Pose’s breakout star, Ryan Jamaal Swain, always knew he wanted to be a performer. The showbiz bug bit him at 4 years old after he’d finished a tap routine and he relished in the applause so much that he couldn’t bring himself to exit the stage. Thus began his serious pursuit of the arts.
As a child in Birmingham, Ala., Swain studied ballet, jazz, and modern hip-hop dance. He performed with several dance companies before turning to acting at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. He went on to earn a BFA at Howard University and study at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford, England.
His hard work and late nights at rehearsals paid off in 2017 when Swain, then 23, landed the role of Damon Richards in Ryan Murphy’s FX series Pose. The show has more than 50 LGBTQ+ characters and boasts the largest cast of transgender actors ever for a scripted network series. It’s become a guiding light for trans representation on-screen and set a new standard for film and TV to implement more inclusive practices in front of and behind the camera.
“I think it is a rarity that a project or a piece of work matches with your point of view and also your humanity in such a deep way and in such a personal way,” he says. “[Growing up], I didn’t have a Damon, I didn’t have an Angel, I didn’t have an A.J., I didn’t have a Billy, I didn’t have any of that. Especially in Birmingham, Ala., where the exposure to LGBTQ+ culture is so slim and so rare, and not something that is so vibrant and so colorful, being able to be a part of this has really taught me to invest and take hold of the opportunity to do my best work.”
On Pose, Damon is a young dancer with a dream who experiences homelessness when his family kicks him out of the house because he is gay — an all-too-familiar storyline not just in the 1980s, when the show takes place, but also in the present day. The character’s talent ends up being his savior, however, when he finds himself at the center of the New York City ballroom scene as the first member of the House of Evangelista.
The role that catapulted Swain to new career heights has also been healing for him personally.
“It really has liberated me and has encouraged me to stay firm in my truth,” he says. “I have never been this queer in my life. I think I’ve never been as liberated, as free. I never ‘freedom dreamed,’ you know what I mean? I didn’t dream of freedom.”
“I think that what it has given me is such a gift because outside of the visibility and the people that are touched by the work, it also gives me a sense of who I am,” he says. “For so many young queer [people] you are always in a constant fight to choose your truth over your safety, because sometimes your truth doesn’t warrant your safety.”
As an artist, Swain says that limited opportunities for Black queer roles restricted him from tapping into deeper layers as an artist — an experience he’s helping to shift on Pose.
“So many times as Black and brown people, when we get into a modicum of success, when we have something that spotlights us or highlights our essence or we have some sort of visibility, there’s a sort of impostor syndrome that kind of takes over you because nobody has taught you to deal with the success,” he says.
“The beautiful tapestry that we’ve made as a cast, being able to liberate myself and liberate my family, to be able for them to have conversations around who Damon is and who these characters are, I think that is so paramount with good art no matter what it is. And I’ve been able to forge a beautiful relationship with my family. [Before], we didn’t have the verbiage or the language to kind of work through what it is and who I am. I think that they really use Pose as a moment to learn about a part of their history.”
The political climate has also inspired Swain to use his talents for a larger purpose. This year, specifically, was hard for the actor following the death of his sister as well as that of his mentor, Black Panther star and fellow Howard University alum Chadwick Boseman. But through pain comes purpose, and that’s what Swain intends to create.
“I think that artists are the gatekeepers of culture,” he says. “We have to be at the frontlines of social change, we have the capacity to change the molecular structure of hearts and minds. You see a show like Pose or you see a Broadway show, it instills in you a specific thought that furrows and willows into something that can really make effective change.”
“Our democracy is at stake right now.” Swain adds. “There are so many things that are trying to separate us, to use fear and hate as a tactic to grasp people [and] to control people. I don’t care how you show up, but everybody has their duty, a civil duty, to show up in the way that attributes them. As artists, we give our voices, we give our talent, we give our gifts because we are the life poets. As Nina Simone says, the artist’s duty is to reflect the times. It is always that.”