Before the third season premiere of the FX drama series Pose premiered on May 3, fans knew they would likely have to brace themselves for the loss of a beloved character in the show’s final season. Which character, however, remained up in the air—until, after a few minutes of following Blanca Evangelista (Mj Rodriguez) on rounds at her new job at a hospital in 1994, it was revealed that Cubby Wintour was near the end of his life in the facility’s AIDS ward. In that instant, it became clear that the first episode of the final season, directed by Janet Mock and written by Mock with series co-creator Steven Canals, would certainly be a tearjerker.
Jeremy McClain, who has played Cubby Wintour since the pilot episode of Pose, spoke to W after the episode aired, and revealed that Cubby’s final moments, in which the character passes away from HIV/AIDS-related complications, were filmed just days before New York shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, the cast and crew had no idea that the world as we know it was about to change. “In a way, it reflected the parallels of HIV and Covid, and death, and neglectful government,” the actor said over the phone, calling from Scotland.
The actor and model, who was recently signed by Elite Models and wore Jean Paul Gaultier (who has been a leading voice in the fight against HIV/AIDS throughout his career, and recently relaunched his 1996 Safe Sex Forever campaign) to the Pose red carpet, felt that nailing the nuance and subtleties of Cubby’s death scene was of the utmost importance. “It’s such a personal thing for me, as a queer man,” he said.
When Cubby first appears in the pilot, the year is 1987. Mostly positioned as a background character, he and his brother Lemar are members of the House of Abundance, led by House Mother Elektra, competing in all of the ball categories and snagging trophies left and right. By 1994, the HIV/AIDS epidemic had killed thousands, and was the leading cause of death in the United States for people aged 25 to 44.
The day McClain filmed Cubby’s death scene—in which the ballroom voguer lies in his hospital bed, unable to see clearly due to the ocular complications caused by AIDS—was, of course, “very emotional” for the actor. “I remember Steven [Canals] calling me and telling me they decided to go in this direction and knew I could get there emotionally,” he said. “I just felt really honored. Once the first wave of sadness happened, Dominique Jackson, who plays Elektra, called me and said, ‘Baby, people are going to talk about this. This is going to be a moment.’ That just meant so much to me because she really put the importance of this moment into perspective,” the actor went on.
According to GLAAD’s annual “Where We Are on TV” report, representation of people living with HIV dropped “significantly” in the last year. In 2020, three characters on television (compared to nine the previous year) were living with HIV. All of them were on Pose.
Once McClain knew that his character would pass away from complications caused by HIV/AIDS, he immediately went to YouTube in search of any footage he could find of people talking about their experience with HIV/AIDS in the ‘90s, so that he could accurately provide representation of a tragic experience far too many people experienced in that decade, without turning it into a caricature. He spent all day watching what he could find, and thinking about the hours of preparation he had done for the role, which included the makeup department creating a mold of his face so that Cubby’s appearance could be manipulated to seem more gaunt.
Naturally, this put the actor in a somber mood. “Unfortunately, you don’t have a lot of video out there, because people were afraid to talk to them, to get close enough to people affected by this terrible disease,” he said. “There are pictures, but finding video of real discussions are few and far between, or there are at least not as many as there should be. Through Pose, we have a lot of amazing people involved who lived during that time and saw it firsthand, and talked about it with me.”
Cubby initially resists Blanca’s request to bring his estranged mother in to see him one last time, but eventually acquiesces. “We want to be able to see joy with the trauma,” McClain said. “Just how life is, there’s good and bad.” Cubby’s mother joins his chosen family in saying their final goodbyes. It’s a bittersweet moment that lifts the scene from one of pure trauma to a peaceful goodbye.
“I’ve gotten many messages of love from people who were personally affected by HIV/AIDS or had a family member affected by it, and how much it meant for them to get this fantasy reconciliation between Cubby and his mom, which so many people didn’t get because their parents didn’t answer the phone or disowned them,” McClain said. “It is such an important, truthful story to tell, and that’s what this show is all about—the truth.”