Black Girl Magic
Janet Mock is cementing her legacy while making Hollywood history.
Janet Mock made history in 2018 when she became the first trans woman of color to write and direct an episode of television for Ryan Murphy's FX drama Pose, which explores the lives of LGBT characters in the New York City ball scene of the 1980s.
"Our show is about people who are still looking for a semblance of joy, of love, a feeling of care, a family of embrace, while also dealing with these harsh realities of poverty, racism, homophobia and transphobia of harsh systems that don't make room for them. That's really the DNA of the show," Mock says.
The feminist activist and New York Times bestselling author of two memoirs, Redefining Realness (2014) and Surpassing Certainty (2017), directed the sixth episode of the first season titled "Love is the Message," which she also co-wrote with Murphy, as well as two episodes in Season 2 - both seasons are currently available to stream.
"I'd never seen anyone who looked like me with my specific experiences as a young person, as a woman, as a person of color and a trans person; never seen someone like me at the helm. And as I was processing it all, all I thought about was my forebears who had never seen someone like them do something," Mock says of her first-time directing experience on Pose.
"I thought about Lena Horne. She'd never seen someone before Maya Angelou. There never was another Black woman who'd written a memoir, an autobiography at that time. They were the first. And so, for me, I was carrying the weight of that representation. That's what made me nervous and a little unsure, but I had no time for self-doubt because we know how fast television production moves," she explains.
"I just needed to be clear about my vision. I needed to be confident in the skills and all the various skills that I brought to it. I'm lucky I had a showrunner and a mentor in Ryan. To be as brazen as he is and creative in how he works, to say that though this young woman has never been given a shot, that doesn't mean that she can't do it."
You directed the sixth episode of the first season titled "Love is the Message," which you also co-wrote with Ryan Murphy. How did that experience influence your approach to the two episodes you directed in season two?
I went to the DGA and the DGA gave me a boot camp for first-time TV directors. That was so helpful and amazing. It was led by Paris Barclay. I also shadowed another director who's a part of our initiatives here at Ryan Murphy's television production. She had long conversations with me about her process. I got to watch her work and it was in the watching and the doing that I was able to be prepared for episode six.
Because I wrote it, it made it a little easier because I knew the vision. I think working with a team of people who are masters at what they do really is what made the job that much easier, but at the same time, crying at the monitor every day did not.
In terms of your writing style, what type of headspace do you have to be in to tackle some of the darker subject matter on the show, such as the AIDS crisis, loss and grief? How do you shake off whatever mood you need to be in to approach such material?
Such a great question. I had written two memoirs before this, so I'm not one that shies away from the darkness of our realities and the harshness of what we must face. I come from a line of people who had to make a way out of no way, and so for me, I feel like I was one of those people who was given the gift of being able to live in this day and age in which opportunity is here.
I'm here to tell the truth of our experiences. I feel it's such a huge gift. Music helps a lot - sitting with some music depending on what the mood is; definitely a space of my own with no one in it. I can't work at cafes. I can't work in public. I have to be in my very specific room at my dining table just writing and looking out the window. What makes it easier is that I tend to talk and act out the scenes as I'm typing.
I talk in the way that Billy Porter embodies Pray Tell. I do the same thing with Blanca. I do the same with Angel. I sometimes sit back and act it out with myself as if I'm doing the scene and that has made the process of putting what I see in front of me onto my actual computer. Nice long workout sessions help for sure to get it out of me, or if I need to process something or I need to get out frustrations.
I know with episode six, I looked a lot at the AIDS memorial Instagram. It's this powerful feed that is a series of stories of love and loss and remembrance of people who were left behind by people that they love so much from HIV/AIDS. That helped to see these human stories of person after person, body after body and so many people who loved a person that left because of this epidemic, and that fueled me.
There was a day I remember when we shot the AIDS cabaret scene and after her first take, M.J. Rodriguez broke down uncontrollably.
We had to stop for a good 20 minutes because I think once she was [on set], even though she had recorded the music already in a studio elsewhere with our musical director, she hadn't seen it with the background actors who had lesions, who were in wheelchairs, who were the grief stricken-ness of it all, the direness of it all.
Back in 1987, HIV/AIDS was a death sentence, and so just the weight of all those themes and the weight of all that music and the weight of all these character arcs can leave you just... ooh.
How would you compare the heartbeat of the show in season one compared to season two?
The heartbeat of the show is always going to be Blanca Rodriguez and the House of Evangelista and her family; that's the center of our show. HIV/AIDS is still a boogeyman, poverty, and people of color grappling in a gentrifying New York City.
