a long talk

‘We Did Something Revolutionary’

“Oh God, it has just been a wild ride,” Janet Mock says as she takes a seat across from me at one of the window tables of Chelsea Square Diner, just as many of the characters in Pose, for which she writes, directs, and produces, have over the course of the first season. Her emotions are still raw. She and the rest of the cast and crew had just shot the final scene between their two principals, MJ Rodriguez (Blanca) and Dominique Jackson (Elektra), the night before. There was no wrap party because they were over budget and working overtime, but afterwards Rodriguez addressed the room, saying, “Thank you all for going on this ride with us, and showing that even if we don’t get a season two, we’ve shown that we’re more than just stigmas.” “That hit me. I was like, Oh, shit. I gave myself over to a show,” Mock stops herself, tearing up. “And it will probably be one of the most important things I ever do.”

While major studios are still struggling to cast trans actors to play trans characters, Pose made it look easy, casting five trans women of color to anchor the show. It has been a revelation for Mock, and a defiant exploration of what’s possible, as she dives into a career in Hollywood after establishing herself as a journalist, activist, and author of two best-selling memoirs. For Pose, she joined Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals in the writers room, penning three episodes and directing one. She’s also adapting her first book, Redefining Realness, into a film, collaborating with Murphy on other projects, and creating, producing, and writing the pilot for her own TV show, Passing, a one-hour network series she’s doing with Amy Poehler’s Paper Kite productions that she describes as a “trans Felicity.” Oh, and Pose got picked up for season two.

We spoke twice — once over breakfast the day after Pose wrapped, and again on the phone before the finale aired Sunday night —about everything from getting vulnerable in the writers room to challenging Ryan Murphy to the politics of desire.

Congratulations on the second season!
My God, it’s a relief. It feels deeply affirming. I’m glad these young actors get to come back and do what they do best, and then do it even better, because they’re more comfortable and clicked in. For me as a writer and producer, I’m excited that we get to go deeper in season two with these characters, that we possibly get to introduce a new character or two, that we can explore maybe a new subculture that’s beyond the Trump world.

What are some of the places you’d like to dive into?
The downtown art scene is one I would love to explore, and to show what Soho and the East Village looked like before it was prettied up. Really exploring a more period New York City that isn’t just surrounded by the exteriors of our ballroom and the diners. That’s something that I would love to figure out — how we can naturally get them down there, and which characters we would follow into that kind of a space.

You would be going to Susanne Bartsch parties!
Exactly. Just showing the different creativity that was going on in these different spaces. Maybe even having one of them become a club kid. Maybe one of the Abundance children, like Cubby and Lemar, exploring what that world was, to show it as a mirror to what was going on uptown; of course, that was largely a black and Latino space. These are just my pitches. Ryan will come up with all his own stuff, and we follow the leader, but it’s a collaboration. We do this together.

Ryan Murphy has described Pose like a Cinderella story. Was that optimism and wonder always a part of the show?
That optimism is very much Ryan. When you think about how he directed that first scene, Blanca is literally cooking for the family; she has evil step-sisters on the side who are cackling, and Mother is ripping her to shreds. That whole dynamic puts you immediately on her side, and you want to go with her on this journey. I didn’t bring that optimism, but I was onboard once I met the actors. Then I didn’t want to go dark, because I didn’t want anyone to die. You meet them and they are young people of today, who have been given a shot and are so excited about these opportunities. I know deep in my heart that if and when we kill any of them off, they will probably be fine and move on and do something great, because they are talented. But we wanted to protect them. And their bubbliness, optimism, happiness, excitement, and enthusiasm informed their characters.

Your own books are grounded in optimism, in a will to live and a joy for life.
I often talk about how Angel is so much like me. When I was younger, I wanted all of the things she wanted. I was in similar circumstances, and one of the greatest things I wanted was for someone to love me — a boy to hold my hand. In the first scene, where she reveals her body, [we want the audience] to understand immediately that she is not going to be attacked. I have shown my body to men who did not come at me with violence, who were seeking out specifically my trans girl body, who came at me with want and desire and pleasure. That helped build up my own self-esteem, confidence, and contentment in my body before I had the resources to change it in the ways that felt medically necessary for me. Watching the commentary online of people who are just waiting for something bad to happen to Angel shows how much we as a society deeply ingrained trauma and terror and violence into the bodies of trans women of color. So there is a part of me that wants to undo that. And knowing, too, that this show, which doesn’t have huge numbers, is largely going to be supported by queer and trans people of color. They are the audience we are really targeting when I am writing on the page. I want to give them something to dream for and to see the creativity and the resilience of how we actually are with one another.

