The shade is heavy on the set of FX’s new ’80s drama Pose. And it’s not the cloud cover on this chilly December day. Production has convened at an East Village theater in New York to shoot the aftermath of a competition ball. A cross between a fashion show and a dance contest, balls find groups of LGBTQ people strutting and serving looks in often hilariously named categories, like “Executive Realness” (think Working Girl on the runway). While victory only yields Little League-level gold trophies, the rivalries can be as pointed as the heels most of the crowd is wearing, which is evidenced by today’s exchange between opposing house “mothers” Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Elektra (Dominique Jackson). The two represent the competing Houses of Evangelista and Abundance, respectively, and they aren’t exactly BFFs. “You are the Cracker Barrel to my Gucci and Saint Laurent,” quips Elektra, channeling Dynasty-era Joan Collins both verbally and sartorially in a dramatic purple gown. Blanca, her former protégée, clad in a feathered red dress, responds, “I thought old age was supposed to mellow a bitch!”
In an adjacent room, Ryan Murphy, who co-created the series with his American Horror Story and Glee collaborator Brad Falchuk and newcomer Steven Canals (Dead of Summer), sits behind the monitors, alternately directing the action and requesting that Grace Jones be played on a portable speaker during breaks. In many ways, this series is the ultimate Murphy project. Set in New York in 1987, Pose — which airs its eight-episode first season at 9 p.m. on Sundays on FX — simultaneously follows the marginalized LGBTQ community and the growing wealthy elite. It can be as shimmery as a disco ball and boasts wonderfully caustic verbal catfights one would expect from the producer of Feud: Bette and Joan.
But, like Glee, the series is also an unabashedly emotional celebration of those on the outskirts of mainstream society, particularly LGBTQ people of color. It’s Murphy’s most expensive series to date, and the luminous marketing campaign is focused almost solely on its transgender stars. “It’s a community that has always needed champions and advocates, and I thought now is the perfect time,” says the 52-year-old creator months later over lunch in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. “I think the power of television is incredible. I feel like if you put characters in front of viewers, even if they’re not like you, but you learn about them and you love them, it will change your worldview and lead to acceptance. I’ve seen it.” Adds Tony winner Billy Porter (Kinky Boots), 48, who plays MC Pray Tell: “As a black, out gay man, I’ve never felt part of the conversation — this is going to make us part of the conversation.”
While series like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black have cast trans actors in supporting roles, Pose puts them front and center with transgender actresses Rodriguez, Jackson, Indya Moore, Hailie Sahar, and Angelica Ross appearing as series regulars. “We keep adding more and more and more trans characters because there are so many of them who want to work and are talented but can never have the opportunity, and opportunity is everything,” says Murphy. Adds Canals: “Anyone who would say that there isn’t enough trans talent out there really has not tried and not looked hard enough. There’s an abundance out there that is untapped.” Pose boasts more than 140 transgender actors and crew, including author Janet Mock and Transparent’s Our Lady J, who both serve as producer-writers. It marks a bold and important step forward for LGBTQ visibility. Says trans star Moore, 23, who plays Angel: “This show is my heart and my soul. To the healing that it brings up, to the stories that it tells and the solutions that it brings to the table. This show is an evolution that I’ve lived through and that I still am going through. And it’s going to impact the world in ways that we’ve never seen before.”