Interview: Pose's Mj Rodriguez : It's Been a Minute As the groundbreaking series Pose comes to a close in its third and final season, Sam talks to Mj Rodriguez about the end of her role as Blanca, the loving and lovable house mother at the center of the show. They also chat about the start of her career as Angel in Rent, channeling grief into her character, and LGBTQIA+ perseverance.

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Mj Rodriguez On 'Pose' And Perseverance

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders.

So I first began watching "Pose" a few years ago because I knew it'd be unlike anything I'd ever seen before. A drama on TV with a cast full of trans actors.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POSE")

BILLY PORTER: (As Pray Tell) Pose.

SANDERS: "Pose" is a show about the Black and brown queer and trans people who built New York City's ballroom scene in the late '80s and early '90s. It's also about how they had to fight the epidemic of HIV/AIDS during that same time. The whole show is this time capsule of the era with all the outfits and the throwback decor and, most of all, the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REGULATE")

WARREN G: (Rapping) ...White moon, Warren G was on the streets...

SANDERS: In Season 3, it's 1994. And I know that because some of y'all...

MJ RODRIGUEZ: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Are walking the runway, it's a Warren G's "Regulators" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REGULATE")

WARREN G: (Rapping) ...LBC on a mission trying to find Mr. Warren G...

RODRIGUEZ: The music and the genre of that time is a perfect time to shift and let people see what it was like in the 1990s, especially in the mid-1990s, where things were really popping, at least I...

SANDERS: All three seasons also give you a real history lesson. They show you just how long this community had to endure the AIDS crisis. My guest this episode is Mj Rodriguez. She plays Blanca on the show. She is the house mother of Evangelista. In Season 2, she is living with her HIV diagnosis and pursuing a career outside of the ballroom scene.

I think you will like this chat. Mj and I cover a lot of ground. We talk about why the representation on "Pose" matters, but also why it's not enough. We discuss how Mj channels her own loss in her work and how the queer community still finds resilience when facing grief and despair and sometimes a government actively making things worse.

All right. Let's get to it. Here is Mj Rodriguez. Enjoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: You know, one of the opening scenes on the first episode of "Pose" Season 3 - in 1994, we see NYPD under then-Mayor Giuliani's control closing down a queer sex club loudly, almost violently, in their minds to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POSE")

DOMINIQUE JACKSON: (As Elektra Abundance) What is it? Explain yourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You're spreading that disease.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We're shutting this place down.

SANDERS: And I was watching this and realizing, oh, this is the part of the AIDS epidemic that I think some people don't remember. I think a lot of us...

RODRIGUEZ: Right.

SANDERS: ...Remember this crisis as some levers of the government being very silent about the crisis and not helping, but also, sometimes the government, at the peak of the AIDS crisis, they antagonized the queer community as it was suffering.

RODRIGUEZ: Mmm hmm.

SANDERS: And, you know, I am someone who thought I had this pretty good working knowledge of this era, of the AIDS crisis. But every time I watch your show, I realize there are things like that that I still don't know. And so "Pose" is consistently giving me an education. And I'm wondering, is there, you know, anything over the course of the show that you didn't know that you learned just from, you know, the scripts of "Pose"?

RODRIGUEZ: You know, fortunately, I have my mom who have gone through so many things in that time. And she's just, like, given me the whole book read of what had happened. So there was a lot that I had known about, and there was a lot that I had been privy of before going into "Pose."

SANDERS: Yeah.

RODRIGUEZ: But it reminded me - it's always a great reminder of what we as LGBTQAI people had to go through and also, like you said, how the cops - or how the government antagonized us simply because they had the option to do it. You know, that was best part of "Pose" in showing that, you know, how much they try to intimidate us, especially the queer community and how we always seem to prevail, honey. I mean, we always seem to fight back, some way or another.

SANDERS: There you go. There you go. Yeah, yeah. Well - and it's also this reminder that, like, governments are rarely silent or neutral, even if they pretend to be. They're always doing something.

RODRIGUEZ: Right.

SANDERS: And they're always picking a side.

