When Pose began, audiences immediately fell in love with its wonderful cast of unique characters, including House mothers Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Elektra (Dominique Jackson), sex worker Angel (Indya Moore), dancer Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), and emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter). One character who took a little bit of time to grow was Papi, a young man played by Angel Bismark Curiel who was welcomed into Blanca’s House of Evangelista in the first season but remained a recurring character until Season 2.
With the second season Papi became more fleshed out, with his developing romantic relationship with Angel becoming one of the focal storylines of the series. With Pose wrapping up its three-season run recently at this point it’s impossible to imagine the series without Papi. Not only did the relationship between Papi and Angel flourish brighter and brighter, representing one of the most groundbreaking and historic relationships ever put on television, Papi also grew on his own terms, becoming a father this season, truly demonstrating the growth from the lost man we saw way back when the series began.
While the writers certainly did a tremendous job in evolving Papi over the three seasons, their work would have been for nothing if Bismark Curiel didn’t show up with one of the strongest performances we’ve seen in recent years. Papi represents so much of the love and compassion that exists at the heart of Pose, an inspirational figure for everyone when it comes to showing us all what it means to value the people we love and be there for them however you can.
In my recent conversation with the actor it’s clear that playing such a beautiful role had an impact on him on more than just a career level. While the role was a gift for Bismark Curiel as an actor, Papi also helped him understand what it means to be a man, and what it means to love. I was honored to be able to have a lengthy discussion with him that was open and full of meaningful insights into what this role meant for him as a person, and what Pose brought to him and plenty of other people who were able to experience it each week.
Read on for my interview with Angel Bismark Curiel.
Mitchell Beaupre: I want to start by saying congratulations on the final season. I think it’s such a fitting end for the series and particularly for Papi and Angel’s arc. It’s such a beautiful farewell that we get to have with these characters.
Angel Bismark Curiel: I agree, I think there couldn’t have been a better way to wrap up that love story than the way we did it this season. For me, I just hope that people see the importance of this love story, understand that here’s these two folx – one a cisgender Dominican Latinx dude and the other a beautiful trans woman of color – joining forces and loving on each other. I hope that people watch it and many men associate themselves and see themselves reflected with Papi and his journey and him loving this trans woman and being capable of standing in that without shame. He’s so full of pride and love, and it doesn’t matter if the other person is trans or not.
MB: That relationship has been such a vital part of Papi’s journey throughout the series, and I know you and Indya have both spoken about how that bond between the two of you translated off-screen as well. How was the experience of working with Indya, and what did you learn from sharing this with them?
ABC: I want to say that anything that I learned about acting, and in relation to that, I learned with Indya and through Indya. Indya has taught me so much. I can’t even label the kind of performer they are. They are so committed. They go above and beyond for their character. They’re so smart. They’re always, always thinking about whether something fits and makes sense for the character. As opposed to me, when I showed up I was like, “Well, here are my lines.” I got to watch Indya and their process and realize that there’s more that I can pour into this character. Indya was always so willing to be present with me, and I was so happy that I had most of my scenes with them because it taught me how to do the same.
MB: Is there one particular scene or moment throughout the series between Papi and Angel that stands out to you as your favorite?
ABC: A hundred percent, it’ll always be episode six from this season. That wedding scene for me is going to go down as one of the biggest highlights of my professional career. Just to be there and see Papi praise and love this trans woman. This is a love letter to all trans women out there that they are deserving of that kind of love, particularly in a society that says they aren’t worthy of that because we don’t understand them or because we don’t really want to see them for their truth.
MB: You’ve spoken quite a bit about coming into this world and this community as a cisgender man and how much you’ve learned from the experience and everyone involved in it. What did you learn about yourself and the kind of person you hope to be through being a part of this series?
ABC: It taught me what a man Is, and how to show up for your family no matter what. Papi is always there, no matter what’s going on, no matter how tired he is, he always shows up for his mother, Blanca, he always shows up for the love of his life, Angel, for his siblings Ricky, Lulu, Damon. I know that I can bring that same energy into my life and into my own personal relationships. That’s what manhood should look like.
