Emmy Award-winning Pose actor Billy Porter said when he tried to break into Hollywood in the 1980s, the industry was only looking for three types of African American actors — “James Earl Jones, the patriarch. Denzel Washington, the sex symbol, or genius clown, Eddie Murphy.”
Porter was none of the above, he told the audience Saturday night at the New Yorker Festival in New York City. Yet he persevered.
The Broadway veteran added that his pop music career was also sidelined back then because he is gay, despite an early deal with A&M Records.
The music industry was “hugely, violently homophobic. It just was never about the music,” Porter said. “It was about trying to fix myself so other people would feel comfortable around me.”
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So, “Where am I fitting in?” he asked himself. “I became a character actor to hide behind little weight and work so I could eat,” Porter explained in a wide-ranging interview.
Things got so bad that he filed for bankruptcy and had no apartment or health insurance for 13 years, he recalled. Then came his stage role as Belize in the 2011 revival of Angels in America and his Tony-award winning run as Lola in Kinky Boosts in 2013.
“But the calling in my life is where I am now,” he said about his role as Pray Tell in the FX drama Pose, a show that celebrates race, gender and sexual choice.
“We must speak life into ourselves, even when everyone around us is doing the opposite,” he said, echoing his Emmy acceptance speech that spoke of empowerment. “I never saw anything that looked like me, and visibility … when we see ourselves reflected back … is so important.”
“This is what a real man looks like too!” he said, standing to showcase his reliably fabulous platform heels and a black skirt with a thigh-high slit.
Interviewer Rachel Syme, who writes a fashion and style column for The New Yorker, fondly recalled Porter’s tuxedo dress that sparked a social media frenzy at the Academy Awards in February and the side-brimmed hat he wore last month to the Emmy’s.
“Your hat’s like, ‘I’m gonna fly away,” she said.
“Kapoof!” nodded Porter with a huge smile.