Art & Culture

The Community Issue: MJ Rodriguez

As the final series of the groundbreaking ballroom drama 'Pose' hits our screens, get ready for MJ Rodriguez’s new era.

It comes as little surprise when, early on in our Zoom call, MJ (short for Michaela Jaé) Rodriguez admits she’s a “perfectionist to the tee, girl”. Anyone who has caught her performance in Pose as Blanca, the determined and ambitious mother of the House of Evangelista, will have felt the rigour and urgency powering her work. Rejecting the tragic lens through which queer characters are often viewed, Rodriguez embodies Blanca completely, movingly portraying the pain of her HIV diagnosis amid the wider context of the AIDS crisis, while also capturing the character’s joy and strength, as well as the love she feels for the family she has created.

Quickly attracting a fan base drawn to its glittering depths and euphoric highs, Pose made Rodriguez – already a critically acclaimed musical-theatre actress – a star. To date, this girl from Newark, New Jersey, has been interviewed by the likes of The New York Times, landed a contract with Olay (the first Latinx trans woman to do so) and amassed a million-strong following on Instagram. But Pose’s impact goes beyond Rodriguez’s own career: it now stands as a benchmark for what is possible when it comes to trans representation in the media. Allowing Black and Latina trans women to tell their own stories with integrity and authenticity, the series made history in 2018 for being the scripted show with the largest cast of recurring trans characters ever. Receiving nods at the Emmys and Golden Globes, as well as more than a million viewers per episode in the second series, it defiantly showed the industry that queer, POC stories have mainstream appeal.

Now, as Pose’s final series hits our screens, it’s time to get reacquainted with Rodriguez – not just as Blanca, but as the multifaceted actress, singer and artist she is. While she’s not giving much away about what the future holds, she assures us: “My voice is here, it’s powerful and it’s not going anywhere.”

Megan Wallace: The theme of this issue of HUNGER is community. What does that word mean to you?

MJ Rodriguez: Community is a collection of people coming together for a greater purpose. If more than one community can come together, that’s the epitome of what should be happening. And diversity – you have to be diverse and willing to be in diverse spaces in order to create community. I’m intersectional with a lot of communities, being that I’m Latina, African American, Afro Latina, Black, trans and a woman.

 

MW: You mention the different intersections of your identity. When was the first time you felt represented, on screen or elsewhere?

MJR: As far as trans representation, it was hard. I had to really build myself up on my own. I obviously had women on the screen who I looked to constantly, the Angela Bassetts, the Halle Berrys, the Jennifer Garners, the Anne Hathaways – who hails from New Jersey, like me. I’m very happy I get to mention another Jersey girl – hey Anne! I’ve had those representations in terms of womanhood and, as every young individual experiences when they have a mother in their life, my mother has shown me an ideal of nurturing and an ideal of “this is what womanhood is”.

MW: I know you were involved in ballroom when you were growing up. Did that help fill some of those gaps in representation?

MJR: Ballroom shaped me in the ways of culture. I was around a lot of the individuals who were [part of the scene] back in the 1980s and 1990s. It moulded me so much and made me such a well-rounded person to know about my community and the community that I was a part of outside the Black and Latino community.

 

MW: Having come of age in a ballroom scene around queer elders, why do you think intergenerational queer dialogue is so important?

MJR: We need to reach out to everyone, especially the elders, because they are on another scale. They’ve been here longer, they’ve had more experience as far as wisdom goes. With the generation that they’ve created and the ones who are going to be leading now, it’s so important for us to have communicative skills to speak to [older generations] as well. We have to reach out to everybody in order to change the grand scheme of things and make a better place. I want the world to be somewhere where we can all at least have better understanding of love and connection. The only way to do that is to reach out not only to Gen Z, millennials and anyone after that, but also those beyond us, too.

 

MW: In Pose, you represent that ballroom community you grew up with on screen. Has that been a full-circle moment for you?

MJR: It was a great turnaround from my childhood years and I love it, honey. It’s everything! From being this 16-year-old kid who would go to balls, to being on television screens. Not only being the artist I’ve always dreamed of being, but also telling the story of what I have lived, the ballroom scene. From being a kid who hadn’t medically transitioned but who had mentally transitioned, who saw myself in the women [on the ballroom scene] who were like me, being able to convey that was beautiful.

MW: From the beginning, the depth with which you play Blanca has felt like a step forward – a chance for trans women of colour to no longer be played strictly as stereotypes. Did you learn anything as an actress, as a person, from the role?

