Billy Porter on Pray Tell’s ‘Pose’ Fate and Living Through the Trauma of the AIDS Crisis

·6 min read

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the series finale of “Pose.”

On FX’s “Pose,” Billy Porter’s character Pray Tell was a beacon of light and love for his friends and chosen family within the ballroom community. The role also helped the actor break historic ground: When Porter won the lead drama actor Emmy in 2019, for the first season of the period piece, he became only the fifth Black actor and the first openly gay actor to take that trophy.

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But unfortunately all good things must come to an end, and “Pose” signed off with a shortened third season that Pray Tell didn’t survive.

The ballroom emcee and father figure had quite the journey in the final season, returning to his hometown to make peace with his family and revisit his first love, restarting things with Ricky (Dyllón Burnside) and getting into a clinical trial for new AIDS drugs. But when Ricky revealed his own health was deteriorating, Pray Tell pretended he had extra meds but really just gave Ricky his. This sacrifice resulted in Pray Tell’s death.

“I knew in Season 1 that ultimately Pray Tell wasn’t going to make it and Blanca would. They had a real understanding about where they wanted the show to go early on, so I knew that ultimately whenever, however long the series went, at the end I would not be making it,” Porter tells Variety on the latest episode of the “Awards Circuit” podcast. Listen below!

Knowing his character’s fate so early on may have given Porter time to process how he would shoot Pray Tell’s final moments, but he didn’t want — nor need — to dwell on many of the particulars.

“It’s hard to talk about process when in fact the process for me has been living it,” says the actor, who revealed his own HIV-positive status last month. “I’m 51-years-old, I lived through the AIDS crisis. I was there. The trauma is real, the grief is real. I think what ‘Pose’ has done is bring to light the unprocessed grief and trauma of an entire generation of people… There’s a lot of guilt — survivor’s guilt — that does nobody good, that must be addressed. And ‘Pose’ just really made me have to look at all of it and really ask myself, ‘Do you want to heal and tell a different story or do you want to be in the same quagmire of shame for the rest of your life?'”

The series finale of “Pose” touched on the survivor’s guilt that Pray Tell’s friends, including Ricky and Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) were experiencing, often channeling it into further activism (such as spreading the ashes and leaving the bodies of loved ones lost to AIDS on the mayor’s lawn), as well as into honoring Pray Tell himself (Blanca finished his AIDS quilt square).

Working on the show has been personally “healing,” Porter says. Although that is something he has been working on since he was in his 20s — he has been in therapy since then, he shares, and more recently he began the targeted therapy of trauma therapy. “There are exercises to engage in; there’s a system that is in place — a beautifully crafted way to help get to the other side of trauma,” he explains.

He notes it’s not easy or fast, which can be tough for the man who has “a little bit of perfectionism syndrome.” But facing the fact that he is “a human being and I’m allowed to be a human being and it’s OK to not be OK” has been an important part of his journey.

“It’s OK to not feel good and not be perfect,” he says. “It’s OK to be exactly where you are.”

Porter says he hopes the show can be healing for viewers as well. “My goal, my hope, and my prayer is that our show can be a catalyst for real change from the inside out,” he says. “We the people are the only ones that could change the world, and we have to show up for each other.”

Shooting the final season of “Pose” in New York City amid COVID-19 created parallels to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s that the show depicts. Porter calls the show’s creative team “smart” for acknowledging those parallels this season “because I think what the people need the most inspiration — what the people need the most is to be reminded that it’s only through the collective energy of coming together and leading with love that any of this goes away.

“We have to acknowledge what is; we have to be able to name the thing, whatever the thing is, so that we can heal the thing,” he continues. “America don’t like that part. America likes to act like things didn’t happen. And so then we’re stuck. We’re stuck in the same shit that we’ve been in, and none of it is going to change until there’s a collective acknowledgement that the thing is the thing. I’m still turning on the news and seeing white people tell Black people that there is no systemic racism in America. It’s like, ‘How can you feel the thing until you recognize that there is a thing?'”

Also in this episode: Time has moved on in Season 2 of the FX comedy “Breeders,” the show that explores the parental paradox that you’d happily die for your children, but quite often also want to kill them. Luke (Alex Eastwood) is now 13 years old and Ava (Eve Prenelle) is 10, serving up brand new parenting challenges for Paul (Martin Freeman) and Ally (Daisy Haggard).

Variety’s Michael Schneider recently spoke with Freeman and Haggard about the changes in Season 2, and what it’s like to now be playing the parents of older kids – and the dynamic that comes with it.

And on the Variety Awards Circuit roundtable, we discuss the increasingly unpredictable limited and anthology series race.

Variety’s Emmy edition of the “Awards Circuit” podcast is hosted by Michael Schneider, Jazz Tangcay and Danielle Turchiano and is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in television. Each week during Emmy season, “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.

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