Billy Porter is crossing over into the mainstream as one of the stars of FX’s groundbreaking series “Pose.” As Pray Tell, he is has been nominated at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards following a career in Broadway where he earned a Tony for “Kinky Boots.”
Porter recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about playing Pray Tell, his familiarity with the subjects covered on “Pose” and his major red carpet moment at the Oscars. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the full interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Billy, I believe this is your first series regular TV role so how does it compare to other work you’ve done onstage and onscreen?
Billy Porter: That’s a really interesting question. The one thing I will say about being a theater artist doing eight shows a week for 30 years is that I have stamina. Stamina is what you really need to do film and television because the hours are very random, “Action” really does mean action on a dime. You have to be able to be present and be there, which is a really interesting thing for those of us who do theater because you do the story every day from beginning, middle and end. What I find really interesting about film and TV is that it’s not linear. Nothing is filmed in order. It’s very much on the spot. You really have to be able to do your closeup at 2:30 in the morning sometimes. It’s been an interesting recalibration for my body and I love it.
GD: A lot of people before “Pose” got to know ball culture mostly from the documentary “Paris Is Burning,” which is a classic documentary, especially for LGBT cinema. Otherwise, people haven’t necessarily had as much exposure to it or familiarity with it. What was your level of familiarity or experience with the ball culture before taking part in this show?
BP: I always say I’m ball culture adjacent. It was my era. “Paris Is Burning” came out when I was probably 19 or 20. It was the first time that I had seen anything as an LGBTQ person of color in the ‘80s, who came out in the ‘80s. I had never seen anything that looked like me onscreen, for real. I had never seen any story told in that way onscreen. So it was very significant for me. I also went to balls. I went to several balls but I was not a part of the culture. I came to New York and went right to the Broadway scene. My first Broadway show was the original cast of “Miss Saigon” so I was doing eight shows a week. But we went out and we partied and we hung out. I had a lot of friends in the community.
GD: “Pose” is unique in that it’s a show that centers gay and transgender characters played by gay and transgender actors.
BP: Imagine that!
GD: And there are gay and transgender writers, producers, behind the scenes, directors. What’s it like taking part in a show that centers people who are usually at the margins of this?
BP: I’m speechless. It’s like my breath is taken away every day because I grew up in a time where this was not an option. Telling these stories was not even something that you could dream about. It just wasn’t a thing. I’m just so grateful to have lived long enough to see this day, to see this transition, to see this happen. Many disenfranchised communities are having an opportunity to show the world who we are, that we’re a part of the human race. That’s literally what it’s about. We all have families and we’re a part of the human race. It’s just astonishing to me to be able to not only have lived it but then be a part of the community that tells the story. It’s humbling and amazing.
GD: Having come of age around the time when the first season of the show takes place, what’s it like coming into this story playing a mentor character to characters who would’ve been around that age?
BP: It feels like I’m just stepping into my season because I woke up one day and I’m 50 (laughs). I’ll be 50 in September. I don’t feel like what I remember that looking like or feeling like when I was younger. I still feel like a big kid trying to find his way in the world. The reality is, I have lived 50 years on this planet and I do have some wisdom when it comes down to it. So it’s really great to be able to play that character, to be able to embody that type of humanity onscreen. We keep talking about it but it’s an archetype that we’ve not seen before. We’ve really not seen this human being before and it’s really great to be able to educate while entertaining.
GD: Speaking of entertaining, some of the biggest, most dynamic and energetic scenes on the show are the ball scenes themselves. You as the emcee are at the center of those. What’s it like shooting those? What kind of energy is that like on-set?
