVID19 pandemic. Canals notes that this was the double the length of any other episodes, but this was a supersized one, in addition to being pivotal. Within that time frame, he had to give every character a farewell, in addition to capturing extreme highs and lows of emotion. They included Pray’s death and Blanca’s memorial for him; a protest, an Act Up meeting and a scattering of ashes on the lawn of the mayor’s house; and multiple balls, including one that featured Porter and Rodriguez doing a Diana Ross duet.
“The activism scenes were big, so I had to storyboard them and be precise,” Canals says. “This was really the first time we went in very, very clear about what we needed so we had a storyboard artist and were down to the millisecond about what we needed.”
But when it came to the ballroom scene, which were always historically “looser,” he says, he told Rodriguez, “This is your moment and I want you to take it.”
After working together for three seasons, Canals and Rodriguez didn’t need to discuss much in between scenes or takes. (“How the words expressed and how we felt them, how they came off the pages, we just put it on the television screen,” Rodriguez says.) However, the direction he gave her to seize the moment meant a lot.
It “was so uplifting and it made me so comfortable with going full-out for performance like this,” she says. “That was one of my favorite moments because I just got to be happy and live, and also see myself as Michaela Jaé and see how much I’ve grown.”