When Mj Rodriguez greets you with a warm “Hello,” her elation is palpable. Just hours before her 28th birthday, the actress was getting ready for the 2019 Golden Globes at the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills, blasting “You Can’t Turn Me Off (In the Middle of Turning Me On)” by the 1970s R&B group High Inergy with her mom, when she caught up with W about her very first Globes nomination for starring in the FX drama series, Pose. “This is the best birthday present I could have ever received!” she declared.
“I’m excited for us to be visible on one of the hugest awards ceremony ever,” the actress continued, praising her cast mates in the most maternal way. On Pose, Rodriguez plays Blanca Evangelista, the House Mother to a ragtag crew of teens in New York City’s ballroom culture scene. The series was nominated for Best Television Series – Drama, competing against heavy hitters like The Americans, Killing Eve, Homecoming, and Bodyguard, and though it did not take home a Globe, Pose stands out as the rare family drama that combines late ’80s pop hits with colorfully styled and impeccably choreographed ballroom voguing scenes. It also serves as a teaching tool, paying homage to a subculture that has been siphoned from yet rarely credited for its influence on mainstream culture at large, while educating its audience on the incursion of the AIDS crisis in the late 20th century.
For the awards ceremony, Rodriguez opted for an electric blue Prabal Gurung gown, with eyeliner to match. “I’ve worn his suits before, but this is a monumental moment for me and I wanted to wear a statement piece and he is one of those statement designers,” she said. But when she’s not getting glammed up for awards season, Rodriguez says she tries to take an “edgy” approach to style. “Sometimes I wake up and I wear jeans, sometimes I want to wear khakis, or full-on overalls. I usually just gravitate towards the feelings I have, and the designers I want to dive into,” the actress said. Of note in that realm is her decade-long friendship with Jeremy Scott (with whom she worked for his recent Moschino collaboration with H&M).
“Jeremy is a good friend of mine, and it’s crazy because back in the day when I was like 19 years old, I used to dress for models, for The Blonds, and I would go to Jeremy Scott shows. Just to see everything turn around and he gets to be a friend of mine, it’s full circle,” she said, before the discussion veered towards the lack of inclusivity in the fashion industry. Rodriguez has high hopes, though, and some advice to dole out for designers so that they can learn to be more inclusive of all bodies and genders. “I think it may be easier for them if they start hiring specific bodies into the rooms where they can pick who gets to wear these things, or who they want to model,” Rodriguez contemplated. “There are a lot of people in the room who don’t understand the movement and the struggle that we’ve been through, and therefore they distance themselves. In reality, we’re in a time right now where people are open to a lot of things, and they need to open their minds and have us come in, and be behind the scenes,” the actress went on. “Maybe that will open the door for people to come in as models or model assistants.”
As part of her on-screen performance, Rodriguez plays the character of Blanca with vivacity, and has the pipes to match (just watch her stirring performance of Whitney Houston’s rendition of “Home” if you need evidence). The House Mother loves her children unconditionally, even when they disappoint her, and she puts on a brave face when confronted with a positive HIV diagnosis. If the familial nature of the cast on Pose feels authentic on screen, it is because that family structure rings just as true off screen. Rodriguez had met a handful of her Pose co-stars, like Indya Moore, Billy Porter, and Dominique Jackson, years before they were all cast on the acclaimed series with the largest cast of transgender actors to grace television. “Every single day I wake up and take a glimpse of where I am now compared to where I was before, and the work that we have all put in to be in this space, I think of that, and being able to express myself through my art and show up and be present, that’s activism, advocacy, and artistry in itself,” Rodriguez said. “I just hope that I can influence a lot of people out there who want to be in positions like this,” she went on.
The actress has been a fixture of the ballroom scene before joining Pose, voguing and walking the runway since she was 14 years old. “When I was in high school, I was doing a fashion show, and my House Father would host fashion shows at the school,” she explained. “He was great at it. He saw me and said, ‘That’s my daughter.’ The rest was history! We went to New York City to rehearse and go to balls, and I was in the ballroom scene until I was 17 years old,” she went on. Rodriguez later garnered attention and critical acclaim for playing Angel in the 2011 Off-Broadway production of Rent, where she met the musical’s associate director and her future cast mate, Billy Porter. Years later, the two have essentially become the face of the Ryan Murphy series.
“It’s come full circle,” the actress said proudly. “[Billy] was someone who was teaching me along the way. I would go see him backstage at Kinky Boots and bother him a bit because I was that little kid who was up his ass because I just loved him so much,” she laughed. “Being able to finally work with him as an adult, as a woman, and as an actress, being able to share the stage where we can constantly pour our souls out, it means a lot.” In Rodriguez’s eyes, the success of Pose and the critical acclaim it has achieved marks a change in the industry and the culture at large. “A lot of people, back in 2011 or 2009, they were not ready to see something like this. Now is the time that they’re seeing our stories and receiving them, and I’m glad me and him get to share that together because we’ve always wanted this for each other,” Rodriguez continued.
Pose highlights the impact that elaborate ballroom competitions and vogueing have had on all facets of popular culture—from music to dance to fashion—for decades, but Rodriguez believes ball culture to be just as relevant as it’s ever been. “One of the best things about the mainstream is that they’re opening their hearts to seeing our culture and now embracing it more than stealing it. Yes, they were doing that a long time ago, but now they’re paying homage to the people that started it,” she continued, before taking a moment to honor the late Hector Xtravaganza, a founding member of the ball scene and Pose consultant whom Rodriguez fondly considered to be her House Grandfather. “I think the industry is opening their minds to the fact that we need to acknowledge the work that’s been put in since 1987,” she went on.
Rodriguez reflected on the whirlwind year she had in 2018, (rightfully) giving herself credit for her accomplishments as a performer. “I’m proud that I established myself as an actress in this part of the industry. I never thought in a million years that people would be able to take me seriously as an actress and now, being a part of the Golden Globes, that’s just a stamp of approval that people are seeing me as the actress I am,” she concluded. “My goal for 2019, hopefully I can book some huge hitters, and people won’t tie me just to the trans label, but will see me as the actress I am, and take me even more seriously than they are now.”