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Billy Porter spent 22 years earning showbiz success. Now he’s paying it forward

A man with long dreadlocks stands before windows, his eyes closed and hands clasped at his chest.
Billy Porter, director of “Anything’s Possible,” photographed at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
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The category is: creative (r)evolution. And Emmy, Grammy and Tony award-winning multi-hyphenate Billy Porter is in the midst of it.

After closing out his acclaimed portrayal of beloved ballroom emcee and guiding light Pray Tell on the FX series “Pose” last year, the actor-singer-playwright has been making moves behind the camera with the launch of his own production company, Incognegro, a first-look deal with FX, and his directorial debut, the Prime Video teen romance movie “Anything’s Possible” (now streaming).

The sweet and savvy tale of a Gen Z high schooler (newcomer Eva Reign) who sparks love with her shy classmate is a studio milestone, centered on a trans protagonist and star. It also marks a personal one decades in the making for Porter, who recalls exactly when he first spoke his directing dream into existence.

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By 1994 the Pittsburgh-born performer had worked his way up to roles on Broadway before becoming dissatisfied with the shallow, stereotypical characters then available to him. Catching the Broadway run of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” he was awestruck. “I had never seen myself reflected back to myself in anything, ever,” he says of the openly gay nurse Belize, a role he would later play. In search of change, he left for Hollywood, “thinking that they were ready for all this Black boy joy,” he said recently from his home in New York, days after “Anything’s Possible” opened the 40th Outfest in Los Angeles. “They were not.”

A young man shows his girlfriend a small blue heart as they stand on a bridge.
Eva Reign as Kelsa with Abubakr Ali as Khal in teen rom-com “Anything’s Possible,” directed by Billy Porter.
(Orion Pictures)

In an already daunting industry, Porter landed sparse auditions. He would later file for bankruptcy and face homelessness, among other trials. But throughout it all, he was figuring out his voice — and how to use it.

“I’m the generation that were taught to be brilliant interpreters of other people’s material. It never occurred to me that I could and should have my own voice,” he said. “I was spending all of my time and energy believing a lie, and the lie — from my haters and allies alike — was that my queerness would be my liability. And it was, for decades, until it wasn’t. But in the time of me figuring out I want to be all these things and have my own voice, I knew that the voice is Black and queer. I realized my queerness is my service, so I will intentionally be that in the face of nothing.”

Working through a copy of Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way” in 2000 helped Porter realize what he wanted: to be taken seriously as an actor, to tell his own stories, and to direct theater, film and television. “I spoke it out loud, I wrote it down. And 22 years later, here I am.”

I spoke it out loud, I wrote it down. And 22 years later, here I am.

— Billy Porter

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Porter is now a stage and screen star, a red-carpet fashion icon and an artist-advocate with much to say and the will to express it. He is just an Oscar away from an EGOT (after winning an Emmy for “Pose,” a Grammy and a Tony for his lead turn in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway and another Tony, earlier this year, as a producer of the Pulitzer Prize winner “A Strange Loop”). A few years ago, when he signed with Creative Artists Agency, he reiterated his desire to direct, which is how he landed at the top of the wish list for the producers of “Anything’s Possible.”

Written by Ximena García Lecuona, the film stars Reign as Kelsa, a confident teen and YouTuber entering her senior year, who decides to give Khal (Abubakr Ali) a shot after he turns to Reddit for advice on his crush. But not all of their friends and family are supportive, including Kelsa’s jealous ex-BFF. She also must contend with the ways even those who love her define her by her gender identity.

The script made the inaugural 2019 GLAAD List (described as “a curated list of the most promising unmade LGBTQ-inclusive scripts”) and was snapped up by Andrew Lauren and D.J. Gugenheim of Andrew Lauren Productions (“High Life,” “The Spectacular Now”), where Lecuona had been an intern. Killer Films’ Christine Vachon and David Hinojosa joined the project, which made the 2020 Black List of Hollywood’s best unproduced scripts before it landed at the newly rebranded, MGM-owned Orion Pictures.

“It felt really fresh,” said Vachon, the veteran producer of “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Carol,” “Far From Heaven” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” “It was a teen rom-com that wasn’t paint-by-the-numbers. At the same time the characters were so specific unto themselves, it had an edge and humor that is not typical for those movies. It just felt like its time had come.”

Billy Porter
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

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Not only is the film a rare trans-centered rom-com; it is a rare trans-centered story to get the backing and resources of a major studio. And for Porter, the script’s celebration of queerness and embrace of joy in spite of the challenges Kelsa faces in life, love and friendship felt aligned with the kinds of stories he wanted to tell.

“I had just come off ‘Pose,’ which was about a disenfranchised community, a chosen family, who chooses love and who chooses joy in the midst of unthinkable trauma,” Porter said. “And when we think about queer stories, in particular the Black trans story, so much of it is about the trauma. I was so moved that this was not about the trauma. It’s not a coming-out-trans story. It was about what happens next. We don’t see a lot of that, especially in the teenage space.”

He gravitated to the idea of spinning a modern, John Hughes-ian love letter to his hometown, filming on location in Pittsburgh — including at his high school, Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts. He called one of his closest friends, Tony-winning actor Renée Elise Goldsberry (“We went to college together. I sang at her wedding!”) to play Kelsa’s supportive mom.

