‘Pose’ Cast, Creators on Filming ‘Emotional’ Final Season of Groundbreaking Series
The category is… Sickening last hurrah realness!
The groundbreaking FX series Pose slays and sashays into the sunset as it takes a legendary last strut down the runway, with its third and final season debuting in back-to-back episodes on Sunday, May 2. The pioneering Emmy-winning series centers on a fierce community of Black, brown, and LGBTQ characters populating New York’s underground drag ball culture of the 1980s and ’90s. Over the course of the series, these outsiders wrestled with an array of issues and challenges, including homophobia, poverty, bigotry, violence, and the devastation of the AIDS epidemic. Along the way, they found their burgeoning activist spirit.
The show—created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals—also made television history by featuring the largest cast of transgender actors as series regulars, including Mj Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, Hailie Sahar, and Angelica Ross, and the biggest-ever recurring cast of LGBTQ actors for a scripted series. As the colorful, shade-throwing emcee, Pray Tell, Billy Porter won the Emmy for lead actor in a drama series in 2019, becoming the first openly gay man to win in that category, and the show has been nominated for 13 Emmys, including best drama, over the course of two seasons.
While Pose is ending far too soon for most fans, Canals insisted that he and Murphy had a specific endgame in mind for the show from the start. “We certainly could have continued to create narrative around these characters and in this world,” he said during a press conference that also featured most of the core cast members. “[But] one of the things that has always frustrated me is when I am tuning into a [show] and I can tell that the season just feels like filler. So I think we all agreed that it just made sense for us to land the plane comfortably, if you will, as opposed to [giving] the audience story that just simply didn’t have any core intention or a real thrust.”
Season 2, which aired in 2019, jumped ahead to 1990 and saw the explosion of the drag ball subculture into the mainstream, thanks to the success of Madonna’s mega-hit song and video, “Vogue.” (At the “balls,” participants walk for trophies and prizes in events that mix performance, dance, lip-synching, and modeling.)
The group of friends dealt with the murder of trans woman Candy (Ross) during a violent encounter with a client. They got involved with the radical AIDS activist group ACT-UP. Pray Tell, emcee of the house balls and a fierce elder of the scene, was hospitalized after an adverse reaction to the HIV drug AZT. Young dancer Ricky (Dyllón Burnside) tested HIV positive and later embarked on a relationship with the older Pray. Angel’s (Indya Moore) modeling career took off, but she was later outed as trans and dropped by her agency. Meanwhile, House Mother Blanca (Rodriguez) opened a nail salon, feuded with a bigoted, Leona Helmsley-like real estate mogul (Patti LuPone), and dealt with her own health issues, while the imperious Elektra (Jackson) began working as a dominatrix to pay the bills, formed the new House of Wintour, and was crowned Mother of the Year.
Now Season 3 leaps forward to 1994. Blanca has a steady doctor boyfriend (Jeremy Pope) and begins nursing school; Pray Tell battles old demons, and his loved ones must figure out how to contend with his worsening alcohol abuse; Angel frets about her stalled modeling career while she and Lulu wrestle with spiraling drug addictions; Lemar (Jay Rodriguez) assumes the antagonist role by starting the House of Khan and breaking the old rules of ballroom; Elektra embarks on a new business venture and must deal with both literal and figurative skeletons in her closet; and AIDS continues to loom large, claiming the life of another member of the ballroom family.
While their struggles are real and the show never shied away from grief and loss in the shadow of AIDS and violence against the LGBTQ community, the series also remained steadfast in spotlighting the characters’ dreams and aspirations. But Canals said this final season is about “allowing our characters to explore what it means to have all of the things they [always said] they wanted,” he explained. “Now, once you’ve accomplished the dream, is it everything that you wished it would be? Is it quite as shiny as you imagined it to be?”
Janet Mock, a series writer, producer and director and a transgender pioneer in her own right, added that the writing staff wasn’t necessarily interested in telling the characters’ origin stories, and how they came to realize and understand their trans identity (though there have been many flashbacks over three seasons). “And we weren’t interested in only telling stories about trauma,” she said. “We wanted to ensure that we show the everyday, intimate moments, as well as the grand celebrations.”
Indeed, there’s an ebullience to the vibrant, witty, and sparkling ballroom performances, with their fabulous runway struts, eye-popping costumes and electrifying vogue-ing and dance routines. Moreover, the underdog characters remain resolute — and often buoyant — in the face of so much adversity.
