Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock on ‘Pose,’ Diversity and Netflix

Posted May 24, 2018 9:13 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — “I personally can do better,” TV creator Ryan Murphy said back in 2016, when he launched Half, his initiative for hiring women, people of color and LGBT folks for half of the directing jobs on his shows.

And he has. Since then, when the television industry average for female directors was 16 percent, Murphy has increased the number of women, minority and gay directors on his shows to 63 percent.

“Look, I’m a gay dad,” he said. “When I bring my two young sons to set, I don’t want them seeing the world I grew up in — where I was often the only gay person there, and everyone else was straight and white and male. I had to change that, at least in my own world. And since I have, the work is better because women are better.”

Then he turned to Janet Mock, the writer and transgender activist. “Janet is the most recent graduate of Half,” he said. The two are working together on Murphy’s new show, “Pose,” about the intersection of uptown vogue balls in the ‘80s and New York’s burgeoning culture of excess, which premieres on FX on June 3.

“And I check every box!” she said: “A black trans girl.”

Murphy, 52, is one of the most prolific and successful writers, directors and producers in television. Beginning with “Nip/Tuck” in 2003, a surgically and emotionally graphic show about a pair of plastic surgeons, he cemented his reputation with the acclaimed high school musical, “Glee.”

With the introduction of several anthology series — “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story” and “Feud” — Murphy catapulted himself into the top-tier. In February, Netflix announced a five-year deal with him to produce new shows and films for the streaming service, while allowing him to continue his work on existing Fox and FX shows, and paying him up to $300 million.

Murphy is also co-producing a revival of the seminal gay play, “The Boys in the Band,” from 1968, which will open on Broadway on May 31. He recently announced that he would donate all his profits from “Pose” to LGBT charities.

Mock, 35, is known for her best-selling memoir “Redefining Realness,” a harrowing account of her childhood as a transgender girl. She catalogs neglect, sexual abuse beginning at age 8, and an adolescent turn to sex work to save money for gender reconstruction surgery. She also celebrates the women who looked out for her and kept her safe. Last year, she published a second memoir, “Surpassing Certainty,” and this year, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.

Mock met with Murphy after he read “Redefining Realness” and had begun working with co-creators Steven Canals and Brad Falchuk on “Pose.” He quickly hired her as a writer for the show, later promoting her to producer and asking her to direct an episode.

Over lunch at Il Cantinori in Greenwich Village late last month, the pair talked about the personal challenges of their sexual identity; the joys of flipping that script on “Pose”; and — yes — that itty-bitty Netflix deal.

PHILIP GALANES Often, in the first episodes of your shows, a character asks a question that frames the whole project. In “Nip/Tuck,” it was: “Tell me what you don’t like about yourself?” In “Pose,” it’s more upbeat; it’s ...

RYAN MURPHY “What do you want?” That’s a big question in my life. When I’m interviewing someone for a job, it’s one of the first things I ask. When I met Janet, she said ...

JANET MOCK “I want it all!”

MURPHY Which is a very Janet thing to say, very optimistic. “Pose” is all about dreams and acceptance, and I wanted to do it in a blue-sky, optimistic way.

GALANES Which is ironic, considering that many of the trans characters at vogueing balls are living rough lives.

MOCK Exactly. But knowing that HIV, sex work, abuse and poverty are all going on in the world of the show, we had to show the joy, too. Without the creativity and resilience, what would we be living for?

MURPHY In a weird way, it’s a Cinderella story — with dark, gritty bits. I wanted to make a version of my ‘80s kind of movie, Janet’s ‘80s kind of movie, where the leads are people who had previously been marginalized: the daffy sidekicks or the jokes. I wanted to take them from the fringes and make them our heroines. And pull the audience through their stories, which are so human: wanting to be seen and loved, needing a family.

GALANES What did you want when you were 21 — when you were Angel’s age, one of the trans heroines on the show, who becomes romantically involved with a junior executive at the Trump Organization, of all places?

MOCK By 21, I had already gone through my transition. The physical stuff was done, and I was ready to live beyond my identity, beyond my struggles, and beyond the struggles of other people who wanted to keep seeing me as I was in high school.

MURPHY I wanted out! I was in college in Bloomington, Indiana, and I wanted to go to New York or Hollywood and be a star. I didn’t even know what that meant. I just knew it was something that people would celebrate you for.

MOCK [Leaving Hawaii] was a big part of that. And New York was imprinted on my mind from “Sex and the City” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Like Holly Golightly: Go somewhere and create yourself. Tell people who you are, and they’ll believe you.

