“I don’t want Pose to just be a moment. I want Pose to be a movement,” says Steven Canals. We’re speaking with the co-creator and executive producer about the legacy of the breakout LGBTQ+ drama, which has revolutionised inclusivity and diversity on television with the largest transgender cast in history. Since Pose premiered in 2018, the show has received unanimous praise and various accolades including the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor, which made Billy Porter the first openly gay Black man to be nominated for and win in an Emmy leading category.
Although Pose is arguably at its peak in acclaim and – with a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes – popularity, it was announced earlier this year that the third season, which debuted in the US in May, would be its last. As one of the only shows on television dedicated to authentically telling the stories of Black and Brown queer and trans people, the news left Pose viewers across the world in a state of mourning.
“We always knew that the end of the series was going to be 1995/96 when HIV/AIDS stops being a clear death sentence,” Steven explains. “We didn’t necessarily know how long it would take us to get there, but I think once we went into the writer’s room for season three, it just became abundantly clear to me that the end goal was in our eyeline.”
Here, we speak with Steven about his and co-creator Ryan Murphy’s decision to conclude the beloved drama, the impact he wants Pose to have on the industry moving forward, and why he’s so desperate to direct and write the X-Men reboot for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Steven, I think I speak on behalf of every single Pose fan out there when I say that Blanca getting into nursing school was the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
[Laughs] I love that! I know. Her getting into school is similar to Damon applying and getting into dance school. You root for these characters and want to see them do well. I had the same reaction. I got really teary watching the premiere and I wrote it! Watching that moment of her going in and getting the application, it’s like, ‘Oh, Blanca!’
Season three is the end for Pose. Was it always intended to end after three?
Ryan Murphy was always really vocal about what we saw as the endgame. That was something Ryan and I discussed when we first met. We always knew that the end of the series was going to be 1995/96 when HIV/AIDS stops being a clear death sentence. As much as our show is a family drama, it’s an investigation into HIV/AIDS and the ways that it impacted Black and Brown queer and trans people living in New York. We didn’t necessarily know how long it would take us to get there, but I think once we went into the writer’s room for season three, it just became abundantly clear to me that the end goal was in our eyeline. I didn’t want to be that person who stays at the party too long where everybody’s like, ‘You’re still here? What are you doing?’ I just feel like, ‘There’s the ending. I see it. It’s right in arm’s reach, so why pivot and make a right turn as opposed to going straight into it?’ We have a very discerning, loyal and faithful audience who I love to call our “Pose fam”, and I felt like they would be able to tell that we gave you a season just for the sake of giving you a season, and that we were avoiding the inevitable. The other thing is that intention is so important when it comes to narrative; what the show is about, what the show is and who these characters are. This is gonna sound very writerly, but the characters talk to you. Here’s the truth, let me say it plainly and clearly: two of our main characters, being Blanca and Pray Tell, are HIV positive. A large part of storytelling is drama, is your characters being in conflict. We’ve seen both of our characters get ill and be in the hospital. So, there’s only so many times you can make that narrative choice before the audience is like, ‘That again?’ Knowing what we were barrelling towards in terms of our endgame, it felt like, ‘We can’t keep telling the same story beats over and over again.’
Do you have an affinity to a specific Pose character when you’re writing?
I absolutely have a favourite, and that is without a doubt Blanca. In our writer’s room, we each have a character that we track, if you will. We may not necessarily always write every scene for that character, but at least in the writer’s room, we’re the encyclopaedia for that particular character. I’m very much invested in her success, happiness and safety. I’m always thinking about her and her journey and who she is as a person.
Would you move a trunk with a dead body in for Blanca?
I literally tweeted this after the episode aired! I was like, ‘Everyone needs a Blanca in their life because this sis will take a risk for you!’ I would not. I love my best friends but I do not know if I will be moving a dead body for them! She is truly a ride or die. The only person I would maybe do that for is my sister. Even that I’m like… It’ll be a long conversation. I love that Blanca is down for her people. She is gonna show up for the people who matter the most to her. I aspire to be as good a human as she is.
Just look at the current television landscape. Where are the other Pose's of the world?
Take me back to before Pose hit our screens. Is there anything you can tell me about the process that turned out completely different, maybe the vision of a character or storyline?
I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that question before. This is fun: when we were working on the pilot, at the end of the episode we had Lil Papi run out and say, ‘Hey, I wanna join your house.’ I don’t even think he had a name yet. There was a really long conversation between Ryan and I because he, at one point, wanted to make the character a female. So, Lil Papi was almost Lil Mami! We went back and forth on it for quite a bit but ultimately, we decided to keep the character male. That was one that we had a lot of back and forth on.
I would die for Lil Papi.
[Laughs] And he’s great. He was my favourite character for a moment. He’s up there with Blanca. He’s 1.5. They’re neck and neck!
You were once told that the story of Pose was too niche for audiences, and now it’s a global hit with several Emmy Awards under its belt – what advice would you give to queer creators who have been met with the same resistance from those in industry?
I would tell them to continue believing in their story. If you don’t believe in it, no one else is going to. The reality is that our lives and our stories have been historically marginalised. We’ve always been on the fringe. It’s our responsibility to continue to push for progress. We can’t expect those doors to just open. The gatekeepers aren’t going to suddenly decide, ‘You know what? We’ve been wrong all this time and we’re going to let you in.’ That’s never gonna happen. We have to, as creators and creatives, find our tribe and community of like-minded people. Then, collectively use that energy to push back against all of the people who are telling us our stories have no value or that our lives are niche, that our work doesn’t deserve to be centred.
Pose has revolutionised television for LGBTQ+ stories. Have you seen much progress for trans creators in front and behind the camera as a result of the show?
