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Ballroom Hits: ‘Pose’ Star MJ Rodriguez On Being The First Trans Woman To Be Nominated For A Lead Acting Emmy
DEADLINE – Mj Rodriguez is the latest cast member of FX’s groundbreaking series Pose to make Emmy history, earning the very first lead acting nomination for a trans woman. In conversation with Ryan Fleming she reflects on an achievement she never thought possible, and what she hopes it will mean.
Growing up in Newark in the ’90s, Michaela Jaé (Mj) Rodriguez never imagined she could have achieved what she has. Coming from a time where there were no trans women of color in the forefront of entertainment, the existence of a role like Blanca Evangelista in Pose seemed nigh on impossible. Having been cast in 2017, the FX series’ final season has now earned Rodriguez a history-making Emmy nomination—making her the first trans person ever to be nominated in a lead acting category.
In Pose, Rodriguez’s character is a trans woman who decides to follow her dreams after finding out she has HIV. She creates the House of Evangelista, a new ‘house’ in the ballroom scene of New York City in the late ’80s and becomes a house mother to wayward young people of color looking for a place to belong. Critically acclaimed for shining a light on the underground ball culture of New York City in that era, Pose has brought much-needed visibility to the hidden struggles trans women of color faced at the start of the AIDS epidemic.
Since its inception, the show has been breaking barriers for the LGBTQ community left and right. Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, it features the largest cast of trans actors to date. And, in 2019, Billy Porter became the first gay Black man to be nominated—and to win—an Emmy in a lead acting category for his role as Pray Tell.
Now, Rodriguez retraces the life and career steps that brought her to this momentous nomination, the struggles and successes that paved the way, and what she hopes it will all mean for the industry going forward.
Congratulations on making history.
Thank you. I’m still gagging. It feels extremely surreal but liberating. I’ve never felt more liberated in my life, because one, it’s never happened before. And I’ll just say this, a girl has been working hard. She’s been really pounding the pavement. The concrete jungle is where it started for me, and it’s amazing to see that I pounded the pavement in the concrete jungle, and came over to the beautiful La La Land, and I feel like the doors have been opened up more.
And seeing a woman like myself strive and get the things that I feel like I’ve always wanted… It feels so good. I feel so seen. And I hope I’m giving inspiration to people out there. I know that I am, but I hope it’s even bigger. Because the more imagery of a person like myself, or any woman who’s in this kind of position, it just broadens the spectrum for people to understand we have what it takes to really achieve our goals in the industries that we decide to go into, specifically for myself acting and singing. It feels good. It feels freaking amazing.
What do you think that this nomination does for trans representation?
I think it just really opens the gamut. I think it broadens the scope a little bit more, and it shows that not only are we human, but we take our class seriously. And we’re not just stereotypical characters, but we have multi-dimensional characters, multi-dimensional lives aside from what has been created around us. And that is being brought, and that means there are going to be more people coming to the table, showing their versatility, showing what they have, and showing that they’re equipped for the job simply by getting—and I’ll speak for myself— simply with a nomination like this, I can’t even believe I’m saying this, but being an Emmy-nominated actress, that even opens the door a little bit more to show that we do have the qualifications. I think that’s what it means, and I just hope that the door keeps being held open, or they put a little stopper in the door so it can stay open so that more people can really show what they’re capable of within the industry of the arts.
What kind of feedback have you received since the nomination?
So many responses. I’ve received beautiful, uplifting responses. I’ve seen some heartfelt responses that made me break down in tears. The one I hear the most is, “You remind me so much of the mother that I once had, but is not here,” or, “The mother who was in my house.” And when I say not here, due to obviously HIV and AIDS back in the 1980s. Or, “I wish I had a mom like you.”
And I will say this, this is one story, if I can talk about this, there was a boy who lived in Nigeria, and I made it my duty to get in contact with him. It just was in my spirit to get in contact with him. He got displaced from his home, and it was simply because he was gay. And he told me that his parents didn’t see him. It was very much like the story of Damon. And I remember just telling him, “You’re going to be fine. You’re going to be OK. If you need anyone to talk to, I’m here. I know it’s hard, but you’re going to get through this.”