MURPHY I always knew I was different. I was one of four grandchildren and the only one that Grandma Myrtle ever took aside and told: “You’re special.”

GALANES Was that code for: Hide the gay better?

MURPHY Never! She was the only one in my family who told me not to hide it, that it would be useful to me.

GALANES One of my strongest responses — to “Pose” and Janet’s books — is profound shame that trans people have been treated so badly, not just by the general population, but by the LGBTQ community, too.

MURPHY We did. There was, and still is, a hierarchical system, even in the gay community — although I think that’s changing, particularly in the past few years.

GALANES There’s a great line in the show: “We all need someone to look down on.”

MURPHY Look, if you’re powerless, if you’re told from birth: You’re the lowest of the low, you’re sinful and evil and going to hell, you’ll never be loved or have a family — that stirs great pain in you. And sometimes it comes out as aggression and anger, and you strike out, usually at someone who’s weaker than you. That’s true of anyone in society.

GALANES Sure, but Janet, your affect, sitting here and in your books, is not rage. Your family, your government, the medical establishment turned its back on you and the trans community. Sex work was the only way you could afford to transition.

MOCK Why am I not enraged? But I am! It’s underneath everything I do. There is anger and irritation and wondering why, as a trans woman, I am not fully seen and given the same tools and resources and chance to take center stage. It fuels my writing and my desire to be part of this show. To feed characters with words that I’ve always wanted to say, but couldn’t, because I always had to be graceful in my presentation.

GALANES What drew you to the world of ‘80s vogueing balls? Had you seen “Paris is Burning” [Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary about ballroom culture]?

MOCK All of us — any queer or trans person — knows “Paris is Burning.”

MURPHY I was very interested in it. I related to it. When I first started my career in Hollywood in 1998, you could be fired for being gay. I would have meetings with executives where they would make fun of my voice and imitate me and demean me. So, I related to this idea of: OK, out on the streets, I can only be one way, but there’s a special place where I can explode. For me, that place was not a ballroom; it was my computer. But I understood the core of that. I’ve always been interested in underdogs. Look at my work, from “Glee” to “Nip/Tuck” to Marcia Clark. I feel like the underdog still, even though, shockingly, I’ve become the mainstream.

GALANES The categories in the vogueing balls are hilarious: “CEO Realness,” “Weather Girl Realness.” But isn’t there also something disturbing about “realness” — passing yourself off as something other than what you are — as the ultimate success?

MOCK It’s a class thing too. It’s not just about being able to pass for straight or cisgender in the world. It’s also about passing as someone who would be welcomed at Bergdorfs. That’s a very specific kind of passing and access. You can be a pretty girl, but if you’re a pretty little banjee girl who’s passing, you’re still going to be followed everywhere you go in Bergdorfs. My fantasy, as a young girl, was for a man to love me and give me a house, make me his wife.

MURPHY We all wanted that, Janet.

GALANES So, how do we get beyond passing?

MURPHY The most powerful thing a young person can see is themselves reflected in the culture. When I was growing up in the ‘70s, there were practically no gay people on television who were out. I grew up feeling like I was a unicorn. So, one of the things I’ve loved doing in my career, particularly on “Glee,” was putting very specific young people — be they gay or trans — on television. Because even if you don’t know them, these characters become your friends. They seep into your subconscious. “Oh, they’re not so bad; they’re just like me.” Representation matters.

MOCK If you ask people: How many trans folks do you know? Most of the time, their only interaction is through the media. So, that sense of knowing and empathizing and embracing and fighting for that person — based on a character they see on TV — that takes a long time. But in “Pose,” you don’t just see one trans character serving the straight story line. You don’t see her dying and think: “Oh, I’m going to be braver, too.” No, there are five trans women in the opening scene of “Pose.” We’ve never seen that before.

MURPHY For me, the power in Steven Canals script was that this isn’t an origin story: “What’s wrong with me?” “How can I fix it?” These people are already leading their authentic lives, so they’re already moving toward joy. There are 140 trans actors and crew members on this show, and 35 LGBTQ characters who aren’t trans [representing more than half of the total cast and crew]. What I’m hoping is that young people see this show and say: “There isn’t anything wrong with me. I’m entitled to love and a family. And if I’m not getting it here, I better go out and find it.” GALANES The straight characters work almost like echoes of the trans characters.

MURPHY It’s an interesting show for straight white men to be part of because they’re acting in service to the women. That’s new.

