Having a conversation with Billy Porter, the breakout star of FX’s groundbreaking series Pose about the 1980s New York City ballroom scene and LGBTQ community of color, is like going to church. He doesn’t just talk to you, he sermonizes. He answers questions with mini soliloquies, punctuated by dramatic pauses to let you know each word is intentional with certain phrases drawn out to emphasize that very thing you should be feeling in that moment and a vocal tone that rises and falls as his thought flows. In person, it’s enhanced by double hand raised back toward his shoulders while his body leans back in a chair or an intense crouch forward with an occasional, comforting tap on your knee as if to communicate, “you know what I’m saying?”
Porter is so animated, fabulously flamboyant and -- perhaps most importantly -- fully present that it’s easy to understand why Ryan Murphy and his Pose co-creators Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals would create a role -- the uncensored ballroom emcee Pray Tell -- specifically for the actor. It’s a character specifically written for the uniqueness that is Porter.
It’s also equally hard to understand why the early part of his career was met with so much rejection. He’s so captivating and inviting that you’d think any producer would want to cast him. But that wasn’t the case -- at least, not until now. “It truly is my authenticity that got me to this spot,” Porter says, “but very often, I’ve been told who I am would be my liability.” He was “too special to get cast.”
What’s not said here is that Porter is a 49-year-old gay black man, who landed his first Broadway role during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City. He came into the business at a time when being out and proud wasn’t as widely accepted as it is today. Everything that he is now was not celebrated back then.
“The fact that it’s happening to me this way, after all these years, is really profound to me,” Porter says of his recent explosion of success and notoriety since the June 2018 premiere of Pose to critical acclaim that has garnered him considerable Emmy buzz while he’s simultaneously made high-profile red carpet appearances his personal runway show. “I know I’m part of a generation that kicked the door down for these issues and for these stories to be told. I can say that because it’s the truth. And for those who kicked the door, those who were trailblazers, those who were the first -- we don’t always get these opportunities to reap the benefits.” And now he is.
After growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he graduated from the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University, Porter eventually made his way to New York City where he found his place on Broadway, with his first credit in the 1991 production of Miss Saigon. He lived, as he’s recounted several times before, through the struggles depicted on Pose. He spent years trying to be marketable, trying to make himself fit into a heteronormative world so that we would get cast in any screen role available. Then, over a decade later, the singer and actor blew audiences away with his Tony Award-winning performance as Lola in the hit 2013 musical Kinky Boots. In that time he was also writing and producing his own shows. “I know exactly what I’m doing. I’m doing it for a reason,” he says of that time, adding: “If I can’t tell the truth, then I’m not interested in being apart of it.”
Five years later, he finally landed the opportunity of a lifetime. Not only does Pose depict the world Porter has lived in, but it also came with the backing of TV’s most prolific producer. “I thought, if they’re going to do it right, they’re going to change the world,” the actor recalls of getting that first call to audition for the series.
On the series, Porter’s character, Pray Tell, not only emcee’s the ballroom, setting the rules and calling it like it is, his character also acts as the show’s sole father figure, often coming to the aid of budding house mother Blanca Evangelista (Mj Rodriguez) and serving up life lessons to the younger gay, black men that inhabits their underground culture. Outside the ballroom, he’s barely holding his life together, watching his boyfriend slowly die of AIDS while also coming to terms with his own HIV-positive diagnosis. In one of the season’s more memorable scenes, Pray Tell and Blanca perform a cabaret show for the AIDS ward in a hospital. The two cover the 1934 classic, “For All We Know,” bringing tears to anyone watching. It’s no surprise that Porter quickly became one of the fan-favorites and early breakouts of the series, eventually earning a Critics' Choice Television Awards and a Golden Globe nomination for his performance on the first season.
Now, with the recent debut of season two and the Emmy season in full swing, Porter making the most of every interview and every appearance, landing on magazine covers and making headlines for his memorable fashion choices. Needless to say, it’s been a whirlwind. “It’s crazy,” he says of having been everywhere over the past year. “There’s always something to promote.”
But he’s quick to clarify that he’s not complaining. These are just part of the benefits that he’s reaping -- especially as he approaches 50. What better time to enjoy it, if not now? “I’m grateful to be in the position I’m in,” says Porter, who’s now finally getting those auditions, finally getting parts, like an upcoming film with Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne, that he wasn’t able to before. Sure, he would “like to be in some more rooms,” but he’s not letting any closed doors slow him down. Full of ambition, and aware of just how far he’s come, he knows his time is now.