I’ve recognized Steven Canals’s name with Pose so much in the last two years, and I was surprised that he made his directorial debut for the second season. His name is all over the show, so I had assumed that he had already directed a few episodes. For Pose‘s landmark second season, Canals takes charge on a very pivotal episode. Romance sparks, Evangelista feuds, and Canals shows what an intelligent and deft hand he has for the director’s chair.
At the top of “Revelations,” Billy Porter’s Pray Tell and Dyllón Burnside’s Ricky spend the night together soon after Ricky discovers his HIV positive status. It’s a beautiful and sexy moment that jump starts the episode. I told Canals that I had never seen HIV positive people shown in such a sexual light, and he gently reminded me of what the show strives to do for its characters in showing that we are all deserving of affection and love.
If “Revelations” is any indication of what Canals is capable of, I can’t wait to see when he steps behind the camera again. Since he writes a lot of the episodes, he knows these characters like the back of his hand, and he can guide his actors accordingly. In just one episode, we see him tackle intimate, soft moments juxtaposed with the raucous backdrop of the ballroom scene. What an astonishing debut.
Awards Daily: I didn’t know “Revelations” was your directorial debut. What about that episode made you want to take the reins?
Steven Canals: There were a lot of conversations with Ryan Murphy during the first season about my aspirations of directing at some point. As a collaborator and a true friend and mentor, he was very encouraging. When that would happen, I wasn’t sure, because balancing writing and producing the show is very time-consuming.
AD: I can imagine.
SC: I went into the second season with that desire to direct at some point. If I’m being very honest, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be the season and then Ryan approached me, asking me if I was still interested. We had already started mapping out what the season was going to be and Ryan felt really strongly that that was an episode that I would be able to lend my experience and my voice to. I am glad that was the episode we chose to make my directorial debut. The first five minutes of the episode, we see this love scene between two gay, black men. We talk a lot about the gays and the importance, in that moment, of having me as a queer, Afro-Latin person coming in and not just being the author of the episode, but also being behind the lens in a moment that really we hadn’t seen in a long time. Some people haven’t seen that ever.
AD: There is something especially important about seeing two black men, who are both HIV positive, in a love scene like that. I think I’ve only seen that maybe two or three times before?
SC: To your point, the reason it was so critical, and a reason why I am continually honored, is destigmatizing what it means to be HIV positive in our culture. What was so important for me, especially as a human, was to show that we are all deserving of love. HIV positive doesn’t remove you from being a person who is worthy of finding love. That was such a huge part of our narrative. These two men are still sexual beings and they have desires and they absolutely deserve to find love and be loved. I am proud of putting that message out there other than just the visibility of two queer, black men having sex on television.
SC: The other element is that they are in an inter-generational relationship. We talk about the complications of this younger man being with this older man, and we deal with that. It’s layers on top of layers, but it was important for us to unpack all of it.
AD: What was it like to film the fight where everything blows up? Seeing Pray Tell and Damon go toe-to-toe broke my heart a little bit.
SC: It was a lot of fun and it was exhausting. We shot that scene over the course of two days. I believe it was eight written pages which is the longest written scene on our show. It was a very long scene. I reached out to all the cast a couple days prior and I knew it was going to be important that they all come prepared. I was so proud of all of them because they came with their A game for those two days. It was a tough scene to shoot because the set of the House of Evangelista is very small. Having a scene where we have eight different characters is a lot. We’re packing them all in a tight space and we have to make room for cameras. It was tricky, and I ended up shooting it all on handheld.
AD: Oh, really?
SC: Yes, I think it really lent to the grittiness and the drama. That was one of the ways for me to get through it quicker. The cast was willing to have fun and the thing you always want as a storyteller is to have the cast bring elements of themselves. They know these characters like the back of their hand and you want them to bring their own unique flair and they did that. For example, the moment when Dominique [Jackson], who plays Elektra, hears what Damon says to Pray Tell about sleeping with Ricky and she reacts with that “Oh!” That was improvised in the moment.
