Rainbow Crew is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the best LGBTQ+ representation on screen. Each instalment showcases talent working on both sides of the camera, including queer creatives and allies to the community.
Next up, we're speaking to Pose co-creator Steven Canals.
"You're never going to get this made. It's never going to happen."
After 166 meetings with various TV executives, Steven Canals was tired of hearing words to this effect.
"I would say about 50% were giving me some version of: 'It's going to be really hard. It's very Black, it's very brown, it's queer, it's trans, it's a period piece.' But then there was a smaller group that was very direct, saying, 'No one's ever going to give you the money or trust you need to get this to the finish line.'"
Thankfully, Steven proved these executives wrong, and by doing so, he ended up creating one of the most important shows ever made. Because Pose is more than just a TV show. Just like the ballroom scene created a safe space for queer people in 1980s NYC, Pose represents a different kind of safe space for LGBTQ+ viewers today.
Through revolutionary casting and authentic storytelling, Pose teaches us about the joy of being queer while also inspiring us to continue thriving in the face of adversity. "You have to shine so bright out there that they can't deny you," says Blanca, and Pose does exactly that. No one can deny this story.
Can you start by talking through your first pitch meeting with Ryan Murphy?
I was tired because it had been two-and-a-half years of going in and out of offices, pitching the story, and talking about it. So by the time I got to the meeting with Ryan, I was equal parts exhausted, and, at the same time, there was kind of an interesting "I don't feel like I have anything to lose" attitude and energy.
But the minute that we sat down and we started talking, I realised immediately, "Oh, he's the right person for this." And so by the end of that meeting, he was like, "OK, we're going to make that together." I don't think I'll ever have another experience like that in this business.
Ryan Murphy is so prolific, and this was already post-American Horror Story, post-Glee. Literally, the day that we met, he was filming the pilot of Feud. So he had left set for 45 minutes just to meet with me. To meet someone as important and, really, by that point already, iconic in this business, who then says, "We're going to work on something together" is mind-blowing.
How much of that original pitch ended up appearing on screen?
I'm a perpetual rewriter. So that pilot, I was always going back in and tinkering and changing. But the core journey was the same, which is that there's a young Black boy, named Damon, who gets kicked out of his house for being gay, he moves to New York, then gets enmeshed in the ball scene, and gets caught in a war between two house mothers.
But in that original draft, Damon becomes a sex worker. So he's out in the Piers surviving, and he has a pimp. That pimp gets murdered in the pilot. And so the core narrative of the first season was much darker than what the show became. By the end of the pilot, you know who's responsible for the murder. But it sort of becomes a cat-and-mouse narrative where you're like, "Oh, no, are they going to get caught? Are they going to get arrested for this murder?"
When I met with Ryan, we started reworking it. Not a lot of people know this, but he had the rights to Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston's documentary. So when I met with him, he was like, "I think we should try a version on the page where it's an adaptation of the documentary." So people from the documentary, like Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija and Venus Xtravaganza were going to be real characters in the show.
And then in the midst of working on it, we thought, "Something felt a little off." From my perspective, the challenge of that version was that we were rooting the story in real people. And so there wasn't as much freedom in terms of the narrative. What were the lives of these very real people?
So it was too much. And at that point, Ryan was like, "Let's just go back to your original draft." We started rewriting it, and it was still dark. And then I got a note from Ryan that changed everything. He just said, "You have a real joy about being a queer person of colour. I want to feel that joy. That happiness, that love that you have for your identity and your community… It needs to be on the page."
And that changed everything. That's where the whole entire show shifted, and it became what it is now, which is just rooted in love and family. Truth be told, I think we wrote four or five different versions of the Pose pilot before the one that you see that we filmed.
The show has evolved a lot since those early days. Season one included a big Wall Street storyline with Evan Peters, but by season two, that was taken out completely. Can you talk me through the creative decisions behind that shift?
It's a couple of things. I think one is, with any television show, it's always finding its way. Very rarely, even with classic television, are those first couple of episodes exactly what the show becomes. In most shows, you see a shift. Once you start writing and filming the show, and especially once it starts airing, you see what works and what doesn't work. So you make adjustments.
When I pitched Pose originally, the show was always supposed to be grounded in everything that was happening socio-politically in New York, in the 1980s. So that's why, for example, the James Van Der Beek character is working for Donald Trump in the first season.
When we were writing the version of the story where we had the real people from Paris Is Burning, Donald Trump was also a real character in the show. But once he was running for President and then he got elected, we were like, "He doesn't need any more attention." So we took that out, and we adjusted the Donald Trump character into the character that James Van Der Beek plays, where he just became like a Wall Street dude.
But there was so much happening in New York City at that time. You had all the queer and trans people. You had Black and brown people who were struggling to survive. And then over in Wall Street, you had all the white people who were doing well and were making massive amounts of wealth in the middle of Ronald Reagan's presidency. There was such a huge disparity in terms of experience.
Originally, the show was going to highlight that. That was the thing I wanted to lean all the way into. And then what we found as the season went on is that the real beating heart of the show is Blanca and her relationship to her kids.
