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Interview: ‘Pose’ Co-Creator Steven Canals Discusses the Legacy of His Groundbreaking Series

While Pose has officially wrapped up its three-season run, the groundbreaking series has made an impact that won’t ever be reversed. Centering the talents of trans women of color both in front of and behind the screen, this is a series that has taken representation to a new level, and made a point in valuing the specificity of that representation in the way that it told the stories of these characters over 26 beautiful episodes. 

That was by design for co-creator Steven Canals, the man who first drafted the script for Pose in 2014 before being turned down by virtually every network in Hollywood until Ryan Murphy came along and helped bring Canals’ vision to life. During an extensive, hour-long dive into the series, Canals shared with me where it all began before we take a walk through the process of making the final season, and what Pose can continue to be for the people who haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing the stories of Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), Pray Tell (Billy Porter), Elektra (Dominique Jackson), Angel (Indya Moore), Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel), Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), Ricky (Dyllón Burnside), Lulu (Hailie Sahar), and Candy (Angelica Ross). 

For so many in the LGBTQ+ community, including myself, this is a series that fortifies our value and the place we hold in this world, and it was a genuine gift to be able to speak with Canals about the joys, education, and importance of Pose.

Read below for my interview with Steven Canals. 

Mitchell Beaupre: Pose is a series that has meant so much to so many people, and it all started with you having this idea. What was that first seed for you in developing this project? 

Steven Canals: It’s funny that you used the word seed because I always say that the first kernel of this idea came from watching Paris Is Burning for the first time. This was back in 2004 when I was an undergrad student at UCLA and studying film theory. I had this really great professor who introduced me to balls and then introduced me to that film. I vividly remember leaving the screening room after watching Paris Is Burning for the first time and thinking that it would make a really great television show. 

Truth be told, the first kernel for me was the idea of having a young boy named Damon moving to New York City and having a dream of making it as a dancer, which came to mind because I was a little boy and loved Flashdance. That is one of my favorite movies, and it is not a guilty pleasure. So ten years later I was enrolled in a pilot writing class at UCLA while I was working on my MFA in screenwriting. I had to write about something and I had this flash of that idea I once had about a kid moving to New York. I sort of fused my love of Flashdance and Damon’s arc with the ball community and what that represented for Black and brown and trans people in New York. That’s how Pose was born. Suddenly this story of a boy who moved to New York to be a dancer became a story of a young Black boy who moved to New York and gets caught in a war between two House mothers. 

MB: Could you speak a little about how hard you had to push to get networks interested in the show? I had read that it was turned down many times before Ryan Murphy finally came on board and helped to make it happen. 

SC: It was really hard. I had 166 meetings here in LA before meeting Sherry Marsh, who was the first person to say that my script was more than just a sample, that it was a television show. I wrote Pose at the beginning of 2014, and I met Ryan in September of 2016, so it was a little more than two and a half years of going in and out of rooms, talking about the show and pitching myself. So much of what I was hearing was people saying that they don’t know where a “show like this lives”. They didn’t know “who the audience is for a show like this”. 

There was a really narrow understanding of the broad appeal of Pose, but Ryan saw it and understood the vision. He really helped to tease out some of the more universal themes of the show. To be honest, the original draft and concept was much darker. I originally pitched the story with Damon as a survival sex worker. When I met Ryan we took that piece of his arc out and created the character Angel. It’s interesting the ways that Ryan came in and worked to widen the scope of the series and in the process of that he really had me lean all the way into the family and the love and resilience of these characters as opposed to being solely rooted in the strife and bleakness that was New York City in the 1980s. 

MB: At what point in the process was Janet Mock brought on board? She really became another crucial component of the creative team.

SC: From the beginning I had expressed to Ryan the importance of having people at every level of this production, both in front of and behind the camera, who hold the same identities as the characters who we would be portraying on screen. That was critically important. There was never a question that we would have trans people at every level. Ryan and I are both cis men and it was crucial that if we were going to have a small writer’s room that the other positions would be filled with trans women. We were really fortunate, as Our Lady J was just coming off a season of Transparent and Janet Mock was right in the midst of promoting her second memoir, Surpassing Certainty, and they were both so open to the idea of coming into the room.

Having them both was fantastic because it gave us the specificity of not only the voices of the characters but also the experience. So when we were talking about story in the room we could have myself, who could relate to characters like Ricky and Damon, and I could relate emotionally and thematically to characters like Elektra and Blanca, but having Janet and J in the room pushed me on specific experiences that we may want to dramatize in the story. When we told the story in Season 1 of Elektra going through gender confirmation surgery, that’s not an experience I’ve ever had, so having these conversations with the ladies in the room was fantastic in terms of understanding the full scope and breadth of that experience, and then being able to dramatize it on the page. 