And I hadn’t spoken to him for I would say a couple of months, maybe a few months, and then I heard from him again, and I remembered his picture. And he contacted me, and told me, “I’m doing so much better now. I found my family, and they’re taking good care of me, and I have a job now, and I’m living.” That alone. The words and the inspiration of a show like Pose, not even Michaela Jaé, but the characters of Blanca, Angel, Pray Tell, Elektra, they were influential to people all around the world, including this person in Nigeria who was displaced from his home.
But receiving a message like that not only humbled me. It made me want to work harder and keep fighting through my craft even more. Because there are children out there who are 16, 15 years old, who don’t have homes simply because of the things that they choose to do, or who they are. If they want to go into acting, they say, “That’s a hard road. Choose one of the jobs that is in a better field.” No. Achieve your dream.
Anyone who is of a specific orientation, whether you be trans, gay, gender non-conforming, or a person who identifies as cis, you can succeed and do it. And that story just turned my whole life around. It really did.
When you were growing up, did you have any icons that you felt represented who you were?
There weren’t a lot of trans women of color on the television screens in the forefront back in the day, so I saw a lot of strong, Black, cis women who I was inspired by, alongside my mother. My mother is who truly instilled my womanhood inside of me. But as far as the crafts, and women in the crafts in the industry, I would look at Angela Bassett, and Halle Berry, and Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer, and it just ran the gamut of age brackets, it ran the gamut of class. These were women who were really fighting, and doing it well, and I looked up to them.
And how did you get your start in acting?
I started very young. A lot of people don’t know that. I was, I would say, about 11 years old when I was old enough to be enrolled in an arts program called New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey. And I just got my start there. I was enrolled in schools when I was younger, when I was four, but I was literally a toddler. When 11 came along, that’s when I knew, as an artist, that I wanted to take it seriously. My mom put me in classes, and I just knew that this was something that I love to do. I love creating characters. I love characters that were created, and people putting them in front of my face for me to portray them. I wanted to carry that through. And I checked in programs, I kept going to art schools. I went to an arts high school. And yeah, I just was trained in my craft of acting and music for all my life.
Back then, could you ever have imagined that your role as Blanca was possible?
No. I never imagined that. I never even thought that there would be a leading role for an Afro Latina trans woman like Blanca. And so, my scope of life as far as trans women being in the forefront, especially trans women of color, was really never there. I was just a girl in the world trying to make that possible. And I know there were other girls alongside me, like Laverne Cox, and Trace Lysette, that were making it possible. I was that girl with that one-track mind who was doing the same exact thing, and just trying to make sure I did what I needed to do so that the door would be completely bust open, and there was no way of closing it.
And who were your early supporters?
Well, we can go deep. I’d say my earliest supporters are my best friend of 15 years, his name is Rayvon Middlebrooks. And my mother, Miss Audrey Rodriguez, and my father. I’m giving you all the names, because these are the supporters that are here from the beginning, and they will be there to the end. My dad, and my family members, and my good friends who are a part of these great programs with me. And as time went on, and as time really made space for me in the industry with my colleagues, I started to see it from really dope people that I had been seeing on television that I never thought I would meet, like Zendaya, and like Tracee Ellis Ross. The list goes on. But these were people that really uplifted me, and I really cherish them in my life.
Before joining Pose, were there times where you felt like giving up, or you were told you’d never make it?
Oh yeah. I had this moment where I was in my room with my mother and my second dad, and I remember sitting on a stool, and just telling her, “I’m going to give up.” And this was literally right before Pose. It was three or four weeks before Pose, I had just had a couple of auditions, and I hadn’t gotten any bites. And I just said, “Mommy, the world doesn’t see me. I don’t think I’m going to be doing this anymore. I’m just going to blend in, and go into the life of normalcy, and just try my best to really succeed in whatever I can do.” And I remember her saying, “No, don’t do that just yet. It’s right around the corner. It’s just waiting for you.” And I held out that hope because my mom knows just how to influence me in the best ways. And literally two weeks later, I had gotten an audition for Once on This Island on Broadway, a final callback, and an audition for Pose. And another couple of days later, I got the offer for Pose. I was at the brink, and they always say, “Usually when you’re about to give up, something happens.” And honey, it happened, and I gagged.
How did you hear about the role?
