Billy Porter in "Pose" (Michael Parmelee/FX)

"White men want their power": Billy Porter unleashes his passion for politics and doesn't hold back

The acclaimed actor appeared on "Salon Talks" to sing "My Funny Valentine" after discussing "Pose" and activism



Alli Joseph
August 19, 2020 10:14PM (UTC)

If you thought an interview with Billy Porter, the Emmy-, Grammy- and Tony Award-winning Broadway and TV actor and singer, would be all fun and fabulous because of the role he plays on FX's bold drama "Pose," you'd be mistaken. And, he'll tell you so. Despite his gleaming smile, it should come as no surprise that Billy Porter is not the joking sort, at least not when he feels our country is in dire straits, an opinion many share.

The passionate star, also an outspoken activist for social justice and equal rights, joined me on "Salon Talks" for a sobering conversation about the current state of politics and race relations in America. "I don't have any filter anymore," Porter told me. Speaking from a home he's renting in the country, Porter has spent the quarantine spring and summer practicing self-care, spending time with his husband, being an advocate, and speaking his mind on important issues, as he always has.

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For those who have been under a rock, "Pose," which was in the process of shooting its third season when COVID-19 shutdowns stopped production, is a drama spotlighting the legends, icons and ferocious house mothers of New York's underground LGBTQ ball culture. Porter, who made history last year as the first openly gay Black man to win an Emmy Award as the lead actor in a drama series, is nominated again this year.

Watch the "Salon Talks" episode with Billy Porter here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear Porter talk about how he has poured all of the parts of himself into his role as Pray Tell. "It is everything that I have ever dreamed of being able to present as an artist in this world," he said.

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Plus, don't miss Porter's willingness to have a little fun after at the end of our chat. He beautifully, and with no warm up, sang "My Funny Valentine" — a beloved Richard Rodgers song he performed on his collaborative tribute album "The Soul of Richard Rodgers."

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I wish we could actually be in person together, but this is the new normal, right?

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I've gotten used to it. I do have to say that being able to be in one place, doing all of the things that I have been doing for the last few years, has really been life-altering in just understanding what self-care looks like, understanding what boundaries and balance looks like. I'm going to be different coming out of this because the industry can sometimes pull you in many different directions and there's nothing left for yourself. With as terrible as it's been, I've learned a lot about what I need as a human being to not get burned out.

Can you share what kind of new things you've been doing?

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Well, first of all, having so much time to hang out with my husband. We're two and a half years into a marriage, and it was like gangbusters for me. So to literally just have time and space to hang out with the love of my life has been so intimacy-building. The trees and the birds, we have been renting out on Long Island since March because of the pandemic. I am also diabetic, so I am high risk.

I've never lived in a house. I've never had space. I never knew that that was part of the healing. I grew up in Pittsburgh. I didn't grow up around country and stuff like that, so I didn't know how healing it could be to simply be surrounded by nature for real. So, that's been lovely to discover. Lots of walks, lots of bike rides, lots of yoga and breathing, and all that therapy that I have been trying to find time to do, work on old traumas and stuff. I've been using this time to really take care of myself and my family.

How important. Yeah, it's a little weird when you move to a house when you spend your life in a city. I grew up in the East Village when it was not the gentrified East Village when I was a kid. You were up in an apartment building, a couple of windows, and then you moved to a house, which I did here in Jersey. You feel exposed. I don't know about you, but then you forget that you're walking around in your drawers.

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Ain't no house clothes. There are clothes, but there's lots of shrubs so can't nobody see in. I walk around naked all the time. It's fun.

I always ask my guests if they are wearing pants.

Today I am wearing pants.

I'm honored then.

Today I'm wearing shorts. Sometimes I'm in my swimsuit because I'm coming back and forth from the pool, praise the Lord. I am so blessed to have these things in my life at this time when a lot of people are not doing so well. I am really grateful.

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Let's talk a little bit about some of the settings and the issues that we learn about in "Pose." I personally learned a tremendous amount about some of the divisiveness in the gay and transgender community in New York in the 1980s that I was unaware of, and some of the history of ball culture. I will of courses defer to you in taking us through a brief history of ball culture in New York and what a support system they were for the LGBTQ community, which I understand actually started in New York's Harlem many, many years and decades before the setting of "Pose."

The ball culture is chosen family. The ball culture is a space that was created essentially by transgender women for the most part to create spaces that were safe for the LGBTQ community. Very often, we are put out, ostracized, rejected by the people who are supposed to be the ones that love us unconditionally, and chosen family becomes the only family. This takes the form, has taken the form in the ball culture, of houses.