“I wanted to, in a loving and compassionate way, spark the conversation that needs to happen between the African American community and the LGBT community,” Porter said. “I think art like this can create conversations that are not about shaming, not about blaming, not about finger-wagging, but just simply presenting the facts. There should be Black parents who support their trans kids. We have some, but there aren’t nearly enough.”

Eva Reign, with long dreadlocks and a shawl, swirls around
“Anything’s Possible” star Eva Reign at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Porter seized the chance to bring more inclusivity to the rom-com traditions that he and other marginalized audiences never felt reflected in. I grew up in the ’80s, but I was not represented in those films — most nobody was represented except white folks in those films, and when there were other minorities, they were highly stereotyped,” he said. “But what I love about the genre is that they take young minds and teenagers seriously. They take their trials and tribulations, their happiness and their sorrows, their triumphs and their failures all seriously.”

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In his vision of an aspirational teen movie, the hair, makeup and costumes are vibrant and fashion-forward, songs by majority queer artists (including Porter, who exec produced and appears on the film’s soundtrack along with “Pose” co-star Michaela Jaé Rodriguez) fill everyday moments, and otherness is celebrated as what makes young people special and unique.

The filmmakers sought to balance the radical joy of Kelsa’s life with the realities of being young and trans in America today, a theme that lands with even more weight now amid ongoing legislative attacks on trans rights. "[Porter] didn’t want the movie to get overly dark and too heavy because it’s about joy,” Gugenheim said. “But for the kids who are going through this, it’s the worst. So many trans kids go to really dark places because of how their peers treat them. This was crafted to be an antidote to that.”

Porter assembled a diverse cast of actors, including Ali (“Katy Keene”) as Khal, a Muslim American boy who struggles against his family’s expectations but also finds the nerve to tackle a universal fear: asking out the girl he likes. "['Anything’s Possible’] looks on the surface like something we’ve seen before,” said Porter, “but now this genre is populated with what the world looks like today.”

Billy Porter makes an assured and intelligent directing debut with ‘Anything’s Possible’; Eva Reign stars as a Black transgender high schooler.

Though “Anything Possible” was inspired by romantic and teen comedies like “Mean Girls,” “The Girl Next Door” and “John Tucker Must Die” — not to mention dashes of “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Before Sunrise” — it was a real-life Reddit thread that planted one of the most distinctive seeds for the film, which examines the very online aspect of Kelsa’s life, including the YouTube channel where she feels most free to share and process her innermost thoughts.

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“I feel like a lot of trans people (me included) find community on the internet when there aren’t a lot of trans people around in their real life,” Lecuona wrote in an email. “It’s a place where we can share our deepest insecurities and fears about being trans, and also the embarrassing joys and euphoria of it, without feeling judged or misunderstood. ... As far as all these cis people know, [Kelsa]‘s trans and out and living her best life, end of story; being trans is not what defines her. But when she goes online, we see the complex thought process that happens behind appearing confident.”

The blend of strength, spirit, vivaciousness and vulnerability their Kelsa would need was found in up-and-comer Reign, 26, who didn’t have an agent or manager and was on the verge of giving up on her acting dreams. Negative experiences in auditions and indie projects and a glaring lack of opportunities had made the St. Louis-raised actor-writer-artist wonder if she’d be able to break into the industry at all.

When casting director Alexa Fogel’s extensive search led to Reign, the actor fell for the script. “I didn’t think that a script like that was going to exist for a Black trans girl,” Reign said. “I hadn’t ever gone in for a role that wasn’t more than just a couple of lines. I had never done a scene where I was flirting with someone!” She landed the role a week before filming.

It was a big leap carrying an entire film on her shoulders in her first major role. But when Reign’s nerves got shaky on set, Porter proved to be an actor’s director, breaking into song and boosting the energy levels of his cast and crew. To Reign, he offered knowing words of wisdom. “The biggest thing he told me to do was to just trust myself,” she said. “He wanted me to lean into the joy of it all.”

Eva Reign stands against a window, one hand up on the adjacent wall.
On the “Anything’s Possible” set, words of wisdom from Billy Porter helped put his star Eva Reign at ease: “The biggest thing he told me to do was to just trust myself.”
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

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More important, says Porter, he listened to his star and deferred to her when it came to bringing authenticity to Kelsa’s journey: “One of the things that is required with allyship is you shut the f— up and listen to the people who you’re trying to be an ally for.”

Among the traits Reign wanted to instill in her character were the ways in which she must learn to become her own best advocate.

“I think that’s something that a lot of young trans kids struggle with,” Reign said. “People will ask a lot of questions and make a lot of comments and assumptions, and it’s really difficult to have to constantly be on your toes, to talk about those things when you’re just a kid getting through high school. There’s this added layer of people not understanding who you are.”

Since filming “Anything’s Possible” last year, Porter has stayed busy, starring opposite Luke Evans in the custody drama “Our Son” — “it’s very ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ meets ‘Marriage Story,’ we’re an interracial gay couple with an 8-year-old child and we’re getting a divorce” — which he’ll follow with a gig directing an upcoming television series for Fox.

The deeply emotional ride has affirmed the message of the “Anything’s Possible” title.

“I’ve had my moments of, ‘Be where you are, keep doing the work and anything is possible,’” Porter said. “I’m grateful to be able to pass that down, to pay that forward to other people, because I have experienced it and I know the truth.”

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