“I directed my siblings,” Janet Mock confessed with a laugh, when asked if she had ever tried her hand at directing before being tapped to produce, write, and direct for Pose, the FX series that chronicles the 1980s New York City ballroom culture scene, and the intersecting lives of trans and queer Black and Latinx youth at the center of it. Pose has its moments of glitz and glam, but at the heart of the show is a riveting family drama.
“I’m the middle of three, and needed a lot of attention so I directed everyone on where they needed to go based on my needs. But no, I had no formal directing training or anything like that. It was never anything that I ever thought I wanted to do,” she admitted. About a year ago, Mock met with Ryan Murphy while he directed American Crime Story: Versace. The television auteur wanted to adapt Paris Is Burning as a series, but felt weird about serializing the lives of real people. Enter Steven Canals, an Afro-Latino queer man from the Bronx who wrote the script that would eventually become Pose while he was in graduate school.
Soon Mock joined the writers’ room with Canals, Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Our Lady J, and Murphy told Mock he wanted her to direct the season’s “most emotional script.” Pose is home to not only the largest transgender cast on television, but also an unparalleled number of trans talent working behind the scenes. Mock is an accomplished memoirist, has held a successful editorial career, and hosted a weekly series on MSNBC called So POPular, but she had never directed anything—not even a short film or scene in a play—before joining Pose. Despite her hesitation, Murphy’s encouragement worked, and Mock ended up standing behind the camera, directing an episode of one of the most radical series currently on television.
Her directorial debut, the series’ sixth episode titled “Love Is The Message,” marks a turning point in the series—it is a heartbreaking account of the epidemic of HIV/AIDS that swept away the lives of thousands of LGBT people in the 1980s and 1990s, but also serves as a perfect example of why and how transgender and queer people can and should exist at the center of their own stories on a major television network like FX. Mock opened up to W about her Pose directorial debut, stanning for Janet Jackson, and why she still tries to get eight hours of sleep every night.
This interview contains spoilers for episode six of Pose.
On Pose, the family dynamics in different Houses feel so real. Siblings argue, mothers scold their children to clean up their rooms, they share meals together. Did you take any inspiration from your past experience of “bossing around” your own siblings for those scenes?
Yes. My favorite scene to direct, and the most challenging location, was the scene with all of the girls in the shop. In our fake Pat Field store. I loved that they weren’t talking about anything traumatic. They were just talking about a guy. Some f–kboy. I love that space! And with Blanca, we see her have a love interest! [Laughs.] And seeing the girls check Blanca, who’s like Mother Teresa they call her. Seeing how the sisters talk to each other and poke fun at one another, they can shade each other and at the same time be encouraging and supportive, and all that stuff. Of course goals is like, Blanca and Praytell together in a scene where they’re just supporting each other, like, “We’ll get through this! Together!” [Laughs.]
You told me that Ryan Murphy called your episode the season’s most emotional one, and I think that’s true because you had Blanca (played by Mj Rodriguez) and Praytell (played by Billy Porter)—two Broadway stars with incredible voices—sing a duet in the third act of your episode at an AIDS ward in the hospital. The series has not had a full musical moment up until that scene, but it stands out—
We wanted the audience to earn that! We didn’t want to do it in episode one. We knew that they had these instruments, but we wanted to make sure that they could see for these characters the emotions they were able to express through song. They were with them for five episodes, they got to know them and their struggles and the secrets they were keeping from one another, and, you know, the fact that HIV/AIDS was a boogeyman and it was always prevalent and existing. For them to sing the two songs they sing in the episode, I think it really brought it home. It feels earned for everyone to be able to hear their voices and see them act in that way.
Of course “Home” by Stephanie Mills could not have been more appropriate for that scene. Do you have any say in the soundtrack music included in each episode?
