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Michaela Jaé Rodriguez on typecast worries, American Horror Story and her new EP

From Emmy Award nominee to Golden Globe winner, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez captured our hearts with her lead role in Pose. After the series ended, she expected her career to stall, but it turns out that was just the beginning…

By Mickey Rapkin

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez wearing a gold glittering dress, standing against a mustard background.
Michaela Jaé wears dress by Vivienne Westwood at MATCHES, Florere choker, Florere stud earrings and Idyllia cocktail ring by Swarovski (Image: Dennis Leupold)

Last year, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez won a Golden Globe for her searing work in Pose, the Ryan Murphy-produced drama about the queer New York City ballroom scene and the Aids crisis. Rodriguez was the first trans person to win a Globe, and also the first to be nominated for an Emmy in a major category. Less importantly, today it’s fair to say she will become the first person (trans or otherwise) to roll up to this random, Pasadena breakfast joint in a chauffeur-driven black Escalade. 

“I don’t drive,” she tells me with a laugh. “Do you see the struggle?”

This isn’t the struggle she expected when Pose concluded its run in 2021 after three seasons. Actually, the 32-year-old actress thought she’d never work again, fearing she’d be typecast, or, worse, that there’d be no great roles for trans women. She couldn’t have been more wrong.

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez wearing a gold glittering dress, standing against a mustard background.
Michaela Jaé wears dress by Vivienne Westwood at MATCHES, Florere choker, Florere stud earrings and Idyllia cocktail ring by Swarovski (Image: Dennis Leupold)

Last year, Rodriguez joined the cast of Apple TV+’s Loot, a comedy about a clueless billionaire (played by Maya Rudolph), who is forced to find purpose in life after weathering a high-profile divorce; Rodriguez co-stars as the by-the-books COO of Maya’s non-profit. When season 2 on Loot wraps, Rodriguez will reunite with Ryan Murphy on the next season of American Horror Story (reportedly a feminist take on Rosemary’s Baby). Not to mention having voiced a robotic ninja called Nightbird in this summer’s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. There is also the matter of a long-simmering album or EP (more on that below).

“I would tell the children now to stay strong, steadfast, be ready.”

Rodriguez grew up in Newark, New Jersey, the daughter of a hospital administrator and a carpenter. At 14, she was introduced to the ballroom scene, but she never let her work slip. “Girl was having fun,” she says, “but I definitely came home at one o’clock on the dot. I wanted to pursue a career.” She studied at the Newark Arts High School and continued at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston (whose alumni include John Mayer, St. Vincent and Charlie Puth). After starring as Angel in an off-Broadway revival of Rent in 2011, she formally transitioned.

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez is silhouetted against an orange hue background. She's looking of to her right in a side-portrait.
Michaela Jaé wears dress by Giuseppe di Morabito at Mytheresa, Lucent hoop earrings, Millenia necklace, pink and blue Matrix rings all by Swarovski (Image: Dennis Leupold)

Which makes her role in Transformers all the more noteworthy. There’s a Nightbird toy on supermarket shelves now, which seems groundbreaking; Rodriguez never imagined she’d play a character that would inspire a toy. But there’s more to the story. “Transformer”, had once been a derogatory term for trans people, Rodriguez explains, and the association made her think twice before accepting the role. 

But as any comic book nerd knows, with great power comes great responsibility. Over tea in the world’s quietest diner — the kind of place where the bad oil paintings hanging on the wall are also for sale — Rodriguez taps her impressively long nails on the table as she chats about thirst traps, her Transformers co-star Pete Davidson, and the best advice Ryan Murphy ever gave her.

What are we doing at this diner on the East side of LA? You’re the youngest person here by 25 years. 

I was born and raised in New Jersey. But I was going into New York for the hustle and bustle. It kind of created this cycle in my body to say, ‘That’s where I go to have fun. But I need my space to live.’

You moved to Los Angeles a year ago. Do you feel settled?

Michaela Antonia Jaé Rodriguez is a complete wanderer — anywhere she can find solace and comfort. I’m doing pretty good here. I’ve gotten the lay of the land, OK. I’m not complaining.

Congratulations on joining the Transformers cinematic universe. What can you tell us about Nightbird?

She is a Decepticon, OK? She is the bad guy, she’s the villain. She’s the accomplice to the head honcho. It’s a huge moment in history because you never have a trans woman playing a transformer.

