Pose star Mj Rodriguez is ready to claim what's hers
It's not long into this interview — during a sunset stroll by the East River in Brooklyn's Domino Park, along with her boyfriend — that she meets one of her fans, a trans woman from Chile. She recognizes a masked Rodriguez, casually clad in jeans and a tank top, and rushes over to share her story — and, yes, a hug. She gushes over how the actress' performance as Blanca, mother of the House of Evangelista, was the first time she saw herself on screen, which inspired her to relocate to the U.S. to live more authentically. Later, as Rodriguez basks in the afterglow of that exchange, she notes, "You do meet people like her [because of Pose], and there's a lot of people like her. That makes the job and everything that you do worth it."
Moments later, another fan approaches. As a cisgender straight Black woman, she may not directly empathize with the stories told on Pose, but she's been watching the show with her boyfriend during the pandemic. For Rodriguez, it's another chance to give a hug. "I love giving hugs," she says. "I don't want to stop giving hugs for a minute. And I feel like we finally can now."
The cultural reach of Pose is clear. The show, about Black and brown trans and gay people in the ballroom scene of NYC across the decades, became an instant anomaly after its 2018 debut for welcoming a historic number of series-regular trans actors, including Indya Moore and Dominique Jackson. Rodriguez predicts that the third and final season, now airing on FX, will "hit harder than ever."
"I hope every season that we've done has changed the game, but now we've got to go out with a bang!" she says.
Jumping from the previous 1980s setting, season 3 begins in 1994 when Blanca stands with confidence in her role as surrogate mother to a new group of LGBTQ teens who've run away from troubled homes. She's working in the AIDS ward of a hospital and even dating a young doctor (Hollywood Emmy nominee Jeremy Pope). This new era for Blanca is a reflection of Rodriguez herself, who has become a fully realized leading lady through her time on Pose.
In some ways, the drama was her crash course in the industry. The New Jersey native, 30, who also goes by Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, remembers how she was consistently cast in "guest star or the clubgoer" roles before co-creators Ryan Murphy and Steven Canals gave her the opportunity to take the lead. "There was a lot of weight [to it], a weight that I wanted," she says. "But I didn't expect the other things that came with it." Like the tedious hours of work, "making sure that you're always present," and speaking up for the community that the show is representing. But she embraced it. "I got to really showcase the work that I've always wanted to showcase as an actress," she says, "and not just shine light on the industry, but shine light on women who don't get noticed within the industry."
Rodriguez was "excited as hell" to get back to work after nearly a year of lockdowns. The drought of human connections had put a strain on her mental health. She considers herself "an emotional preacher," someone whose able to get others to feel what she's feeling. "I couldn't do that," she says. "I had to hide behind a mask the whole time. And I still have to hide behind a mask." She points to the COVID-safe covering on her face. "Which is not bad at all — even though people [still] know that's me behind this mask."
Rodriguez also admits to grappling with internal fear. She lost two of her family members to COVID-19 when the pandemic spread to the U.S., and she worried about not only catching it herself, but passing the respiratory virus off to others. "I was very scared," she says. "And also harboring the work of being an actress at the same time and doing the job, and showing up for my cast mates as much as I could." Sitting on a bench, as her boyfriend drapes a fleece vest around her shoulders, she credits "this man that's sitting right behind me" for giving her the confidence to return to work. "He was there with me through all of the process of Corona. It was a lot of preparation before I had even gone back on set. Being back after the first day, I was right back to where I used to be. I was at my second home."
Now, as Rodriguez delivers the best work yet of her career, she hopes to make a mark this coming awards season. Pose has received 11 Emmy nominations so far. But beyond Billy Porter, who's won once for playing ballroom emcee Pray Tell, the actors haven't garnered individual recognition.
"I'm huge on representation and deserved notoriety, and this season I'm fighting for that," Rodriguez declares. "I think it's time."
She acknowledges the platform that comes with one of those golden statuettes and its impact on others, like her Chilean fan or the many trans actors who are fighting for a seat at the table. It's the kind of recognition with the power "to influence a generation that is beyond me. That's the recognition I want," she explains, "because, once I receive that recognition, then the legacy [of Pose] will carry on. That's what this whole show, and this work, is really about. It's legacy work."
When it comes to voting bodies like the Television Academy and Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Rodriguez says she's under no delusions about their selection process. "This can be on the record because I want them to know this," she makes clear. "I know exactly what they're thinking right now. I know they don't see me as a woman. I know that. They don't have to tell me. They've made it very apparent, but my job is to show them how much of a woman I am through the work that I'm doing."
Trans actors have largely gone unrecognized when it comes to major awards, like the Emmys and the Golden Globes. Laverne Cox (Orange Is the New Black) became the first trans person to be nominated for an Emmy acting award in 2014, and she received three more since. Scott Turner Schofield (The Bold and the Beautiful) and Rowin Amone (the King Ester web series) were nominated for Daytime Emmys in acting categories. Recognition from the Globes is a much bleaker story.
"I'm so proud of the work that I've done as a character who plays a mother on the show, and I got to lift people up through motherhood. And I hope that speaks volumes," Rodriguez continues. It's not about ego. She always seems aware of when she might be coming across as prideful. She's just aware of the reality of what awards can mean. "There are a lot of people deserving of the work that they put in," she says.
Whether or not this awards cycle will look favorably on Pose and Rodriguez, the actress takes in all these fleeting moments because she knows she might never have an experience like Pose again. It's what made the reality of the third season being the last so emotional. The actors were able to engage in "open conversations" about character and story throughout the production, while also embracing a sense of "autonomy" to build their characters "from the bottom up." Rodriguez credits people like Murphy, Canals, and writer-director Janet Mock for cultivating a "safe and comfortable" space for a largely LGBTQ ensemble. "It made it so easy to do our jobs," she says. As she fields multiple offers for new projects, it's likely she'll be the lone trans star on set again. "I may have to navigate that myself," she notes. But she's willing to, especially with the prospect of what's next.
There are two projects in particular that Rodriguez is currently mulling over. She can't say what exactly, just that they "are both extremely amazing, big productions" that would "benefit the different path that I would like to go on with my acting." Film and music are her main focus at the moment, though theater is not necessarily out of the question. Rodriguez starred in the Pasadena Playhouse's 2019 rendition of Little Shop of Horrors, making her the first transgender woman of color to play the role of Audrey in a major production. She also portrayed Angel in an Off Broadway version of Rent in 2011, but Rodriguez sees stage work as something to return to later on in her career.
"I want to definitely venture into some very dramatic, dark elements of a character," she says. "Blanca was dramatic but she was still light. She was love, hope, and joy. But now I think it's time to do something that is completely the opposite, so others can really see the dynamic that Michaela has."
She smiles and shakes with excitement at what's coming next. "There's so much in these pans, they're just boiling, which is gagging me."
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