The balls have sort of replaced the church. It's our church. Church is community. Church is a place historically that's been a safe space, a community space for particularly African Americans and people of color. That is the space that kicks us out the most. That is the space that dismisses us and rejects us the most. In the spirit and in the core of that rejection, we find a space to love and live anyway. That is through the core of this chosen family and this microcosm of this family that "Pose" depicts.

My late mother was a wise woman, and in fact, a woman of color. She grew up in the south Bronx and she always told me, "You're born into one family, but you don't get to choose them, but you can create a family and a village from those that you choose on your journey." I have always tried to listen to that, although I was lucky enough to come from a family who was very loving. Just shifting a little bit to you as a musical talent, the show soundtrack's is on point.

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Yes!

I heard some Kate Bush in the first scene in the car.

Yes!

I started crying because that's the pre-remix. I have the remix for when I teach spinning. These are some of those iconic songs.

Soundtrack of our lives. That's what it really is. I think that's one of the greatest parts of "Pose" is that we really lean into that. Alexis Martin Woodall, who's the music supervisor as well as many other things in the Ryan Murphy sphere, she does music and it's chosen very specifically. Sometimes with a wink.

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Oh, I got the winks. Well, kudos to her because I'm somebody who loves music and used to DJ, so all those things. Every time there was a hook, I was like, wait what? That was so excellent. It reminds me of pre-Giuliani time with the peep shows in Time Square. It was real and had so much energy, and so much has changed. I don't know how much time you spent as a young person coming from Pennsylvania to New York, but I miss that in New York. Do you?

Here's the deal. Yes and no. Yeah, it was real. Yes, it was gritty. Yes, it was New York City of a time. But it was also highly dysfunctional and highly dangerous. Being a Black man who grew up in the ghetto, I know how to navigate those spaces, but when you're in a big city, I also understand the need and the want to transform it into something that is not dangerous and that is better. I understand the desire for that, so I go back and forth. It's like, yeah it's cleaned up. I don't have a problem with that. Do I miss the old New York? Yeah, but it was not . . . 

It was not nice. No, no.

It was not nice. So it's like, so what am I actually longing for? I want to feel like I'm in the gutter again? I don't know. It's a difficult conversation because it's so much more than just cleaning it up. It's the cleaning up without the caring for the community that I have a problem with. That is the problem. The problem is how you clean it up, how you take care of the people who are there, who have nothing else. What are we doing to give back to these communities and uplift these communities who are the populace of these neighborhoods and these targets of clean-up? It's a very interesting conversion.

You don't have to worry about that now because 45 has made sure that we're going to be in the gutter. So we'll be right back to what all of you who missed old New York, you're going to get it. In about 10 years, we're all going to get it. We're all going to see it.

It's already destroyed. I'm looking around New York City, and Broadway is closed. Broadway is closed! Broadway wasn't closed when it was dangerous, it wasn't closed. The show must go on was always the thing. The show is not going on. The show is closed. The lifeblood of the city is cut off. It's a billion-dollar industry that comes into this, more than all of the sports teams combined. Forget football, forget baseball, forget basketball. Ain't none of y'all s**t compared to what the theater has always brought in. I don't know what to tell y'all, but we're going to see it. It's not going to be cute.

It's very sad on so many levels and especially as a performer, I'm sure it has such relevance for you and the community that has supported and uplifted you for so many years.

Yeah, there's nothing. You look around, all of my friends are unemployed with nothing coming, with a government that doesn't care. I hope people understand that they don't care, and this is on purpose. I still look at these numbers and there's still 45-46% of people in this country who support this mothef**ker. I'm sorry. I don't have any filter anymore.

That's all right.

It's like, okay, if that's what y'all want, I don't know what to do. I've done everything that I can for my whole life. Fifty years of my life as a Black, gay man. My humanity has been up for legislation the whole f***ing time, the whole time. Now we're supposed to go back and fight for the s**t that we spent the last 300 years winning because white men are scared, because white men want their power, and they'll do nothing, they'll stop at nothing to keep it, including destroying the entire world in the process. It's not just America. It's the whole f***ing world.  

He's been enabled by the white men who could have stopped him and chose not to. That's why I'm glad about Kamala [Harris]. It's like a rollercoaster. Sometimes I'm fine and sometimes I just literally have to lay down and go to sleep.

Yeah, you've got to shut it down because it's too upsetting otherwise. But I can't wait for the VP debate.

Oh, I can't wait. She flummoxed Jeff Sessions. Remember that? "You're talking too fast. I can't . . .  you're making me nervous." This is your job, boo.

