Pose exists in a category of its own. Ryan Murphy’s FX series is unique, historic (for its subject matter and for the fact that it cast the largest number of trans actors in one show), and political. It’s also really entertaining, and much of the charms of this flashy and lifelike chronicle of New York’s ball-culture scene in the 1980s and ’90s comes from the breakout performers, among them Ryan Jamaal Swain.
On Pose, Swain plays Damon, a naive gay man who flees to New York City after his parents discover his sexuality and ban him from their family home. In the first season, Damon often serves as a stand-in for the audience; he has a lot to learn about the ballroom scene, even if voguing pretty much comes naturally to him. Soon he is welcomed into the House of Evangelista, and later makes it into a prestigious dance program (after an especially moving audition set to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”). He gets his first boyfriend, Ricky (Dyllón Burnside), and deals firsthand with the terrors of the AIDS crisis, which began about six years before the first season takes place. Though Damon’s story may be specific to the characters coming of age in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there are universal themes that the audience, and the actor who plays him, can relate to. And in season two, Damon has matured, but he still makes mistakes, still has a lot to learn, and still must figure out how to strike a balance between family, work, and school.
Both Swain and his Pose character are dancers and dreamers, but the actor admits that he finds himself connecting to Damon in more ways than one. “I oftentimes go through bouts of self-loathing and being very self-conscious and anxious in regard to just, like, my place in this world,” he says. “Although all of these great and exciting things are happening, there is a type of imposter syndrome that can creep up on me or any type of artist who’s trying to deal with success of this magnitude happening so quickly. For me, I think that’s where Damon and I see each other. I think that’s where the DNAs cross. On top of being a dreamer, there’s also having the courage to create. Having the courage to go forth and live and show up for your life.”
The 25-year-old Swain grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, then graduated from Howard University and almost immediately landed his first screen role, in Pose. “I read the script and saw myself in it and was scared and nervous to be a part of it because I’d never seen anything like this. Knowing that and feeling that, and just being like, I want to be a part of that because it provides agency and vocabulary for my family to really understand some people they have never met before, and some people they have met before,” he says. “Like Damon, I had to deal with some of those situations as well. It’s art mirroring reality, myself being a vessel for an experience that is so close to mine, and then also providing healing for everyone. It has made me über-political.”
Swain comes from a family of activists, so there’s always been the expectation that he would do something with his life that impacted the culture. “A lot of my family were Freedom Riders. They did the bus boycotts with Martin Luther King Jr. and so many of the Southern Leadership Conference people like MLK, Malcolm X, and Ralph Abernathy. It’s always been in my bloodstream,” he says. “I’ve always been an artist on the front lines of social change and making sure that I’m providing a voice for the voiceless, and as a marginalized person or as an ostracized minority, my space already is political. My being, my body is already political, since we stepped foot on this soil in 1670 whatever it was. You know? Since my ancestors were brought over here, I’ve been political.”
One of the central plots of the second season of Pose is the co-opting of a subculture, with Madonna’s 1990 hit “Vogue” bringing the drag ballroom scene into the mainstream. Some characters, like the house mother Blanca Evangelista (Mj Rodriguez), are hopeful. She sees the arrival of voguing and ball culture on MTV as a positive thing. Others, like the ball MC Pray Tell (Billy Porter), are more cynical. He views it as a flattening of a vibrant culture and dangerous to its survival. The tension between the mother and father figures in Damon’s life is a theme throughout season two. “You get to see these characters take ownership—ownership of their bodies, ownership of their dreams,” Swain says. “We have an ambitious spirit, but maybe our body or the world isn’t ready for that. It’s going to be good to see how that materializes itself on the bodies of the characters this season.”
