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For Billy Porter, gratitude and dismay over ‘Pose’ snub. But ‘we have made history’

Billy Porter, star of "Pose."
“Why did I survive? What is it for? It’s for this. It’s for this moment. I lived so that I could tell the story,” Billy Porter says of living through the AIDS crisis. “ ‘Pose’ is the impossible happening right before our eyes,” he says of the series about the era.
(Los Angeles Times)

On Aug. 6, Billy Porter stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial to record a message for a virtual charity event put on by the March for Our Lives organization. It was the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and despite being at high risk for COVID-19 as a diabetic, Porter journeyed from his Long Island home to speak these words from Toni Morrison, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Productions on the stage and screens both small and large may have come to a halt, but Porter has found a way to keep working.

“Artists have always been at the forefront of change and speaking truth to power and leading the charge,” Porter says a few days later over the phone. “It is shows like ‘Pose’ that shine a light on issues and things that would otherwise go unnoticed. And it’s done in a creative way, so it cracks people open as opposed to shutting people down.”

The Envelope recently gathered the actors who have brought some of your favorite TV dramas to life — Jason Bateman (Netflix’s “Ozark”), Patricia Clarkson (HBO’s “Sharp Objects”), Jodie Comer (BBC America’s “Killing Eve”), Bob Odenkirk (AMC’s “Better Call Saul”), Billy Porter (FX’s “Pose”) and Lorraine Toussaint (NBC’s “The Village”) — to talk about the pros and cons of Peak TV, the roles that push beyond the comfort zone, fan overreactions and nervous breakdowns.

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The 2019 Emmy winner for lead actor in a drama, Porter has once again been nominated for his role as the charismatic emcee Pray Tell in Steven Canals’, Ryan Murphy’s and Brad Falchuk’s period drama, a series that over two seasons has put a much-needed spotlight on the lives of LGBTQ+ characters in the early ‘90s New York City ballroom scene.

It’s a spotlight — or “crack” — much like Porter’s Tony Award-winning performance in the Broadway musical “Kinky Boots.” After one performance he recalls New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand telling him, “This show does more for the progress of LGBTQ rights than any government official could ever think about doing.” And as someone who has dedicated their life to art as activism he sees the power in opening even more cracks.

Porter reflects, “It’s not lost on me, having lived through the AIDS crisis, watching an entire generation of people just evaporate, many of my friends, many of my mentors. And me thinking, ‘How did I survive? Why did I survive? What is it for?’ It’s for this. It’s for this moment. It’s the fact that I lived so that I could tell the story. I mean, God, when I came out of drama school in 1991, there wasn’t even a space to dream about ‘Pose’ or Pray Tell. I couldn’t even dream it. ‘Pose’ is the impossible happening right before our eyes.”

Having had to work over the first 25 years of his career for true recognition, Porter says being nominated a second time is “heartening,” and he’s “humbled to be in the conversation” once again. That “Pose” itself didn’t repeat in the drama series category? He’s quite blunt when he admits it was beyond disappointing. In fact, he had one word for it: “weird.”

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“But I mean, what are you going to do?,” Porter says. “It’s hard for me because it’s like, ‘Yes, I’m completely angry. Yes, it’s horrible.’ MJ Rodriguez deserved a nomination. She carries the show on her back like Jesus on the road to Damascus, with that cross. Like, she carries it. Angelica Ross’ performance. Those performances were really special, and it’s upsetting. But simultaneously, the gratitude to just simply even be in the room, is what is the present that I try to come back to. These stories have never been told in the mainstream like this before, ever. We have made history. We are in the history books, whether we win awards or not. This cast, this show, this moment. We are history.”

And, as demonstrated by his recent trip to Washington, there are other things foremost on Porter’s mind. There is renewed focus for social justice after the death of George Floyd. There is the election this November. There are things to fight for, whether we’re in the middle of a global pandemic or not.

“The hardest part about this moment in American history, I feel, is that we are seeing America for who she really is,” Porter says. “And healing doesn’t happen until there’s acknowledgement that something needs to be healed. And America, we like to act as if it didn’t happen. But when you act like it never happened, then there’s no conversation and the real focus on how to heal the damage.”

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But Porter remains hopeful because, to be blunt, if he didn’t he wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.

“I have to stay engaged because I stand on the shoulders of people who gave their lives for me to be here, to be in this moment,” Porter says. “I don’t know anything else. I’ve never lived in any other way. Like I said, I’m first-generation post-civil rights movement. All I know how to do is fight. That’s all I’ve ever done, and that’s all I know how to do. So, I will be doing that until the day I die.”


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