I chose that one! Alexis Martin Woodall is one of the executive producers of our show and runs all of the editorial, which is post, and she and Ryan sit together and play songs all the time. They have a catalog of songs that they’ve gotten cleared and the catalog of songs that are important to the time period or the ball scene, like “Love Is The Message.” They have a hand in that, but there are really so many pivotal moments in the scripts that I’ve written where I put a song in knowing. Like, Angel and Stan having sex for the first time in episode three is “Let’s Wait Awhile.” I’m a Janet Jackson stan! So the fact that they hadn’t had sex and he’s at her apartment, it’s like, it felt like the right kind of song. And also for “Home” I really wanted Mj to sing that because that’s what she was doing, she was building a home in this brand new world. I have a deep love for that, and it was actually the Whitney Houston version. I remember when she did her first television appearance, I forgot what show, what show was it? Merv Griffin. And Clive Davis is introducing her for the first time, and I think she was 19 years old and had a purple dress on and a short little afro. All you had was this beautiful girl singing in a microphone, singing “Home.” I just always thought about Mj in that same way, standing in front of a microphone just singing a song. There’s such power in that song that I love so much and it makes so much sense in terms of Blanca’s journey.
I also noticed a nice symmetry in terms of this vocalist duet between Blanca and Praytell at the hospital, as well as “duets” of sorts where two characters would sit down across from or next to one another, and really hash out an issue with the dialog. Stan’s mistress, Angel, and his wife Patty at the diner; Patty and Stan at couples therapy; Praytell and his partner Costas in the hospital. As a director, what made you choose to build that type of symmetry in those scenes?
That was purposeful because I really wanted to concentrate on doing scene work. So the less complicated the blocking was, I felt that people could just really get into it. For television, it really stands, seeing close into these people’s faces in these pivotal, heart wrenching moments. I knew the script with Patty and Angel finally sitting down for the first time, after the cliffhanger in episode five, everyone is scared. Seeing the two women that Stan has chosen, and having them just sit there and nothing really going on beyond them sharing their dreams and the ways in which they thought that they had involving this man. It felt really feminist to me, in a sense of, like, all of these issues that they’re weighing. And the reality for [Patty] that not only is her husband sleeping with a young woman, but a Puerto Rican woman, a trans woman, and on top of that a sex worker. All of these layers and the fear in the 1980s, her sitting at home as a housewife watching Phil Donahue or Nightline and seeing that AIDS prevails, and at that time they didn’t really know how to categorize trans people, so everyone was just “gay” and I think there’s a fear that comes out of that. It’s the same kind of fear and terror that underlines Costas and Praytell’s conversation in their last scene together. Where you just see the terror in Praytell’s face.
It’s just over halfway through the season, and though the first few episodes have some great teachable moments, at this point there’s not much more that needs to be explained. You’re fully in the world of a family drama—
Thank you for recognizing it as a family drama! Me and Ryan, we argue about it all the time because he’s like, ‘It’s a dance musical!’ I’m like, ‘Girl, bye!’ That was cute when it was just to get people to watch because they’re scared of the heaviness of this world. I think it was a perfect marketing tool to frame it as that so that it felt fun. Though when people came they’re like, ‘I wasn’t expecting this!’ The number one types of tweets and reactions I get is, ‘This goddamn episode made me cry! It made me cry!’ But we also give them fantasy, we give them glitter, we give them choreography. We give all of that stuff but at the root of it, it’s about Blanca building a family and building a legacy that will live long past her being here.
There is so much to learn from Pose, and I would imagine people fall in between two camps. There are those who, like you said, are attracted to the glitz and the glamour—
The Ryan Murphy of it all!
Yes! The Ryan Murphy of it all! Maybe they don’t fully know what to expect or what they’re about to get into. But then there are other people who are fully aware of the ball scene, they’ve maybe seen documentaries or were even there in the late 1980s themselves, and are watching their world become serialized, as you said. What is the major takeaway that you hope audiences from all experience levels with this world get from watching Pose?
