Mj Rodriguez can’t cry right now because she’s going to ruin her intricately placed lashes. But sitting across from me at a small table in the Beverly Hilton in August, the Pose star says emotions are running high.
“Can I tell you? It’s been such a great response,” Rodriguez says, tears welling as she talks about the love she’s received from Pose viewers. “A lot of the family members of the LGBT — I call them family members because we’re all family. It’s been great. There’s been nothing but upliftment and the women of the LGBT community, they have been nothing but just loving and supportive. I have so many trans women I didn’t even know coming to me and saying, ‘Girl, you’re changing the dynamic and I’m rooting for you,’ and that shit…” She pauses to wipe at her eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m about to cry right now. That changes your whole perspective. It makes you want to try harder, you know?”
At 27, Rodriguez has had a lengthy career in the performing arts, beginning from her childhood participation in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and its theater program, to her award-winning turn as Angel in the 2011 Off-Broadway revival of Rent. But it’s through her starring role as Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista in FX’s Pose that she’s finally being recognized as Mj, the multi-talented actress, singer, and dancer whose background in ballroom lends itself perfectly to her role as the house mother in a TPOC-led ensemble show from Steven Canals and Ryan Murphy.
“Girl, I woke up this morning in my hotel room and looked in the mirror and said, ‘Bitch, you a celebrity, girl!'” Rodriguez says, without an air of pretension. She’s not a narcissist — she’s finally living her dreams and celebrating every second.
“I looked in the mirror and, let me tell you, it is surreal,” Rodriguez says. “I don’t see myself as someone who is a celebrity — I see myself as someone who wants to do what she loves and wants to change the world. That’s it. That’s it!”
But everyone around her — from her community to fans to critics — has given her the validation she’s been waiting for. Tonight, she’ll be receiving the Trailblazer Hispanic Heritage Award during the 31st Annual Hispanic Heritage Awards at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which will air on PBS later this month.
“My life is changing before my eyes and it’s a shift. It’s a quick one, but it’s also something I asked for,” Rodriguez says. “It’s a responsibility that I asked for and I knew I could do it the right way because I knew I wasn’t going in with an agenda. I mean, we all have agendas but mine was only love. That’s it. It’s as simple as that and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the love that I had. I wanted to spread it.”
The success of Pose was not necessarily expected, but not because it wasn’t worthy of it. Like most series that have been historic in shifting the focus away from heteronormative, white cis nuclear families, Pose had extra hurdles to jump just to get on air.
“When I was out pitching Pose, I was more often than not asked by executives, ‘Well, how is it different from Transparent?‘” Canals tells INTO. “This was after going through a 30-minute pitch. It was like, ‘How are you still asking that question?’ … Listen, we’re not a monolith. And so sure, our show centers the narratives of not one but five trans women who happen to also be women of color, but that’s only five stories. Five, and in a very specific community being ballroom. There are thousands of other people with stories and lives and I’m sure plenty of other content creators, storytellers, writers, who also have narratives that they want to tell and so I implore executives, studios, networks, Hollywood at large, if you will, to invite us in. Invite these queer and trans POC folks into your offices so we can tell you that other stories exist.”
“You know, I will be honest: in the beginning, I was a little nervous, but it was always because of me,” Rodriguez says. “Because I’m always someone who beats myself up and I’m always someone who’s like I hope it does, I pray it does because I just want more stories to be told. But there was also another inkling in the back of my head that was like we got to because there’s so many people who are changed by this — and it’s not just the trans community; the whole community. And when I say the whole community, I’m talking about the world. It’s all of us. So there was some nerves there, but there was also an angel on my shoulder too that was like girl, don’t worry. You’re on the right path. We are on the right path.”
After Season 1 averaged around one million viewers per episode and received favorable critical reviews (92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), FX renewed Pose for a second season, ensuring that the Houses of Xtravaganza, Evangelista, and Abundance would continue to share their lives with viewers for another year. (Season 2 will return in 2019.)
“I will say this: I was surprised that we got the reception that we did. That was the one thing that amazes me,” Rodriguez says. “I’m someone — I’m not a negative Nancy but I’m also realistic in the fact of what we go through in the world today and how people just don’t understand and I kind of beat myself up a little bit. Nothing towards Pose, it was just Mj personally. I was thinking ‘Oh lord, are there going to be people out there that are just like not here for it?’ But that changed.'”
Rodriguez says she felt the heavy significance of Pose early on, specifically in a rehearsal she had with co-star Charlayne Woodard.
“I did that monologue between her and I and fighting for my kid — that’s when I knew,” Rodriguez says, referencing a scene where Blanca speaks with Woodard’s character Helena St. Rogers, Dean of the New School for Dance. In it, Rodriguez delivers a passionate plea for Helena to allow her son, Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), to audition despite having missed the deadline.