We still have the glamour and performativity and the community of the ball space, which we'll always have, and we have lots more family moments around meals because it's important to us to show that chosen families are valid and necessary and vital.
Season 2, we're opening in the early 1990s on the day that "Vogue" was released as a single, Madonna's "Vogue," and so it's about our characters' reactions to that. How will their worlds change? How big will their aspirations become now that they have a bright spotlight on their formerly underground community?
We also upgraded the phenomenal Sandra Bernhard, who plays Nurse Judy, who we introduced in "Love is the Message." She's upgraded to series regular and she doesn't only work in the AIDS ward running that space, she also is in the streets with activists. And so that element of HIV/AIDS activism is a huge part of our story this season as well as what this idea of "Vogue" brings to this community.
Now that we're two seasons in, having written and directed for the series, have you developed any special techniques that guarantee you always get the best out of the talent you're directing?
Oh wow. Yeah. Also, my second episode of television that I directed was The Politician, Ryan's first series for Netflix. I wrapped that in the summer and did that right after "Love is the Message." So, for me, for this particular cast, what I've learned is that, like any kind of group collaboration, you communicate differently with each person and not everyone responds to the same kind of direction.
It's an individual take on bringing the best out of someone and knowing how they show up on that day, knowing that you're working with artists who, most times, are more right than I will ever be because they also know these characters deep within themselves. They embody these characters. They created their specificity, and so for me, it's just the patience of sitting there and having conversations with them.
My job is to get out of the way. My job is to let them do what they do best and building that trust to let them know that I know what I'm looking for.
And it's also always going for the specific too because our world is so in the cultural specificity. We never do anything that feels very broad comedy. Everything is a very specific, grounded in this world, now 1990, in these characters who don't have much, and so how do they make more for themselves in that lack of space?
I think that creates a great texture into every scene that we have. So when we're working with props and we're working with placing background actors or costuming them, I know that that helps bring our actors to where they need to be to transport them, because none of them know what it's like to live as an adult with nothing at that time period.
I can contextualize and bring them back up to speed of how it was, that's always helpful too.
How important is it for you to follow what fans think of the show? Do you read blog recaps?
We had no audience feedback at all for the first season. The second season is a different animal and beast because our audience has found the show. We were all on Twitter live tweeting with the cast and crew, so we got to see the reactions and we KiKi'd over that. People love Blanca and Pray Tell together and having emotional moments, so we're never going to get rid of those.
They love the House of Evangelista around the dinner table Friday night, that will always be on the show. They love the big ball scenes, but the one criticism we got was that they wanted more dancing, more choreography and guess what? Our ball scenes are bigger, splashier, more choreography, a lot more voguing, a lot more stunts, and costumes.
For season two, we're giving the audience what they asked for and our principal cast all have storylines and they're all deeply engaged in almost every single episode. I think we found the formula and we love our formula and we're not changing it.
Has working on Pose been transformative for you, personally or professionally?
It's been deeply, on a personal level, deeply transformative. I was a curly-haired brown-skin trans-girl growing up in front of the TV. The TV was a surrogate kind of babysitter and I was searching. I didn't know this, but I was searching for shards of reflections of myself and never really did I get full portraits of my specific experiences and I never thought that I would ever have that.
The first semblance of me kind of getting that was a reason that propelled me to step forward and tell my story for the first time and to write my first book and then my second book and to have that be received with such love. Being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey for Super Bowl Sunday - to get that kind of affirmation from my people that I matter, that my story mattered and that they received it well.
I never thought that I would be able to then go into television and help shape and create and tell stories and create those mirrors that I never had access to as that curly -haired brown-skinned trans-girl.
The fact that I can work with five trans-women as series regulars; they're the center of the show. They're the heartbeat of the show and to see them centered in this way as heroines that I had never had before.
We always were sideshows. We were always very supporting characters with not very great arcs who often die in tragedies so that the protagonist who isn't trans, who often is straight, who often is not a person of color, gets to have the arc.
Here, those rejects, those discarded, those marginalized, those on the fringe are centered, and that has been transformative for me on a personal and a professional level.
I'm the first trans woman of color to be hired in a writer's room. The first to write and direct an episode of television and I won't be the last. I hope that becomes the legacy of this series.
Lastly, what is Janet Mock's definition of success?
I hope that as Michelle Obama said, when you walk through that doorway of opportunity, you don't shut the door behind you. You leave it open and you bring other people in with you. So, for me, I hope that, though I'm the first, I'm not the last. That would be the definition of success for me.
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From the 43rd Emmy Awards in 1991