MB: Representation has always been a big part of the conversation that comes up around Pose, and something that the series does phenomenally well is focusing on the kind of representation that it has. It’s not just about putting marginalized folx on the screen. Could you speak about the specific way these characters are being represented and how their stories are being told? 

SC: I’m going to take you back, and say that in those 10 years between my graduating from college and making the decision to attend the MFA screenwriting program, I worked as a college administrator and one of the lessons that I learned was that when you step foot on a college campus to assess the landscape and identify where there are gaps in programs and resources and policies. Then you use your knowledge, your privilege, your platform, to fill in those gaps. I bring that into my practice as a storyteller. At the end of 2013 when I was preparing to go into the pilot writing class where I wrote the first draft of Pose, I did an assessment of the television landscape because one of the things I learned in that program was to always locate yourself within the narrative but to also write the show that you want to watch. 

At that time, after doing my assessment, I was able to identify that television was being dominated by white, straight, cis-gendered antiheroes. The big shows at the time were Mad MenBreaking BadHouse of Cards. Just a lot of white dudes running around on television. So, for me, it was like, “Well, where are the people who look like me? Where are the trans people, where are the Black and brown people? Where are the people who hold both of those identities?” Pose was born out of a need from identifying that there was this whole population of people who we just weren’t seeing on television. Their story was just being completely ignored. It felt really important to center those voices. Pose was born not just out of a selfless act, but also one that is completely selfish because the truth is that Pose is a show that I would have wanted to watch, and it just wasn’t being made at that time. 

MB: You created this series and have always been one of the main writers, but it wasn’t until the second season that you directed your first episode. Now in this final season you directed half of the episodes, including the finale. What motivated that decision for you to step further into that role of director? 

SC: The dream for me was always to be a filmmaker. When I was growing up in housing projects in the Bronx I always imagined that I’d be the next great American filmmaker, like Steven Spielberg or Steven Soderbergh. My dad’s a real cinephile and I remember as like an 11 or 12-year-old kid watching sex, lies, and videotape and then like Schindler’s List, which was directed by Spielberg but also written by another Steven, Steven Zaillian. So in my mind I just knew I was already named Steven so Hollywood better get ready for me! 

I sort of fell into being a screenwriter, so getting back behind the camera just felt right. I was so excited to get to be behind the monitor and to work with the actors in a much more intimate way – to hold space with them while they’re going to these really scary and emotional places. When coming into the third season and talking with Ryan Murphy about how important it was going to be for the cast to be supported and feel safe throughout the process of filming we really wanted to bring on directors this season that could allow the actors to feel that security. 

MB: Something that we saw a lot this season was the characters tackling their relationships with their biological families and how those contrasted with their chosen family. Where did that decision come from to focus on this element of the story in the final season? 

SC: It was important for us to tell that story because more often than not when we see representation of LGBTQ+ narratives, it’s always rooted in rejection. It’s always about people coming out and struggling to find community, and that is a large part of the narrative that we’re telling on our show. The reality though is that there are still a lot of individuals who are tethered to their birth family. We didn’t want to completely ignore that. We wanted to remind our audience that it isn’t as simple as coming out or acknowledging your identity and then you’re rejected and never see your family again. Those relationships are really complicated. For some people, as we see with Angel and her father this season, in many ways there’s still that emotional hold. 

MB: Is that dimensionality and full spectrum of experience something that was vital for you throughout every element of your storytelling? 

SC: Absolutely. I think there’s a thing that happens when we talk about marginalized communities, and especially LGBTQ+ communities, where we get really caught up in the alphabet soup of it all. As I articulate it, there are periods in between each of those letters. To identify as L is different than G is different than B is different than T, etc. We need to acknowledge the nuances of what it means to be a part of this community. This community is so often discussed monolithically, but it’s like no, we’re not all the same. We’re all different and we’re all having very different experiences and need to acknowledge the intersecting identities that we all carry. 

I am a cis-gendered Afro, Puerto Rican able-bodied man. My experience holding those identities is going to be different from a trans man. It’s going to be different from an Asian man. It’s going to be different from a white man. It was critically important for us to lean all the way into the specificity of holding these identities, and how those identities impact how we navigate our lives. You compare the backstories we saw of Elektra this season with Blanca in the first season, and how those two stories aren’t entirely different but they both grew up to be completely different women and different mothers. That’s the kind of stuff that’s really interesting for us in the writer’s room to unpack and to write about and talk about. 