My ultimate goal is that anyone who has ever felt as if they were not deserving of being seen and heard, now know that they are. The fact that we, on the show, which is my own greatest achievement—I mean, there’s no way people can take this away, it will be archived forever. It’s there. It exists. No one can disappear it. And invisibilize it. In that way, the fact that we’ve centered these specific women and these specific people during this specific time period in this space in New York City, we now know that it’s possible that a show can be good, it can be resonant, it can be educational, fun, inspiring, and those people can still be centered. We don’t need to make them more universal. As specific as they are, in their experiences and intersections of their identities, they are worthy of being the heroes and heroines of their own stories. They don’t have to be the sidekicks. For me, that’s the greatest legacy I believe of the show. We wrapped two weeks ago, and our final scene was between Elektra, played by Dominique Jackson, and Blanca, played by Mj Rodriguez. They had their final scene together, and it was really powerful once we wrapped because I saw them grow from being nervous—for Dominique being a first time actor, and for Mj seeing her being like, ‘I have all these damn lines! How am I going to memorize this?’ They had so many jitters and they grew into professionals, and they grew into being the number one on the call sheet and the ones who had the most lines, and the stars of our show. Seeing them stand up there as leading ladies with an entire crew around them, getting applause for a season wrap, it was powerful to see them address their colleagues and thank their crew. It was like, ‘Oh my god, they’re stars.’ It hit me and it was deeply emotional, we were all crying. We did something revolutionary. We centered those who have always been watching from outside on the margins, seeking and hoping for mirrors and reflections of themselves. Even for me, I hope we get a second season and I believe that we will, but if we don’t, this exists. Kids, and people, and girls from all walks of life can have access to a Christmas episode that fully represents them and their experiences, and can see the ways in which it’s complicated to fall in love with men or partners who may not be fully seeing you and what does that look like, and the idea and notion of family and the creative resilience of folk who’ve been given nothing and have made something and everything out of nothing.
This is your first time writing for television, but are you considering any other creative endeavors? Writing films?
I have a few projects in the works. I’m writing a pilot right now for a network. Hopefully we’ll have season two of Pose, but Ryan is also putting me on as a director for another series. He has like 400 shows! I’m a part of his roster of directors now. I think especially after seeing episode six. He was like, ‘You’re naturally bossy, like me, so you’ll be fine.’ That was the first thing he said. I’d never seen Ryan be so paternal than when he told me I would direct, and how he was on set with me the first few nights. The first scenes I did were all of the ball scenes. We block shoot those because we only had the location for a couple nights. So I was thrown into doing the ball scenes, which are the most complicated ones. There are 200 background actors, all of our cast, tons of lighting and choreography, and all of our consultants are there. They play our judges usually. There’s choreography of people walking back and forth. I had all of the male categories in mind. We were able to get Laith Ashley, who is a prominent trans male model and he’s in it and we don’t even talk about the fact that he’s trans or anything but we have Candy desiring him. There’s some great subversive stuff in the episode which I’m really proud of. But yeah, Ryan was on set and he was like a proud papa, he was like, ‘Give Janet her space and her room.’ He created a safe space for me and the crew.
Is it true that Ryan Murphy is donating all proceeds from Pose to various organizations for HIV/AIDS research and awareness?
Yeah, and LGBT organizations. Most of them are New York City based because we are writing about this particular community that is still struggling in this space, and a lot of them are trans people who do direct services as well. A lot of them are not big organizations or foundations, but it’s people who are actually on the ground doing work for the communities that we represent on the show. So, he’s not making any money from the show. [Laughs.] He’s very clear about that! He’s like, ‘I know that I’m not the best person to tell this story but I’m giving all of the money away, I’m giving people who’ve never been given a shot a shot.’ Even for me, I’m a writer of memoirs and other things, but I’d never written for television. I’d never directed an episode of TV. Being the first trans woman of color to be hired in a Hollywood writer’s room, to be the first to write and direct an episode of television, I think it shows his leadership to not only hire people but to give them resources so that they can thrive. Though for a lot of our background actors this may be the first time that they’ve gotten a shot to be on set and they get to see how that works, a lot of them have gotten lines from being on set all the time so they get their SAG cards because of that, a lot of folk, there’s 150 LGBT characters, cast members, or crew members. We just have this whole world of people who are behind the scenes, from our choreographers to our producers and consultants, to our PAs who move everything along and do line rehearsals with the cast. Now people have Pose on their resume and can go do something else, even after Pose doesn’t exist anymore.