BP: It’s really interesting because you have to film it several different kinds of ways. You sort of have to film the really highly energetic version where everybody’s talking and everybody’s screaming and everybody’s dancing and the music is playing and it’s a big wide shot camera. You do that version but then you have to go in and get the quieter moments, get the coverage, get the close-ups, so it’s fun watching the ball extras have to reproduce the energy but do it silently. They have to have the same energy but sort of pantomime it so that we can get the lines that are going on in the scene. What I love is that most of the time, my closeups are at the end of the day when we’ve been working so I have a lot of time to feel what the scene is and get the rhythm of it, get Pray Tell’s energy and how I’m going to move it along. We clear everybody out and they set up the cameras however they want for my closeup and then I just do all of my lines back to back as if everybody’s in the room. That’s my favorite part because I get to really craft what I think the performance in that moment should be. It’s fun. It’s really, really fun to see what they use. You have a moment to give different takes on each thing and it’s fun.
GD: Those scenes are so complicated to actually assemble. What’s it like seeing them when they’re fully coming together and it looks like one assembled whole and you wouldn’t know what the pieces were that went into it?
BP: What I love is that I would say it’s the closest equivalent to what it feels like to do an amazing number in a great Broadway musical. The construction of it is so musical. It’s based in music, it’s almost like you’re watching a musical. It feels like that inside of it. It’s wonderful to see that kind of energy resonate on television and resonate in this kind of structure. I just get giddy because it’s like, “It’s a musical, you guys!” And you know I love musicals.
GD: One of Pray Tell’s most important relationships, closest relationships on the show is with Blanca, played by Mj Rodriguez. They also have a mentor kind of relationship, he has to her, but sometimes it goes both ways. What it was like developing those characters’ relationship and getting that bond between them onscreen?
BP: We knew each other beforehand. I met Mj. I was the associate director of the revival of “Rent” on Broadway. We cast her in what essentially, I think, is her first professional job, which was playing Angel in that revival of “Rent,” pre-transition. We just really got to know each other working on that, around 2010, I believe. It felt so natural because we already had a language. We already had a relationship and it was so beautiful to see her transition. I knew at the time that something was going on with her. I had never really been exposed to that kind of transition so I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It came out in her performance of Angel. I recognized something different that I had never seen in Angels prior to that in “Rent.” I couldn’t put my finger on it and then a couple of years after the show closed I ran into her and she had transitioned and it was like, “Oh my god. That’s what I was feeling, that kind of authenticity, that flies in the face of logic to many people, reason to many people,” but is the only way. It is the only choice for so many. So it’s just great to be able to educate the world with my sister on national television, international television.
GD: One of the most memorable moments between the both of you and for Pray Tell’s character, in general, was the episode “Love Is the Message,” where the two of you sing for that hospital event for the AIDS ward. In that whole episode, Pray Tell is dealing with the imminent loss of his partner. What was it like when you first read the script for that episode and when you were shooting that? What kind of feelings were you experiencing through that?
BP: What I love about these scripts, which you sort of touched on earlier, is it’s the actual people telling the story. It’s the actual people from the community that we’re talking about telling the story so the authenticity is so real in ways that I had not experienced in many scripts prior to this time. You get a script, and for me, every time I read one it goes deeper. Every time I read another one, there’s another layer that’s peeled back. There’s another depth that our creators are not afraid to take us to because they understand that it’s the only way. You have to be as truthful as possible. It was something that I don’t think they even really knew. When I was coming up there was a group around my time, the Broadway community and the cabaret communities came together and they created an organization called Hearts & Voices, and what that was was all over the hospitals, it turned into this huge organization where once a week, at every AIDS ward in every hospital in New York City, there was an hour carved out in one of the weeks where they would get cabaret singers or Broadway performers and a piano player so you would have two to four performers at every spot with a piano player. You’d bring your book, which were generally audition books or cabaret books, where you would have your sheet music in there and you’d get to a room, not unlike the rooms we have in “Pose” and we would sing for an hour. We would just bring joy to these people who felt forgotten, who very often didn’t family, didn’t have friends and were sort of withering away into this kind of no man’s obscurity. As a creative person, it was really special to have a place to feel like you were contributing to some kind of change or make some kind of difference. I’m not a community organizer, I’m not a politician. That’s not my ministry, but I’m an artist. To be able to have that organization that I could funnel my energy into was really a blessing. So when I read the script for “Love Is the Message,” it reminded me of those times because it was exactly what it was like. Once again, it was another great moment of showing what it was for real, what it was really like.