And the characters overcome that adversity by relying on their “chosen” families, a theme that’s at the core of Pose. Because LGBTQ people are often rejected by their biological families, they create and foster surrogate families that provide support and camaraderie. In ball culture, those families are organized into Houses that compete at the balls and are led by House “Mothers” like Blanca and Elektra.
“My favorite moments are when I get to come back to reality and stop with the superficial [and play] the stuff that psychologically explains the trauma that Elektra has been through,” Jackson said at the press conference. “Or I get to come back to Blanca and say, ‘I love you. I care for you. I’m proud of you.’”
In Season 3, as Pray Tell struggles with substance abuse, he will come to rely on his friends and community to get him through the pain, and the bitterness and anger he’s feeling.
Porter said that he sees “profound” parallels between the devastation that the LGBTQ community endured with the AIDS epidemic, which in 1994 became the leading cause of death for all Americans age 25-44, and the current pandemic.
“As a Black gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis, I’ve been dealing with a lot of PTSD during this COVID time. It’s very reminiscent of what it was like then,” Porter said. “The best news about that is that I survived. We got through it. And we can get to the other side. I feel like that’s what Pose really accomplishes this season. It’s reminding [people] that when we come together and we lead with love, that’s how we get to the other side.”
Getting to the other side for Pray Tell requires facing the psychic scars of his youth. In episode 4, the character returns home to reconnect with his birth family in Pittsburgh, which is also Porter’s hometown. The actor said Canals, Mock and the other writers drew upon some his own personal experiences in telling the story.
“I’m an open book, and I talk a lot about my experiences and my trauma in public,” he said. “One of the goals for me, as a Black, queer, and spiritual person, is [to have] that really uncomfortable conversation between the LGBTQ+ community and the Black church. It’s always been at the forefront of my mind, of my calling. And it was Ryan and Steven and Janet who kind of rooted that out of me… It’s very emotional, and I’m looking forward to the conversation that it cracks open.”
Porter had previously mined some of these themes in his autobiographical 2014 off-Broadway play While I Yet Live, inspired by his mother and grandmother who raised him.
The role of Pray Tell also hit close to the bone for other reasons as well. Long before he won a Tony Award for playing indomitable drag queen Lola in Kinky Boots on Broadway, before he became a television star and red-carpet sensation and won an Emmy, Porter was an actor with a stalled career, struggling to pay the bills and even put food on the table. He filed for bankruptcy and crashed on friends’ couches when the going got particularly tough.
“I got into this business in the ’80s, and I turned 50 the day before I won an Emmy Award, and there was never, ever a space in my brain to dream of what Pose is, what Pray Tell is,” Porter said, of playing a groundbreaking character on an equally innovative show. “I spent the first 25-plus years of my career trying to fit into a masculinity construct that society placed on us so I could eat. Pose—and Pray Tell in particular—really taught me to dream the impossible.”
The success of a pioneering television show like Pose has altered the outlook on what’s possible in Hollywood when it comes to trans, LGBTQ, and Black and brown representation — and the show’s actors and creative team all insist that with the changing times, there’s no going back.
“I will never walk into a space being fearful of my identity stopping me from anything,” Jackson said. “Because of this journey, [I know] my identity is not an abomination. My identity is a plus. My identity is my value. So they need to impress me. You can be the biggest Hollywood director or producer, but you’re not going to take my story or relay stories that are reflective of my life or my existence and make them into anything you want. I will not be that fearful woman anymore. I will not be afraid to lose. I will not be afraid to fight.”
“I just finished watching the season finale, so I’m very emotional,” Porter added. “But the idea that the little, Black, church sissy from Pittsburgh is now in a position of power in Hollywood in a way that never existed before, you can damn sure believe that I will be wielding that power and there will be a difference and a change in how things go from here on out. I thought I had confidence before this, and what I realized was that I had a particular kind of confidence. But now it’s a whole new day. It’s a whole new game…. That’s the gift of this [show]. We’ve all now been empowered. I’m going to steal from Vice President Harris [and say], ‘We may not be the first, but we’re definitely not going to be the last.’”
Pose fans are invited to attend “The Final Pose—An Exhibition Ball,” on May 2 at 8/7c, preceding the Season 3 premiere. The virtual event will feature exclusive messages from show talent, guest judges, and ball performances choreographed by Pose’s Twiggy Pucci Garçon. Fan can livestream the event at FXNetworks.com and via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Pose, Season 3 Premiere, Sunday, May 2, 10/9c, FX