Billy Porter: 'I Set Out To Be The Change I Wanted To See' [Interview]

Two weeks ago Billy Porter jumped on the phone to discuss his Emmy-winning performance as Pray Tell, the fictional emcee of New York’s early ’90s ballroom scene, in FX’s “Pose.” At the time, the nation was only reeling from two straight months of stay at home orders due to a coronavirus pandemic that was on its way to killing over 100,000+ Americans. George Floyd was still alive. Five days later, his killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers would lead to nationwide protests that haven’t been seen in decades. But two weeks ago? Frankly, that feels like two years ago.

READ MORE: Dominque Jackson turns a “Pose” and breaks down the global ballroom scene [Podcast]

If Porter were to speak today, he’d likely say something similar to what he posted on Instagram on May 29.

Or perhaps you can understand his emotions by the tweets he’s re-tweeted on his account in the days since. As one can decipher from our conversation that took place only in the context of just a global pandemic, he’d have a lot to say. But, again, just two weeks ago.

Context aside, besides Covid-19, Porter took the time to discuss his historic win as the first openly gay black actor to win a lead actor in a drama Emmy, how one pivotal scene in season two of the Steven Canals, Brad Falchuk, and Ryan Murphy created series was the most nervous he’s been in his entire career and, as you’d expect, much more.


The Playlist: Hey, Billy. How are you doing?

Billy Porter: Good. How are you?

Pretty good. Is your iso going as well as it can be going for anyone?

Yeah, it’s going pretty good. I’m out in Bellport, Long Island in a house with my husband that we rented. I’ve been writing a lot. I’ve been focusing inward, learning about self-care and boundaries and balance in my life. Something that I’ve not really ever had before. Working on a lot of stuff. It’s been great, actually.

I know you’ve done a lot the stay-at-home virtual charity events. Has participating in those fundraisers been a nice distraction to what’s going on?

Well, not distractions as much as they are making me feel engaged and making me feel empowered, because it’s a very disempowering time. If that is even a word. You’re a journalist. You can let me know.

I believe that is a real word.

That’s a word? That’s a real word? It just feels empowering to show up as human beings and love each other and help each other. And show our government what they’re supposed to be doing.


To tell the world that our government does not represent our people at this time. They do not represent the majority of our people at this time. And it’s empowering in that way to be able to show up like that.

Do you think you’re going to stay out there for a while?

We’re trying to stay out here through the summer because nothing is really happening and there’s no reason for us to go back there. I didn’t realize… I’m a city ghetto boy from Pittsburgh. I didn’t know that I needed birds. I didn’t know I needed the sunrise, to watch the sunrise and hear the birds chirping with my morning coffee sitting and writing at 5:00 AM to 10:00 AM. every day. I’m so productive during this. And I don’t want to say that in a way that in any way feels boastful or inconsiderate of the disparities that are existing in our country right now vis-a-vis how this pandemic is playing out. I know how blessed I am, and I just want to make sure that inside of this, I am paying it forward and giving back.

We all have friends who are stuck and not even going be able to write and do stuff and other people are been able to use it like you to take it to another level. And I think that’s… It’s just human. Everyone reacts to things differently.

This is when we’re needed the most. This is when artists are needed the most.

Before I ask about season two really quickly, had you guys finished season three “Pose”?

No, we were eight days into episode one of season three.

Oh, I thought the show was coming back but is it…

It is, but we got shut down because of the pandemic. So it’s coming back. It’s just coming back later.

Well, this is a bit of a pivot. It’s been eight months since you won the Emmy.


A history-making Emmy, I should say. With some time having passed how do you reflect on that win?