Do you feel like there’s a criticism to be made that the show becomes anachronistic or unrealistic, because it has a modern sensibility in what is essentially a period piece?
Oh, yeah. I think so. I’ve heard people say, “Is it too fairy tale?” I don’t think we shy away from the reality of what specifically these women are struggling with. The tone of the show is, how far do we have to go specifically? Do we need to show Angel actually blowing a john off? And that she’s sad about doing it and struggling? That’s just not what we’re interested in, and we let people bring that darkness to it. That’s the advantage of having a show about a community that has largely already been so stifled. I don’t even mean cis people watching — trans and queer people watching are waiting for something bad to happen. They can bring all these associations they already have from reading articles and headlines and tweets and living in the world.

We’ve seen images on Law & Order where we’re being brutalized and raped, but we have not seen something where we’re gathered together in a space celebrating one another, reading one another, offering encouragement and affirmation. For me, fine, let us create a fairy tale. But I don’t feel like it’s unrealistic. We are choosing to show the grit but not go so dark. This is not The Wire. This is not The Deuce. If this show were a failure, I have to still go back to my community and be held accountable. They can say, This made me feel good, this made me hopeful. This made me feel as if maybe I should go audition for something, and maybe I should go back to school.

Do you feel like the fact that there are ties that bind you is good ultimately for art?
I think so. Steven’s a lot more critical than I am. I’m more measured and I pick my battles. [Our] deep ties as people of color, him as an Afro-Latino person, both of us as black people — we have that layer. He has his queerness and I have my transness. We know that our people are going to fucking drag us, number one, but also knowing, too, that if we only get one season, this is something that our people can always look back to. People are already talking about the Christmas episode like, “I’m gonna watch this every year at Christmastime.” This is a little mini Christmas movie that I now have access to that represents me and my people who are grappling with issues that I’m grappling with. I think that stuff has only been able to happen because we were in that room.

I’ve seen [Ryan Murphy] shift and change, and I think this show has been a great humbling, because on this show he cannot be the lead. He cannot rebut Steven and I when we say what it’s like for people of color, for trans women, for trans women of color. We have to be very clear about that because there’s different realities between white trans women who have access and resources and their whiteness to protect them, versus these black and brown girls who don’t have that access, who don’t have those resources, who are not being cared for, who are pushed out of their homes and have to live on the streets and figure out creative ways to build social safety nets where they take care of one another. This is a lineage.

What are some instances where Ryan was challenged?
In the pilot we had a house battle and we had random people walking the categories when they wouldn’t really be walking in categories together. It was inaccurate, but it was a huge scene in the pilot. So we had to recut it in a way that was more accurate. On the day of — and we know this is hundreds of thousands of dollars — Ryan had to be like, “Okay, we have to rethink this. How do we rewrite this and how do we give new choreography? How do we make sure that we get different background actors to help?” We had to rework everything. He could’ve been like, “No, no, no, this is a TV show and it doesn’t matter. This is not a documentary.” But he always sided on “Shit, I’m wrong. I didn’t consult. I should’ve asked before we thought about this.” Like, probably, girl. Yes. He talks about how he’s never been more wrong and been told that he’s wrong than on this show.
These people, our consultants, they don’t hold their tongue. That’s why we’re strong. It’s just like, Bitch, no, this is not it. We’re not corporate, Hollywood people.

Both you and Ryan have alluded to heated conversations in the writers room. What were some of the sticking points that you came to a head on?
Tone was one of them. The only show [Ryan] can compare this show to is Glee, something he created which is a musical about outcasts and outsiders in a high school. I was like, “This is not Glee. This is not high school, this is on the streets, so we need to show something different.” But I won, in the end, because we get more and more into the world, and you have to go deeper to make it specific. You can’t be like I wanna be real and not show the struggles of what it means to want to pass for your own survival.

In episode seven, we take Papi and we actually show the consequences of selling drugs. No one wants to see this happen to little Papi. When me and Steven were like, “We need to have Papi have some consequences and make Blanca make a mistake,” he [Murphy] literally looked at us and said, “This is not The Wire.” My exact quote was, “Ryan, but what if we put in some hot thugs?” And then he was like “Okay, try it on the page and if it’s not working we’re not doing it.” Then, Steven wrote this amazing script that was all about Papi and that saga.