MB: Along with Papi and Angel’s journey this season, the other big life change for him is discovering that he has a son. Through that relationship we see Papi instilling that wisdom he’s gained onto this young boy. He teaches him about how being vulnerable, crying, expressing your emotions in healthy ways, makes you more of a man, not less of one. Are those lessons that you would hope people watching the show will be able to reflect on and really take in?
ABC: Absolutely. I think the biggest thing is not only holding it in, but then being told that the only way to express it is through the form of rage. This is detrimental, harmful, and violent, and you can never expect change or something positive to come out of rage. I think there has to be a level of compassion, love, and understanding for you to be able to grow and evolve and to be able to treasure the things around you. A big part of that is being vulnerable. Vulnerability doesn’t just come in the shape of crying and saying that it’s okay to cry. Being vulnerable is being able to say that I want to get mad right now, but I’m not going to get mad because I know where that leads. I know that feeling is coming from a place of hurting. And here’s why it’s hurting. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing to do, but when you do it that’s the thing that really helps create that change you’re looking for.
MB: Your performance throughout the series is truly remarkable in how effortless it feels, which is so impressive because it means that you are inhabiting that character so well. What were some of the greatest challenges for you in playing Papi?
ABC: The biggest challenge was making sure that I never leaned too far into that anger, but still wanting to give it room to be present because it’s very much a real thing. I even have to navigate that sometimes where something makes me so angry and I can’t understand it, and then I have to breathe and understand that really at the end of the day it dates back to trauma. It dates back to moments in my life where I’ve been really sad or not liked something and not been given the opportunity to be vocal about that. So it’s this constant imprinting of aggression and at some point it just pops. I think it was very important for me to put that into Papi’s character because it’s what makes him human. It’s what makes him like any other man.
Papi is still dealing with this societal pressure that says “This is what a man looks like. This is what being masculine means. Take it or leave it. Or you’re no longer a part of the manhood.” So to speak right to putting that in and watching this character struggle between those two lights and always choosing vulnerability, love and passion, I think is what makes this character hopeful for an entire new generation of men to prosper and say, “There’s always another way I can let go of this anger that’s no longer serving me. That’s no longer useful. That’s keeping me locked up on the inside.” To understand that this path will make me so much more open to what the universe and my loved ones have to offer.
MB: Did being a part of this community on and off-set help you personally with navigating that journey of understanding your emotions and being able to process them in those healthier ways?
ABC: A hundred percent, yeah. When I first signed on to do Pose, I was a recurring character. I wasn’t even supposed to be there for that long. I remember having a safe space with Mj, and being so emotional. We were together and I was crying like, “I don’t want to leave. I want to be a part of this. I want to stay here.” Off the rip she was so embracing and so loving towards me that I was able to understand and see this was a safe space for me to let out my emotions. I saw that I could do that here and no one was going to judge me for it. That it’s okay if people don’t see this happy-go-lucky guy 24/7. Being a part of my Pose family and my Pose community was extremely helpful in being able to show myself.
MB: Papi was introduced as a supporting character and we really do see him become so much more of a focal part of the show in the transition from Season 1 to Season 2. How was that experience for you of coming in and seeing your part this one way and then having it evolve so much over the seasons?
ABC: It was really nerve-wracking. Even in the first season when they gave me the script for episode seven where I was able to show some more work I couldn’t believe that they were willing to give me this kind of material, and to trust me in this capacity. So when I saw the work that I was going to do in Season 2 I was like, “Oh my god, I have to do everything in my power to make sure that I execute this to perfection, or as close to perfection as I can, to show them that I’m grateful.”
