On Friday evening Emmy nominee Billy Porter sat down with Pose co-creator Ryan Murphy for an intimate panel discussing his work on Pose, his emergence as a fashion icon, and his inspiring story of perseverance in Hollywood.
No other actor has dominated the conversation this year quite like Billy Porter. From his Emmy and Golden Globe nominated leading role on Pose to not one but two jaw-dropping red carpet moments the beloved actor is clearly having a moment. Even Ryan Murphy has called him one of the most important cultural icons of our time.
After a career that has spanned over three decades Porter has finally been given a role worthy of his talents in Pray Tell, the emcee and father figure of the local ball scene. Throughout the first season we watched as Pray Tell mentored Blanca and the rest of her house while simultaneously dealing with his own HIV diagnosis and the eventual death of the love of his life. In the heartbreaking Emmy submitted episode “Love Is The Message” Porter is even able to show off his Tony winning talent in a shocking duet alongside MJ Rodriguez.
In the show’s second season (currently airing on FX) Pray Tell is even breaking more television taboos as an aging gay man shown as a sexual being. The scene came as a huge surprise to Porter himself who spent 30 years of his career never becoming “someone’s object of affection or desire.”
It’s hard to imagine Pose without Billy Porter at the center of the groundbreaking drama so it was shocking to find out he had to fight to tell the story he was born to tell. At an intimate one-on-one panel with creator Ryan Murphy he talked in depth about the audition process and how Pray Tell was developed especially for him.
As an artist I always knew that my art would be as a deeper way of healing.
Porter retold the story of how he was originally asked in to audition for the role of a dance teacher, a minor role. After the audition he asked if there was anything else. “I mean I lived through this era so it would benefit everybody if I was actually in the story they’re talking about.” Later on he was asked to come back for a second audition where he basically sat in a room with Murphy and the creative team and told his story. “This is my era. I moved to New York on December 27th, 1990. Paris Is Burning was the first film as a black gay man that I saw any image of myself in a pseudo mainstream way. So we sat there and talked about what it was like to live in that era, to love through the AIDS crisis, to survive, come out on the other side of it, and be in a space of trying to figure out why you lived.”
From that conversation came the inspiration for Murphy and the rest of the writers and producers to fully develop the character of Pray Tell. One of the best performances of the year (and dare I say the decade) exists because Billy Porter had the courage to stand in that audition room and muster up the strength to tell his story.
The road to becoming a Tony winning and Emmy nominated actor was obviously not easy for someone like Porter. Especially in the 80s and 90s he had to fight against both homophobia and racism in an industry that was only interested in casting him limited archetypes that were violently homophobic. He even recounted the time he was asked to perform as a musical guest on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, a show that should have been a safer space for a queer performer. “I tried to make a way for myself in the music industry and they called me a faggot and told me to shut up. I remember preparing for The Rosie O’Donnell Show and one of the executives pulled me aside and told me not to talk too much. That’s the kind of homophobic oppression that I endured on a daily basis.”
One of the most emotional and heartwarming moments of the evening came when Porter talked about what it was like to finally team up with someone like Ryan Murphy after decades of fighting to be recognized as the essential talent and performer that he is. “All of my dreams were springboarded off of things that I had already seen before. I was not dreaming up Pray Tell or Pose. I was trying to live up to a hetero-normative masculine standard so that I could get a guest spot on Grey’s Anatomy. Never could I imagine that I could or would be a first. You have put me in this position where the impossible can happen. You have taught me how to dream the impossible.”
He’s spent decades not even being invited for any role that didn’t call for some sort of flamboyant sidekick caricature. He had to learn to make space for himself in these roles that he simply became used to nailing roles as “the flamboyant friend who could sing and scream the roof off the place.” He was so used to these roles that he initially didn’t believe Murphy when he called him and told him he was the male lead of Pose.
It’s taken him a while to get used to being referred as such but being a star suits him well as he breaks barriers in front of the camera and on the red carpet. He even joked about his showstopping Met Gala look. “Don’t unleash me if you’re going to get nervous when I’m inside it!”
This is why Billy Porter is THE actor of the year. Not only because he gives one of the best performances of the year in a category filled with many names worth celebrating but also because he spent over three decades fighting to be heard, to be seen, to survive. He’s become a symbol of every Black queer performer that this industry has tried to silence and now it’s his time to lead, both behind the winner’s podium and on the red carpet!