Your eyes did not deceive you—that was indeed Patti LuPone on the second episode of Pose last night.
The Broadway legend’s role on Pose is not her first time at the Ryan Murphy rodeo, either. She previously appeared as herself on an episode of Glee, and had a small role on season three of American Horror Story as a homophobic religious zealot. In the second season of Pose, LuPone appears as Frederica Norman, a scorned divorcée turned real estate magnate loosely based on Leona Helmsley, the hotelier who garnered a reputation around New York City as the Queen of Mean, went to prison for tax evasion, and left millions of dollars in her will to her dog Trouble.
When Blanca Evangelista turns up at an empty storefront with a fistful of cash and ready to rent the space for her nail salon business, Ms. Norman emerges from her limo and instantly makes a racist remark toward her prospective tenant: “I don’t normally rent to anyone darker than my aunt Lily after a week’s vacation in Palm Beach, but I’ve had good luck with Dominicans. Hard workers, for the most part.” Ms. Norman lets Blanca rent the space, but only because she doesn’t realize that she is a transgender woman. Once the truth is revealed, she attempts to pull the rug out from under Blanca by rescinding her offer, but with the help of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, these two go toe-to-toe for the space.
LuPone spoke to W about her guest arc on Pose and working with Mj Rodriguez, who plays Blanca on the series. She also opened up about joining Twitter, missing New York in its pre-sanitized 1970s heyday, and, of course, her thoughts on Madonna‘s “Vogue” being a through line for this season.
You worked with Ryan Murphy on American Horror Story and Glee years ago. How did you get involved with Pose?
He just called and offered me the role. That was it.
How has your relationship with Ryan evolved over the years?
[Laughs] I don’t know if I have a relationship with him! I work for him, and I’ve seen him more since American Horror Story than I saw him before American Horror Story. I’ve seen him in New York, when he was involved in The Boys in the Band. I saw him a couple of times in the city. He actually called me while I was doing War Paint, and said that he wanted to be in business with me, and I said, ‘Yes, sign me up!’ Then I saw him at The Boys in the Band, and didn’t hear anything. Then he called me for Pose.
Had you been a fan of the show’s first season?
I hadn’t seen it.
Are you a fan of it now that you’ve watched?
I am very, very proud to be a part of this. I think it’s an important show, and I’m very moved by the trans actors, and well, everybody in it, actually. I’m really, really proud. I’m honored to be a part of this cast for this season.
Most of your scenes are shared with Mj Rodriguez. What’s it like working opposite her?
Oh, she’s fantastic. She’s fantastic, she’s a total pro, she’s a really lovely, lovely person. She’s high energy, very disciplined, and she’s wearing this mantle. She’s 28 years old and she’s the star, the lead of this important show and handling it beautifully. She’s just terrific to work with, do you know what I mean? I think we have maybe similar energies, so I think the scenes fly by when we’re working. [Laughs] It’s great.
Before your character, Ms. Norman, realizes that Blanca is trans, she has a moment where she almost seems to connect with her. “Life is painful for women,” she says. Do you agree with that sentiment?
Well, I suppose it depends on your life experience. A woman’s life experience. That’s the only way I can answer it. It depends on the woman. It can be incredibly painful for women, trans women especially in today’s political environment. I think the LGBT community is on alert because of Mike Pence and Donald Trump, and I think that trans women are on high alert.
Do you think your character, as a real estate tycoon, would be a Trump supporter?
Yeah, I think she would’ve. I mean, she’s sort of loosely based on Leona Helmsley. She’s a rich woman who probably has blinders on. She’s not a very open-minded person. And I think she’s probably incredibly protective of her fortune. I’m sure she’s prejudiced. Right now, as far as the work I’ve done, she’s not compassionate. Not empathetic.
Did you study Leona Helmsley in order to build out your interpretation of the character?
No, I just rely on the script. The writers are fantastic. The writers on this script are really on point, politically and socially. I think the writers are really on point.
Ms. Norman offers a succinct and candid explanation of gentrification to Blanca when she’s deciding to let her rent out the storefront. As a New Yorker, how have you seen the city change from the time you were growing up to the ‘80s and ‘90s, as represented on Pose, to now?
I miss the old days. I miss the old days! I miss New York City, bankrupt. I miss the danger and I miss the creativity. Now it’s just corporate sleaze, I don’t know. It doesn’t reflect a multicultural city anymore. Maybe there’re pockets of it. And Times Square is a complete disaster. A complete disaster. I’ve seen the city change, and like I said, I miss the old days. I miss the ‘70s when the city was dangerous, creative, and bankrupt.
What do you say to those people who have recently moved to New York but romanticize that era without having ever lived through it?
Well, I don’t meet them, so. [Laughs] You mean people saying, “Oh I wish I was here in the ‘70s.” You mean those kinds of people? I would say, “Yeah, you’re right.” [Laughs] New York was fun! It was just a much more creative atmosphere. I think it’s probably still very creative, it’s just corporatized creativity. You know what I mean?
Season two takes place in 1990 and chronicles the explosion of the ballroom scene. When you were living in New York around that time, did you engage with ballroom culture?