I have to say that this time out here, working on my self-care, working on balance, working on boundaries, working on myself. I realized that I don’t know how to do that. I’ve never had the space or the luxury to do that. As a freelance artist for the last 30 years, you live in… As an artist, anybody who knows, there’s a lot of scarcity and a lot of lack. And your focus is on the work and your focus is on when you do have work, how you save money to sustain yourself for when you don’t have work. So this whole new platform, career, celebrity, whatever we call it is so new to me, I’m still trying to take it in and learn how to receive it fully. That is an active, conscious thing that one must learn how to do. So I don’t think about the Emmy very much. I don’t know how to. It sort of feels like, yes, it had happened. I’m so grateful. I’m so honored. I’m so happy with what it’s doing for my life as an artist. It cracks open and it knocks down doors and it knocked down barriers that have been immovable for my entire life. So, I guess that is the part of the glory of that win for me that I’ve been leaning into and trying to receive fully. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it totally does.

It’s surreal. I look at my Emmy and my Tony and my Grammy on my living room wall, and it’s like there’s still a disconnect for me. And I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Because if you lean too much into it, I think you’re just an asshole because then you just become arrogant and ridiculous. But it means something different for a black gay man than it does for a white straight man. It just does. It puts a different kind of energy and focus on me and a different kind of a respect on me that I’ve never had before.

Especially on social media, you must run into kids who look up to you and are appreciative of what you’ve been able to accomplish.

Yeah. I looked at my life about 20, 25 years ago and I saw that I, very rarely, if ever, saw myself looking back at me, saw myself represented. And there was no space for the black gay archetype at the time, but I knew that if I was being truthful and authentic, which everybody says they want, and I always believe that it’s easy to be who you are when what you are is what’s popular. It’s really easy to have the authenticity conversation when who you are is what everybody wants.


I was not that. I chose myself anyway. I saw the future. I saw myself in this position because I knew that that was what I wanted as a child. So, instead of complaining, I set out to be the change that I wanted to see. And it’s profound that it has happened. It blows my mind. It takes my breath away every single day. It was intentional. Yes. I do know. And thank you for noticing.

Is the fact that “Pose” is such a big hit more important in a way to you than winning awards? Just the fact that people are watching this show, people love it and probably 25 years ago, people would have said this show couldn’t exist?

Yeah. It’s, for me, I am grateful for my age. Turning 50, being in the business for over 30 years, has given me a really healthy relationship to awards and what they mean. I am going to be an artist whether I have awards or not.


It doesn’t matter. That part of it doesn’t matter. The icing on the cake is…well, the first thing is not only do we get to tell this story at this time, talking about this group of disenfranchised people and show the world our humanity, but that people are watching and people are responding. We get to change things. Artists are the arbiters of change. We always have been. That’s what the most exciting part is for me.

Last night I re-watched the last three episodes of the show and I was forgetting how joyful the ending was.


I had forgotten about the relationship with Ricky and how it played out. It could have been more judgmental in terms of their age difference. And I thought it sort of hit a nice sweet spot in a way.

Yeah. I think that you’re seeing two people in crisis who connect through a life or death crisis. That cracks open a different kind of conversation and allows for compassion. And the chasm between ages disappears. HIV doesn’t have any respect of person. It doesn’t care how old you are. Just like COVID-19, it doesn’t care. They thought it wasn’t affecting children. It is affecting children. It is. No respect of persons. So that shrinks the divide. And I think that’s what brought Ricky… Well, I know that that’s what brought Ricky and Pray Tell together platonically just to talk and connect, and then it evolved into what it has evolved into.

Granted, you guys were just about to shoot season three and I don’t want you to give too much away, but do you think that relationship can last long?

It’s something that I really would love to see for Pray Tell. They don’t give us [all the] information. So I actually don’t know.

I was going to ask about that. Do Steven or Ryan or Brad give you any sort of heads up about where the arc for Pray Tell is going before a season starts?

Not really. Because of the social media aspect of our culture and the leaking aspect of our culture, it’s very hush-hush. I don’t know what is happening with Pray Tell until I get the script and the script is delivered. You can’t even get it over email. You can’t even… They deliver it to your door or to your dressing room, whichever is best at the time.