He couldn't believe that, not only was it a woman who was questioning him, it was a Black woman who was questioning him. That's what confused him. That's what threw him off was the fact that the world has moved on from whatever you think you are. Whatever you think this whiteness is and all that y'all think, it's over. It's actually over. It is over. That is what this response is about. That is what the "stop at nothing, burn the whole thing down" is about.

We're seeing it, and now we as Black people don't have to say it no more. Because y'all see it now. We've been screaming it for hundreds of years, and it's like, "Oh slavery is over," "All lives matter." Okay, well now y'all see it, so now we can make the real decision, America. Are we better than this? Are we? We'll see.

We will see. I hope America is right.

I hope so. I hope that we're better, but I have questions.

Oh, and you should. Me too. Well listen, so I'm hearing so much of this fire and passion for real issues, which does of course not surprise me. So it begs the question, in the end of the first season of "Pose," we really see your character, Pray Tell, shift in his acceptance of the growing problem from a sociopolitical standpoint, from a cultural and community standpoint of AIDS in America as perceived as a gay disease, and how Latino and Black men were dying in record numbers of this disease, and that it was quite intentional not to help them.

Yeah.

Your character makes a transition with the same fire you were just speaking with about real issues in America now. It's just that it was more pigeonholed then specific to AIDS. Were you part of the discussion with the writers in "Pose" to giving your character that transformation, or was that more organic?

I wasn't specifically in conversation with them, but the brilliance of our team, our creative team, starting with Steven Canals, is our creator, Ryan Murphy our godfather, Janet Mock and the whole team. They observe. They sit with us outside of shooting and filming and they observe what we talk about. They observe how we behave. They observe it and then they put it into the show. I've always been an activist. I've always been this.

Ryan and I are very close in age, so we lived through the AIDS crisis. We have had conversations about that time, about this time, about the similarities. I think he's drawn to my passion, and they were able to infuse Pray Tell with that. While it wasn't an official conversation, I know that they pull from who you really are.

Another issue of the time within the community that "Pose" focuses on is the division between transgender and gay people, certainly as portrayed in late 1980s New York. The fantastic MJ Rodriguez, who plays Blanca in the show, and is a transgender woman, is sometimes put down — put down for not being pretty enough and not authentic enough as a woman. Is there more unity now in the gay and transgender community in your observation than there was then when you first started?

I think that we're on the road to having more awareness, and thereby when you know better, you do better, as Maya Angelou so effortlessly taught us. I know, as a Black gay man who came out in 1985, we went straight to the front lines to fight for our lives during the AIDS crisis. I have said in the past, and continue to say, that the T in LGBTQ was largely absent for a long time from my knowledge. I just didn't know because that just weren't the circles that I was in. This show in particular has really created an awareness surrounding the transgender community that is inspiring to me. It's educational to me and it's transformative for me in terms of . . .  I believe thereby the world, in terms of, oh now we see it, now we see it . . .  Once you really see it, then the thing must be addressed.

I think "Pose" has been really instrumental in helping the world see that representation matters. Our pop culture is inherently political inside of how artists communicate their authenticity to the world. When artists are fully their artistic selves, we have the power to transform people from the inside out, change the molecular structure from the inside out. That's why I'm so proud to be an artist. That's why I'm so proud to be on this show that I really label as activism that has been my journey and my goal. I made that choice a long time ago. My art is my activism.

Building on that, since "Pose" is a realistic fiction and period piece, how do you prepare for your role as Pray Tell? I certainly understand a lot of it is based on your own experience in the community. How do you pick up the role season after season, especially after a long break like we're seeing now?

Well, my preparation is having lived it. I remember when I was in drama school at Carnegie Mellon back in the '80s. Sometimes we would do work, and the acting teachers were like, "Yeah, that's great. It's really great work for where you are in your life. It will deepen as you live more." When you're 18 years old and you hear that, it sounds patronizing. That question of preparation is something that happens, something that's more intense when you're diving into a character that you don't know or understand.

I know Pray Tell. I have lived Pray Tell. I am Pray Tell. My whole life was my preparation. So that's what I get to draw from, and it's not easy because it was trauma after trauma, after trauma after trauma in my life. But I lived. I lived to tell the tale. I lived so that I could be the vessel and the voice for the ones that we lost. That's why. I know that for a fact, and that's what "Pose" brings to me. So it's not hard. What's difficult is to relive it. That's the difficult part is to have to relive it and leave it at the studio and not bring it home. That's the hardest part for me.