GD: Your work on the show has been recognized thus far. The Golden Globes, you were nominated there. The Critics’ Choice Awards, you were nominated there. The show was nominated at the Golden Globes. What was that recognition like, that the show’s been received that well thus far?
BP: It’s a difficult thing as an artist to balance this idea of awards vs. work. The work is always first. The work is always what we all care about first. In a situation for us, we talked about the disenfranchised people, the stories that aren’t in the mainstream. Mainstream recognition matters for us specifically because it allows for larger groups of people to figure out and understand and know who we are. That helps us to be in a position to continually keep telling these kinds of stories. So it was significant for me as a black, gay, out actor to be in a category that has never seen the likes of me. It’s very significant in where we are in the world. I was nominated for Best Lead Actor in a Drama. I’m creating an archetype here. The whole show is creating archetypes that never existed in the marketplace. So to be recognized in this way is to change the narrative, to change the whole thing, to upset the cart, turn it over and that’s what we’re doing with this show. That’s what it feels like.
GD: Speaking of overturning the cart at awards, you weren’t nominated at the Oscars but as far I’m concerned, you won the Oscars with your tuxedo gown. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen at an Oscar red carpet.
BP: (Laughs.) Thank you!
GD: It was a Christian Siriano design. What was the decision-making process going into choosing that as your Oscars look?
BP: Okay. Bunch of different things. First of all, me and my girlfriends, and when I say that, I’m talking about male and female girlfriends, when I was coming up, we would always just sort of tease and play. It’s like, “Ooh, I can’t wait to wear a ballgown at the Oscars. I’ma wear a gown. I don’t care what anybody says.” Sort of teasing, just saying it but not really meaning it. I didn’t think I meant it. So that’s the first part of it. The second part of it is as an artist and as a businessman, I have to pay attention to the moments and what the possibility of resonance inside of any particular moment is. So I remember watching the Oscars when “Frozen” was up for an Oscar and the “Let It Go” song was up for an Oscar. Idina Menzel is a friend of mine from Broadway. There’s this whole thing with Broadway actors and film and television and you can make it in Broadway and never cross over to a wider audience. We’re always trying to use our Broadway history to springboard us into these spaces where we can reach more people. She was the voice of Elsa and John Travolta gets up and says her name wrong: “Adele Dazeem.” The Oscars is like the showbiz Super Bowl. In one second, Idina Menzel was a household name because somebody said her name wrong. And I said out loud at that time, I was like, “When I get my Oscar moment, I’m gonna have to make sure it’s a moment like that.” I can’t get somebody to pronounce my name wrong but that’s a business moment that sometimes you can’t plan. Very often you can’t plan, but if one is present enough to understand how the business works, you may be able to create a moment for yourself. So two and a half weeks out from the Oscars, I got this call saying they wanted me to come and do the red carpet hosting. I thought about that playtime I had. As an artist, you never lose your sense of wonder. You never lose your sense of play and I had to go back to my fits of wonder and play from my childhood and go, “I said that I was gonna wear a ballgown. I was joking then but I’m not joking now.” This is the moment. This is the Super Bowl for me. One image could change everything for me. I understood that going in. I didn’t understand the magnitude, really, of what it could really be until afterward. I knew that it was a moment for me to make a statement. I knew it was a moment for me to create a conversation around gender and gender norms and these arbitrary rules that we’ve created for ourselves that need to go away. I knew that. I was doing that on purpose. I had no idea that it would literally change the world, for real. I really didn’t anticipate that part of it. I knew it would do something but not as much as it’s been doing, did, and continues to do.
GD: Thank you, Billy, and thank you to everyone watching. I wanna wish you the best of luck at the Emmys. Fingers crossed this summer for a nomination and another chance at an Oscar-worthy red carpet look at the Emmys in a few months.
BP: (Laughs.) Thank you.