MOCK But there’s a bringing in of the straight audience too. I think they’ll start interrogating the ways in which they’ve posed and performed to try to fit in.

GALANES The show is set in the ‘80s. Is that when “look the part to be the part” took off?

MURPHY Oh yeah. It was in the Reagan era, the Trump era in New York City, when you could pretend to be money and be seen as wealthy. You could pretend to be anything and be accepted, whereas before that, you really had to have the background and education and breeding. It was the beginning of surface passing. Before that, you wouldn’t be allowed in the room.

GALANES How’s this related to “The Boys in the Band,” the play you’re producing now, and poses of masculinity?

MURPHY My interest in that play started because it was one of the first pieces that was all about the gay characters. Before that, the gay character was killed or punished or committed suicide. And historically, that happened a lot, but this play was a breath of fresh air. Still, a lot of gay people hated it. There were swishy characters, nelly characters. At the time, many gay people decided that for our liberation movement to work, we don’t want the sissy boys; we don’t want the trans people; we don’t want the lesbians. We want the all-Americans. We want people who can pass as straight.

MOCK The politics of respectability.

MURPHY I hope that [playwright] Mart Crowley gets his just deserts because we all stand on the shoulders of that play. Five of the original nine actors died of AIDS. None of them could be out of the closet. Now, all of our actors are out and celebrated and successful. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got so much further to go.

GALANES Let’s talk about Half, your initiative to fill 50 percent of directing slots on your shows with women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. Hard to execute?

MURPHY It was the easiest thing I ever did. But I had to shame myself into it. I saw these terrible numbers about women directors in the industry. Then I directed an episode of ["The People v.] O.J. Simpson” about Marcia Clark. I did a good job, but I thought: “If a woman had directed this, it would have been better.” I was mortified at myself. I thought: “Why am I not using my power correctly?” So, we came up with Half, and we had 500 calls the day after we announced it. And that’s just the directors. But it’s had trickledown effects on all the departments.

MOCK But let’s not kid ourselves. Only in a Ryan Murphy world could this happen, in a world where he’s built up enough power to say: “I’m going to have this black trans girl who’s never had any experience writing for television come and write on my show. Then I’m going to promote her to producer during the pilot shoot. And on top of that, Janet, you’re going to direct an episode.” And everybody comes together — the unions and craftsmen and creative people — and support me because the leader of the ship has said this is what we’re going to do.

MURPHY What I always tell people is: Just bring someone else up who’s not like you, but shares your worldview. Give them their first chance. That’s how you change the world.

GALANES Your show has so many trans actors. There must have been a lot of first-timers.

MURPHY I would say nine out of 10 have never been in front of a camera, or been on a sound stage or directed. So, my job, when I was directing the pilot, was to explain: “OK, this is what happens. You stand on this mark; this is where the camera is; don’t look in the lens.” It was very moving. But I adore these actors; they’re so talented. And all they needed was someone to say: “You’ve got something. You’re a star.” We cast for six months, and pretty much anyone who wanted an audition got one. We went to many cities, and we did many screen tests. And in the process, we got to know lots of people, and their stories made it into the script.

GALANES So, you got this edgy show on FX. Fox would probably let you do anything you want. Why move to Netflix? More freedom, bigger budgets, different formats?

MURPHY What happened wasn’t necessarily about Netflix. The business has changed. There was a time, back in 2006, when I made a pilot, “Pretty/Handsome,” [about a married father who comes out as transgender] that everyone at the studio loved, but they couldn’t pick it up. “No advertisers will advertise,” they told me. “Too many organizations will picket this show.”

That was their business reality, and I was heartbroken. Now, cut forward 12 years, and many, many hits later, they trust me. “Is this what you want to put on the air? OK, good.” The executives and consumer market have changed. Advertisers are thrilled to buy ads for “Pose.” That would not have happened 10 years ago. There’s been an evolution is society. Just the idea that I would be able to have this Netflix deal — a gay man from Indiana. GALANES Two big deals, yours and Shonda Rhimes’, a woman of color.

MURPHY And my shows are on Netflix: “Glee,” “American Crime Story,” “American Horror Story.” I came out of this baby fog from having two kids in a row, and I found myself always watching Netflix. I could watch it how I wanted, when I wanted. And I like the freedom that comes with no commercials or censorship.

GALANES Favorite Netflix shows?

MURPHY Last year, I loved “Mindhunter.”

MOCK I just watched “Wild Wild Country.” I love the docu-series. They give filmmakers time to tell stories so beautifully.

MURPHY And “The Crown,” of course. Who doesn’t want to be Queen?