“It means the world”: MJ Rodriguez talks making history for trans representation in ‘Pose’

“It means the world”: MJ Rodriguez talks making history for trans representation in ‘Pose’
Image: MJ Rodriguez as Blanca with Ryan Jamaal Swain as Damon. Image: JoJo Whilden & FX / supplied.

Pose is a groundbreaking new series that delves into an underrepresented generation of trans and queer people of colour. Laurence Barber spoke with its star MJ Rodriguez.

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Life often imitates art: just as her character on the much-anticipated new series Pose is finally getting her due, the world is coming to recognise the major talent of MJ Rodriguez.

It’s a show born of Ryan Murphy’s writer-producer might in combination with co-creator Steven Canals and a chorus of African-American and Latinx queer voices. At the centre of it all is Rodriguez.

As Blanca, mother of the House of Evangelista, she is all fierce maternity and self-assurance; qualities it’s clear come naturally to Rodriguez herself. If one thing is evident, it’s that she’s ready to inspire. But things almost turned out another way.

“The audition process took about six months,” she says, adding that she only found this out much later.

“I had been hearing from a lot of my friends, telling me to go in for the part of Blanca.

“I did the unprofessional thing, which I hope nobody kills me for, but I contacted the [casting] people too because I was really, really interested in getting the role.”

After finally scoring an audition, Rodriguez didn’t hear anything for two weeks.

“So in my mind I’m thinking, ‘Oh god, I didn’t get anything. Oh lord. Well, I guess I just have to move forward, be an adult, and try to process and see what else is out there. But I really wish I could’ve got that!’”

At the same time, Rodriguez was close to booking a Broadway gig. She had first burst on to the theatre scene in a 2011 production of Rent.

“Literally right at the time where I was at the final callback of the Broadway show, I got the call. I get a call from Ryan Murphy. And honey, that was history. The rest was history!” she says.

Australia is a world apart from Paris is Burning, but Rodriguez says the idea of chosen family and community uplift at the core of ball culture will resonate even with those who are less familiar.

“The ballroom world was a place where people could find others that were just like them.

“That was the ballroom culture. That was the place where a lot of children would go to find refuge, and that was a place where older and experienced house mothers and house fathers would spot out these kids, and raise them the way their parents who ostracised them would have.”

Much has been said of how Pose is a game-changing show, but in truth, it’s more that the industry is finally realising they’ve been playing the wrong game for too long.

“Being on Pose, a groundbreaking show that has really scratched the surface of this generation… it means so many wonderful things,” she says.

“But most importantly, it means that there’s hope in this world. That there will be others out there who understand and truly just dig deep and dive hard into our stories and our narratives and truly understand us as human beings.

“Who try to grasp how hard it was for us back in 1987 and what my ancestors had to do in order for women like us – five prominent trans women of colour – and different stories to be on television screens. So it means the world.”

Alongside Rodriguez are her fellow leads – Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar, and Angelica Ross – and supporting performers, with over 50 trans characters in total.

The show also has prominent writers and activists Janet Mock and Our Lady J behind the camera, making it a massive leap forward in the elevation of trans voices in film and TV.

With Pose’s first season now finished airing in the US, and with a second season coming next year, Rodriguez says the industry has greeted her with open arms.

“It’s been extremely welcoming when it comes to the industry. There has been no judgment passed upon me.

“As a woman of my experience, I think people have just been seeing, simply, me. And they’ve been very open to that, and something like that speaks volumes because that means the next girl or the next boy after me will be able to be received the same exact way because the door has been opened.”

With the controversy over Scarlett Johansson’s brief casting as a trans man still lingering in the air, I ask Rodriguez why – in her own words – it’s important that trans performers get to play trans characters.

“It’s important trans people play the characters because they’ve had a specific experience in life that is very close to what a trans character would be able to portray. And a person who is of the trans experience would be able to convey that the way they need to.

“Now that’s not doubting anyone as far as acting, because acting is a way of expressing many characters, but I think it’s very important that we are allotted to play those roles – as well as having open range to play any type of role.”

For Rodriguez, Pose is something of a homecoming. Born and raised in New Jersey, as a teenager she was, essentially, discovered and brought to the ball.

“When I was 14 years old, I was in high school and I was a kid who defied all barriers. I was myself, I didn’t identify as anything.

“I would always be part of fashion shows at my high school. At that time, there was a man – his name was Timothy J. Smart – he could come in and he would create these fashion shows. And there were kids in the fashion shows that he would pinpoint. And he pointed to me and said, ‘That’s my daughter.’

“I remember sneaking over to New York City, telling my mum I was going to practice but I was actually going to practice to vogue,” she laughs.

“It’s funny because he was the guy who actually structured some strength in me as far as the outside world [goes],” she says.

Rodriguez said Smart showed her what she “needed to do in order to be a beacon of hope for others.”

“I remember sneaking out there, going into a room and him saying to me, ‘Let me see what you got.’

“I completely looked the fool,” she laughs. “He told me, ‘What in the world were you doing?’ That man, he was amazing.”

But Rodriguez says she channeled her mother, especially, for her performance.

“Obviously in a different way,” she adds. “And from a woman’s perspective just like mine.”

“My mum was the main person who influenced me. I channel a lot of her when there are moments when I have to be a mother in a scene and I have to make sure my kids are okay or lay down the law.

“The way she showed love to me was the best way. I had to portray that through the television screen so hopefully that would be a light to some parents to show them that their kid is going through something they truly don’t understand.

“Maybe they need to take the precaution of being a little light-hearted and understanding of what they’re going through. If they give you an attitude from time to time, snap ‘em in check! But for the most part, love – love is the message.”

Pose begins Tuesday September 11 at 8.30pm on Foxtel’s showcase channel, as well as On Demand.

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