How personal does the writers room get?
You talk about a lot of personal stuff and a lot of personal trauma and family and sex, and that’s the only way you can inform story. But you have to literally cut yourself open and trust these three other people to not go anywhere with that information. At first, I was really protective and wasn’t saying anything, and Ryan called me out one day. He was like, “Janet’s very this: She’ll always go political or talk about race and class and gender. She’ll talk about the issues but she won’t talk about herself.” That happened after maybe six weeks. I turned it back on him and said, “I’ve never heard you talk.” And he said, “Ask me three questions. Ask me anything. I’ll answer it now.” I asked about his family life, I asked him if he ever wanted to be a woman. I’ve seen this happen with the cast and the crew, even the straight cis guys. The show has opened them up. Most of these fucking people on our crew have never met a trans person before.

Then, I felt safe. This is an exchange. As the only trans woman of color in the room— in my opinion, we’re writing for trans women of color — to open myself up to this dissection, you have to be able to go, Okay, I’m gonna go to the page and write a story that was something I was really worried about. Before I decided to take the offer, I didn’t know who was in that room, really. I didn’t know who Steven Canals was. Everything only made sense to me once I met Steven. Loved Ryan. He was a powerful man and he seemed humble, but at the same time, he has a distance.

What has it been like for you entering this world of Hollywood. Do you feel safe?
[Laughing.] Do I feel safe? I never feel safe. I come as sort of a name, or at least a name in the community, right?

For sure. We can acknowledge that you are an icon, okay? [Both laughing.]
[Fake voice] You know, like, I’m somebody?

You know, I’m being summoned by a very powerful man who wants to tell this specific story. And I go in knowing that he needs me. That’s not a power dynamic that most writers who want to break into Hollywood get. I come with a body of work. I come with a community and credibility. And so, you come with that sense of power. I’m being summoned, and shepherded through, and supported. That part grew, the shepherding and supporting. The initial relationship was like, Who is this? Okay. Let me read her stuff. Okay, great. Let’s have a meeting, let’s see if I like her. And then he liked me. And then he gave me an offer. I was still like, I don’t know. Am I really gonna work on a show that could be deeply problematic and traumatizing and exploitative? I was scared until I met Steven Canals. And then meeting Brad Falchuk. And being in the room and seeing the chemistry and the alchemy that came out of the four of us being in that room, and [Our Lady] J being there too.

I was crying last night when we wrapped. I think it will probably be one of the most important things I ever do. I know it’s just a TV show, but I’ve been able to write stuff that I’ve never been able to say myself in any of my other work. I’ve also seen these actors finally get opportunities to shine. Exactly what Viola Davis said — black women and women of color don’t get the opportunities. It’s the same thing, even more so, for trans women of color. There are no roles. And it’s like, Oh, shit, we did something. When you’re doing it, you’re not thinking. You’re just like, Fuck, I have to go to work today. And that was a moment where I was like, Oh, wow, we did something revolutionary and strange and different and never seen before. It exists now, and no one can take it away. It’ll always be there for queer and trans kids to watch whenever they want. Just in the same way that Paris Is Burning was that, too, for a lot of people. You see stories, and you see that we’re not a monolith, and that there are different characters, all different from one another.

This conversation came up again recently when Scarlett Johansson was cast to play a trans man in Rub and Tug, and then pulled out of the project after public criticism. I’m curious to hear what you make of Hollywood’s continued insistence to cast cis actors to play trans people?
I don’t want to make it about one actor. I appreciate your question, it’s one I’ve thought a lot about. I think it speaks to the entitlement of cis, straight, and/or white people — whether they’re cultural creators or actors — who are given the opportunity to tell all kinds of stories that may not even be linked to their own experiences. And how that then invisibilizes the pool of talent that has never been given a chance to even be in that room to audition for those roles. I’m sure that in a project like that, that actor didn’t even have to audition for the role. In that way, they’re not making a wide casting call to even see what’s out there. And what our show did so well is that we show that the talents exist. Trans communities are deeply unemployed. And that’s not just in Hollywood. That’s across all industries. It’s time we finally just hire the people who are supposed to play the roles of the people that are portrayed onscreen. It’s largely just a missed opportunity for greater, deeper, more resonant, more culturally specific art to be made.

Were you part of casting at all for Pose?
No, I became part of casting once our leads were all there. In my episode [that I wrote and directed, “Love Is the Message”], I wanted Sandra Bernhard to play someone. I wanted Christopher Meloni as Dick Ford.

That was you?
Yes!

Genius.
It needed to happen, number one, because I wanted to make sure there was a man where no one would question his sexuality.

You were just like Daddy.
I was like Zaddy.

Zaddy in a towel!
But because the only other representation that we had of a man with a trans woman was Evan Peters, who is a bit more tortured and confused about it. I wanted a man [like Meloni] who was just like, “This is what I like.” [So] no other straight cis guy who watches will ever be confused that [Dick] is confused because he’s very clear. And me writing that stuff is just from my own perspective of what these men who are with trans women with penises think.