I was completely immersed in auditioning with this one casting company. They’re called Telsey + Company; Bernie Telsey. And on the breakdowns of that company, they had Pose. And I remember seeing a list of these women. There was Blanca, Angel, Lulu, Candy, and Elektra. And I resonated with each and every last one of them, but the one who I felt most pull to was Blanca. I just saw this story of a woman who was nurturing, she was a little rough around the edges, not the stereotypical trans woman who has had the opportunity. Because some trans women, even though they were living in certain areas, and living a hard life, they were still able to upkeep themselves, and Blanca wasn’t that girl. She was a tomboy.
I saw all of these things, and I was like, “Oh, this is me. This reminds me of me.” Tank top, shorts, and maybe some boots. And I remember reading it, and getting in contact personally with FX, and sending them a message saying, “Listen, I know this may seem unprofessional, I know this may seem out of pocket, but I would just really love to be seen for this part. Here’s my headshot. Hopefully I’ll be considered.” And a week later, I got the call for the first taping.
And how did it feel when you found out you were cast as a lead?
Oh, child, I broke down. I ran downstairs, I screamed all the way to the top of the freaking roof. I remember Ryan Murphy called me on the night. I think it was November. And he said, “Listen, don’t worry.” Because I think he could see in my eyes, when I came to the second test, I think he could see that there was a lot of worry in my eyes, and saw that this was probably the thing that I really dreamed of. And he said, “You have nothing to worry about. You have the part. Don’t worry.” And I just broke down. I cried. I ran downstairs to my mom and my second dad, and I just screamed. It looked like things were looking up, and the world saw me.
Tell me about that connection you felt to Blanca right away.
I related very closely to Blanca. She’s a hard worker, she’s someone who strives, and has a drive, and is so loving, and caring, and nurturing. And those were all the qualities I encompassed and I had due to the upbringing that I had from my mom. Even though me and her obviously are very different. She didn’t have family, and she came up by herself, and still succeeded. I had my mother and my father, and my second dad, and the LGBT community collectively around me to love and support me.
But through those differences, I still saw the similarities of the love that me and Blanca shared between the people and humans. I just I knew when I read that breakdown, and I knew when I started seeing the words on the pages come to life, I knew that’s what I had to do. I knew I had to play her.
What was your experience with ballroom before working on Pose?
I had a good couple years in the ballroom scene. I wasn’t in it completely. I’d consider myself a bystander. I know that’s horrible to call myself, but I want to give respect to the ballroom when it’s due as well. I went on the ballroom floor once, got chopped, and I’m sure you know what ‘chopped’ means; it means eliminated. And after that, I was a little broken down. But that was just me being young, insecure, and not fighting. This was a world that I had just gotten immersed in with people like myself.
But yeah, I was involved in it. I had a house father. I had three other brothers and sisters who were all part of the house. And though it didn’t last long, because houses change drastically within the ballroom scene, it was still beautiful, and I had a great surrounding group of people who loved on me even in the ballroom scene. It was an add-on, if you will, or plus to the life that I had with my mother and my father, and my other family members, my biological family.
But yeah, I was immersed in it, and I’m very thankful because if I wasn’t, then I wouldn’t have been able to carry out the duty of Blanca, and the culture of this show.
Were there other actors or actresses on set that came into Pose with no knowledge of ballroom?
Actually, no. Billy Porter had been immersed around the ballroom scene. Even though he wasn’t in it, he’s been around it for 35 years. Indya Moore had a house family for a very long time. Hailie Sahar, Angelica, all the cast were embedded in ballroom, so it was great that it lended itself to the show.
What was your favorite moment of the past season?
Oh, honey, my favorite moment was the seventh episode where me and Billy, Pray Tell and Blanca, had the moment to really perform “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. And also, my favorite moment was the Whitney Houston performance. It just showed community. It showed what community looks like in America in an underground scene where a lot of people in that scene were not seen or deemed as worthy. And just to see a moment like that where Blanca comes in, and she sings the national anthem around beautiful people of color who are enthralled and just marinated in culture. And to have that moment, I thought that was kind of dynamic.
I absolutely loved the “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” performance.
I thought I was going to bust my butt though. No lie. That rain, honey [laughs].
What’s the best fan response you’ve received from your role as Blanca, or the show itself?
My favorite response from my supporters and my fans are them saying they wish I could be their mom. That’s a big, big compliment to me. Because I don’t have children yet. I aspire, and hope, and pray to have children sooner than later. And to get the accolades of someone saying, “I wish you were my mom,” one, that gives me great confidence in knowing that I will possibly be a great mother when my child comes into this world, but also just to know that fans are receiving Blanca, and receiving the love that she gives to her children. That was my favorite reaction.
