MJ Rodriguez on the power of 80s ballroom drama Pose

A ground-breaking new series from serial creator Ryan Murphy is heading to Australian screens and it’s about to own everything, darling.

Pose takes audiences back to the glamorous ballroom scene of 1980s New York, where queer people of colour were taking to the streets and clubs with voguing battles and opulent runway showdowns.

The show has already made history, featuring the largest ever cast of transgender actors – specifically, trans people of colour – in starring roles and as series regulars. 

Breakout star MJ Rodriguez takes the lead as Blanca, daughter of the House of Abundance who is trying to navigate her relationships and forge her own destiny as the queen of the ball.

Rodriguez called us from her Los Angeles backyard to spill on all things Pose ahead of its Australian premiere.

“I was sought out by my house father in high school. He scouted me when he saw me walking at one of his fashion shows and said ‘that’s my daughter!’,” Rodriguez tells me.

“From then on I got the history of learning about the ballroom scene and what it was like in the 80s and what it contributes to our scene today and how it moves us forward as a community.”

When I ask if she was trained in ballroom stunts and voguing ahead of the show, she tells me it’s not just on the show she brings it to the ball.

“The house I used to be a part of – the House of Jordan – is no longer. It was a great house! The house I am a part of now is House of Amazon which is Leiomy’s house – who actually choreographs on Pose.”

“My first house father sorted me out in high school and I remember sneaking out to New York the first time I went to a voguing rehearsal at Ripley-Grier. At the time I didn’t even know what Ripley-Grier was! He sent my house brothers and sisters up to vogue and they did wonderfully and then he told me to go up there…

“I tried my very best to please him and afterwards he said ‘What is that?’. He told his house son, who was our house big brother, ‘Nino – show her what it’s all about.’ So Nino just gave me the ropes on everything and from then on that’s how my experience with voguing came trickling in.

The cast have a palpable synergy on set. Whether they’re playing lovers, friends or rivals, the team seems to have been carefully selected by creator Ryan Murphy to ensure the energetic ballroom spirit translates to the screen.

“Being on set with each and every person, especially being on set with such a variety of people is so family-oriented and so warm and comforting. The directors and writers are very on-hand and they make sure we’re okay, but they also implement a lot of direction!”

Though the show is yet to air in Australia, there is a notable buzz about Pose. Rodriguez explains why she thinks that is.

“I think the show is getting such reception because it’s a show that tackles many narratives that have truly not been told in a very long time. Now that the surface has been scratched, these stories can get out and be told in so many aspects.”

“Usually when there’s a part of a trans character, in a TV show or a film, it’s usually limited to one speaking role or just a guest appearance. Now that there are five prominent African-American and Latina women of colour being able to tell different stories – I think that’s why the positive reception is happening. They get to learn about a human experience that they’ve never heard of before.”

As a young transgender Latina woman, Rodriguez says she is thrilled that she is able to be part of telling this story.

“It means so much that I can actually speak to a community that I am a part of and know that I am a woman who is of that experience. I’m able to really dive deep because I’ve experienced a lot of things that these characters have experienced.”

“I can also say that I’ve played cisgender roles before, being that I’m an actress. Every actress can be allowed to play any role, but I think it’s very important and imperative – specifically in this time when stories like this have never been told – that trans women and trans men are able to tell their stories just like how they need to be told so that down the line, when someone else is cast in that role, there won’t be any problem.”

On becoming Blanca, Rodriguez explains it was a long casting process for each character, with Murphy keeping a close eye on each role.

“It was actually a six-month period for all of the characters. For me I had been all over the place. There was a moment for me if I didn’t know if I was going to constantly pursue acting because I hadn’t been really receiving the bites that I wanted. Then I heard of Pose through my girlfriends and they said ‘Girl, you need to go on for this!’

“I didn’t know how to get in contact and I was a little scared, but I found out that I had snagged an audition through my agent! I went in for one audition and it was only one girl in the room, then I didn’t hear anything for two weeks… three days later I got a call from Ryan Murphy.

“The rest is history.”

Pose is coming to Australia on Tuesday September 11 at 6:30pm on Foxtel’s Showcase.

Leigh Andrew Hill

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