That’s a really interesting question and, if I’m being honest, no. I’m hopeful that it will improve. Just look at the current television landscape. Where are the other Pose’s of the world? I think it’s great that on HBO Max we have Legendary, which isn’t a scripted series and is a cousin of Pose because it’s about ballroom, but in terms of seeing other queer content creators or specifically trans content creators… I know that there are tons of trans creatives in LA, specifically in Hollywood, because last year when we were in quarantine, I compiled a list of trans and gender non-binary creatives so that if people reached out to me to ask, I could just provide this list. On my list, I have 100 people already. That’s not even comprehensive. Literally all of those people, I don’t know if any of them have a show on air at the moment. That, to me, is part of the problem. Are we as an industry investing in these voices? Are we investing in the narratives of LGBTQ+ people? We’re seeing a couple more stories now, but there aren’t that many. The reality is, particularly for me as a queer person of colour, I know that there are other queer content creators out there, but they’re all white. Again, we need to be looking at this intersectionally so it’s not just about one particular identity, so it’s not just about whether you’re queer or trans, but it’s also, ‘Are you a woman? Are you a person of colour? Are you differently abled?’ All of these other identities are critically important and so I’m ready for the industry to be a lot more inclusive when it comes to whose stories we are telling.
Are there any other periods in queer history that you’d like to base a series around?
That’s a great question. I wouldn’t say there’s an immediate period. The reason I say that is because we’ve always existed. Whether it’s a story that’s in the 1800s or a story that takes place in 5020, deep in the future, we’re always going to be present. Specifically for me, as a queer person, queerness is always going to permeate what work I do. Regardless of what the story is that I’m telling and what period of time that story takes place in, there’s always going to be a queer element to the stories I tell.
Is there a chance that the characters of Pose could be revisited in the future?
I would never say never. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my lifetime, it’s that you never know. Life is constantly surprising you. I would never say absolutely not. The other really big thing is that I genuinely love these characters as much as the audience does. I don’t know if in the immediate future I’ll have a desire to dive back into this world. I feel good about these three seasons and the story I’ve told alongside my collaborators, but I wouldn’t ever say that I’m not open to the idea of revisiting them. As a storyteller, I will always be curious and thinking about them. And the other thing is, we never really dug all the way into their histories, so there really is a pocket of time that is unaccounted for between us seeing the House of Abundance form and then the house breaking up. There definitely is room for us to tell more stories there. Who knows? Maybe.
If Dominique Jackson doesn’t get some kind of Emmy recognition for Elektra’s backstory episode… I’m gonna lose my shit.
Start that campaign Sam!
On Twitter, I saw you express interest in directing a reboot of X-Men. Please Steven, tell me your vision!
I hope Marvel is listening. I’m ready for the full pitch Marvel. Call me!
Kevin [Feige], you there?
Kevin Feige, give me a call! I have been a faithful collector of X-Men since I was 10 years old. Every week I go to the comic shop to pick up my books. It is the one comic title that I have faithfully and consistently collected over 30 years now. I love the world. It’s an allegory, right? It’s an allegory for sexual orientation and race. The thing I love about them is they were born with these powers, they didn’t acquire them at some point, and they all have to contend with their birth right and what it means to be born in a particular body with these abilities. It’s something that particularly queer and trans people are very familiar with. I think that most queer people, at some point, have probably had some version of feeling like, ‘Why me?’ in that process of getting to the place where you self-actualise and fully love yourself. You’ve internalised all of these messages that have told you that you’re less than. I dealt with a lot of internalised homophobia prior to coming out. I love that X-Men are constantly having to contend with similar issues.
I dealt with a lot of internalised homophobia prior to coming out. I love that X-Men are constantly having to contend with similar issues.
Despite it being so fantastical, it’s still a really grounded narrative. The other thing is, and don’t get me wrong, I love all the X-Men movies, but there are those titles within the comic that are really big that they tend to focus on all of the time. In both the original and more recent version of the films, they both did a version of the Dark Phoenix Saga. There are so many other interesting stories that take place within the X-World. I’m just gonna nerd out for a second: The Phalanx Covenant, for example, or Fall of the Mutants. I’m ready for the task. I want to write the hell out of that movie. If they wanna hire a different director, that’s fine. Just let me get a crack at telling the story!
If Kevin said you can direct an X-Men film with a storyline of your choice, but you had to do a third version of the Dark Phoenix Saga first, would you sign on?
Erm… Yeah, I would still do it. If Marvel called me and they were like, ‘Listen, we want you to reboot it but the first film has to be Dark Phoenix,’ I’d be like, ‘Fine.’ I’d make it work! This is the thing, and this is connected to talking about Pose as well. What I think is so important about creating content is that there has to be a love and a reverence for the source. Whether it’s Pose, which is obviously a way to pay homage to the ballroom community, or whether it’s creating the third Dark Phoenix film, I have a real and genuine love for the world and what it represents. Sometimes when stories lose their way, it’s when you bring people to work on these projects who don’t fully have an investment in what the story is all about. That’s the difference.
How do you want Pose and future projects of yours to impact the industry moving forward?
To be really honest, my greatest hope is that ten years from now, the landscape has shifted enough that people will look back and say, ‘Pose. That was the moment where everything shifted.’ That’s what I hope. I appreciate that people talk about the show now, in the present day, as being groundbreaking and important. But, I don’t want Pose to just be a moment. I want Pose to be a movement. Progress can be really slow, and that’s something I’m hyper-aware of. We’re not going to see change overnight, but I think that the reality is, we as a community, have been on the frontline fighting to take up space unapologetically. We’ve been fighting to be heard. We’ve been fighting for our rights for decades. I’m ready for LGBTQ+ people to not have to fight anymore.
The third and final season of Pose premieres in the UK later this year.