Isn’t that how all film sets and writer’s rooms should be? I feel like it’s about time for us to get into the Culture Diet questions, so what’s the first thing you read in the morning?
Twitter! It’s the first thing that I go to. I want to hear what everyone’s talking about, I go to the Moments page to see what’s trending. I have a private list called “The Voices” and I look at what they’re talking about that day because they’re usually the people that I’ve curated to be the most influential in their fields, and that way I know what to read. So I just start clicking links and retweeting stuff, getting angered and outraged, offering my opinions that I believe people want to hear. [Laughs.] Then I go to Instagram, and look at beauty and happiness. A little bit of joy and pleasure.
What are your favorite social media accounts to follow?
I love Reina Gossett on Twitter. My friend, The White Lines, his name is Andrew, he has perfectly curated memes on Twitter. Raquel Willis is amazing! I love @shitELEKTRAsays. [Laughs.] It’s so shady, it’s the character on Pose, it’s not Dominique Jackson. It’s a fan account. Of course on Instagram I look at The Shade Room, @lovebscott, my celebrity gossip. [Laughs.]
What books are on your bedside table?
I just finished reading my friend Darnell Moore’s memoir, No Ashes in the Fire, which is abou this coming of age as a black gay man. I also read my friend Michael Arcenaux’s book, I Can’t Date Jesus, which is a collection of essays about his experiences as a southern black gay man and pop culture fan. And Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage.
What TV shows have been keeping you up at night?
Killing Eve! I’m on episode three. The Real Housewives of Potomac, RuPaul’s Drag Race, of course. It’s the age of Aquaria. We all know she’s going to win, right? But I also said that about Shea Coulee last year, and then she didn’t have any trickeries during her lipsync.
What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?
I fly so much that I watch so many movies on planes. I know filmmakers are going to be like, ‘Girl…’ I wanted to see that Diablo Cody movie, Tully, but then the day was a wash. What was the last movie I saw… was it Black Panther? It’s crazy that was the last movie I saw. That’s wild, that’s how long it’s been. But I’ve been working! I don’t have time for movies, I’ve been on set for, like, 12 hours every day, Monday through Friday! [Laughs.]
And you’re gearing up for a new season of your podcast, Never Before with Janet Mock, correct?
Yes, I am! [Laughs.]
Your Kris Jenner interview last season was legendary, I kept wondering, ‘How did she get this to happen?’
Ahh! [Laughs.] How did she do it? You know what’s so funny is that on the same trip I interviewed Tina Knowles and Kris Jenner. The two matriarchs of the biggest pop culture families. I got to do them a day apart!
What other podcasts do you listen to?
The Read is my everything! Still Processing, I love so much. I haven’t listened to them in a while but I love Bitch Sesh, the Real Housewives breakdown. I don’t listen to podcasts as much as I would love, but I always make time for The Read. And Still Processing always makes me think, it makes me feel smarter than I already am. [Laughs.] Oh, and my friend Kara Brown is on Ira Madison III’s podcast, Keep It. I listen to that from time to time to support Kara and Ira.
What’s the last concert you went to?
I saw Janet! I saw Solange at the Hollywood Bowl. I saw Janet twice, at the Hollywood Bowl and I saw her at Barclays. I saw Dua Lipa at the Palladium! My queen! She was amazing, just one girl up there with a microphone, walking across, singing back and forth. That’s one of my favorite Instagrams too, Dua Lipa’s Instagram! I also love Shiona Turini’s Instagram.
Are you into astrology at all? What sign are you?
Kind of! I’m a pisces.
Do you feel like it’s accurate?
I do! I think Susan Miller, Astrology Zone is the most accurate! I’ve been a longtime stan. Does she have an app that you have to pay for now? I need to get it, she’s so good.
What’s the last song you had on repeat?
What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
Put lotion on my feet. [Laughs.] On my feet, elbows and hands! That’s the last thing I do before I go to bed. I got my hair cap on, my bonnet is on to protect the curls, then I start moisturizing my feet.
Do you even get to sleep at all? You seem too busy for sleep!
No, I do, I do get my sleep. I don’t always get eight hours, but I at least get six. Six is respectable, it’s not great though.