AD: I love that so much.
SC: Yeah. The only direction I gave her was for her to have a reaction to him say that. Sometimes performers will make a specific choice and then they don’t know if it works. So much of being a director is helping manage their expectations about choices they’ve made.
AD: That moment provides such a tiny bit of levity.
SC: And she became a gif!
AD: Speaking of other scenes I love from that episode, I love the scene with the council in the diner.
SC: I love it, too—it’s one of my favorites. There’s a magic that happens when you put actors together in a scene. Obviously, the words are what they are. I was proud of writing that scene. It’s funny but it’s relevant. Regardless of how much effort and craft you put into writing a scene, if the performers aren’t showing up, it can fall flat. I think that’s why that diner scene works. It has as much with the writing on the page as it does with those actors. They are genuinely enjoying one another and having fun and they’re playing. They’re a joy—both on camera and between set-ups. It has something to say. It isn’t just a funny scene to have a funny moment but rather talking about gay, black men who are older, who are entering physical and sexual relationships with younger men. That, again, is a topic that we don’t see on television.
AD: What was it like for you to film your first ball sequence? Because those other scenes are tense and seemingly small but the balls are huge with a lot of elements. I love when Damon starts voguing because he and Pray just had the big blowout.
SC: I was really intimidated to film it.
AD: Throwing you into the deep end!
SC: That’s the Ryan Murphy way. I was really prepared but I was really nervous. We have two different types of ballroom scenes. There’s ballroom scenes where we see a category happening and it’s just meant to break up the drama of the episode. We just want to give the audience a reprieve. But then there are the ball scenes where we have a scene and dialogue embedded into it. Initially, we have Damon coming in who is upset with Blanca and Angel. They have this tense argument before Damon’s category is called and he takes that energy onto the floor with them. Ryan Jamaal Swain did an amazing job with that. I was really impressed with his work in the episode and especially in that moment. As a director, I have to break those moments up because I am, in essence, shooting two different scenes. There’s the argument between the family and it has to bleed into the ballroom category. It was about finding the connective tissue between those moments so it flows and visually makes sense. It was a lot. You have hundreds of background actors, but I was fortunate in that I had a really great mentor in Gwyneth Horder-Payton who directed our Season 2 premiere. She helped me map out how I wanted to tackle those moments.
AD: I love when Helena speaks to Blanca about raising her children. It’s a beautiful moment, and I was wondering how much Blanca needed to hear that?
SC: That’s a great question. Parenting is hard and that is one of the lessons for Blanca that we wanted to explore in the second season. She starts off Season 2 with all these hopes and dreams because of Madonna’s “Vogue” hitting the airwaves. In her mind, her kids are going to go off and do great things, but then the world steps in. In that moment of Damon’s graduation, it was a success and because Blanca is so selfless and benevolent, she doesn’t truly give herself the space to see what her contributions have been. How she’s impacted this young man and been such an integral part of his success. That moment with Helena telling her that Damon making it as an adult is so crucial to Blanca. At that point, we’ve dealt with Angel possibly having a drug habit, and we start seeing the disillusion of the House of Evangelista and the family. Blanca needs to know that she’s a good parent, and Damon’s success is because of that. I also just love that scene because outside of thinking of the world of Mj Rodriguez and Charlayne Woodard, I love that it’s a scene about two black women loving and supporting one another.
AD: Season 2 starts by pushing the action forward a few years and we see Madonna’s “Vogue” taking over the world. Is there something that we can expect that serves as a milestone for the third season?
SC: Where [with] the first season, we were covering the formation of a family, Season 2 is a lot more political. This family is trying to achieve their hopes and their dreams and towards the end of the season, they fall apart. Season 3 is about when things truly fall apart—how do the people who matter the most to you show up to support you? Who are your ride-or-die people? That’s at the core of Season 3 of Pose.