RODRIGUEZ: Yep.

SANDERS: When you - thinking about "Pose" showing folks things they did not know, when you hear from listeners, are there certain things where they'll say, oh, my God, I had no idea?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, I would definitely say the younger generation now, who's like literally 13, 14, 15 who are watching this, they definitely would contact me in my inboxes and tell me, wow, I didn't know that the AIDS epidemic was as serious as it was. I didn't know that they were targeting LGBTQAI individuals in general. And it just baffles me to hear that from them because it's something that should obviously be known. But they're also a part of the different generation where it's just not in their books. It's not in - you know, it's not in their history books to learn. And, you know, I'm glad that "Pose" can do that. "Pose" has definitely opened up the eyes of individuals who've never seen anything like that before to really see what it's like and to know - like you said, it's an educational experience. It's real. It happened.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well - and also, what I find particularly resonant for me right now, as this year of coronavirus pandemic life is kind of hopefully coming to a close or getting to a new moment, watching Season 3 and it's like, how many years in the future from Season 1? And yet the AIDS crisis is still a crisis. It's a reminder that, like, the AIDS crisis went on for a very long time. Like, it was a crisis-level thing for years.

RODRIGUEZ: It was.

SANDERS: People forget that. I think it's easy to, like...

RODRIGUEZ: People do.

SANDERS: ...See the imagery from that time and say, oh, they had a really rough year or two, didn't they, those people? No, no, no. This dragged on for almost a decade.

RODRIGUEZ: One of the extreme parts about "Pose" and one of the best parts about "Pose" is that we really let people know what happened from 1987 all the way through 1994 and how numbers rise and, you know, really pinpointed two characters, Pray Tell and Blanca, and what they went through and showing them what not only the LGBTQAI community went through but what the Black and Latina community had gone through and what had been overseen. And we really shed a light on these specific characters to show what it was like being of color and what it was like living with HIV and AIDS.

SANDERS: Yeah, I understand that you lost some family over the course of the last year to coronavirus.

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I did. I did. I lost two family members, and another two of my family members actually had coronavirus.

SANDERS: Yeah. I'm so sorry to hear that. But I'm also wondering, like, in those moments of loss and grief over a different pandemic, epidemic, were you channeling some of the strength or wisdom or anything from your character and the characters of "Pose" dealing with the AIDS crisis?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. I made sure that anything that was emotionally heavy for me - I made sure that I put it all into the work and into the process of Blanca and making sure that, you know, it just stood true to what was happening in 1994 when it came to HIV and AIDS. I see that this is different, but it's not as different. We're kind of going through something quite similar. And also, seeing my family members pass away from it - you know, it just made me think of my mother seeing her friends pass away from HIV and AIDS, the ones that she's grown up with from childhood, from kindergarten.

And it just really struck hard. And I was like, OK, well, in order for me to convey the right type of feelings and emotions through Blanca, I have to bring a piece of the emotions that I have been going through as well to make sure that the people really receive and see what it's like to live in a time where there was just no vaccines, no cure, no remedies, no treatments, no nothing. It was just literally survival. And it was hard. It was very hard. But I'm glad that the challenge actually was met and I did what I needed to do because I really do think people will receive and understand what it was like at that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: All right. Coming up, Mj looks back on her first big role as Angel in "Rent." Musical theater nerds, stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: I want to talk about another role that you played before "Pose." You were in an off-Broadway production of "Rent," right?

RODRIGUEZ: Mmm hmm. Yes, I was.

SANDERS: Which role? Which role?

RODRIGUEZ: I played Angel Dumott Schunard in "Rent." And I have to say, that was, like, the biggest highlight of my life.

SANDERS: Wow. Tell me more.