The scenes in which you lose your partner in the show to AIDS and knowing that you must have, like many of the characters and like Pray Tell in the show, have lost many of your own friends or family members.

I remember shooting the Candy episode when she passes away in Season 2. There was a girl killed, a transgender Black girl killed the day that we were shooting that. Their lives are in danger every time they walk out of the house simply because of who they are. This has to stop. This is not okay. It is not okay. It's not normal. It's not okay. On "Pose" we have the space to speak to that, which is really lovely.

Coming into an interview like this, you're a charismatic guy. You are certainly funny, but I feel blessed that we have been so serious here so far.

I'm a very serious person. I've always been a very serious person. For some reason, fabulous is not synonymous with being serious. I've had to take the reins of that and I have had to work through that in my life, in my career the entire time. I have worked through the perception that being fabulous or being pigeonholed into being some sort of clown, or also living in this space or in the room where we have people in positions of power who enjoy the narrative of, "Shut up and sing." They enjoy that, "Shut up and dribble." They enjoy that, "Shut up. You're a prostitute." They enjoy this idea and they push this narrative that, because they, whoever they are, don't deem who you are or what you do as respectable, that your opinion doesn't matter and that you're a dummy. I am none of those things.

It's surprising to a lot of people, and that's where Pray Tell came from. Pray Tell didn't exist before I walked into the room. Pray Tell was developed because I walked into the room and brought myself into the room. That's why Pray Tell is who Pray Tell is. It is everything that I have ever dreamed of being able to present as an artist in this world. The culmination of my life's work is in the DNA of Pray Tell, and it makes my heart sing, because you do laugh. You to have the time and the space at the balls where Pray Tell is fabulous. You have the fabulous and then you see the dimensions.

We are all three-dimensional human beings who deserve to be respected as such. It's not about tolerance, it's not about acceptance. I don't need you to worry about my salvation. Keep your Bible to yourself. The only thing and the only conversation that I'm interested in having in this moment in 2020 is y'all's respect for my humanity. I am a human being just as much as I respect everybody else. We can agree to disagree. You don't have to like me. I don't have to like you. But what we must do is respect each other's humanity, period.

Until that happens, ain't nothing going to be right. None of us are free until we're all free. This is what I talk about with the Black community specifically and our relationship with the LGBTQ community. Black people and gay people and that conversation is still one that they don't want to have. I still get s**t for calling Black people out for being homophobic and transphobic. It's hypocritical. I don't care what you think about my lifestyle. I don't care. It's hypocritical to march for Black Lives Matter and then act as if the trans community and the LGBTQ community aren't a part of that. I'm a Black man first. We're Black people first.

In the industry, I would like to think that, where we are now, actors could be perceived as just actors. Are you a good actor? Are you a bad actor? You are, as I understand it, the first openly gay Black man to be nominated win in any leading acting category at the Prime Time Emmy's, and I feel compelled to ask if you think things have changed to encourage actors to come out and be themselves. Perhaps led by some inspiration by you and others.

I think things are changing. I am a part of the generation that fought for said change. I reached the pinnacle. I have reached the pinnacle to fight for visibility and get it. Now, it's up to me and everybody else creatively in the same space to make sure that we bring the generations forward, that it doesn't stop with me, that the archetype of the Black gay leading man doesn't begin and end with me. It starts with me. Now y'all get to see a whole bunch of them coming behind me.

You should just be a leading man, not a Black leading man, not a Black gay leading man, right? That's from my perspective.

Ultimately, that's the goal, but that's not what we are yet.

Right.

So we work and we fight, and we keep moving forward until that is.

Switching gears a little, I would be remiss if I didn't touch on your gifted singing.

Aww.

So much of your career and your passion has been singing. I don't know if everyone knows that about and the way that they know you as an actor. When you're not yelling "the category is" in "Pose," you sing and you sing beautifully in the show at several intervals. Would you sing us out with a bit of "Bewitched" or "My Funny Valentine" from your 2017 Richard Rodgers' tribute album?

Oh, so you really do know.

Because I grew up with all those songs. My dad loved old jazz, and I'm a fan of your voice, and also I just love the lyrics are amazing.

Yeah, let me just sing a little verse of "My Funny Valentine to you."  [singing] You're my funny valentine. Sweet comic valentine. You make me smile with my heart. Your looks are laughable, unphotographable, yet you're my favorite work of art. Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak? When you open it to speak, are you smart? Don't change a hair for me. Not if you care for me. Stay, little valentine, stay. Each day is Valentine's Day.

I started that too high, but I made it!


Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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