MB: The series does cover such a wide range of identities and navigating those different experiences, but there is a specific focus on prioritizing the trans women of color on this show, who are often historically the least prioritized members of the community.

SC: That was always the focus. From the moment that Ryan and I met and decided to work on this series together the focus for me shifted to centering Blanca. In my original draft the character’s name was Coco, and the original series leaned more heavily into the relationship between Damon and that character. In the course of reconceptualizing what the series was going to be I realized that Blanca is really like the beating heart. She is the center because I think for a lot of people mom equals home, whether that is your birth mother or adopted mother, or a chosen mom as is the case in Pose. It was really important for us to center motherhood. Thinking about that, it became crucial to populate the show with as many trans women and trans narratives as possible. 

Something I remember being very vocal about at the beginning of the project, I think even before Janet and J came on, was how exhausted I was by the ways in which our community is represented in film and television. I didn’t want to create a show where we have a character like Blanca at the center and she’s the only person like her, and now she has to carry the burden of representation. I have a really close friend, Sam Feder, who directed a lovely documentary on Netflix called Disclosure, and that’s all about the history of trans representation in film and television. I think that does a really great job of highlighting the ways in which we tend to hold it like one element, one part, one person. Pose was an opportunity to widen that scope of understanding, so in our show we have not one but five trans women of color and because of that we get to show the nuances of what it means to be part of this community. I’m really proud that we made that decision and that we leaned all the way into that. 

I think about a character like Elektra, for example, who at the beginning of the series was very much the antagonist. It would have been really easy, had she been the only Black trans woman on the show, to suddenly walk away from having watched Pose saying that all Black trans women are villains, they’re all evil. Having her energy juxtaposed with Blanca, who was so motherly, lets the audience see that there’s a breadth of experience and understanding within the trans community, just like anywhere else. 

MB: Speaking of Elektra, her storyline this season took her to an interesting place where she comes into wealth thanks to a relationship with the mob. Through that, we see the series examine how much poverty can weigh people down. Coming into wealth like that lifts so much burden off of them, but then of course we also see in a scene like when they’re shopping for the wedding dress that it can’t remove all forms of oppression. Could you talk about that decision to examine class in a more pointed way this season? 

SC: One of the things that I pitched in the room this season was to lean into class. I think that Pose has always addressed class but it’s always been really subtle. This season I wanted to lean all the way into it. We see that in a couple of storylines this season, like Blanca making the decision to apply for nursing school, and Elektra becoming an entrepreneur. We see it in the second episode of the season when Blanca meets Christopher’s parents and she talks about growing up in housing projects and opening up her own nail salon, and Christopher’s mother is just like, “Well, that sounds stimulating”, and is very dismissive of her. It felt important for me to talk about the ways outside of identity politics that we continue to disenfranchise and hold people down. If we’re talking about trans and non-binary individuals in our country, the reality is that we all are still struggling when it comes to quality healthcare, employment opportunities, and housing. I didn’t want us to overlook that element, especially knowing that this was the last season. 

MB: There’s another element that comes up in this season that is partly unintentional, which is how we see how little progress has been made medically in protecting those most vulnerable. The series focuses on the HIV and AIDS crisis in this era, and we’re watching this final season after a year of seeing how the government and medical community once again willfully neglected communities of color during the COVID pandemic, and continue to do so. Was that parallel something that came into your mind while you were making the final season? Seeing how no progress has been made in terms of protecting these at-risk communities. 

SC: That’s a really interesting question because I would say there was a very specific reason why I wanted Pose to take place in the ’80s. A lot of people have assumed that part of it was due to the series being a rip on Paris Is Burning, and other people have their own assumptions on it as well. People kept asking me why the show had to be a period piece instead of being set in the modern day, and the reason that it started in the late ‘80s in the midst of the HIV/AIDS and crack epidemics is that I grew up in the Bronx. I grew up in the South Bronx in the 1980s in housing projects, in the midst of both of these epidemics, both of which dramatically impacted my life. 

For me, the show wasn’t just about creating a television show. It wasn’t just about representation of the community that is important to me. It was also on a very personal level about me working through the trauma of growing up in that environment. It was me trying to resolve for myself how it is that my beloved New York City is always ground zero for all of these major events, these catastrophic moments. It just so happens that in the midst of telling this story that we wind up having a global pandemic that is a literal parallel to the HIV/AIDS crisis. We obviously couldn’t have planned that. 