Do you think of desire as a social thing? A lot of people talk about desire as a personal thing — “That’s just my preference!” Obviously it is personal, but I think there are social and political dimensions to desire that we don’t really discuss.
I think it’s both, like how you were breaking it down. It is something that’s deeply personal, and we may not have language to describe the things that we want. For specifically the Dick Ford character, he can’t put exact language to why. He’s like, “I don’t know why my dick gets hard knowing that yours is in the room. And maybe it’s because I like knowing that I’m getting away with something that no one knows about.” So that means being with a trans woman that you can walk out into public with and not have your masculinity and your sexuality checked. It’s not just a girl you’re keeping in the dark. It’s a girl you have a life with, who has this piece of her body that is really the gateway into why you are with her.

And I know this as someone who engaged in the sex trade — what I learned from the girls who went before me, taught me, who informed me and shaped me — they had conversations about the body: “Girl, ain’t no man gonna wanna be with you once you get … then you’re just like any other girl. You’re just not special. We’re goddesses, we’re queens.” I would always say, “I don’t wanna be a goddess, I want to be a girl.” Everyone had different ideas around that, and so I only learned about specifically what I want through this community of women. And then on top of that, we then are being informed through media, through what the men we are sleeping with think about us and our bodies.

Their desires, too.
Yes, and their desires. They desire trans women, or — let’s be more specific — trans women with penises. And there’s no space in our culture to discuss that and to create a space for what that is. There’s not even terminology for us to say what that is, because I believe terminology like “they’re trans attracted” feels not specific enough. I’m trans, and they’re not attracted to me because I don’t have a penis. And so the specificity of that is what we try to break down in that episode as much as possible. And to show two different men, a grown fucking man who has had two marriages, who knows what he wants and has exactly the dream girl that he wants. Now, is it a fully formed, even, reciprocal relationship? No, because she has to compromise. But we compromise in relationships, I get that.

So like, my sisters’ ideas about what they desire are informed by these men and what they desire. If white cis straight men are on top of the power structure, and there’s no one public who is with a trans woman, which we still have not seen, the day will be when Indya Moore is walking on the red carpet with fucking, you know, Zac Efron [laughing]. That’ll be our Ellen moment. I feel like that’s uncharted terrain in that way.

How has it been doing press for the show? I read a Guardian piece that I thought was very odd.
I know… [laughs]. What made you think it was odd? I would love to hear your thoughts on that.

I felt like I could read between the lines and sense the burden of having to be under someone’s gaze while having to educate them. How do you navigate that when you’re doing press and you’re beholden to the whims of how someone want to profile you? Of course, that’s partially a function of the journalistic enterprise.
It’s always tough. That was my first profile, which is strange. Mostly people would rather publish my own essays or writings, or excerpt some of my work, or just do a Q&A with me so it’s as unfiltered as possible. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that particular piece was a cis white guy from the U.K. who wrote it. I didn’t really understand the intentionality of him wanting to write about me. I was already on guard, more than I probably already am in any other type of interview, knowing it was going to be a profile. I always get fearful about what people choose to magnify and what they choose not to. It was about my entire backstory, which I’d written two books about, so I just found it not that interesting. The fact that you want to talk about all these sensational things that happened in my adolescence I thought was really reductive. And that’s overwhelmingly how a lot of cis people see my experience: This poor girl made it out. And this is what she had to do to get out. I already told that story. And so the fact that you feel like you need to offer summation on that, and not really talk about that young girl who’s grown up to be a woman who’s done these things in the world. Not really centering my actual work is always an interesting choice by those who are not from my communities, usually. So yeah, it’s a fraught relationship.

Is it strange to be on the other side — whereas before you might have written a review or critiqued something on Twitter, now you’re being reviewed. Is there a dissonance? There is. More than anything I have ever worked on before, I am aware possibly of how the audience will take the things that I write. Because it is a Ryan Murphy show, [the audience] comes to our show with knowledge of his catalogue and their frustrations with his work and the tropes that he has engaged in. His lack of understanding around trans issues or racial issues. And so being aware of that, that we have this entity that is making this possible, but at the same time brings this stuff with him, I know that I will be critiqued just through association.

So in that that way, there is a part of me that hears that Twitter voice like, This isn’t right. I am aware that my work is going to be taken and critiqued and pulled apart. But when Ryan approached me, that’s what I was most excited about. No longer will I be on the opposite side looking at what someone else is creating and saying, “We need more trans people doing this, we need more trans people behind the scenes.” Instead, I would be on the other side creating.

This interview has been edited and condensed.