‘Transformer’ had been a derogatory term for a trans person. Did that give you pause for thought? 

I was a little worried about it when I was going into the movie. It was an insecurity of mine. And the only way I knew to release that insecurity was to say yes. And be like, ‘I’m taking it back.’ Yes, that was a derogatory term back in the day, but not anymore. I am a transformer. This bitch is evil.

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez silhouetted against an orange hue background. She's wearing a glittering pink sheer slip dress.
Michaela Jaé wears dress, by Giuseppe di Morabito at Mytheresa, shoes by Christian Louboutin, Lucent hoop earrings, oversized Millenia necklace, Lucent cocktail ring all by Swarovski (Image: Dennis Leupold)

Pete Davidson is in this movie. Had you two met before?

We met actually at the Met Gala. We sat at the same table.

Did he hit on you?

No. I was dating my boyfriend at the time. Pete is actually kind of sweet, he’s a bit quiet. He’s not what people expect him to be, which I really appreciate. He reminds me of me sometimes. Like, when I’m out there, you press that button, I’m gonna have a good time. But there are times when I’m a little bit reserved and pulled-back. 

You loved comic books as a kid. Who introduced you to that world?

My uncle. He’s gone now. His name was Alan Davis — nickname “Goo”. I guess I called him that when I was a baby. He had this stash of comic books. I would go into his closet and read all different types of comics, but mostly X-Men. Which is kind of weird [because] a politician calls us ‘mutants’. 

That happened in Florida recently.

Well, I guess I’m a mutant. But I would read X-Men and relate so much to the characters. Stan Lee, he wrote that as a soliloquy to the LGBTQAI community. Because we were different, because we harbour a lot of special abilities. And not just the LGBTQAI, but the misfits, the ones who are hetero but don’t fit into the heteronormative lifestyle. Those were the mutants. And I got hooked.

Let’s talk about the current political climate. There’s something like 400 anti-trans bills making their way through US state legislatures…


Do you worry that these “Don’t Say Gay” bills will lead to higher suicide rates among young people?

I do, I do worry that they will. I would tell the children now to stay strong, steadfast, be ready. If someone is telling you your rights as a human being are being taken away, I feel like the pushback is to keep being yourself. 

A close-up of Michaela Jaé Rodriguez with a bold glitter lip against a light blue background.
Michaela Jaé wears Gema necklace and Matrix hoop earrings by Swarovski (Image: Dennis Leupold)

And if that’s not possible?

It may be hard — when it comes to money or taking a chance on leaving. And having a plan to go somewhere else that is much more accepting and understanding of you — that’s in any capacity, but especially in the workplace. And I say “in the workplace” because I want my community to work. So many of us are subjected to street living or the bare minimum because of who we are. I just want us to fight even harder and stand even taller and stronger. Sometimes even your presence and your silence in the space — confidently and firmly holding that space — is enough to shift people’s mindset. 

Would you take me back to discovering the ballroom scene at 14?

My house father — his name is Timothy J. Smart — he would host and create fashion shows at the performing arts school. And he was part of the ballroom scene. One day, I was walking the runway, and he said, “That’s my daughter.” I was like, ‘OK.’ Me and three of my classmates, we would go into New York City often. I would go with him, with some of his house members, and we’d go to McDonald’s, we’d go to a ball at Escuelita. It was electric. 

What were you wearing? 

I already had the clothes. We’re an eccentric and free family. Even though the connotation of how Black families are not really accepting, my mother defies all odds when it comes to that. I mean, we all had our times, but it didn’t encompass me being trans or queer. It was because I ran my mouth too much, or I was too sharp with it, just like her. That’s what would get me in trouble. It would never be me going out and cutting up a shirt. 

Who helped you embrace your trans identity? Or maybe from birth you had this confidence?

Do you believe I was this confident since I was a child?

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez looking up to the right against a pale blue background. She wearing a deep purple dress with gems.
Michaela Jaé wears dress by Area at Selfridges, with crystal straps by Swarovski, Millenia necklace, Millenia stud earrings all by Swarovski (Image: Dennis Leupold)

I mean, I wasn’t. But you might have been? 

