Janet Mock made history last Sunday. Mock had her directorial debut with the sixth episode of Pose, titled “Love is the Message,” and became the first trans woman of color to helm an episode of television. The episode is an exemplary hour of television, written by Mock and co-creator Ryan Murphy, with an awards-level performance by star Billy Porter, who plays Pray Tell. But it’s even all the more impressive knowing that this is Mock’s first time behind the camera.
With only two episodes of Pose remaining in season one, EW talked to Mock, a writer/producer on the series, about her crowning achievement and the recent season two renewal.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you have any indication or thought that you’d be directing an episode when you first started on Pose?
JANET MOCK: I had no indication I’d be directing then. Because our room is so small there’s a great sense of intimacy and a closeness to Ryan and because the show’s so personal to him, I think eventually I earned my keep and the trust and he was like, “So you’re going to be a producer.” Then a couple months went by and he was like, “Janet you’re going to direct.” And I was just stunned. It wasn’t something I was pursuing. It wasn’t ever something I thought I would do. I always thought I would write for television and for the screen. But he was right. He just has instincts. He gets a hunch and he’s brave enough and courageous enough and powerful enough to go and make it happen. He pushed me into it with resources and it felt very natural to me — to tell people what to do, to say exactly how I want something done, to have a vision about a scene. Because I wrote the script with Ryan, it was easier for me to really see where I wanted the Patty [Kate Mara] and Angel [Indya Moore] scene, and the way I wanted it to feel and the way I wanted Patty to look at her not as an oddity but with a sense of disbelief. I realized being raised on television and film, I kinda had it all in me.
It’s interesting that your directorial debut it is an episode more about Pray Tell and Patty and less about the women of the balls.
It was something I noticed after I had done my first location scout. We did have a few more scenes — like a scene got cut with Angel and Elektra [Dominique Jackson] at this bar they hang out at. I think that Ryan strategically chose those storylines for me to show that I’m not just a trans woman in the world or a trans writer but that I could tell any kind of story. I think he also wanted to show that I wasn’t a token. He gave me a fight scene. He gave me three ballroom scenes. He gave me a musical number, which we hadn’t done before in the series. So I think he really wanted to pack the episode and, of course, just give me really intense scene work. Because I love these characters just as much as I love Angel and Blanca [Mj Rodriguez], I wouldn’t have been able to craft the narrative of this episode as a writer and a director if I didn’t come to it with the same care and same humanity of like the terror Pray Tell faces. The fear that he could see his future in his ailing love’s body. All those things are universal things about love and loss and grief and moving on and choosing life. It’s the same thing with Patty. Patty is mirroring with Angel — they have the same narrative. They both were told what they needed was to be linked to this man. They both were being used as dolls. They both were being lied to and mistreated.
Billy Porter leaves it all on the floor in this episode. It’s a hell of an arc. How was it working with him?
It was like candy. We were able to play with every tool he had in his toolbox, like every single one. We don’t even let him hum a tune before this episode. Everyone is waiting like, “Are they ever going to use this magical gift he has?” So the fact that we make the audience wait for that and that it comes from him grieving and singing a farewell and giving a farewell to the love of his life, I think makes it that much more impactful. Billy is so easy. It’s so easy to direct him. The hardest scenes weren’t the most emotionally intense ones, like in the AIDS ward. I just wanted to make sure the cameras weren’t distracting and that we pushed in moments of terror and revelation because Billy just has such a beautiful, expressive face. The hardest scene was the friend-tervention scene when he goes to Evangelista. The fact that he has to play that drunk and he has to play the tragedy but he also can’t be a caricature. I think that scene has clutched him an Emmy nomination if there was ever one.
So often when characters are diagnosed with HIV in TV and movies, they lose any kind of joy in their life. You do show the dark side but to show Blanca be romantic and be wooed and date is so great. Was that important to show that side?
Of course, yes, because I think it’s all about choosing to live. It was such a looming, omnipresent boogeyman for anyone that was queer or trans at that time. For certain communities today it still is. I think we’re always striking a balance between showing the tragedy and grit and trauma that our characters have to face but also showing, as Pray Tell says, “This is who I choose to be.” Only the love of your life would tell you to cry for me for only one day. I think that kind of affirmation is what our people need. They need to hear that life is not over. There still is complicatedness, like Blanca sitting down at the nail salon and doing Pray Tell’s nails. It’s real, complicated stuff that’s in there and these are questions people ask of themselves, like when is the time to disclose. She wants love, she wants to be desired, she wants to feel pretty she doesn’t wanna be Mother Teresa 24 hours a day with these damn kids. [Laughs] We can’t not hear that enough. Young people need to hear that too, like something can happen and you can get this virus but you can still live. You can still have family and love and joy and choose to be resilient in the face of so many adversaries. I think that’s one of the themes of our show.
Ryan tweeted that he’s “more proud” of this episode than almost anything he’s ever done. What does that feel like?
[Laughs] It feels like a coronation! Like the king is giving me a crown. This show was the greatest surprise of my life but also probably one of the most challenging things I’ve had to do career-wise. It was a gamble for me. I had never done it before. I was afraid. I was made to be uncomfortable. I had to work with people again because as a writer of books I could just work with my editor and myself and I’m good to go. It’s such a different thing to be part of a writers’ room and a whole team — then to be pushed and nurtured to be a director. So it just all felt very organic and now to see that our partnership/mentor/friendship/co-workership and love and admiration has produced this piece and that it’s being so well-received and it means so much to him and so many people, it’s deeply affirming. And career-wise, my world has opened up in this way where I’m saying, “Wow, I am a director.” I was always so bad at group projects as a kid. I’ve learned I’ve grown up now and I can work with people and be made better by the talented people that surround me.
What has been the reaction been like to Pose from the transgender community?
It’s so strange because with books it’s such a slower drip than a rollout. But with TV, it’s immediate. It’s a snap of a finger and everyone is feeling it at the same time. You get this wave of energy and excitement and feeling. One of the greatest surprises to me is a lot of people expected the spectacle because it’s a dance musical. People are laughing at the shade Elektra is throwing and the walkers and the vogue-ing and the costumes and the glitz. But I think a lot of people were surprised by the deep feeling and heart of our show. That’s always been so fulfilling to me — to hear from a lot of trans women, specifically, who had never heard their stories and conversations we have with one another be put on a mainstream platform and for people from all walks of life to receive it and feel it and [have it] resonate and sink in deep with them. [There’s also] the educational and inspiring piece of it too. A lot of people have also said, “I have to prepare myself to watch these episodes.” This is a family drama about these people who have chosen to be part of one another’s world and to feel their way through this. Someone compared it to This Is Us in that same way where you’re ready to have a cathartic moment and you’re ready to cry and you know you’re going to get it this week and it’s your little therapy session.
As we were talking, you guys just got renewed for season two! How does that feel?
It’s wild! I’m glad that FX is keeping it and they believe in the show. I’m glad that they see there is more space for us to tell these characters stories and we’ll see Blanca and Elektra and Damon [Ryan Jamaal Swain] and Papi [Angel Bismark Curiel] and everyone have bigger stories. It’s exciting that we have more room to play. I have a notepad full of ideas for season two and pitches — I’m ready to go! It’s super exciting. Wow. Wow. I know I’m gonna direct more episodes in season two so that’s exciting.
You’re adapting your book Redefining Realness — do you think film or television?
I’m writing it now as a feature. Ryan has his opinions and thinks it should be a mini-series. It depends on where I decide to make a home for it, but I see it as a feature. I’d like to write and also direct it.
Pose airs at 9 p.m. ET Sunday nights on FX.