Even before she entered kindergarten, Pose actress Hailie Sahar sensed she was not who she was meant to be. Assigned male at birth, Sahar didn’t yet have the vocabulary or a clear understanding of herself, but she remembers wishing she could supernaturally become a girl. She grew up in a strict and artistic Baptist family in Los Angeles — both her grandfather and father were pastors — and her life consisted of school, dance class, writing, directing and performing in plays, and church. As a young child, Sahar danced for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, and by 16, she was slaying ball competitions in L.A., becoming a house mother herself by 18. “I found my truth through the ballroom scene,” Sahar told Vuture. “I found my voice of who I really am, but I incorporated what was already there, which was the arts,” she said. “And now you have Hailie Sahar.”
The actress has appeared on Transparent and Mr. Robot, but most recently her experience as a trans woman has been front and center on Freeform’s inclusive modern drama Good Trouble and especially on FX’s Emmy-nominated Pose, where this week viewers will see Sahar’s character Lulu deal with the aftermath of her best friend Candy’s tragic death. In an interview with Vulture ahead of the episode, Sahar spoke about how Candy’s death helped show that Lulu is more than a “typical mean girl,” and what it means to her to be portraying the trans experience, both past and present, onscreen.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your transition began at a very young age. Tell me about what you felt like inside as a child.
As far back as my brain can remember, I always remember feeling like I wasn’t in the right body. I always felt a different way. I remember telling myself, If by any chance something magical happens, and I wake up one day and I’m physically a girl, I’m going to go off somewhere, get a new ID, not tell anyone anything, and just live this beautiful life and meet my Prince Charming and have babies. That was my thought as a kid. I just never spoke about it verbally because I didn’t know who to talk to. I don’t even think I remember hearing words like “transgender.” When I was 13 or 14, my best friend was dating someone who showed us the documentary Paris Is Burning and a ball tape. I had never seen a ball or knew what that was, so I was like Wow, this is what you’ve always felt about yourself.
And now you’re on Pose and Good Trouble, which are both telling the story of the trans experience in a more complete way than we have seen on TV or film.
Going back to what I was saying about Paris Is Burning, I saw Octavia [St Laurent] and that was the one that really inspired me. I thought she was just drop dead gorgeous. Going full circle back to the first time I saw Paris Is Burning and what it did for me, and then living through a ballroom chapter in my own personal life, I felt more of an honor that the universe chose me as one of the five girls [on Pose] to be that voice, because these are the women and men whose backs I stand on. I feel more of an honor and a duty to really get it right.
You auditioned for Pose but, in the end, the role of Lulu was created for you. How do you connect to Lulu?
Lulu, to me, is fascinating because I think that Lulu is the most untapped as far as the one that you really don’t know too much about, and that for me is fun because she’s mysterious. In the first season, you saw Lulu as kinda shallow, kinda into glam. And she’s just a typical mean girl. But at the end of the season she wants her own house and she starts Ferocity. I didn’t see that coming. Then, second season, you start seeing more of her emotional side, especially after Candy’s death. You start seeing more of a human in Lulu.
The audience was crushed by Candy’s death. Were you surprised by that turn in the story?
I was surprised, but I think the five of us came to this understanding the very first day we all met: We are telling a story that is not only fun to do and amazing, but it’s what’s really happening right now. When we were filming that episode, there was a trans woman [Muhlaysia Booker] murdered. And so I understand the work that I’m doing.
Of course, it hurt my head for it to be Angelica [Ross]. I love her. We have so many scenes together. She’s my sister. However, I understand that this is also to be a message to world. For the audience to respond this way, just think how it must feel for families who really are losing real people and not characters. It was imperative that we tell this story because the world needs to understand what they’re doing to us. And they need to understand how it’s affected people. So I’m happy that people mourned for Candy because hopefully that will ignite something in their hearts to stand up and protect trans people’s experiences.
What was the most challenging part of filming that episode for you?Right before we came back for a second season, literally maybe a month or two before, my best friend who I was friends with since I was 9 — the one who showed us Paris Is Burning and the ball tape — passed away. He was in the ballroom scene with me. For me to do that scene when Candy was killed was so incredibly hard for me. When I cried, I literally was crying. It was like a running faucet. So we had to keep rolling and keep doing more and more takes. I had snot in my mouth; it was disgusting. But it was so beautiful because I was able to spin something that was so traumatic into something beautiful.
You also play Jazmin Martinez on Good Trouble. Is your process of finding Lulu and Jazmin different?
Doing a time-period piece is more specific. I do a lot of research on people from the era of the ’80s and ’90s and I want to know how they acted, how they responded, and I’ll even play a playlist or wear a perfume from those eras, just to kind of embody that character. Lulu [has] a lot of walls up that you have to constantly break down to get to the next part of her, the softer side of her. Jazmin is “This is me, I’m baring it all.” Jazmin’s more in your face with it, she’s more vulnerable and she’ll show you her emotions. So they’re two totally different characters. Lulu, I have to constantly break down. Jazmin’s more like, “I’m here! Just love me!”
The one thing I would say that is similar is they’re both young women who just want to be loved and just be free. I think that’s a lot of girls’ stories, whether you have a trans experience or not. Girls just want to be empowered, and be beautiful, and be loved.
Jazmin confronts issues of acceptance with some of her family members, which you have faced as well.
This was another moment that was a wow factor for me. My grandfather was a pastor. The actor who played my grandfather on the show [Juan Carlos Cantu] looked identical to my actual grandfather who also passed away. I was not able to have a moment with him as who I really am. A lot of people in my family I haven’t spoken to in 14 years. My grandfather passed away somewhere in that time so he wasn’t able to see me. And so when I had the dance scene, I was literally sobbing on this guy’s shoulder because I felt like it was God’s way of giving me an opportunity to dance with my grandfather.
I know you hear from a lot of fans but has there been any response or feedback that’s really touched you?
I recently did a photo shoot with Allure magazine and I showed my birthmark on my left cheek of my face. I got a lot of messages from a lot of fans when I had my face completely displayed that they connected with me more on a personal level than ever before. A lot of people sent me pictures of their birthmarks or just things that they think the world does not deem beautiful, and that made me feel good.
The work that I’m doing is meaningful in my heart as a human. It has nothing to do with fame, money, nothing like that. It’s all about just connecting to humans and really making a difference. That’s what I do this for and I’m happy that I’m on the journey doing that, and I have lot more to come. The world has not seen what I’m capable of yet.