A lot of children — in my mind, the children I saw at four or seven, they have a sense of self. I will say a lot of the kids I was around, even in the neighbourhoods I was raised in, they had a sense of self and a sense of confidence because of the trauma they’d been through. They build up out of that. I dealt with a lot of turmoil when I was a child. When I was younger, people would call me out of my name until I was four, seven, 10. That did not break me. I watched my mom as a Black woman and my dad as a Black and Hispanic man. I saw a lot of turmoil come their way too, as a child. So, for me to see them persevere — it didn’t make me scared. It made me more vigilant. That’s why I’m able to succeed in this business, in this industry, as a trans person, because I already know what is stacked against me. 

Let’s talk about Loot. You had a conversation with the writers. You specifically didn’t want them to address whether your character was a cis woman or trans. Why not?

Whether she is cis or trans — that is not the focal point. She’s climbed her way up the ladder, she’s now a COO of a company. She worked hard to get there — as most women have had to do — and struggle to keep that position. She’s capable. 

Maya Rudolph’s character Molly is so rich she’s hopelessly out of touch. Have you met anyone like that in Hollywood?

Believe it or not, I have not met anyone like that — only because I like to keep myself around people who are centred. Also, I’m a person of colour. If you’re like that, you are most likely someone who is of a lighter complexion than me. And if you aren’t, then that means you had to work tooth-and-nail to get there. 

I was imagining a children’s birthday party or something at Ryan Murphy’s house. With, like, a full carnival.

Ryan’s not like that. 

What’s the best advice he’s ever given you?

The day before the Golden Globes, he called me and said, “Listen, I want to call your name when I go up there.’ I was like, “Oh my God.” He was like, “I can only imagine how it felt last year…”

Because you won a Golden Globe, but there was no ceremony that year.

I started crying on the phone. Then he said: “Can you do me a favour? Can you take this moment in and don’t squander it. Let it sit with you. Don’t disassociate how you normally do.” I needed to hear this. He sees this girl from Newark, New Jersey, who is from a working-class family, whose mother saw that she was invested in this industry and she facilitated that. He saw that this girl has become a complete workaholic to the point where she just works and enjoys the work but disengages from the true reward of the work. And that meant a lot to me. 

Kim Kardashian is also in the next American Horror Story. You recently posted a thirst trap wearing Skims. Were you hoping she’d send some product over?

I wanted to post it because it was fucking fine as fuck. (Laughs) Listen, when you’re feeling yourself, you gotta show it. I took that picture as an appreciation of me. And when I’m 80 years old, I’m gonna say, “Damn, I was cute when I was that age.”

You played Audrey in a production of Little Shop of Horrors in LA in 2019. It was a beautiful performance. James Corden had you on his show. What was it like singing ‘Suddenly Seymour’ on national TV? 

It felt good. When I went into that role, I already had a plan on how she was going to be perceived. I wasn’t going to camp her up, I wasn’t going to make her ditzy.

You played it straight.

I wanted to have her be someone people could look at and say, “I’ve been through that, my family’s been through that.” There are lyrics I didn’t resonate with until I was in the show. “Nobody ever treated me kindly / Daddy left early, Mama was poor / I’d meet a man and I’d follow him blindly / He’d snap his fingers. Me? I’d say ‘Sure.’” Those words alone show that this woman has been through trauma. That’s not funny. I don’t think it should be played up, like, “It’s gonna be OK.” It’s not. Also, with her being a woman of colour, and being a trans woman playing her — it wasn’t about being in the show and being the glitzy-glammy Audrey. 

A slightly blurred image of Michaela Jaé Rodriguez against a pale purple background. She wearing a deep purple dress with gems.
Michaela Jaé wears dress by Area at Selfridges, with crystal straps by Swarovski, Millenia necklace, Lucent cocktail ring, Millenia bracelet, Millenia stud earrings all by Swarovski (Image: Dennis Leupold)

Little Shop of Horrors is running in New York right now. There’s been a parade of stars in that production, including Maude Apatow. Did the producers call you to come in?

(Raising an eyebrow) I will say, I wish we could have done our production [in New York]. Our production was very diverse, and a lot of people can relate to it. The one on Broadway is amazing, but it’s the traditional one. 

Let’s talk about your music. You teased an album last year. Is it coming soon?

It’s not an album, I want people to understand it’s an EP. It’s a test-water body of work, to give people a taste. This EP — it’s an introduction of me.

