If 2021 was the year of Mj Rodriguez, it's about to be the era of Michaela Jae. The actress, singer, and Emmy-nominated star of Pose recently began going by her full name, Michaela Jae Rodriguez, and the change is more than superficial. She says it's about introducing the world to her full and true self. And the world is about to learn because she's taking over.
In a year of amazing TV performances (The Crown, Mare of Easttown, Hacks), Rodriguez stood above her peers. Not only did she deliver one of the most moving and powerful performances of the last decade as Blanca Evangelista in the final season of the groundbreaking drama Pose, but she personally broke ground when she became the first out trans person nominated for an Emmy in a lead acting category. Blanca was her first major role, but Rodriguez, now 30, already felt at home at the Emmys. "When I got there and stepped foot on the red carpet, I felt like I was finally in a place that I needed to be," she says. "I felt like I was in demand, and it didn't matter if I had won or I didn't. I had already won by being there." To many, Rodriguez not winning the Emmy felt like a snub, but she has a different take.
"It felt great to just walk that red carpet and have the conversations and interviews that I had and just being able to sit at that table," she says. "I've always wanted a seat at the table. I've always wanted to be someone who was in the space to be a part of the conversation, to be a leading force in the conversation or to start it. And me being able to even have that nomination shows that I am willing and capable of it, you know?"
Soon everyone will know Rodriguez's contributions. After she changed the game for trans actors with Pose, she's now ready to take it over.
"The most important thing that I'm excited for, honestly, is people seeing me in a new light when it comes to my craft, seeing that I'm versatile and capable of doing many different types of characters," she says.
She's versatile not only in her acting but with her other talents, which include singing and songwriting. "I can't wait until some of these other projects and my music that I'm working on now come out," she continues. "People will really get to see the broader scheme and the more blossomed version of Michaela Jae versus when they saw young Mj coming on the scene as Blanca."
Regarding who she'd love to manifest working with, she's quick to answer. Ava DuVernay, Steven Spielberg, Lena Waithe, Quentin Tarantino, and of course, Ryan Murphy again are her dream directors. Bradley Cooper, Jacob Elordi from Euphoria, and most of all, Angela Bassett are on her wish list for acting partners, plus one that most people wouldn't expect.
She'd really love to work with Scarlett Johansson, who was famously cast as a trans man in the biopic Rub & Tug before dropping out due to the controversy over a cisgender woman taking on a trans role.
"A lot of people would gag about that," Rodriguez says. "But I feel like there's a lot of learning that can happen between me and her that I'd be really happy to [take on]. And also, on top of that, she's an amazing actress."
Additionally, Rodriguez wants to star in a romantic comedy, a thriller, some indies, and definitely a Marvel movie. She excitedly mentions the Daredevil villain Elektra as a dream role.
The future is bright not only for Rodriguez but for others sure to come after her. Thanks to the doors she opened with her historic nomination, Rodriguez is helping to ensure that other Black, Latina, and trans actors will have opportunities previously unavailable.
"It doesn't have to take an award; it doesn't even have to take a nomination. It simply just takes the work and the message behind who you are and how you want to influence people," she says. "So if I can do that with a nomination added on top of that, that's a plus. That's a great way to open up the door for individuals behind me and also make sure that people who are alongside me have that door constantly kept open."
"And I'm not going to stop," she adds, sounding not unlike her determined Pose character. "I'm going to make sure that the door is constantly kept open. I'm going to put a little stopper in that door so that it can open up as much as it can."
Rodriguez isn't content with just taking over Hollywood; she's also embarking on what's sure to be an equally bright music career. She recently released her first single, "Something to Say," an effortlessly fun throwback disco-pop jam highlighting her stunning vocals.
"I got to release 'Something to Say,' and I feel like that was the greatest introduction because I definitely...got something to say," she laughs. "I want people to band together, come together as one, and really try to understand people's plights, even though they may have never walked it before. I think 'Something to Say' really spoke to that."
Rodriguez is poised to forge a path as a trans singer but knows that there are others, like Kim Petras and the late Sophie, who have already made space for trans artists in pop.
"People want to hear something that's good," she says. "Once they hear something that's good and feeds their soul, they won't even have to worry about us being trans."
Most audiences became familiar with Rodriguez through her acting, but she was a vocalist long before she ever stood in front of a camera.
"I started singing at the age of 7," she says. At 11, she entered her first music program and trained for 11 more years, studying the craft with her godfather as her first vocal teacher. At 19, she enrolled in Berklee College of Music, where she majored in songwriting and performance, and the rest, as she says, "is history."
She's shown off some of her singing chops on Pose and as Audrey in the Pasadena Playhouse's production of Little Shop of Horrors, but her range is immense. Her upcoming EP will be packed with diverse styles, including a ballad, an up-tempo pop song, and funky R&B. She wants her music career to be as versatile as she is.
On the music front, there are several artists she'd like to work alongside. She dreams of collaborating with Chloe x Halle, and she counts Chloe among her favorite songwriters. She'd also love to do songs with Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, Saweetie (who she says is just as sweet as her name), Shawn Mendes, Giveon, and Justin Bieber.
As a songwriter, she hopes to collaborate with Charlie Puth (she attended college with him but hasn't seen him in several years), Swedish singer-songwriter Snoh Aalegra, teen angst superstar Olivia Rodrigo, and of course, Beyonce.
While Rodriguez has always dreamed of stardom, she worked hard to get to where she is and considers herself lucky.
"I'm still grasping and wondering and even perplexed that I got this far being a Black Latina trans woman," she says. "That just has not happened for us. So when it did, it really lit a fire underneath to just keep going and to also know that there are people watching me."
Where does all this manifesting and hard work lead? Well, first to an upcoming EP and a role in Netflix's Andrew Garfield-starring musical tick, tick...BOOM! (the autobiographical musical by Rent creator Jonathan Larson).
That film's director, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has been a fan of hers for years. He knew he needed her energy in his movie. "They say never meet your heroes, but she is genuine and has that star aura around her," Miranda says of Rodriguez. "She fits right in amongst the legends she was singing with. I think she is a legend in the making."
She's also landed a lead role in the upcoming Apple TV+ comedy Loot alongside Maya Rudolph. But her long-term goal is to leave something bigger than herself.
"In five years, I see my acting career having a strong stand, having a legacy, and I see myself being in a good amount of films," she says. Despite her historic Emmy nomination, it's her music Rodriguez views as having the biggest impact.
"I see my musical career lasting to the end of time...hopefully being something that really influences people and something that is etched in the brains of people," she says. "I want my music to last like Beyonce, Michael Jackson, Katy Perry."
"And I really do see it lasting that way," she continues. "Not simply because of the music but because of the person that I am and how much love I put into it. And more than anything, how much love I put into the people who want to hear it."
Rodriguez knows there are those out there begging for music that resonates with them, and she wants to be someone who takes it to the masses. "I try my best not to live my life in fear," she says. "I feel like if you live your life in fear, it's just going to hold you back and you're not going to be able to do the things that you want to do."
Her heart is also leading her to places no one has been before, and that can be a lonely, difficult road. But she has advice for others in similar positions.
"Love, hope, joy, and inspiration are what gets you through the day," she says. "You have to keep instilling yourself with that and never let anybody tell you who you are or how you're supposed to move through this world. You are the only person who can dictate that, so do it with grace."
This story is part of The Advocate's 2021 People of the Year issue, which is out on newsstands November 23, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.