History was made this summer when FX’s Pose premiered, featuring the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles on television. Starring MJ Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, Hailie Sahar, and Angelica Ross, the series was an instant hit and captured the hearts of viewers while also educating LGBTQ youth about their community’s past.
Setting the show in 1980s New York City, co-creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals beautifully weave together HIV-positive stories in the trans and ballroom communities. Trans icons Janet Mock and Our Lady J also serve as writers and producers. But creating a TV dance musical about trans people living with HIV didn’t happen overnight. According to Murphy, it was 10 years in the making.
“I could never get it on the air,” Murphy says at the N.Y.C. red carpet premiere of Pose, but last year he “finally had enough juice to get it made.” (After all, Murphy has had a number of TV successes including Glee, American Horror Story, American Crime Story, and Feud.)
Through various subplots and characters — including married couple Stan and Patty Bowes (Evan Peters and Kate Mara), and Matt (James Van Der Beek), a coked-up boss at the Trump Organization — Murphy’s goal was not only to center trans stories, but to humanize their experiences, while also introducing the impacts of the AIDS crisis to younger generations who might be seeing it for the first time.
“I think we as gay people don’t have a huge mentor community,” Murphy explains. “All of the people who would have been my mentors died of AIDS [complications] — people who I love, like Michael Bennett. As a result, I think we don’t know our history. [In the show], we talk about the HIV epidemic and how it took so many of us. I certainly lost a lot of friends who died. And so I wanted to talk about that and remember them, and I think young people will watch the show and say, ‘Wait, how did this happen? How did I not know this?’ And I know even from being on set with young people, they had no idea of the pain, the suffering.”
That’s why, he says, “Now is the time to shine any spotlight on this community and show people a compassionate, empathetic viewpoint. If people could see them and feel like they’re their friends and characters they love, I think their heart can expand a little bit. That’s what I always try to do. And I felt it was the perfect time.”
A particularly interesting journey was casting the show, which took nearly six months. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, Murphy says, given that “the days of putting a wig on a straight guy and saying, ‘Be a trans person,’ are over.”
Still, he admits how he was stunned at how much transgender “talent is out there that’s not being given opportunities... I wanted to work with people in the trans community. Anyone who wanted to audition could audition. Some people would come in and they were wrong for the part they were reading, but they were so good that I would write them a part because they were so talented.”
“I don’t think the trans community has a lot of opportunities [on TV]. They have opportunities to be the best friend or to be the person that is murdered, but to be a lead, and to be seen as a victorious character and a sexualized character — that is new.”
Murphy has continuously strived to highlight LGBTQ storylines in his projects from Nip/Tuck to Pose. TV executives are now fully supportive of his endeavors, but he admits it wasn’t always the case.
“I never changed, the executives changed,” he states. “When I started off, they would say, ‘Take out that gay character. Take her out. It’s too gay.’ And now they’re like, ‘We want more!’ It’s just timing. It’s acceptance. You know, [CEO of FX] John Landgraf — I didn’t have to twist his arm to make this show. He was like, ‘Great. I love it.’ That would not have happened 10 years ago.”
Thankfully, Murphy’s stories aren’t going anywhere. “I’m interested in my community. I feel like its an untapped community and with so much potential.”
That’s why with Pose, he “fought for it to have production value and costumes. I think we deserve it.” Murphy boasts that the series is the most expensive production FX has ever made — and he’s proud of it. “I’m a fighter. I want to make what I want to make, and I want these characters on the screen. I want to change how people view our world. The lead of our show is an HIV-positive trans woman. That’s a very positive, powerful thing to put out in the world. She’s not sitting in the corner crying, she’s living her life. She’s trying to live, survive, and thrive. And I love that.”