Janet Mock on Finding Her Calling as a Director, the Emmys and Telling Authentic Stories (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Rich Fury/Getty Images
Not long after releasing her second memoir, Surpassing Certainty, in 2017, Janet Mock’s life completely changed. The author and activist found herself being courted by prolific TV creator Ryan Murphy, who had requested a meeting with her to discuss working in Hollywood on a new series, Pose, which he had co-created with Steven Canals and Brad Falchuk.
“He really just dropped into my life,” Mock recalls to ET, admitting she wasn’t even aware that he was working on the groundbreaking FX series about LGBTQ community of color in the 1980s New York City ballroom scene starring the largest cast of transgender women ever on primetime TV. However, “when he told me about this idea, I just knew that it was important, and I knew that I wanted to be part of crafting those women’s stories,” she says.
Mock followed her gut, and a week later she moved from New York City to Los Angeles, where she started writing on Pose, which first debuted in 2018. During the first season, she not only wrote or co-wrote three episodes, but also made her directorial debut with episode six, “Love Is the Message.” And a year later, she, alongside writer Our Lady J and director Silas Howard, became the first openly transgender people nominated for Outstanding Drama Series as producers on the acclaimed series.
“It has been a whirlwind of an experience, having jumped onto this show in 2017 to write it and then being pushed to be a director and then finding my calling in the director’s chair,” Mock says, praising Murphy for being such a great mentor to her. “He’s been such a great guide. Talk about being an ally, a powerful white ally, to be someone who is leveraged his own privileges and his own access to these spaces to say, ‘This is a young woman you all need to be paying attention to. She’s going to change the world, I’m telling you now.’ And he gave me opportunities and he supported me through those opportunities.”
Not long after Pose season 1, Mock quickly became Murphy’s No. 2, working on his slate of Netflix original series, The Politician, directing one episode (“October Surprise”) in season 1, and Hollywood, co-writing and directing two episodes (“(Screen) Tests” and “Meg”) for the limited series. On Pose season 2, which premiered in June 2019, she directed two episodes (“Butterfly/Cocoon” and “In My Heels”) and wrote or co-wrote three others, including “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” the series’ best and most powerful episode yet.
“It was one of the hardest scripts I have written,” Mock says of the episode, which served as a tragic representation of the real-life horrors of transgender women of color being murdered all around the country. “Ryan Murphy and I wrote the script together, and it really was to bring a spotlight on the epidemic of violence that surrounds the lives of Black and Brown trans women,” she continues, explaining that in order to do that they “had to lose a character that was so special and so dynamic,” which meant seeing one of the five original series regulars, Angelica Ross’ character, Candy, tragically killed off. (Read more about that episode in detail here and here.)
The power and emotion of that hour was only matched by the two episodes on Hollywood, Murphy’s revisionist take on the post-World War II era of Tinseltown about a group of aspiring actors and filmmakers -- Jack Castello (David Corenswet), Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope), Camille Washington (Laura Harrier) and Claire Wood (Samara Weaving) -- trying to make it alongside real-life figures and icons of the time as they all deal with systemic homophobia, misogyny and racism within the industry.
Mock’s installments in the limited series largely deal with race and the pushback against Archie, a gay Black man, being the named screenwriter on the film Peg, and Camille, a Black actress, being the marquee star. The issues both characters face are not that dissimilar to Mock’s own experiences as a “Black screenwriter or a Black woman in front of the camera,” she says. “What was so great about Hollywood is that we were able to shed light in an entertaining way about the disparities that are there in terms of opportunities that are there for folks of color in Hollywood and how the system initially wasn’t built for, say, a starlet like Camille or a Black out gay screenwriter like Archie.”
She continues, adding, “For me, I wanted to make sure I used those characters and their journeys and struggles and triumphs to be able to allow other people who are dreaming of being a part of this world to see that it has always been that way and that this is a new possibility for futures by having this kind of fantastical revisionist [take on] it all, without forgetting the actual fights that had to be won and battled in order to get where need to go.”
Adding legitimacy to Mock’s sentiment was the fact that the show marked the first time Harrier ever worked with a Black female director in her career. The actress previously told ET she was so “grateful” for this experience, adding that she’s gone through her own struggles “in this industry as a woman and a person of color.”
While Mock is also grateful for recognition by the Television Academy for the first season of Pose, she’s hopeful season 2, as well as her work on Hollywood, will be recognized during the upcoming 71st Primetime Emmy Awards. “I hope that they haven’t forgotten about us just because we’re not on the air right now,” she says of the former which halted production on season 3 after the coronavirus outbreak forced them to shut down.
But at the end of the day, she is “just really grateful that I get to call the shots and have a seat at the table,” Mock says, looking ahead at what comes next and being able to continue to tell authentic stories. “And, also to be making a table of my own, with my deal at Netflix, where I’m creating even more stories about our communities and ensuring that stories that matter have a platform and, for our audiences, that’s accessible to watch.”