Tell me about a lyric from the EP that’s personal to you?

There’s a song called ‘Started From’ that I hope to release very soon. The lyrics are quite simple, but they have in-depth meaning. “I’m waking up, I’m feeling like something’s broken in my mind / I wonder if it’s all a dream or make-believe / It don’t compute or register underneath this pressure / All these eyes that turn their way to me.” And then, like, there’s a shift in her mind where she’s like, “But I feel like this is the time of my life / And I don’t want to overthink this time / I don’t want to change my mind / Because it’s irritating.” I’m giving you guys all the lyrics. But those words — I had just come off the Emmy nomination, and I was wondering, ‘What is happening?’ I’m waking up and feeling like, ‘All this stuff is broken in my mind, I don’t know if it’s real, I don’t know if this is supposed to be happening for me. I’m trans, like, what is this?’ 

After Pose, you were concerned that you wouldn’t work again. Why?

Insecurities. I was always scared of how my transness was going to be perceived in the industry. I thought I was just going to be one of those one-offs, one of those girls who got the opportunity to play a number one, but never got to play number one again. (Smiling) That didn’t happen. When Loot came, I was so overwhelmed. But Michaela Jaé — she doesn’t hate an audition, honey, either. We love an audition. Especially if it’s from Marvel.

That’s what you want then? To be an action star.

I know I can. I know I have the body for it, I have the look for it. Yeah. I just hope someone out there is like, “We want her.” It doesn’t have to be offered to me. I want to fight for it.

Tell me about your necklace. 

This is Marsha P. Johnson. This is a trans person…

There’s a great documentary about her. She was an icon. Her body was found in the Hudson River. It was initially declared a suicide, but people think she was murdered.

I keep Marsha around my neck to remind me that in any waking moment my life could be just like Marsha’s. I’m a different kind of celebrity. I’m not a cis celebrity. They have some worry as well, I’m not saying there’s no one worry. But I have to worry more. I’m not [just] worried about people fanatically attacking me — I’m worried about that as well as people not liking me and feeling like they can attack. Whereas with a cis individual it’s your right to be cis, it’s your right to be hetero, so, you’re not a threat. You’re not posed as a threat, whereas I am. So, I keep her around my neck to remind me.

Did you buy it for yourself? 

Indya Moore [from Pose] got this for me. A lot of the things that I’m wearing are pieces of people that I’ve had in my life. My lawyer got me this ring right here. I’ve been rocking with her since day one. This [bracelet] is from my business manager. And that one…

That ring?

You don’t have to know about that one. That was a gift.

A close-up of Michaela Jaé Rodriguez looking into the camera with a bold glitter lip against a light blue background.
Michaela Jaé wears Gema necklace and Matrix hoop earrings by Swarovski (Image: Dennis Leupold)

You went public on Instagram with your boyfriend a few years ago. That felt like more than just a celebrity reveal. 

I did that because I was like, ‘You know what? Why not give people a glimpse of what love actually looks like for a trans woman. And how it can last.’

What kind of work does he do?

Loss prevention. He has a job here, he just got a promotion. He’s a regular guy.

OK. Does he drive?

He does not. Wherever we go, we’re gonna make it — and then we’re gonna get our asses home. We’re not trying to be caught out on these streets. 

Is it tiring to be an activist? Some actresses get to come to breakfast and just talk about whatever. 

I do get tired. But the energy and the fight — it’s always kind of wonderful when it gets your adrenaline going. But I do feel tired sometimes. The percentage of trans women around the world — even compared to trans men — is quite low. I don’t know how much our voices are being heard. Even our gay counterparts… like, are they speaking about us enough? 

Is there anything left to say about JK Rowling? 

Listen, for me — I don’t like to talk about people that aren’t talking about me. I am sad at what has been happening. Maybe one day we’ll have a conversation and we’ll be willing to hash it out and be like, “What is the situation?” But until then, I don’t think we need to chat about that.

What does it feel like to have those nails?

They feel good. They feel deadly.  

Words Mickey Rapkin Photography Dennis Leupold Creative and styling Joseph Kocharian Hair Tym Wallace at Mastermind Management Makeup Etienne Ortega at The Only Agency Nails Emi Kudo at A-Frame Agency Fashion Assistant Aaron Pandher Digital Kevin Leupold Photography Assistant Dreck Perz