MJR: Just to embody a character like Blanca, that’s sickening. I don’t have any kids but I want them, so being able to convey motherhood on the screen was a hard thing for me, but it was a blessing too. I never expected to learn so much about womanhood from my gaze, from what I emit automatically when playing that character, and from what I was taught by my mother.

 

MW: What do you think characters like Blanca and shows such as Pose do to further society’s understanding of trans people?

MJR: Pose is a catalyst for mindsets being opened more and for understanding. In the most nuanced way, Pose has told the story of a life that is lived by many people. There were always these mindsets that gave people the notion of stereotypes – “Oh, this is how trans women live. They are prostitutes all the time, because they’re sexual deviants who roam the streets.” Pose took people behind that stereotype and showed the reality of why this takes place. In reality, [trans women in the 1980s and 1990s] were just trying to make a way to live, to be safe and survive, because we weren’t seen as respectable, we were treated like the lowest of the low, even lower than [cis] women. Pose did that in such a nuanced way, it created this story around the life of a human being who just so happens to be trans and who just so happens to also be a part of a thriving, colourful, vibrant culture called the ballroom scene.

MW: It’s no overstatement to say that Pose has been boundary-breaking in terms of representation, in terms of vision, in terms of nuance. How does it feel to be a part of that legacy?

MJR: Pose is going to leave a legacy that a lot of younger generations can look at and they’ll have something. The question you asked me of, “Did you have anyone to look up to when you were younger?” – to know that, for the generation that’s coming after me, there’s not only me but there’s Indya Moore, Angelica Ross, Hailie Sahar, Dominique Jackson. There’s an onslaught of more women that young kids will see, and they’ll see nothing but love, joy and hope.

 

MW: Hearing you speak is reminding me of the Miles Davis quote, “Don’t call me legend. Just call me Miles Davis.” You’ve achieved so much, but you’ve got so much more to keep on giving, right?

MJR: I agree with that. The moment you get that stamp of legend approval, at a very young age too, that can really change anyone’s mindset. I try to stay rooted on the ground to know that there is more to come. Taking me apart from it, Pose in itself is legacy work. It’s laying a foundation so that people within the industry can have space like how I have space.

MW: How does Pose’s final season build on what the show has achieved up until now?

MJR: The third season is really about to change the grand scheme of everything. We’re telling stories that a lot of people would have never thought would be told. The third season is really pushing the needle forward, as far as [trans women of colour’s] lives being lived in the way any other human’s on this planet would be lived. A life as a human being, as a person who roams this earth, who has made decisions, who has grown into things from different environments to be the person they are today.

 

MW: Are you a hopeful person? Do you feel hope about where things are headed, in the entertainment industry but also the wider world?

MJR: I am someone who challenges myself to have hope every single day because I could be gone. The hope, the joy and the faith that I have to live is what keeps me going. Another reason I’m hopeful is because now I’m afforded a lot of opportunities that I had dreamed about but never thought would happen – and they have. I’m driven by hope and I pray that it’s always catapulting me and also the people who are behind me, who are hopeful. But I’m also one for being honest and true, as well as not giving false pretences. I believe in the hope that I have, not only for this work and to keep changing people’s minds, but for the world to get it together.

MW: Is it hard to be honest in your line of work? Or to tell people things that they don’t want to hear?

MJR: As a woman it’s hard to be honest. There are so many expectations placed on us when it comes to how we speak and how we should vocalise. When it comes to acting, and performing, there’s always going to have to be a conversation when it comes to creativity. I would say the safest space that I’ve been in thus far, the first space within film, is Pose, because I was allotted the space and also made the space for others to be open and honest with me. That also comes with culture – [the cast of Pose] were around a lot of individuals [in the crew] who understand us culturally. I always want to make sure that I’m in a space where people are open for me to be in the space to listen, or to give feedback.

 

MW: Beyond Pose, what’s next for you?

MJR: I have to say, there is a lot that is looking great for me in the future. I never thought it would come so fast. There are times when I’m extremely overwhelmed, but I’m overwhelmed with joy. There’s so much more happening five years, ten years, down the line and I’m going to be working hard. I’m here to do it, because it’s my mission.

 

Read more about our Tenth Anniversary Community Issue here  and preorder MJ’s cover here

Season three of Pose airs every Sunday at 10pm ET/PT on FX.

4 May 2021