At the beginning we were just trying to highlight this experience, to show what LGBTQ+ people, particularly LGBTQ+ people of color, had to deal with. I honestly can’t think of any other content that specifically investigated the HIV/AIDS epidemic at its height in the ‘80s and ‘90s, specifically from the perspective of Black and brown people or trans or non-binary folx. So that in itself felt big. The fact that we’re in the midst of COVID-19 just added a whole extra level to it all. 

In the writer’s room during lockdown, working on the back half of the season, it was really difficult for us to be honest and talk about. We had a hard time articulating our feelings around it. I still do. It feels like… how did we never learn the lesson? How the hell are we here again? Once again, similar to HIV/AIDS, Black and brown people and trans people seem to be the most disenfranchised. They’re the ones who don’t have access. Especially at the beginning, once we had access to the vaccine, they were the ones on the margins saying “Hey we need it!” We need it most!”, and everyone once again was just looking the other way. I hope that through the show that folx are taking a beat to step back and really think about the ways that history seems to always repeat itself. 

MB: The series has always worked in elements of real-life events, whether it’s the release of “Vogue” or O.J. Simpson’s chase with the police. In the finale you bring ACT UP back into the picture, and recreate one of their Ashes Actions as a central focus of that final episode. Was that something that was always in mind for you when it came to how the series would end? 

SC: One of the first things that Ryan and I talked about when we first met was about the series ending when the cocktail is released. We started the story with Blanca finding out that she’s HIV positive and making that decision after she visits with Pray Tell to tell him that she tested positive, but that she wasn’t going to allow it to be a death sentence. We knew when we were working on the pilot, specifically on that story and Blanca’s arc, that it was going to be wildly subversive because of the way that AIDS narratives play out on film and television. It’s always a death sentence, especially when it’s set in the ‘80s and ’90s. So we made that decision to have her test positive for HIV and then say that she wants to leave behind a legacy, she wants to start a House and do something with her life. 

We were always barreling towards the end of the series, which was the cocktail being released, which meant that it was no longer the death sentence that it once was. That’s not to say that there aren’t still a lot of complications if you’re someone living with HIV, but ultimately we wanted to show that there is more life to live. This season we really wanted to ensure that we were honoring ACT UP specifically and all of their efforts, and we felt strongly that the finale was a great place for us to go all the way in and say this is what they were up against. This is how all of those individuals who were on the frontlines for us allowed us to be where we are now. 

Obviously we rewrite history a little bit, but I think that seeing Blanca, for example, working in the hospital with Christopher and Judy and fighting to get Pray on that clinical trial, that’s a way to show the kinds of battles that LGBTQ+ individuals had to go through in those days. We really had to be our own advocates. That’s the thing, most importantly, that we wanted to leave our audience with. There’s lot of takeaways when you watch the finale. One of them is obviously that to be a trans or non-binary person in this world is one of still having family and love, and that we’re worthy of that. That’s an important takeaway, but I also think when it comes specifically to the narrative that we tell around Blanca fighting for the community to have access to quality healthcare that the story is really rooted in reminding our audience that we come from a long history of people who fought for us to be in the place that we are right now. So don’t let anyone dim your shine. Always walk in your truth. 

MB: Part of that idea of honoring that legacy is showing how much ball culture has meant for the community. It’s always been a focus of the series, of course, but in this season especially I noticed characters speaking about how much balls are there as a celebration, this thing where you could go into the room and feel safe and find that joy that’s removed from the pain outside of those walls.

SC: Absolutely. Ooh, I hadn’t even thought about this until you just asked this question. It’s really interesting, I think that obviously ballroom is the place where these characters can live out their truths, and their greatest hopes and dreams. We established that in the pilot very clearly when Blanca is introducing Damon to the balls and explaining to him that you can be whoever you want to be here. I think this third season, I’m sure audiences will sort of wonder why we started to lean out of balls. It’s not a ball heavy season. The truth is that part of that is due to restrictions from COVID-19, but the other part that I hadn’t thought about until you asked this is that this season we see all of our characters finally living out all of the truths that they used to work through on a ballroom floor. 

Blanca doesn’t have to walk a category where she’s pretending to be a doctor. She’s now working as a nurse at a hospital. There’s that scene in the finale when the ladies are having their Sex and the City luncheon and they’re talking about not having to walk a category and pretend to be anything anymore. They actually are that thing, and they are living proof that it is possible. I think that’s so important for our audience to know, to not just wrestle with it, but to sit in the truth of it. For those of us who are in the community, particularly those who identify as trans and non-binary, for so long we have been told that we don’t have value and that we’re not allowed to have dreams like our straight or cisgender counterparts. Here we are saying that’s actually not the truth. We’re perfectly fine. We are worthy and valid as we are. 

