Pose's Billy Porter tells us how he found strength in tonight's gut-wrenching episode

Note: This interview discusses the plot of the Pose episode “The Fever.”

In its first season, Pose has offered a loving look at the lives of people all too rarely seen on TV. The drama has created a safe space for trans people of color while calling out the transphobia and racism that exist in the queer community. We’ve witnessed narrow victories and defeats on and off the runway, as well as heartbreak and first love, all set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis. But creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals have spent much of the first half of the season focusing on queer people’s joy.

But tonight’s episode, “The Fever,” which was written by Janet Mock and directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton, wraps with one of the most devastating moments of the season. Pray Tell, the impossibly witty emcee whose reads have reduced some queens to tears, is diagnosed with HIV at a time when such news was seen as a death sentence, due in part to the Reagan administration’s utter indifference.

The iconic Billy Porter, who won a Tony for playing Lola in Kinky Boots, plays Pray Tell with a mix of loving playfulness and almost unnerving directness (pray you’re never the subject of one of his barbs). The A.V. Club spoke with Porter about those heartbreaking closing moments, as well as refusing to wait for the doors to greater representation to be opened for him.

The A.V. Club: Pose is full of wonderful characters, but Pray Tell might be the breakout—he’s certainly the most quotable. What goes into bringing that character to life?

Billy Porter: Well, the role of Pray Tell is essentially an alter ego of myself. As a black gay man living in America, there has never been a representation of that in the mainstream, I think, that has been drawn in such a three-dimensional way. You know, we’re either… I have experienced it outside of Angels In America and George Wolfe’s The Colored Museum—it’s really rare that you find black gay people, black gay men especially, that aren’t simply just flamboyant. Just over the top. The other side, the human side, is often lost inside of those narratives. I knew going in that would not happen with Ryan Murphy, and I was excited to be the person that gets to represent that.

AVC: You mention your experience as a black gay man—what do you think of how the show addresses racism in the gay community?

BP: I think that it speaks to a larger issue in the context of what we are facing right now, which is: We all need to go inside and self-examine, and realize where our fractures are in terms of how we relate to people, our own internalized racism, or our outward racism or our unconscious racism. I think for a lot of people, it’s unconscious. We all have a little bit of it. There’s a song in the musical Avenue Q, “Everybody’s A Little Bit Racist.” I just heard it on the radio last night. [Laughs.]

You have to be aware of it, so it can’t remain unconscious. You have to be aware of it, so that you can check yourself, and fix it. I’ve definitely experienced racism as a black man, and as a black gay man in our culture. It’s not always overt, but it’s there. And I’m so glad that somebody’s talking about it. You know, we bring it up and we talk about it. And it’s the truth—it’s segregated. It’s even segregated between races. So how are you going to be a minority and then segregate yourself? What sense does that make? How does that make sense?

AVC: How do you view the overall progression of queer representation on TV, given that it wasn’t until 2018 that we saw a show like Pose on a major cable network?

BP: I don’t like to whine. It’s like, it happened when it happened, we’re here. Let’s focus on making it the best that we can make it. As opposed to complaining that this only now is happening. You know? It’s happening, so let’s focus on the good. I like to focus on the good, and the good is: It’s actually happening now. So there we are. Let’s make something of it. You know, it’s a waste of time, ultimately, when we spend our time being mad that it didn’t happen sooner. We can be writing good scripts, we can be creating new, different material—more material so that we can continue the process of moving this narrative and moving these stories forward. Getting more of them out there.

AVC: Like Blanca’s House Of Evangelista, the show feels like a refuge for queer people, trans people—really, anyone who was vulnerable then and is vulnerable now. And Pray Tell is a huge part of that. He mentored Blanca, and we also see him taking Damon and Ricky under his wing.

BP: Yeah, yeah, it really does. I feel like we who have been in the community have suffered great losses in terms of the AIDS crisis, sort of wiping out an entire generation. Inequality. Government and religious sanctions. Homophobia. Rejection from families in the name of Jesus. Banishment from our communities. And so we’ve had to create our own. In the creation of our own, people have had to step up as you’ve seen on the show. Blanca, who’s barely an adult herself, has had to step up and start taking care of people way before her time. And my character represents the generation ahead of her, who did that before her. So she looks to me for guidance and I’m there and present for all of those, all of the ones who need help and support. Because I’ve been through it already.

AVC: Now the fourth episode, “The Fever,” kind of shatters that sense of security. After spending most of the hour worrying about Damon, Pray Tell is diagnosed with HIV. It’s such a devastating moment, and your character races through all these emotions. What was it like, in that scene, to have to pull yourself together and put on this brave face for the boys?

BP: It was very personal to me. I lived through that era. I’m 47, so I was there. You know, bringing back all those memories is difficult, but it’s necessary. You know, I felt empowered. I felt like I’m giving back something that had been missing. I think that phrase of those that don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it is exactly what is happening.

I sat and watched The Normal Heart a few years ago with a gentleman who was 23 or 24 years old. Ryan Murphy, who directed it, he created this motif, that kept coming back to where the men would be carrying their boyfriends in their arms. Their limp, dying, lifeless boyfriends in their arms, running down the street trying to find a hospital that would take them or trying to find someone that would help them. This gentleman turned to me and was like, “Isn’t that over the top?” And I just though, “Wow.” It’s actually not. It’s not. People were dropping dead in the streets. In the street. In the middle of broad day… the fact that this younger generation doesn’t realize what “the plague” means. They don’t, they don’t know. And we have to keep teaching. It’s hard, but it’s so empowering to do that.

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