For Pose star Mj Rodriguez, Blanca isn’t just a character — she’s an extension of herself. Or, as the New Jersey native puts it, “Blanca is literally me.”
Rodriguez knows the ins and outs of the ballroom scene because she’s lived it, having joined a house and found her chosen family as a teenager. But it’s Blanca’s resilience and integrity, and crucially, her desire to build a legacy that Rodriguez connects with most. And she’s already on her way with her breakthrough role in the FX series. With a groundbreaking cast of five transgender actors of color in key roles, Pose has solidified its legacy in the television landscape. At its center, however, the ballroom drama is a story about the human experience — with Rodriguez as its beating heart, raw and unwavering.
MTV News chatted with Rodriguez about Pose, the importance of trans people telling trans stories, and the permeation of ballroom culture throughout pop culture. And, yes, it’s at times hard to tell where Blanca ends and Rodriguez begins.
MTV News: I remember seeing you in Rent off-Broadway in 2011, and what I love so much about that show is that it’s a story about human connection. I think the same can be said for Pose. What is it about that theme that resonates so strongly with you?
MJ Rodriguez: I’m glad that I get to do a show like Pose that expresses how we need to be connected and how we need to uplift each other in order for us to live on to the next day. You know what I mean? Throughout my life, my mom, my dad, my grandmother — these were people who made sure that I had the right people around me uplifting me. So when I joined Rent, and now that I’m doing Pose, it only feels right that I’m spreading the message that my parents and my ancestors instilled in me.
MTV News: And they’re both stories about people finding their chosen family and the importance of those relationships.
Rodriguez: Absolutely! When I was 14, I found some of my chosen family as well. It’s a blessing that I have my family in my life and they were supportive, but there were times when I needed to find an outlet for me to understand my people and my own journey, and I found that through my chosen family, which was the ballroom community.
MTV News: What was it about Blanca that made you want to fight for her? Did you see yourself in her?
Rodriguez: I saw a lot of myself in Blanca, and, yes, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to play her. Whenever I go onstage, or in front of a camera, I always want to pour my soul out because I know I have a lot to offer. When I got this chance to play this character who was very similar to me, it just felt right and I had to take it and run with it. This is the only chance I have to implement love and positivity to the world so that they can possibly change their minds and change their hearts and get to know us as people and not as figures or objects.
MTV News: The thing I love about Blanca is her resilience and her confidence, like when she kept going back to that gay bar even though they denied her service and threw her out onto the street. When I watch it — a cis white woman from the Midwest — I find myself wanting to be more like her.
Rodriguez: When I was kid, I used to get bullied. I used to get taunted and thrown out of places. I got jumped once or twice. Even through all of those crazy trials, I still persevered. I made it my duty to persevere because I knew I had a legacy to leave behind.
Yeah, I’ve had moments where I’ve gone to gay bars and did not feel welcomed, but I stayed there because I was like, “No. Y’all my family and y’all going to accept your sister in this space no matter how indifferent you feel.” I’m always fighting to make sure that there’s a space for everyone, and playing Blanca has only made me want to shed more light on the world.
MTV News: Lena Waithe recently used her acceptance speech at the Movie & TV Awards to shed light on Paris Is Burning‘s legacy and the cultural impact of ballroom culture. With words like “shade” and “werk” now part of our daily vernacular, why do you think it’s permeated pop culture?
Rodriguez: People are finally getting an understanding of where ballroom culture came from, which was women of color who are part of the trans experience. These were the women who cultivated these houses, starting in 1962. It started with them — before the ballroom scene even came about. That’s where all of this lingo came from; that’s how we connected and talked to each other, and that language was distributed between LGBT communities of color. And it’s only right. Lena said something very important. People are using words like “slay” and “yas” not knowing where they derive from, but now the world is getting an education.
MTV News: Pose not only boasts such wonderful representation in front of the camera but also behind the camera with Janet Mock and Our Lady J. How important is that to you, knowing that you have two writers in the writers’ room who understand the trans experience?
Rodriguez: It’s very important because if we didn’t have it, it would be inauthentic and it wouldn’t be real. So it’s very important that we have women of this experience — whether they were in the ballroom scene or not — and they have the right to be a part of the team to tell the story. I always say, “We live to tell the story.” And it just so happens that these women are storytellers, so it’s important that we bring anyone who is of the trans experience on to tell our stories truthfully and authentically.
MTV News: Has it been a collaborative experience with the writers? I know Janet imbues herself and her personal experiences into all of the characters.
Rodriguez: Janet has implemented her story in certain episodes, [and] Our Lady J and Steven Canals have implemented their stories. It’s a collective thing. Sometimes they’ll be like, “Girl, what’s going on?” And I’ll tell them and it’ll branch off into a personal story of what happened to me in my life. They’ll use that in the story lines. These are all stories that we’ve gone through in our lives.
MTV News: Janet also directed Episode 6. What was it like working with her as director?
Rodriguez: It was pretty freakin’ awesome. Not only is she very detailed and very specific — she knows what she wants — but she’s also very warm and welcoming when it comes to directing. It makes it easy for the actor to do what they need to do. There was a specific scene between me and Billy [Porter], and I broke down. She was there for me. She took me into a room and she said, “Are you OK?” She’s a woman of my experience, so she understands. It just felt great to have someone who understood me but also knew how to be professional and do her job.
MTV News: Does it make you want to venture behind the camera at some point?
Rodriguez: I would love to. I hope one day down the line I will be able to do that. Right now my main focus is being an actress and doing what I need to do. But I feel like most of our stories — Dominique [Jackson] and Indya [Moore] and me and Angelica [Ross] and Hailie [Sahar] — are being told through these characters. I remember there was a specific scene that felt ripped from the pages of my life and now I get to tell it. It’s the most amazing thing.
MTV News: Was there one scene in particular that really moved you?
Rodriguez: When I had to go into Helena’s office and let her know about my son. I knew how hard my mother fought for me. My mother was a single mother for a while, and I was the only kid she had. There were times when I had slipped because of the environment around me and what I had gone through as a trans little girl, and my mother took rein and she fought for me. There were times in school when I was being defiant, and she came in and fought for me. I channeled that in that scene, and it got a little heavy for me. I had to take a moment for myself. I wanted to portray what most mothers do when you’re fighting for your child, whether it be a biological mother or a chosen mother — it doesn’t matter.
MTV News: What has the community been like on set between you and the cast? Do you feel maternal on set as well?
Rodriguez: It feels so natural with them. The reason it feels so easy to work with them is because we share the same experience. It’s easy for us to feed off each other and relate to these stories. It’s funny. A lot of us have worked together and have known each other for years. Me and Indya were in Saturday church together. Me and Dominique met at an event after Strut finished airing. Me and Billy have known each other for years. We all share these experiences and we put them into our work. It’s epic.
MTV News: There’s a general warmth to this show that is so appreciated. In the hands of other storytellers, a show set in 1980s New York City about a marginalized community living through the AIDs crisis could have been a lot darker. But there’s a genuine tenderness to Pose.
Rodriguez: This is the human experience. For people who have been ostracized, who have been all the way at the bottom, there’s only one way that we can go — and that’s up. The only way to do that is to uplift.