MB: I’d love to ask you specifically about the scene in the finale with Blanca and Pray doing Candy’s Sweet Refrain. That scene genuinely brought me to tears from the pure joy of watching the two of them performing that. What was the experience like of putting that scene together? 

SC: Well, thank you. That was a great one. We have this video footage of me at the monitor watching that scene happen the very first time that we shot it and I love it because you see my genuine, honest reaction to it happening. I go from being super nervous to jumping up and down. That was such a special moment, not just to film it, but also just the idea of it. I think it was Ryan who came in and said that he wanted there to be a special moment in this episode between Blanca and Pray. Obviously they’ve always had special moments in previous seasons, where they’re singing together, and Ryan wanted it to be like a duet but something bigger. So we thought about what would be the bigger version of that. 

While we love Mj’s voice, the audience had seen them sing together before, and someone in the room pitched them doing Candy’s Sweet Refrain. Janet then came up with the idea of them doing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, and Ryan immediately said that it had to be the Diana Ross version. So then I came up with the idea to do it as an homage to her Central Park performance and have literal rain coming out in the ballroom. Ryan just started laughing this laugh where he’s just like cackling, and then we were all in. Of course afterwards I was thinking to myself, “Wait, how are we going to make it rain in the ballroom?” 

We figured it out though, and it’s so great. It was a collective team effort. We got rigging up in the ceiling for the rain, and the rip-away costumes for the performance. Everyone really had to bring their A-game to make it work because that scene could have read as really cheap and cheesy if it doesn’t look good. I am glad that you watched it and it touched you because Blanca and Pray Tell’s relationship is such an important core of the series. 

The truth is that I don’t think we really knew that at the beginning. We knew that they were sister friends, and we always leaned into that with them, but I think it was further along in the first season that we realized not just that Billy and Mj have great chemistry but also that those two characters – it’s interesting that I’m saying this, I haven’t said this to anybody, so you’re the first person I’m saying this to – it didn’t really occur to me until filming the series finale that the story we’ve been telling for three seasons is a love story between Pray Tell and Blanca in so many ways. I love the movie Beaches. Barbara Hershey is my favorite actress. I’m obsessed with that movie. I think it was while we were filming that scene that I turned to somebody and I was like, “Oh my god, we’re basically making Beaches”. It’s a love story between two friends. 

MB: This whole journey for you started with seeing Paris Is Burning and that film has been such a touchstone because it’s really one of the only positive, validating portrayals of this community that’s ever existed on screen. Thinking of that idea of legacy, do you hope that Pose can hold that same place for people who will see it for the first time, and maybe not even be fully aware of their identity while they are watching it, and they can feel seen and feel that validation from this community?

SC: Yes. Simply, yes. There’s so many goals to Pose, and I would say high up on that list, arguably the first thing, would be that any person who happens to be trans or non-binary or gender non-conforming could come in and realize that you are worthy of love, that you are worthy of being valued, and you have every right to stand unapologetically in your truth. You deserve to take up as much space as you want. 

Something that I don’t think was necessarily a goal for me at the start of the series, but has developed as time went on, was that I also want cis and straight people to come in and watch the show and realize that we are deserving of all of those things. I want them to see that and become co-conspirators, and be on the frontline fighting for us. We have spent so much time being disenfranchised and taking in this messaging and believing that we’re not worthy, and they have the ability to be allies and be advocates and their voices are important in this movement for equality and equity and justice. 

This is a lesson that I learned when I was 15 years old. I was working on a documentary short about turf violence and one of my classmates who was producing the documentary with me was shot and killed. The lesson I took out of that experience is that content doesn’t solely have to be for the sake of entertainment. It can also be educational. For me, the goal was always to live in that intersection of both. I want all of my work to always be both, but I specifically want Pose to be something that audiences can come back to as both a salve from the world and I also want it to be an educational tool. The greatest compliments to me are knowing that there are academics and professors using Pose in classrooms. 

I want people from the community who I love, like yourself, to say that you watched it and you cried because it made you feel so good. I also want to know that people are out there like this mom who, when I was on a flight from LA to New York and she was my seatmate, said to me that she wished Pose existed when her kids were little because it would’ve made her a different parent. The show is for everybody, and that was the goal. 

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity] 

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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