How Mj Rodriguez and Billy Porter are saying goodbye to ‘Pose’

"Pose" costars Mj Rodriguez and Billy Porter do some posing of their own in a tree in New York's Central Park.
“It was time to make sure that we did our job to make the world happy,” says Mj Rodriguez of returning to the “Pose” set after the pandemic halted production. Costar Billy Porter says the timing of the series’ end feels right.
(Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times)

When production of “Pose’s” third and final season began in March 2020, Mj Rodriguez was excited to see where her character, Blanca, the mother of the House of Evangelista, would go as FX’s seminal series about New York’s ball culture and the gay and trans community took yet another time jump to the increasingly evolving city in 1994.

But with reports of COVID-19 spreading around the globe at the time, Rodriguez also sensed that something severe was going to happen. After eight days of shooting, her fears were justified as filming came to an abrupt halt — the pandemic had arrived in the United States and, soon enough, too close to home.

This post contains spoilers for Tuesday’s episode of “Pose,” “Never Knew Love Like This Before.”

July 9, 2019

“I lost my grandmother and my aunt to it. And my dad had also contracted it, and he was going through a whole moment,” Rodriguez says. “My family was the main thing I had to focus on. I was still working, though, which is weird. I have a family that I have to take care of and a house that we have to take care of, so it was important to make sure I was somewhat of the princess matriarch of this house that I was in.”

Mj Rodriguez portrays Blanca, Mother of the House of Evangelista.
Mj Rodriguez
(Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times)

By October, “Pose” found its footing in a new world of COVID production protocols. And by the second day back, Rodriguez says, everything started to feel right again. “We knew that there was a time to fight and a time to live and a time to tell a story,” she says, “because each and every last one of us on that show were great storytellers, and it was time to make sure that we did our job to make the world happy.”

What she didn’t realize in the moment, however, was that they were filming their final season.

Billy Porter, who portrays Ballroom emcee Pray Tell, first met Rodriguez in 2010 after she was cast in the role of Angel in an off-Broadway revival of “Rent” he was working on. The Emmy, Grammy and Tony winner says he has seen tremendous growth from his costars over “Pose’s” 24 episodes but always knew how singularly talented Rodriguez was.

As the groundbreaking FX series’ final season crosses the halfway mark, its co-creator takes us back to the moment that set the tone for the rest.

May 12, 2021

“We’ve watched her grow up,” Porter says. “She became a woman in front of our very eyes. She transitioned from being a young adult woman to being a full-fledged woman. And it’s amazing.”

The series has always balanced joy and despair, but one consistent theme has been Blanca’s perseverance. The character may wear her emotions on her sleeve and have obvious insecurities, but her overall arc has seen her succeed against all odds despite the prejudices she often encounters as a trans woman. From Rodriguez’s perspective, this portrayal has been “extremely important” for contemporary trans men and women.

"Pose" costars Billy Porter and Mj Rodriguez on a rock in New York’s Central Park.
Mj Rodriguez and Billy Porter
(Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times)

“With seeing all of these things that Blanca had to go through personally, mentally, and to see her come out on top, every trans woman needs that. Every trans woman needs to see something that is obtainable and reachable,” Rodriguez says. “And also, for the trans women who are from back in the day, who have been strong, uplifting mothers, to see that the work of raising strong and powerful and resilient children, that’s the best gift that you could ever receive as a mother.”

That “Pose” is ending after its third season is still a head-scratching decision to many, including Rodriguez. “We were working hard,” she says, “but we hadn’t gotten the understanding that it might have ended.”

Porter, though, knows the timing was right. The goal of series creators Steven Canals, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, he notes, was always to tell the story of the AIDS crisis to the point when antiretroviral drugs came on the scene and people started living with, instead of dying from, the disease. Sticking around just because the show is popular could have created forgettable “filler,” and that would have diminished its impact.

“This story was too important for that,” says Porter, who recently revealed to the Hollywood Reporter that he’s been HIV-positive for 14 years. “The community, the story, the journey of all these characters, it was just too important to maybe go on too long and then become a nuisance.”

Billy Porter
Billy Porter of “Pose”
(Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times)

Certainly, the emotional final episodes of the series will have many viewers shedding tears as they say goodbye to so many memorable characters. From Porter’s perspective, he couldn’t have imagined that this show would even exist when he first got into the entertainment business more than 30 years ago. The context for dreaming of something like Pray Tell and “Pose” was not even possible back then.

“I will say, if I don’t do anything else in my life (and I already am doing other things, FYI), but if I don’t do anything else in my life, I will have done this,” Porter says. “That’s how this experience has been for me. And that’s how watching the [final] season felt to me. This is historical; this goes in the vault forever. And that is powerful.”