This story about “Pose” and Steven Canals first appeared in the Comedy & Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
The first time TheWrap spoke to Steven Canals, he was starting work on the television series “Pose,” a drama set in the world of the transgender and queer ballroom scene in New York City in the 1980s. Canals had come up with the idea as an education student at New York’s Binghamton University and developed it in UCLA’s screenwriting program. Once Ryan Murphy got the show off the ground and onto FX in 2018, the drama has followed a group of Black and Latino characters through the worst years of the AIDS crisis.
The cast includes Emmy winner Billy Porter as the motormouthed ball emcee Pray Tell and MJ Rodriguez as Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista, who in the first episode builds an upstart “house” in the ball scene, the House of Evangelista.
“Pose” ended this year after three seasons, with Canals — who didn’t direct at all during the first season and was only behind the camera for one episode in Season 2 — taking the reins on three episodes. His work includes the moving feature-length finale, in which Pray Tell continues his battle against AIDS. Shortly before the episode aired, Porter publicly revealed that he has been HIV positive since 2007.
TheWrap: What did it mean to you to direct the last episode of this show that you conceived so many years ago?
Steven Canals: As the originator of the idea of a show that has come to mean so much to so many people, directing the finale was an enormous honor. There were certainly a number of people that we could’ve reached out to, so it was great to get the call from Ryan Murphy saying, “I’ve given it a lot of thought. I think you should be the person to take us home.”
A big question had to be tone: You want to convey some sense of joy and celebration and to affirm this community as a family, but you can’t escape the overpowering sense of loss that comes from living in the LGBT community in those times.
Absolutely. Obviously, the show is doing, in many instances, double, triple, quadruple duty. There are so many boxes that the show checks, so many communities that it centers, so many stories that it tells. And I think leading up to the finale, we were trying to satisfy all of it, so that everyone feels like they’re getting their due.
But I think the core of the finale, what was so important for us to say, is that we have always been our own heroes. We’ve always shown up for one another — and as trans people especially, and as Black and brown people, we’ve always found a way.
That, to me, is at the core of that narrative. Obviously our story is rooted in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which began in the ’80s and reached a fever pitch in the ’90s. And I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that over the course of the past year, we once again are in the midst of a global pandemic that is impacting communities of color at a much higher proportion. Those parallels were not lost on any of us, and it made the story that we had already planned to tell that much more urgent.
Pray Tell’s final scene, in which he’s listening to “I Say a Little Prayer” and taking off his makeup in front of a mirror, is beautiful in the way it’s allowed to play out slowly and quietly. It’s a tour de force for Billy Porter, but also a touching way to end his character’s journey.
That was a really emotional day. Billy is so connected to the character of Pray Tell, and there are so many overlaps to their story. There are so many ways that scene could have played out. I think it was really a combination of great acting and also Billy as a person being really moved by the feeling of seeing himself in the character of Pray Tell. The metaphorical wiping of the makeup is really, in a lot of ways, the wiping off of the character, too — wiping off the shame and wiping off the hurt.
For me, there were two references for that scene. One was Glenn Close wiping off her makeup at the end of “Dangerous Liaisons,” and the other was the music video to Annie Lennox’s “Why.” We visited both of them just before we began filming. I took a private moment to look at those two pieces and then talk about the importance of this moment and what it means for Pray Tell. And then I just let the camera roll. I didn’t move the camera at all because, to me, it felt like such a quiet, intimate moment and it didn’t feel like it needed bells and whistles.
When we first spoke years ago, you talked about how, when you were in education, your job was to enter a campus and assess the landscape and identify the gaps in resources and programs that you could help fill — and that you were taking that same approach to finding the gaps in the TV landscape. Do you think “Pose” accomplished what you were trying to do in that way?
That’s a great question. It’s difficult for me to fully assess if there has been a true shift, because we’re still in it. I’m hopeful that we’re moving in the right direction. People paid attention to “Pose” — not just the audience, but also the industry at large. And hopefully we’ll start to see more changes and more shifts. We definitely are seeing many more trans people on television. I suppose I’m greedy and I want more.
Now that “Pose” is over, where are you going from here?
Right now, I would say I’m in the place that I was in at the start of writing “Pose” at the tail end of 2013. I did an assessment of the television landscape, as we’ve discussed in the past. And I saw television being dominated by straight white cisgendered male antiheroes. I love and appreciate shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” and “House of Cards.” But the reality is, at the time I wasn’t seeing Black and brown people who happen to also be queer and trans populating our airwaves. And so “Pose” was born out of a need.
And now coming out of the “Pose” finale, I’m reassessing the landscape. I’m doing my due diligence and paying attention to what the networks are currently producing and airing, and I’m identifying where the gaps are. I want to see whose stories are not being told, and then allow that to inform the next project.