It’s old school. It comes on paper? No PDF to read on an iPad?

It’s old school. Comes on paper.

When you got those scripts for the second season do you remember what surprised you the most about Pray Tell’s journey?

Yeah, the relationship with Ricky. I was 49-years-old before I ever had a romantic anything in my career. I’ve never kissed anybody romantically. I’ve never been in a romantic anything in anything that I’ve ever done.

Even on stage?

The closest I came to that was James Thunder Early in “Dreamgirls,” but that was the closest and that is a relationship, but not… That was with a woman. So because I’m gay, it didn’t feel the same if that makes sense.

It does. So, in that episode, where Ricky comes on to Pray Tell, were you more nervous than you’d been in shooting other moments on the show?

I’ve never been more nervous in my life.

Wow. You never would think that.

I’ve never been more nervous in my life. The episode, the last episode of season one, I had my first kiss. And then episode eight of season two, I had a love scene. It’s the first time I ever did that. I was horrified. Horrified. Who wants to look at me? That’s not my skillset. I’m not the sex symbol. That’s the messaging I’ve always had in my life. So, what I love about Ryan is that he really leans into sexuality for everybody, no matter what you look like, no matter what size you are, no matter what color you are, no matter what. He leans into that in a way that I find really inspiring. And it really freed me in a lot of ways of my body dysmorphia insecurity if you will.

I’m not playing journalist psychologist, because that would be embarrassing. But on the other hand, in your public life, even before you shot this, you have made huge strides in what many people would quote as “unconventional red carpet wear” and breaking gender boundaries. So where’s the disconnect in that? In the sense that you were talking about the body dysmorphia and not being comfortable seeing yourself as a sex symbol, but…

That’s naked.

O.K. right.

I’m talking about naked. And I’m also talking about this idea of masculinity. My masculinity has been in question from the minute I could comprehend thought and that’s the only thing that matters. It’s the only thing that matters in the straight world. It’s the only thing that matters in the gay world, masc for masc. I need a body. I need a big dick. I need a… So all we do is… I freed myself from that when I took myself out of the masculinity game. And that’s what you’re seeing when you see me on these red carpets. When you see that. When you see me having that conversation with society. What is masculinity and why is it based on what you’re wearing, what clothes you’re wearing because women wear pants all the time and nobody bats an eye anymore. Let’s evolve in the same way for men.

I wanted to quickly talk about filming the ballroom scenes. In context, it comes across so naturally and especially with you on the mic. Do you shoot them all in one take first and then break them down into individual shots?

It depends on the director, but generally, yes. We come in, they stage it and then they do a wide shot. They do the wides. And then they go in for closeups. So generally, yes.

Are you always on the mic saying the lines or doing what Pray Tell would be doing during that?

Yes, the whole time. I’m there the whole time. Because it’s for timing. So when there’s another scene that’s going on, during the ball, I still have to stand there and either mime the words or just for timing so that they understand how to cut it.

And is there time for improv in that at all? Are there other lines they give you?

Yeah. We have the script and then we have on set consultants who give me ad-libs and then I do my own ad-libs. And my closeup is generally last because I have the time to get the pattern of what it is that I really want to do together. So that by the time my closeup happens, all my ad-libs are together and I can just do it.

Should we assume that’s the most fun part of shooting the show?

Yes. It’s the most fun in the sense that it is fun. It also is the most tedious because it is tedious.

How long do those days go?

Damn long. 12 hours, 16 hours. They’re long days. They’re very long days.

Well, listen, Billy, thank you so much for taking the time. I’m glad you’re doing well during this iso, and I can’t wait for “Pose” to come back and for all of us to be able to get back close to what we were doing before, hopefully.

I know, me too.

Thank you so much, man.

Yeah, all right. Have a good one.

Season two of “Pose” is currently only available on iTunes.