Well, I think I did accidentally. A friend of mine said he took me to a ball, but I think he didn’t. I think he took me to Sally’s Hideaway, which was opposite the old Times building. [Laughs] I actually think I ran into somebody that was on their way to a ball in the upper 90s. He sort of swanned by me and asked me how he looked. And I said, “You look fabulous!” He said, “Good, because I’m going to the ball.” I just went, “Oh, this guy’s crazy.” I didn’t even connect the two because I didn’t know about the balls until I saw Paris Is Burning. It was a subculture that I wasn’t included in.
When did you first see Paris Is Burning?
I think when it came out.
Will your character be back for more episodes than just this second episode?
Will she have a bigger arc? It seems that she and Blanca are about to go head-to-head.
Yeah. [Laughs] I have no idea how it will resolve itself. I have no idea. But yes. I would like to think that this woman would soften and become Blanca’s ally, or the alternative to that, if she joins the House of Wintour!
I think fans online will also be talking about your character holding on to those two dogs—named Cash and Credit—in this episode.
[Laughs] Those poor things, one of them just didn’t want to be in show business.
You joined Twitter in April. What convinced you to start tweeting?
Well, I was sort of talked into it by someone that manages my concert work. I’m not quite in the Twitter mode yet. I am, but I’m not. What can I say? I have gone so long without it that I forget that I’m on it. It’s dangerous for me because I could make a lot of comments and antagonize a lot of people. My son actually said that I should not have the password. I let my friend know what I wanna say when I wanna say it and she puts it on, but my son said, ‘You don’t want the password, mom. I don’t want you to have the password.’ [Laughs] I’m not sure how I feel about it yet because I have avoided social media for so long, and I do like reading Twitter responses to our idiots in the White House and in Congress. I really love reading how people take down Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Sanders and Trump, and anybody else that opens their stupid mouth. I don’t know, I’m still treading the water here.
Would you ever join Instagram?
I don’t even know what that is. I don’t know what Instagram is. I’m just barely into Twitter.
I saw you tweet about listening to “Old Town Road” a few weeks back, too.
What do you like about that song?
I like the beat. I like the attitude! I think the guy—what’s his name, Lil Nas X? [Laughs] He has a great sense of humor. I just like that song, I like his interpretation. It makes me smile, and I couldn’t stop listening to it. Then I saw the video and I thought, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Turn it on its head. Turn the whole thing on its head.’
This season of Pose opens with Madonna’s “Vogue” exploding onto the scene, making ballroom culture more visible to the mainstream. I’ve heard your comments on Madonna’s acting when you appeared on Watch What Happens Live a couple of years ago, and Madonna herself does not appear on Pose, but I have to wonder what you think about her presence looming over this season?
I think it’s right that they are including her in this because, I don’t know if she actually brought the ballroom scene into focus or whether she simply took from voguing and brought that into the mainstream. I think what the script is doing is pointing at the fact that this is a subculture that she became aware of, and then she brought that into the mainstream; but not the ballroom scene, just the idea of voguing. I think it’s really good that they are including her and talking about what she did, and Blanca saying, “Oh, she’s going to make us mainstream.” I think that’s all correct.
Do you feel that Pose is historically accurate for the most part?
I do. I mean, as far as I know. As far as I know, yeah I do.
It appears that they are making a concerted effort to include historical events that really did happen, like the ACT UP protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Yeah. It’s amazing how far we have come. I mean, it’s like one step forward, ten steps backward in this particular administration. But I said to a friend of mine, most of whose friends died of AIDS—and he was in the hospitals in Los Angeles for all of his friends before they knew how it was transmitted, and they were leaving food outside of the doors when these people were incapacitated and couldn’t walk or get their food. Jeffrey would pick it up and bring it in. It was an outrageous environment. But I said, ‘Jeffrey, do you believe that there is an advertisement on TV for a pill for HIV?’ It was so taboo. I mean, if you had AIDS, you were ostracized. And now it’s in between a Bayer aspirin and at some sporting events there’re commercials for HIV medication. I don’t know how I feel about it. I mean, it’s a good thing that there is a pill, but it took so long. It took, what, 30 years?
How timely do you think it is, then, that Pose be on air right now?
With what Trump is trying to do to LGBTQ rights, I mean, how they are completely being threatened, the timing could not be more perfect for this show.
It’s the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, and of Pride being an event to celebrate in New York. Is there anything on your radar for Pride Month that you plan to participate in?
No, there’s nothing on my radar right now because I’m not in the city. I’m down in South Carolina. Well, I can hang a Pride flag down here, that would shock a few people. [Laughs] That’s what I should do! Where am I gonna find a Pride flag in South Carolina? I gotta find one and string it up the flagpole. That’s a really good idea. But I’m only down here for a short period of time. I’m working, and when you work, you work. There’s little time for entertaining or entertainment, but they have a 100 percent supporter in me, the entire community.
Well, if you find your Pride flag, you can ask your son for the password to your Twitter account so that you can tweet about it.
[Laughs] Now I want to go in search of one. They might have it in Charleston, and then they might not. Can’t forget where I am.