RODRIGUEZ: So I had left college. I was going to school for music, and I was going back and forth to New York City, back and forth for auditions. And I didn't know what life had in store for me, but I knew that this could possibly be something that could really be a game-changer for me as a 19-year-old kid, as a queer woman, as a person who was a part of the trans community. But a lot of people probably didn't understand that. And I knew that this character was me. I knew that she was at least a piece of me. And I also wanted to change the perspective of her because I didn't want her...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RODRIGUEZ: ...To just be seen as a drag queen. I wanted her to be seen as a full, actualized woman who just so happened to be trans and who maybe didn't have, you know, the source to get HRT because she was homeless, and she was dealing with HIV and AIDS. But she still managed for people to see her womanhood through her light and through her heart. And when I got that...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RODRIGUEZ: ...Opportunity, honey, I went to the moon with it. And I poured my soul out on stage with Ms. Angel. And, you know, I just felt so much of her inside of me that I couldn't just not do her justice. I had to make sure I did her justice.

SANDERS: Yeah. What was your favorite song to sing when you were in "Rent"? Please say "Santa Fe."

RODRIGUEZ: Oh (laughter). Well, "Santa Fe" was definitely one of my favorites, but I would say "Today 4 U, Tomorrow For Me" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TODAY 4 U")

RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Today for you, tomorrow for me. Today for you, tomorrow for me. Now, I want y'all to clap. Come on.

So like I said...

SANDERS: OK.

RODRIGUEZ: ...I am a performer at heart. And when I performed that song, it was like a rocket ship just going straight into outer space into another galaxy. I was literally in my element. I felt...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RODRIGUEZ: ...Completely who I was, and I just got to just give it my all. And the energy that I received from the audience, it just - ooh, I just soaked it all up and just kept going.

SANDERS: Yeah, I love it. I love it. So, you know, you played Angel as a woman, not as a drag queen. And you said that that kind of ultimately influenced your own transition. How?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, it did. I mean, I had already - so, you know, there's been plenty of interviews that I've had about, you know, me knowing who I was when I was a child and knowing who I was when I was 7 years old. But as far as medically transitioning - medically - that's when I knew I wanted to do that. That's when I knew I wanted to go on HRT. And one of my sisters - her name's Mila Jam - you know, she saw me one day, and she said, I see you, girl. And I just looked at her and smiled because she knew what she had saw. And little did I know, a lot of people saw who I was before I had even let people know who I was. So I was on the right path, I knew. And yeah, that was kind of the precipice, but it wasn't, like, the start of my transition. I believe my transition had already happened when I was...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RODRIGUEZ: ...Born into this world. It just reminded me of that little girl who was 7 years old who was still sporting boy's clothes because she was a tomboy, but she didn't give a crap if she sported boy's clothes because people saw her and knew who she was.

And what a lot of people don't know is that "Rent" was a strong force in my life when I was a child through what my mother had been playing through her playlists and my uncle had been playing. They were big R&B, strong rhythm and blues people. And when "Seasons Of Love" was playing on the radio, it would play on the R&B channels most of the time.

SANDERS: Oh. I didn't know that.

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, yeah. Oh, yes. It was...

SANDERS: Wow. Wow.

RODRIGUEZ: ...Played on the R&B channels. It was played on Hot 97 a lot. And...

SANDERS: Wait, wait. Hold on. They played "Seasons Of Love" on Hot 97?

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, honey. And the reason why - I would say the reason why they played it is because most of the music is not traditional Broadway music from "Rent," you know? It's very...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RODRIGUEZ: ...Rock 'n' roll, R&B kind of style. So when I went into "Rent" and did it, I was like, oh, yeah, this is my home. I knew that "Rent" was the best steppingstone for me on how I could probably move towards my acting career separately and my music career separately. And I have to say, I'm really happy with what it's done.

SANDERS: Yeah, things kind of worked out (laughter).

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: After the break, reflections on "Pose" and the limits of visibility.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: When I think of the moment that "Pose" exists in, the right now, you know, it is this groundbreaking award-winning show with a cast full of trans people. And it seems as if all throughout the culture over the last few years, we're seeing more trans people.

RODRIGUEZ: Mmm hmm.

SANDERS: But at the same time, violence against trans people is high. It's up. There's a record number of bills targeting trans youth in statehouses across the country. How do you square that dichotomy? It must be a strange moment to take in when there's so much good and bad happening to the community at the same time.