It was all about the House of Evangelista, and how they're surviving. And that's the thing that the audience seemed to be super invested in. So it just made sense to us that, moving forward, that is where all the attention should go.
Which isn't to say that we didn't do really great narrative things that first season, because I actually really love the Angel/Stan storyline. That's a very real experience that I've heard from a lot of trans women about, that they'll date these men, and they're kept in a corner, or the men are not proud of them. So that storyline was really important.
Season three jumps forward to 1994. Can you talk us through the decision behind that leap and how this sets the new episodes apart from what's come before?
I think what's exciting about the jumps for us has always been that you get to see the evolution of the characters. That's not to say that we couldn't do a direct pickup and you wouldn't see it. But I think more often than not in television, you tend to see this massive change in a character, from one season to the next. And in reality, it's only been like two months. How did they change that much in two months? Jumping two to four years ahead allows us to then really show the way that these characters have evolved.
The other thing is that New York City, where I was born and raised, is also, in many ways, an unspoken character on the show. So a lot of what was happening in New York at the time, and a lot of what was happening for the LGBTQ+ community, is also critically important in the story that we're telling.
This season, we spend a lot of time focused on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the way that it's impacting the greater community. 1994 was the height of the HIV epidemic, especially in New York, which was really ground zero for it. So it was really important for us to contextualise and ground the story in that time period.
The other thing is that when we pick up this third season, Blanca's now working as a nurse's aide on the HIV ward. So she's working beside Nurse Judy, and she also has a new lover, Christopher, who's a doctor that also works on the AIDS ward as well.
We wanted to evolve Blanca's story of being the caretaker, of being the nurturer, of being the mum. So we thought a lot about: "What's the evolution of that? How do we take all of that to the next level with her?"
For us, it felt like, "Oh, with all of her skills, it makes so much sense that she would want to work in a hospital where her caretaking ability will be at its best use." And her being an HIV positive woman – it just made sense for us to place her there.
You've spoken before about deciding to end Pose and why now felt like the right time to finish this story. Does the ending you've come up with align with what you originally planned?
The moment that Ryan and I started working on the revamped version of Pose, we both immediately knew what the end was. So we were like, "[snaps fingers] That's the ending." We left it open in terms of when we would get to that ending, but we always knew, "OK, that's point B, and that's where we're moving towards."
Ryan and I, we were very thoughtful about it. We certainly could have done a fourth or fifth season if we really wanted to. But the thing is that the audience will suss out filler, right? They're going to know if there's intention behind narrative. I think that the previous two seasons had such a clear arc and such a clear thread.
It was heartbreaking to make that decision, to say, "Fine, I think we're done." I know that the audience probably won't agree with this, but it really was done thinking about the audience. Let's go when we're still on top. Let's go when people are still excited about us and love us.
I think my fear was if we created more narrative, we might lose viewers in that season about who knows what. And then this story that is really important just gets overlooked.
What do you hope people take away from Pose's legacy once it ends?
I would hope that anyone who watches the show would feel moved to be more supportive – more actively and vocally supportive – of queer and trans people.
We're still living in a world where there's a lot of homophobia. There's still a lot of transphobia. People don't understand or have a lot of misinformation around what it means to be bisexual. Folks completely ignore someone who is gender non-binary or gender non-conforming.
The reality is that we all are deserving of love and respect. We all deserve to occupy space unapologetically, just like our straight or cisgender counterparts. And so, if nothing else, I would hope that anybody watching the show would see, "Oh, we're all so much more alike than we are different. We're really not that different. We all want the same things."
Blanca Evangelista happens to be a trans woman, but she's still a mother. She still just wants to protect her kids. She's still trying to not just survive but thrive. Those are things that I feel like anybody coming in can relate to. So that – I hope – is an incredible and important part of the show's legacy.
Beyond that, I would hope globally that the film and TV industries will stop looking at our stories as being a risk. We're still in a place right now where LGBTQ+ programming is looked at as niche. It's like, "Ugh, who wants to tell that story? Who's going to watch it?" And the reality is, "No, our stuff is really good. Our stories are great. And our stories are important."
Outside of being entertaining, Pose was important to me because, as a queer person, our history is not taught in schools. We have to go and seek our history out. It's not part of a curriculum. If we're not the ones at the forefront telling our own stories, then those stories just get lost. They get completely erased. And they get overlooked.
I think for me, that was so important when it came to telling the story, because when we think about specifically HIV/AIDS in America, immediately you think about all the white gay men who are being impacted. And so you erase all the Black and brown people. You erase the poor people. You erase the trans people. And it's like, "No, there were a whole other group of people who were also being impacted as well. And those stories are important too."
Look at It's a Sin by Russell Davies. That's another beautiful piece which tells another version of the HIV/AIDS narrative. There was a movie a few years ago, Beats Per Minute, which is another version. New York City and white gay men were not the only people being impacted by HIV/AIDS.
I think there are all these narratives, all across the world. To me, that's the beauty of this show. We're highlighting one of those experiences, and I hope that it inspires other storytellers to say, "Yeah, we may have seen a version of that story before, but there are other versions to tell."
Pose season three starts airing with two episodes on FX Sunday May 2nd, and then subsequent episodes will air weekly. A UK air date has not yet been confirmed.
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