Life’s a ballroom: Trans actor dishes on groundbreaking ‘Pose’

Life’s a ballroom: Trans actor dishes on groundbreaking ‘Pose’

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“Pose,” the new dance musical drama created by Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”) and Steven Canals, is quickly becoming one of the most-talked-about and acclaimed new series of the summer.

The series is set in the late 1980s amid the burgeoning ball culture that served as an artistic and creative sanctuary for cast-out black and Latino gay and transgender youth with nowhere else to go alongside the rise of the affluent luxury executive-suite-and-tie culture that would ultimately dominate Manhattan.

“Pose” features the largest transgender cast ever assembled for a scripted series, with five trans women of color starring in recurring roles.

Actor and activist Angelica Ross, who has appeared on “Claws” and Transparent,” stars as Candy Abundance. The show, set in an era 30 years removed from today, is still relevant, she said.

“We’re at a time where people are digging their heels into their identity,” Ross said. “‘Pose’ is a show that is sort of a buffering zone where we can meet. It has these two worlds: Wall Street and the kids from the streets, and it shows what happens when those two worlds collide. There can be a place where we are all true to ourselves and be who we are and be proud.”

Ross said her character is new to the ballroom scene, and trying to figure out the rules and where she fits in that charged and highly competitive scene.

“As you see in the ball scenes, the categories keep expanding and it’s about learning which categories you can win. Seeing their struggle is going to bring up that conversation of how we can come to a place where we recognize everybody needs to be loved and everybody deserves to feel like they belong somewhere.”

Ross said she became part of the later ballroom scene, immersing herself in it when she began to identify as transgender.

“I had my first ball in 1998 or 1999. I remember being so terrified. It was in a small bar with a pool table and the ball happened around the pool table. I don’t know what the categories were, but I learned some incredible lessons. Sometimes it wasn’t always about who was the prettiest. It was about who could sell it and who had the most confidence. There was this one queen, Vaja, who passed away years ago, but she taught me so much. During the ball, she would walk the runway in an outfit constructed from Aldi plastic bags, but it was high fashion. She was like Grace Jones. She was bald and confident and striking. I learned that you can sell almost anything if you are confident.”

Usually when the small or big screen tries to tell the masses stories about pivotal moments in LGBTQ history, they wind up either whitewashing the story (see “Stonewall”) and/or cast straight actors in the roles of gay or trans characters. Ross said that, from the beginning, Murphy and Steven knew they had to rely on transgender talent in front of and behind the camera to tell these stories. 

“A lot of times when folks think they are helping our community and do advocacy by creating media, that impulse initially is nice,” she said. “But I’ve learned the concept that if you are doing something about a community, you have to include them from the start. The show was written by a Afro-Latino gay male (Canals) but we needed trans people in the writing room and directing and obviously trans people playing trans roles. When we feel like something is a detriment to our community, we know how to shut it down. If the clothes are not done well, you best believe there was going to be some opposition and rightfully so. I think that everyone is going to feel that they can enjoy this and expect the show to get more inclusive and better over the season.”           

While there is a lot of drama and strife in the stories that “Pose” tells, there is also a lot of fun to be had for the actors involved, whether it is vamping and vogueing in colorful outfits to great music or inhabiting the characters living on the fringes of society — and sometimes, the law. 

“While we’re all struggling, we’re also teasing our hair and mopping the most fabulous outfits,” Ross said of the ballroom characters. “And when I say ‘mopping,’ I mean stealing. We tell the truth about the criminal activity. It’s real overt but it’s understood we’re dealing with a marginalized population that doesn’t have access to jobs and employment, and they’re struggling. So they’re trying to pull together what they can. The fun of stealing things and breaking glass at the Brooklyn museum was insane. Running from cops, it’s a hoot. There’s even a scene where we rob the Salvation Army Santa Claus. It’s so great to be working with people you can trust and they keep letting me act a fool. They keep leaning into it and it keeps getting wilder and wilder.”

“Pose” airs 9p.m. Sundays on FX. For more information visit www.fxnetworks.com/shows/pose.


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