Mj Rodriguez and Indya Moore Break Barriers With FX’s ‘Pose’ and ‘Saturday Church’ (Exclusive)
By Naveen Kumar
Before Ryan Murphy’s Pose makes TV history this summer on FX -- with the most transgender actors ever to appear in series regular roles -- two of its stars are making their feature film debuts. Indya Moore and Mj Rodriguez both deliver breakthrough performances in Saturday Church, a queer coming-of-age film opening in limited theaters and on Video On Demand January 12.
While Pose will take viewers back to 1980s New York, tracing the origins of the underground ball scene memorably depicted in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, Saturday Church offers a more contemporary look at the experiences of the city’s transgender youth. Inspired by an outreach program for homeless LGBTQ kids in Manhattan’s West Village, the movie follows 14-year-old Ulysses (Luka Kain) as he explores his gender identity and finds acceptance among a new group of queer friends on the street after being rejected at home.
Moore and Rodriguez play two of the young women in Ulysses’ new support system, and introduce him to the ‘Saturday church’ program, where they’re provided food and social services, and, just as importantly, a space to be together and express themselves, including practicing their moves for the next ball.
Saturday Church was Moore’s very first audition, which she heard about from her house father in the ball scene, Jose Xtravaganza. Moore prepped with a friend and, remembering that Henry Cavill auditioned for Superman in character, decided on a similar approach -- one that included a purple wig. “I faked putting lipstick on the casting director. I felt super confident; I thought, Nicki Minaj is going to knock on my door any moment now,” Moore recalls to ET, calling from Los Angeles, where she and Rodriguez recently joined the Pose cast onstage for the first time at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
While Moore started in modeling, booking small jobs through Instagram and Facebook, Rodriguez got into the performing arts growing up in New Jersey, before being introduced to the ball scene at 14 and eventually landing the role of Angel in an off-Broadway revival of Rent. “That was the moment when everything came into full fruition, and I felt like, Finally I get to show people who I am,” Rodriguez says over the phone in New York.
“It was the sort of thing where they walked in the room and you were like, ‘OK.’ You can just see it,” says Saturday Church director Damon Cardasis of the casting process. The film also presented a unique opportunity to feature actors who come from the world it depicts. “My house father saw something in me, she saw potential and taught me how to vogue. The experience on set was so reminiscent of that,” says Rodriguez, whose character, Ebony, takes Ulysses under her wing.
“There are a lot of elements in the film that I experienced myself,” Moore adds. “It’s a journey that I was still on, even while filming Saturday Church; I was actually in foster care at the time,” she continues, saying the movie inspired her to truly believe she can achieve her dreams.
“It’s really exciting to be one of the people this story is actually about,” Moore says of Pose, which is currently filming in New York and recently received a full series order from FX. Co-created by Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals, the show is also produced by Janet Mock and Transparent writer Our Lady J and is set to feature more than 50 LGBTQ characters. “It’s like a history lesson,” Rodriguez adds. “To see what we had to go through in 1987 and how we persevered, which is one of the reasons why a lot of us are here today and able to do shows like this.”
Of working with Moore, first on Saturday Church and now Pose, Rodriguez says she “couldn’t be happier that one of my sisters has come along and we’re embarking on a journey together; we’re family.”
Even as they break ground themselves, Moore and Rodriguez both feel incredibly grateful to their predecessors, including trans women like the characters they play in Pose. “We’re standing on the shoulders of so many people who have already broken down so many barriers,” Moore says. “It’s amazing that we have five leading trans women of color to portray these stories that should have been portrayed a long time ago,” Rodriguez adds.
While few details have been revealed about the show’s cast, including co-stars Evan Peters, James Van Der Beek and Kate Mara, Moore and Rodriguez happily tease their upcoming roles on Pose. “Blanca is a rambunctious, strong, wonderfully powerful character who is trying to find her way and help others find theirs,” Rodriguez says. Moore, who plays Angel, says her character is“definitely unapologetic; she’s brave, she knows where she’s going, has a strong sense of self, and is staying true to the future she sees herself in.”
The same can be said of Moore and Rodriguez, who see a bold path ahead for transgender performers in Hollywood. “Us being trans women should be as a matter of fact versus a headline,” says Rodriguez, who has graduated from bit parts on The Carrie Diaries, Luke Cage and Nurse Jackie. “When it comes to my career, I’m an actress before I’m trans. I think people should see the talent first.”
Moore, who says “cis[gender] actors playing trans roles feels like black face,” adds that, while she’s happy to see trans characters played by trans actors, we’re not yet seeing trans characters “in ways that aren’t focused on their transness, or putting them under a microscope.”
Both stars say they’d love to play superheroes some day -- and from their portraits of perseverance in Saturday Church and soon Pose, that’s not a huge leap. “I would love to see or be an action hero, and have kids look up to us and feel empowered,” Rodriguez says. “I just want to be a light of hope for anyone who might be in the dark.” Moore agrees, pointing to the change she hopes projects like Saturday Church and Pose can help usher in.
“It’s really going to open up the eyes of so many people,” Moore says. “They are really going to see us for who we are, as gender variant people who are just people.”