And then there is the issue of Donald Trump. Long before he became president, and even before he was a reality-television personality, Trump haunts Pose like a specter. On Pose, we never see him as a character, and we probably never will, but his name and presence can be felt. Some characters, like those played by Evan Peters and James Van Der Beek, work in Trump Tower. The latter, as a coked-out businessman named Matt Bromley, speaks of Trump with fear and reverence. As an unseen character, Trump is understood as a foil to the real people living in New York, like the ones played by Swain, Rodriguez, and Indya Moore; and Pose, a show that hammers home the importance of authenticity and choosing to live in the world’s den of fear, would be remiss to leave out someone who was, after all, a defining figure of late-20th-century New York City.
The irony of having Trump as a character on a show set in 1990 when he’s such a terror now is not lost on Swain. “Just knowing that Pose exists in this climate, in this time period, in this Trump Era…,” he says. “I’m from Alabama, and I’ve never seen Alabama so much in the news before this abortion ban. I was kind of freaked out when I got all of these notifications. Like, Why is Alabama in the New York Times? Why is it here? Why is it there? Then I saw, and I was mortified. Because now we have people trying to shut down women’s bodies, shut down trans military soldiers. We have these things that are trying to separate us in our social caste system that has been implemented in this country for so long.
“What Pose does so beautifully is it allows people to create and to live in the presence of fear,” he continues, “having the courage to create, having the courage to say and be who they are and truly choose their happiness and their truth over their safety, which is an unfortunate thing to have to think about, especially in 2019, right? Like, you don’t want to ever have to think that you are not safe or your body is not safe in America, yet that’s what we have to deal with.”
With the recent release of the first season on Netflix, Pose’s audience will only continue to grow. Real-life tragedies, like the death of Nigel Shelby, a young queer boy from Alabama who was bullied and died from suicide at the age of 14, have inspired Swain, who identifies as queer, to use his platform to speak out. “I saw all of my black and brown gay and bi and LGBTQ activists showing up, but I saw a lull and a quietness with all of my allies of this particular movement, and that kind of struck a chord with me,” he says.
In the first season, there is a scene in which Blanca, a transgender Latina woman, is denied access from a predominantly white bar in the West Village. Swain wanted to bring the conversation outside of the world of the show and into present day by starting a dialogue on Instagram about the privileges afforded to white gay men. “I had an Instagram post where I talked about gay white privilege, and there was an uproar of people very upset around that term,” he says. “It opened up this big dialogue in terms of how we marginalize ourselves, and not only in the LGBTQ communities but also in black communities. Black trans women are the most vulnerable and the lowest on the totem pole when it comes to safety and agency and people providing any type of protection around their bodies. I think what people were misunderstanding about the post was that in no way shape or form am I saying that as a gay person or person of a marginalized experience you don’t know what trauma feels like. What I’m saying is that no matter how you decide to show up in the world, no matter how your sexuality shows up on you, there’s still [an issue] of race in this country.”
One of Pose’s strengths is how it manages to be equal parts education and entertainment. At its core, it’s an emotional family drama, and Swain has experienced the social benefits of working on a project that feels so personal and universal to so many. “I have people coming up to me saying, ‘My grandmother understands me now because of your character,’ or, ‘I sat down with my parents and watched Pose, and we had a conversation after,’ or, ‘You’re making me wanna own up to who I am and love who I am,’” Swain notes. “Those things, when you hear that on a constant basis, it kind of takes away the fact that you’ve been on set for an extended amount of time and you’re exhausted and tired and have all these things going on.”
When things get heavy on set, self-care becomes a priority for Swain and his castmates. “It’s a lot of meditation, a lot of incense burning. I walk down the hallway with our dressing rooms and I smell incense, frankincense—it’s crystalled out,” he says with a laugh. “People are praying, chanting on their off time, because there is such an emotional toll that the job puts on you, because you are reflecting what is happening in the times and what is happening in the present culture. It’s not just people being activists for show, or to get a few coins, or to say they’re ‘woke.’ People are really caring about it because it affects them on a personal level.
“I didn’t have a Damon, I didn’t have a Blanca, I didn’t have a Pray Tell, I didn’t have any of those people growing up. I never saw myself, my brown self, represented onscreen in such a way,” he continues. “Entertainment is our next form of education. How do we build from that?”