Actress Mj Rodriguez plays the character Blanca on FX's Pose, the show set in the '80s about ballroom culture in New York City.
Co-creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals have made television history with the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles. The cast includes Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, Hailie Sahar and Angelica Ross.
Rodriguez began with a breakout role in an off-Broadway production of Rent, playing HIV-positive street musician Angel Dumott Schunard. She later portrayed Ebony in the movie Saturday Church, along with Moore.
Prior to Pose, Rodriguez was on TV with Nurse Jackie, The Carrie Diaries and Luke Cage.
Windy City Times: Hi, Mj. I'm calling you from Chicago. Have you been here before?
Mj Rodriguez: No, but my mom travels there and has not invited me. I will have to come there and tell her I went, anyway!
WCT: Where are you originally from?
MR: I was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey. I went to Queen of Angles Catholic School. I was a rambunctious kid. They let me be who I was in school. I went to Arts High School at 14 years old. I was immersed in the world of dancing, singing and music. I majored in singing there.
WCT: I heard you were in Rent.
MR: Yes. I was 19 and going to Berklee School of Music at the time and in my first semester. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do as far as my career and schooling. I had planned on staying in school forever then I heard about Rent coming back. I thought they would never want this fishy girl up in there! [Laughs] I was beating myself down because I had insecurities about who I was and how I wanted to let people see me as.
I went in and auditioned, letting go of all of my inhibitions. They saw me and saw who I was. That was a defining moment in my life. It was the precipice to my medical transition and how I would move forward in my career.
WCT: This sounds similar to the storyline in Pose, but this time you were the mentor. How does that feel?
MR: There are young kids now contacting me through direct messages and Facebook messenger asking me how to get involved in acting or where they can find refuge. It always feels good and I have lots of feedback for them. It is good to hear and have that label of mother. I am still very young, but I am naturally nurturing.
WCT: Do people recognize you on the street?
MR: Yes. Me and Indya Moore were shooting one of our scenes and a woman and her husband came up to me. They asked for a picture and Indya dropped her food to be in the picture. It is really good so see that people are receiving it well.
WCT: I thought maybe mainstream America would have issues with Pose, but haven't heard much negativity yet.
MR: You want to know why that is? When there is so much love put out into the world, you really can't show any hate. I always believed that love trumps hate. When you put something out there that is only positivity and only shedding light on a world that a lot of people don't understand. It is educational as well as entertaining. There is no negative context behind it. You can only love the people that are behind it, because you know it's genuine and coming from a good space.
WCT: Were you nervous auditioning for Pose?
MR: Oh, yeah. [Laughs] I was nervous as all hell! I went in for a tape audition. I had been hearing about it from a lot of my friends and was also auditioning for another show. I was talking to my mom just three days before and thought I was going to give up and find a nine to five job.
Literally, four days later, I get a call from Ryan Murphy. I didn't expect that to happen. I was sitting down, listening at my computer to Rihanna's "Wild Thoughts." He called and said the part was mine and I had nothing to worry about. I just cried. I didn't let him hear my ugly cry.
WCT: How has it changed your life so far?
MR: It has changed my life drastically, but in the best way possible. I finally feel that the responsibility that has been placed on me is finally deserving. I have always wanted to be a light for all demographics, especially the LGBT community, but in general for the masses and to change the dynamic in the world when it comes to individuals like me as well as individuals in my community. I feel like I am able to finally take hold of my responsibility and constantly shed positivity and light on us, how we are human and how we bleed like anyone else.
WCT: Pose shows the struggle that trans individuals face in the job market. Did you identify with this problem?
MR: Before I started auditioning like crazy, I was looking for jobs at Sephora and MAC. These are places that are well immersed into the LGBT community. At that time, they weren't hiring and didn't feel it was appropriate.
I know what that feels like and to be a trans woman going into a nine to five job and people finding out. There was a time when I wasn't saying things so I could be solidified in my job. When they found out it was a turn down. It was hard, but now it's possible.
WCT: What would you like depicted in Pose that hasn't been shown yet?
MR: To be quite honest, I think harassment should be shown, but in a way that people can understand and be empathetic towards our lives, when we are simply existing and someone takes over our space just to harass us. I don't think many people get to see what we go through. They see many beautiful, theatrical things in the ballroom culture and within the trans world, but they don't see the harassment that we deal with and the derogatory slurs that are thrown at us. That should be tackled.
WCT: How is working with Billy Porter?
MR: He is everything. He has known me since I was 19 and Rent. I feel like there's a family member on the set. He's like my uncle. When we have scenes together it is a natural chemistry.
WCT: The music is an important part of Pose. Is there a certain song you like?
MR: Oh, childall of that music I was raised on. I like "Heartbeat"the first song that sticks out on the first episode.
WCT: I saw you in the movie Saturday Church. How was that experience?
MR: It was a great experience. That was a cast that was filled with our community, which was comforting. I loved that it was a musical and I got to sing in it. It made me feel good and wanted.
WCT: What is next for you?
MR: Hopefully, I get to keep working with Ryan Murphy. I love that man. He's on point.
I would like to tackle some big films, maybe a leading lady in an action film like a Lara Croft film. I would like to play outside of the trans narrative, even though that is something I love to do. I would just like to step outside of that and allow people to see my talent versus just my transness.
Pose runs Sundays on FX at 8 p.m. CT, with the season finale on July 22.