RODRIGUEZ: You know, for me, when I see so much good happening and when I see so much awareness happening, I always expect for somebody to be upset at it. And that's why those legislations were created, because they're not happy with seeing that there are people who have a sense of self when they probably haven't had a sense of self. And that's no shade to them. That's just the truth. If they didn't have a problem with it, then they probably wouldn't be writing the legislations or trying to pass these bills. But they are. And

yeah, I mean, it's very, very sad that they're doing it. But we're going to keep fighting, and we're going to keep being as present as we have been, as we've always been. We have not just come on the scene. We've always been here for years. So I would say for me, with all of this happening and a person who loves to consider herself on the good side, I'm just going to keep doing my good and just, you know, dusting on these bad people. And we've already made our stamp. We've already shown people that we're worthy of being around and that they're also worthy of seeing us and holding space with us. And it's just not going to stop.

So - and with that being said, I know for a fact that the bad is not going to stop either. But from what I see, the good is prevailing more so than the bad, and we're just going to keep pumping through.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, I think for me, in this moment of rising visibility for the trans community at the same time that there are these other bad things happening to the community as well, it's a reminder that representation by itself is not enough. Like, it's a start, but visibility and protection are two different things.

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, they are.

SANDERS: Visibility and agency are two different things, you know?

RODRIGUEZ: Yes, they are.

SANDERS: And so, like, if we're seeing, with shows like "Pose" and lots of other stuff, that visibility is becoming a reality for the trans community - if that is working, then what is the thing that should come next in your mind?

RODRIGUEZ: In my mind, I think the one thing that should come next is letting us live in our autonomy and stop policing us. I think that we need to be able to be free within ourselves and do what we need to do so people can understand that we exist on our own time and not on theirs. So yeah, I think that's the other thing that needs to be added on to that.

SANDERS: Yeah. With a lot of these bills, it's basically cisgender people saying, either you can't be trans, or if you're going to be trans, you've got to do it this way. And I think what you're saying is, no, let people just be who they are and...

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Leave it alone. No one is telling cisgender people how to be cisgender. No one's telling us how to do it, you know? It's just, like...

RODRIGUEZ: Exactly.

SANDERS: ...Let people live. Let people live.

RODRIGUEZ: They're so afraid that they're trying to contain it so they don't have to deal with it. I think that's what certain cis people do. I'm not going to collect all cis people into one because I'm not that kind of person, and I know that there's good everywhere alongside with the bad. But there is a majority of cis individuals, specifically Caucasian individuals, who just don't want to see that and who want to, like I said, control and try to have hands in our lives. And it's just not happening. We're not going to let it happen.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. You know, in this season of "Pose," your character, Blanca, is in a transitional moment in her life and in her career.

RODRIGUEZ: Right.

SANDERS: And also, "Pose" is coming to a close as well this season, which is going to be a big transition, I'm guessing, for you in your working life. Are there any lessons that you're taking from Blanca, the character of Blanca, as you perhaps enter a kind of transitional new moment?

RODRIGUEZ: I'm going to start doing what Blanca has done, which is taking the lead even more. She takes the lead extremely well. Blanca has shown nothing but exuberance. She's shown nothing but stability. She's shown nothing but caring and presence. She's been there. She's always present for anyone who needs her. Whether Elektra's asking her, whether Pray Tell is asking her, whether her kids are asking her, she's always present. And I think I'm going to start trying my best to do that. You know, I think that's the best thing that she's done and she's influenced upon me. And I'm going to start leading like her 'cause it's time

SANDERS: I love that. To Blanca, to Mj, to "Pose." This was just delightful. Thank you so much.

RODRIGUEZ: Of course.

SANDERS: Thanks again to Mj Rodriguez. You can catch her on "Pose" on FX. The third and final season of that show premiered on May 2. All right, listeners, we are back this Friday with another episode just for you. For that one, your voice could be in the episode. We want to hear you share the best part of your week. Just record your voice on your phone or something and send that voice memo to me via email at samsanders@npr.org. All right, listeners, till Friday. Thank you for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. Stay safe out there. We'll talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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