entertainment

Billy Porter on the groundbreaking cultural power of 'Pose'

"'Pose' is about a community most of the world has never seen."

2020-07-29

Last year, Billy Porter became first openly gay black man to be nominated and win in any lead acting category at the Primetime Emmys for his acclaimed role as Pray Tell in Pose.

The 50-year-old will attempt to make it two-for-two this September after landing a second consecutive Emmy nomination for the role this week, but as his transgender co-stars are snubbed for a second consecutive year, it's worth remembering that the power of the '80 and '90s ballroom drama lies in its stories, not awards.

"I never imagined speaking of coming out in the '80s and being in showbusines there weren't a whole lot of LGBT narratives being told, and definitely not about Black people", Porter told us ahead of Pride in London last summer, in footage being shared for the first time. 

"I never dreamed my crossover television work would look like Pray Tell and Pose. It blows my mind every day. Ryan Murphy and Steven Canals and the whole team behind Pose have taught me to dream the impossible."

The 50-year-old actor adds: "Pose is new: Pose is about something other than white people. Pose is about a community most of the world has never seen.

"And we're longing for narratives from different groups of people and different walks of life. We need that.

"Art has a way of transforming hearts and minds and cultures and we do that, very often, through storytelling.

"When you can see something in front of you that you did not understand or that you did no know existed, it creates - or it can create, in certain human beings - create empathy, which then leads to positive change."

Playing an HIV-positive character at the height of the Aids crisis brought back difficult memories for Porter, who lost many friends to the virus - but the actor credits the show with helping both him and his contemporaries come to terms with the trauma of the era.

"I remember when it aired last season and a friend of mine called me who I hadn't spoken to in maybe five, eight years or something, and he said the HIV storyline Pray Tell has brought him to realise that he had never even taken a chance to mourn [victims of HIV]. He had never taken the opportunity to mourn," Porter recalls.

"It's like, the pill came in 1996 and everybody got health and everybody moved on and nobody talked about it.

"My generation has PTSD, and we're working through a lot of stuff, spiritually and emotionally. This show, and this character, gives me a space to heal.

"I think that Pose has the possibility to do a lot of things, and hopefully creating a space where stigma goes away surrounding many things. Not just HIV, but many things."

The 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards will take place at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on 21 September from 01.00 BST.

Pose seasons one and two are available to watch on BBC iPlayer now.