Blanca also thrusted you into this position where you spoke for the community that the show represented. What was that like?
It was great, because I feel like she’s a natural born fighter, and you don’t get to see trans women raising children, let alone children who are 16, and have minds of their own. Yet Blanca was able to show that through the television screen, and I think that’s what really made it such a monumental, and cultural moment, and gamechanger.
No one’s ever seen a trans woman raise her children like any other mother would on a television show, and show the dichotomy between going to the ballroom scene, and living in the real world, and maneuvering around the real world as a person who just so happens to be trans. But a lot of people may not know, and a lot of people may know. That I think was the gamechanger for me and Blanca, and what made it different from the stories that were being told on television.
What do you think is the most important thing this show has done for the trans community in terms of visibility?
I think the exposure and the visibility from Pose has garnered a lot of respect for trans women. And knowing that trans women, trans men, cis women, cis men, people of color, people who are not of color have enjoyed the show, it went to show that marginalized people with all different types of intersectionalities at the end of the day are human beings. And it showed true understanding of what the human condition is. That’s what I believe. And I do believe a lot of shows show that as well, but when there’s a marginalized group that has not been seen, that people get to see through the lenses, or get to get a scope of what their lives were like—which is great being that it was a period piece in 1987—getting to see what their lives were like, and now seeing what our lives are like in 2021, I think that is probably the most poignant kind of message that anyone could ever receive.
The show has done so much too to educate about the AIDS crisis.
I agree… If I can be really candid and be very truthful, when the AIDS epidemic came out, it was specifically about white men. There were not a lot of light shown on people of color. And then as time went on, and when information came out about the virus, they subjected it just to gay men, and still not even shining a light on the community of Black men.
And I just love that Pose did both, it shed a light on Black gay men who were dealing with HIV and AIDS, and how they succeeded through it, and trans women who didn’t get any light, or any help, or understanding as far as their plight in dealing with it. I love that you asked this question because Pose has really opened the door for so many things, especially that. It shed a light on just so many stories that were not told, especially when it came to HIV and AIDS.
I found that part so incredible later in the season, where Blanca confronts the people who are running the experimental HIV drug study about the fact that there’s only white people involved.
Yes. And that was going on for years. And even me, I had an understanding of HIV and AIDS, but it was only through my gaze of people of color, because that’s who I was raised around for my life, and that’s who I am. And as I got older, I found out this information. I wasn’t surprised, but I was a little disheartened because it was happening. As much as I didn’t want to believe it, it was actually happening, where people of color were not even getting the necessary treatments.
Pose did a really good job of highlighting all those things, and I commend the writers, Janet Mock, and Steven Canals, and Ryan Murphy, the director. All of them really took a chance on faith, and risk, and understanding what this would have done to change the world. And honey, I’m blessed that it happened the way it did.
Where do you go from here?
There is so much that I feel like is next for me. I just recently did a movie with Lin-Manuel Miranda called tick, tick… Boom! Written by Jonathan Larson. And I also have a new television show that I’m going to be taking part in with Maya Rudolph called Loot. People get to see my comedic chops. And they get to see the versatility of Michaela Jaé and have differentiations between the characters that I play.
And lastly is my music. I’ve been really working hard on my music. That has been actually my love from the very beginning, even before acting. And it’s finally come into full fruition. I finally have a single out called “Something to Say”, which I’m so happy people are receiving it the right way, because that’s exactly what I wanted when the song was created. And there’s a music video that’s going to be coming out soon.
There’s a lot that’s happening for Michaela Jaé, and I’m very, very happy that the doors are flung wide open. I’m just going to run right through them, baby, and I’m going to give all the love that I can while I’m running right through them.
What’s your absolute dream role?
My absolute dream role is to play Elektra. Now, you got to be like, “Elektra from Pose?” No. Elektra from the comic book series, the Marvel comic book series. She’s a superhero, and she’s a badass, and she’s also hot, too. I just feel like I could really portray this woman, and also it would be a great homage to Miss Jennifer Garner. She did an amazing job playing Elektra with Ben Affleck back in the day. I would definitely go through rigorous training if they put me through it. Everything I would go through simply to make sure I deliver for her, because she’s a sick freaking character, and has a great story.