“Do you know what the greatest pain a person can feel is?” Blanca says in her monologue. “The greatest tragedy a life can experience? It is having a truth inside of you, and not being able to share it. It is having a great beauty, and no one there to see it. This young boy has been discarded, and he is so young, he believes that it has something to do with who he is. It’s like a cancer — it is going to eat him from the inside until he starts to resent even the best parts of himself.”
“That’s when I knew, ‘Oh, we’re going to go there,'” Rodriguez says. “Trying to let people know that these are not problems, but these are things that every family goes through in order for them to make the tree stronger, the family tree stronger. And I was like ‘Oh my god, this is going to change the dynamic.’ People are going to see not only that we are humans and that we go through the same thing but they’ve done the same thing with their kids, too, to fight hard for them, too. That shit made me happy — excuse my language.”
Rodriguez and I are speaking during the Television Critics Association press tour, where critics and reporters are scheming to get scoops and exclusives from the stars, writers, and producers of the biggest shows on TV. We’re in the same room as stars of other FX shows like Mayans MC, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and You’re The Worst, and shortly, she will be joining her castmates on stage to take questions from a ballroom full of journalists tweeting their responses. This is the second time Pose has been on this stage, and Rodriguez says her experience there and with the press, in general, has been better than she imagined.
“I mean, when they see us walk on the stage, I think the first thing they see is female,” she says. “And I’m like ‘Oh wow!’ Because, you know, as a community, that’s what we are — but oftentimes, as anyone does, we beat ourselves up because that’s systematically put in our heads.”
Beyond Pose, Rodriguez hopes to continue breaking ground. In 2016, she appeared on one episode of Netflix’s Luke Cage as the first-ever trans Marvel character, Sister Boy, but she’s looking to do more for Marvel on the big screen.
“I hope and I pray that I get a Marvel opportunity, or I get a huge film opportunity and it’s not highlighting my transness, but it’s highlighting the journey or the storyline of what the character has to go through to become like a hero or a superhero,” Rodriguez says. “I think of myself, in realistic form, a superhero because we’re changing lives in general, but I feel like on a broader scale, people need to see a figure that they haven’t seen beating crime and changing the narrative a little bit, you know? I think that will change the whole game around and it will open more doors for individuals who are queer, who are gender non conforming, who are hetero identified, who it will open the door for them to just be — simply be.”
Rodriguez is now the first-ever trans woman to be honored by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation with their Trailblazer Hispanic Heritage Award — previous honorees include Sonia Sotomayor, Rita Moreno, Plácido Domingo, Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, Zoe Saldana, America Ferrera, and Gael Garcia Bernal, to name a few. Rodriguez is being recognized for her “talent, courage and social impact,” according to Jose Antonio Tijerino, President and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. “Her story is a journey of triumph as she leads the way for transgender representation in Hollywood and beyond,” he said in a statement.
As Blanca, Rodriguez puts on a brave front for her children and her adversaries, only revealing how deeply she feels every wound when confronted with an opportunity to be forgiving — sometimes of herself. At the beginning of Season 1, she finds out she’s HIV positive, which thrusts her into proactivity in every area of priority — namely family legacy and ballroom. But Pose takes place during the height of AIDS, and there is already a death count. It’s natural, then, Rodriguez might be worried she could be written off.
“I just hope she’s on the show again,” she says, at least partially joking.
Canals acknowledges that viewers are nervous about the longevity of the show’s characters — trans women of color continue to be targets of deadly violence and were also, like Blanca, affected greatly by HIV/AIDS.
“I mean I’m sure if we choose to take this story in that direction, whether it’s Season 2 or beyond, I know for a fact based on who my collaborators are, based on the writer’s rooms, that it will be done with a lot of love and care,” Canals said. “We will not make that choice lightly.”
It doesn’t seem, however, that Canals has plans to subtract anything from Season 1 for Season 2, and fans probably needn’t worry too much about Blanca sticking around.
“At its core, this is a family drama that’s centered around this community of chosen family members who happen to also be part of the ballroom community, and so I think [the writing room] just needs to remember like what are the basic tenets of what make the show what it is, and it’s about aspiration and joy and showing resilience and infusing hope and celebration of identity into the narrative,” Canals says. “And so I think all of those things will still be there in Season 2. How that plays out narratively? We’ll see.”
“You want to know something?” Rodriguez says. She’s not crying anymore, but you can still hear the emotion wavering in her voice, just like you can in Blanca’s. Everything she says, she says it with her whole heart, something the two women have in common.
“I just hope that she keeps rising in her strength in womanhood. I don’t know if you noticed, but she’s in the beginning stages of her motherhood, and there’s a lot of time that’s taken away from her womanhood because she has to be a mother. And when I say woman, I’m talking about relationships. But I think that will come down the line. I think the writers are already on top of it.”