When Michaela Jaé (Mj) Rodriguez first booked one of the starring roles in FX’s “Pose,” she had a conversation with co-creator Steven Canals about how the groundbreaking series might change her life.
As millions of viewers turned “Pose” into a sensation, Rodriguez became a familiar face and a breakout star in the role of Blanca Rodriguez, a house mother who gets diagnosed with HIV. But major awards attention still took a little longer to catch up with the show’s critical acclaim. Rodriguez earned a Critics Choice Award nomination in 2020 but didn’t pick up an Emmy nomination until 2021, for the show’s third and final season.
In landing that nod this year, Rodriguez made history as the first trans performer to be recognized in a major Emmy acting category.
The nomination still catches Rodriguez by surprise sometimes, she tells Variety‘s Awards Circuit podcast. Since wrapping the series, she has had the time to go back and watch all 25 episodes (including the two-part series finale) and really immerse herself in her character’s storyline without getting caught up in her own performance.
“I just was inspired by, not only what she did, but a lot of trans women on this show, the women of color on the show,” Rodriguez says. “They were so powerful in what they stood for individually, they were all multi-dimensional, they all had different mindsets, and the show itself expanded the minds of so many people out there who have these ideas of how women of the trans experience are supposed to move through the world. No longer are we these stereotypical ideas in people’s minds; we’re actually human.” Listen below!
“Pose” never shied away from the all-too-often realities of being Black and brown, let alone gay or trans among the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1980s and 1990s New York City. But as the series concluded, Blanca’s story got a happy ending. Through grit, determination and a little help from those she worked with, the character got into a medical trial for new HIV drugs that kept her healthy. She graduated from nursing school, found an adoring (and adorable) doctor boyfriend (Jeremy Pope) and was granted legendary status within the ballroom community, where she served as a grandmother to the new House of Evangelista at the end of the series.
Rodriguez was pleased with the outcome of “a woman who the world would never expect to live on and carry on her dreams and still be able to go back and see her children because of the murders and because of being ostracized.” Seeing Blanca move forward in the story was an important message to deliver, she says, because, although fictional, it is an example that “it can happen and it will happen and it won’t stop; there’s going to be a life to carry on and a legacy.”
The third and final season of “Pose” did present the performer with some new complications, though — most notably block shooting scenes to limit returning to certain locations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the ballroom scenes, for example, were shot back-to-back, even if they were for different episodes, as were moments that took place in the hospital.
Rodriguez recalls the last scenes she ever shot for “Pose” were ones that took place in the hospital. One of them was when Blanca fought with a nurse to get Pray Tell (Billy Porter) the right medicine; another was when Blanca returned to her old stomping ground after becoming a full-fledged nurse in a time jump. She met with Nurse Judy (Sandra Bernhard) in front of a new newborn nursery and the two characters reflected on how there was now so much life in the area where so many individuals passed away.
“Just jumping between emotions, sometimes that can be a bit taxing,” Rodriguez says. But because she loved both the character of Blanca and the show itself, she was always up for the challenge. “Going from one scene to the next and having to really channel emotions, that sometimes can be very hard because you just went from this high and you have to go to this low. I was just like, ‘Well girl, this is what you live for. You can do it, so do it.’”
While Rodriguez will never have enough good things to say about her experience on “Pose,” she has already turned her attention to a new role in the Apple TV Plus comedy “Loot,” opposite Maya Rudolph. In taking on a new gig, she says she must leave Blanca behind.
“For me, it is very important for me to separate the two just so I can show versatility and just so that people can see a different character. They could see Blanca, they’ll get to see Sophia [in ‘Loot’], but they’ll also get to separate those to and also get to see me, Michaela — as an artist not just as a placeholder, [which] can be the case for trans woman,” Rodriguez explains. “I want to constantly break that mold. I want to constantly show people that we as people of LGBTQIA community, especially the trans community…it’s important to know that we’re multifaceted.”
Also on this episode of the Awards Circuit Podcast, “Cobra Kai” executive producers Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg discuss landing a comedy series Emmy nom, and what to expect in Season 4. And the Awards Circuit roundtable looks at the variety talk and variety sketch categories.
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.