The sixth episode in Pose‘s second season, “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” is one of my all-time favorite hours of television, and that’s because of Billy Porter’s fearless and emotional performance. His Pray Tell lands in the hospital and he must face his mortality and his past, and he gets to sing one of the greatest songs ever, right in the middle of the episode. Porter made history at last year’s ceremony, but the reigning Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series is so deserving of a second Emmy.
Porter gets to spread his wings like never before this season. In addition to his landmark episode, Pray Tell starts a relationship with Dyllon Burnside’s Ricky–a moment that had everyone talking online. It lead to serious conversations about gay men of color’s sexuality being visible on television and it was just wonderful to see Pray embracing that part of him again after his HIV diagnosis.
Emotions run the gamut on Pose, but Porter is one of the most captivating actors on television right now. He knows how to draw you in, how to break your heart, and how to be brave even when he may not believe it himself. Pray is teaching us more than he probably knows.
Awards Daily: At the start of the season, we get to see Pray Tell participating in a very emotional ACT UP scene.
Billy Porter: Yes.
AD: What was it like to film that?
BP: A lot of it mirrors my own journey. I came to New York for my first summer in 1989 when I was doing a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Montclair State in New Jersey. The boys had Sundays off so they invited me to the march. I didn’t know what it was—my friends just invited me to meet them at the church. I was late, because I didn’t know where I was going. When I got there, they threw a shirt on me that said, “SILENCE=DEATH” and we walked down the street chanting, “Fight back, fight AIDS!” Before I even knew what it was, I was in it. That scene was very reminiscent of that moment because in the middle of the process of being physically an activist, I discovered that I was physically an activist. There was no other choice but to fight.
BP: A lot of things that Pray Tell goes through are things that I have lived. It just takes my breath away that I get to be the person to tell this story that reminds people that we lost a generation of people.
AD: That’s what I love about the second season so much. Even with the quotes at the end of each episode that serve as a reminder. We cannot forget what the community went through, and this season serves as a time capsule of that.
BP: The whole show is. You know, what I think is so amazing about it is how timely it is to what is going on right now. I’ve been having PTSD for real. Panic attacks. It’s been challenging to try and stay present, positive, and active during this because it’s so triggering.
AD: How do you live in that while you’re filming it?
BP: It’s our job to illuminate the truth. In the process of doing it, it’s an honor. I’m old enough to have lived through a time where these stories were not being told and there was no possibility for them to be told. I am in a space of gratitude to be the mouthpiece and the representation of that. I go home and try to turn it off as much as possible. Sometimes it’s easier than other times, but it’s my ministry and my responsibility to do this. I try to hold onto that.
AD: I wanted to talk about the episode where Pray is in the hospital, “Love’s In Need of Love Today.” I love that it is intimate and operatic at the same time.
BP: It really is. (Laughs)
AD: It feels like a one-man show, and, my god, you get to sing “The Man That Got Away.” That’s such an incredible hour of television.
BP: Oh, thank you. What I love about Ryan [Murphy], Steve Canals, Our Lady J, Janet Mock, and Brad Falchuk is that they really all have a knack for observation. They can observe us, all of us, and write to our strengths. What I love about that is that Ryan knows that Angels in America is my favorite play. He knows Tony Kushner is probably one of my favorite writers, and he created a Prior Walter fever dream sequence for me.
BP: It really hearkens back to the seminal piece of work from that era, so when you start with that, it’s breathtaking. And to let me sing at the end of it?!
AD: One of the most iconic songs of all time.
BP: It’s like any queen’s literal wet dream.
BP: I read these scripts and I am speechless, because I’ve spent so much of my life and my career to be taken seriously as an actor. They just get it. They know how to utilize the fullness of what I bring. It’s not just a clown show. It’s not the magical black fairy sprinkling dust on the white people.
AD: Or you’re not the best friend or a character on the sidelines.
BP: Right! We are at the center of our own stories. That is new and that is transformative and I am so grateful. I am also old enough to be the generation who was blazing down the trail and knocking down the doors. It’s not lost on me that the kickers down of doors and blazers of trails don’t always get to walk through those doors or walk those trails. I have been blessed to experience both, and that is such a gift.
AD: Did Pray imagine that he would be such an elder in the community?
BP: I think, probably. It’s just the way it goes. Somebody has to pick up where our biological families left off. It is up to the elders to fill those slots that were very often filled by people who were learning in real time. Like Blanca. She’s still in her twenties and had to take that role way too soon. People were dying. In terms of Pray Tell, he’s been around long around enough to know that it’s the natural progression.
AD: I love you and Mj [Rodriguez] together so much. Every time Pray and Blanca get into a fight, I get so scared.
AD: I always have to tell myself, “Don’t worry…they’re family and they will work it out.” What is it like to have that relationship?
BP: Our chemistry started back in 2010 before Mj transitioned. She was in the Off-Broadway revival of Rent that I was the associate director on. I met her then and we really bonded then. We worked a lot privately before we came to this.
AD: That’s why the chemistry is so good.
BP: I think that’s what you’re seeing.
AD: Pray gets a big romance with Ricky, and I wanted to know what it was like working with Steve Canals on that because he wrote and directed it. It’s an unexpected relationship for Pray.
AD: And you say to Blanca, “Here is a man who shows me kinds. Who thinks I’m sexy.” Is he just taking that one step at a time?
BP: Having grown up in that time, people who were diagnosed as HIV positive had a very different kind of bond. It was a death sentence for a very long time. It was a 95 to 99.9% death sentence. When, as human beings, you understand you’re going to die and there are some people on the planet going through the same thing with the same disease, there is a natural connection. It’s just there. People without the disease don’t understand. That’s how Ricky and Pray Tell got together, because they need that support. It wasn’t even an issue for me. I didn’t think of the age part of it. My husband is 11 years younger than me. I’ve always dated older in my life, so it wasn’t something I thought about. I understand it came up for a lot of people, but I’m glad we could show the inter-generational connection. My generation is really the first full generation of LGBTQ people to have lived and are living in a world that are able to be out and loud and proud. We are the parents. We are the mentors. I think it’s great to see that in a fictional story.
AD: What’s it like to see a show like Legendary on television right now? A show that is based on the world from Pose.
BP: I was supposed to be on that show.
BP: Yeah. My schedule couldn’t come together. Anything that shows LGBTQ, especially people or color, I’m all for it. I’m excited to see what they’ve done. It’s a full-on culture. We’ve been silenced and in the background for so long. Every one of your female pop stars has stolen from this culture and appropriated from this culture. What I love with Pose and Legendary, it’s a reclamation and education of the historical precedent of what we consume in pop culture. It’s finally being recognized. Beyonce’s moves come from Leiomy [Maldonado]. Period. Put them side by side. No shade, but let’s talk about that! Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Fine. If that’s what it is, then let’s give credit where it’s due, and let the people who created it benefit from it financially.
Pose is now streaming on Netflix and on FX’s platforms.