‘Pose’ Star Billy Porter on the ‘Huge Connection’ Between Coronavirus and AIDS

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “We’re going to destroy ourselves if we don’t change some stuff,” the actor and activist says

This story about Billy Porter and “Pose” first appeared in the “Race Begins” issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine. It is one in a series of conversations about the effect of the coronavirus on the television industry.

The second season of “Pose” begins on the day in 1990 when Madonna released the song “Vogue,” an anthem celebrating the underground ballroom scene that the series depicts. But instead of opening on a celebration, the first episode starts on a New York island of unmarked graves filled with victims of the AIDS crisis — a sobering beginning that meets the approval of Billy Porter, the Emmy-, Grammy- and Tony-winning actor and singer who plays ballroom emcee Pray Tell in the series.

How are you holding up these days?
I’m good. My husband and I are out on Long Island, sheltering in place. We were eight days into Episode 1 of Season 3 (of “Pose”) when we got shut down. Like everybody, we don’t know when it’s going to come back. We’re all just trying to be present and move forward.

“Pose” is really a show about finding community and about connection, not isolation. Do you think shows like that are important in times like these?
I do feel like shows like that are important. I also feel like the arts in general is the most important thing in times like this. It’s the first thing that the government wants to cut, but here we are, and what is everybody doing? Trying to find something to be entertained by.

Has being stuck at home changed the way you consume the arts?
Not really. I’m doing it more because I have more time, but I’m always trying to refill my well. So this has been a great time for that. I’ve been waking up every morning with the birds at 5 a.m., writing until 10. I’m working on a memoir and a musical and a children’s picture book and a pilot for a series that I’m developing. I’ve been a freelance person my whole life, so filling my schedule on my own is not that new for me. The terror over the top of that — that’s not new, either, because I lived through the AIDS crisis. I wasn’t expecting to have to go through that feeling again, but here we are.

Do you see a connection between now and the AIDS era that we see in “Pose?”
Yeah, there’s a huge connection. There’s a plague that has infested the land, and our leaders are not equipped to deal with it. They’re either not equipped or they don’t want to, and that’s what it felt like during the AIDS crisis. You know, (President Ronald) Reagan wouldn’t even say the word AIDS for four years. The good news about this (crisis) is that it took about four weeks and everybody had to be engaged in some way. It wasn’t just one group of people that the world tends to revile. It hits everybody now.

You released a new recording in April, a version of the cautionary old Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth.” That’s a song that can apply to a lot of things, but it’s clearly deliberate that you released it when you did.
I’m the first generation of the post-civil-rights era and then I also lived through the AIDS crisis. So activism is in my DNA. And I grew up with a thing called protest music, artists using their platforms to speak truth to power without fear of retaliation. I wanted to bring that back, and I knew that this election year is very important. I wanted to make sure that I was using my newfound platform, exposure, fame, whatever you want to call it, for good. Folks want to hear from me right now, so this is what I have to say.

There’s an extraordinary scene in the middle of the season where your character, Pray Tell, is in the hospital dying of AIDS, and he quite literally chooses life. It goes into a series of hallucinations and then peaks with a performance of “The Man Who Got Away.”
The combination of the depth that I’m required to go as an actor, and also illuminating the joy that comes through my music, it’s so parallel to my life. I got that script and I just wept; I couldn’t even believe it. That’s one of my favorite songs! You got me singing a Judy Garland song! Can’t get no better than that.

But if you’re going to sing a Judy Garland song, you’d better sing it good.
You better sing it good! (Laughs)

Are you thinking about getting back to work now?
I’m working every day, like I said. The only thing that keeps me sane is to continue to throw myself into my art. I’ve also had an opportunity to hang out with my husband, who I haven’t seen in two years. I’m learning about balance. You know, I personally needed to slow down, to stop and take stock.

This is a global reset. I hope that people feel that and understand the power of what that can be, the transition that we’re in as human beings. We’re going to destroy ourselves if we don’t change some stuff. I hope that that’s what we’re learning as a collective.

To read more of the “Race Begins” issue, click here.

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