Let’s be honest, this show at the end of the day is here to center Black trans women, and so being allowed and given space to show what I can do because they wanted to keep me and wanted to figure out what they could do with me, was such an honor. They saw this character and thought that there could be this beautiful love story. I thank Janet Mock for coming up with this in the room, for saying that there could be this love story between Angel and Papi and we can show some beautiful light on that. I was so honored that anyone thought I could be capable of telling such a story.
MB: Speaking of episode six, the wedding episode, it’s fitting that Janet was the one who wrote and directed the episode, which also featured your and Indya’s last shooting scene on the series in that beach sequence at the end. How was it getting to share those final moments as Papi with Janet and Indya there with you?
ABC: It was beautiful. It was full circle. My heart goes out to Janet time and time again because she always made sure that every single actor had the opportunity to come in and be a creative collaborator. In that same token, she was such a leader that I never, ever felt like I was getting set up for failure. I felt extremely safe when she was on that set. I knew when I saw her that today was going to be a good day, that it was going to run smoothly, and that she was going to bring out the best in me.
MB: How do you feel about where Papi’s journey on the series ends and where we leave him at?
ABC: I can honestly say I could not be happier. This young man came in running episode one of season one, this lost kid, not having a family. He was an orphan running into the House of Evangelista asking “Hey, what do I gotta do? What do I gotta do to join your House?” He loved what he saw and he loved that because he saw a family, a community there where it didn’t matter if they won or lost, they were in it to win it. To see him two seasons after that in his final scene, in episode six of season three, to be with his family at the beach – he got everything he wanted, he got everything he went out looking for.
MB: The ballroom community is such a crucial component of the series from the very beginning. Did you know a lot about ball culture when you came into the show?
ABC: Not at all. I didn’t even know what being trans meant. I was clueless, and I had to be upfront and honest about that. I was completely clueless going into the show, but I got to step foot on that set and learn from all of these people we have who are real fixtures in the ballroom community still, like Jason Rodriguez who I think has been in two houses now. I got to learn and understand that the ballroom community is what makes Pose pop. Without the ballroom community we don’t get to share the celebration and the fun and the joy that we get to share on this show. We get to do that because the ballroom community gave us not only the glitz and the glamour, but it gave us the concept of House, which is why we’re able to tell this story about chosen family and the importance behind that. Without ballroom, there is no Pose.
MB: That idea of chosen family in comparison to biological family is something that comes up for a lot of the characters in the final season. Certainly for Papi, as he makes the choice to become a father for this young boy who he just learned about. How was developing that relationship for you and working with Jace Moses, the actor who plays your son?
ABC: It was amazing. I love Jace, he’s such a talented young man. We still keep in touch. He was one of the highlights of Season 3 for me. He was so willing to give so much of himself and for a seven-year-old he’s lightyears ahead. That scene where I first met him we could be fun and giddy and having our joking around time, and then when it came time to shoot the big, heavy, meaty scenes, he was right there with me. That was a seven-year-old child, Mitchell, locking in with me emotionally. He saw my level of emotion and he immediately knew how to go there. What more could you ask for in a scene partner than someone who is willing to go through that level of work with you, let alone a seven-year-old kid?
MB: That’s so lovely that you and him still keep in touch. It speaks to how bonded everyone involved with this show became, which even just from following you all on social media you can tell how much that love and connection translated off-set. Is that something that you’re going to carry with you as you all move on into these new endeavors and career opportunities?
ABC: I think it’s hard not to. We all got our first really big show or big anything together. Like, we all started off from scratch here with the exception of Billy. Of course Billy, Billy, we understand, we understand your Grammys. We understand your Emmy. We get it. (laughing) For the most part, we started from scratch. There’s a magic in that and understanding that we’re all doing this together. We learned so many things together. I think each and every single one of us knows that any one of us could just pick up the phone and call and we’d be there. There’s a love there. This business gets chaotic, but I think that bond is always going to remain. We’re already talking about finding one day out of the year where every single one of us gets together for a big dinner. That just goes to show that we’re all willing to do the work to stay in connection with each other.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]