Billy Porter Gets Real About Inclusivity in Hollywood—And The Story Behind That Oscars Dress | Screen Tests

In 2019, it's hard to imagine a conversation about Hollywood and fashion without the name Billy Porter. But for years, the 'Pose' star was just outside the mainstream pop star bubble, winning Grammys and Tony Awards while dominating the theater community. Suffice to say, he has plenty of tales to tell. In his first screen test, actor Billy Porter talks about what it took to make it in Hollywood—and why he's not going anywhere now that he's here.

Released on 7/18/2019

Credits

Starring: Billy Porter

Transcript

00:00
I was washing dishes in my kitchen
00:01
and the Tony Awards came on,
00:03
and I didn't even know what the Tony Awards were
00:05
but it was the year that Dreamgirls was up for Best Musical,
00:09
and all of a sudden, there the fight scene was
00:12
with Jennifer Holliday and Loretta Devine.
00:15
And it ended with And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going
00:17
and I was in shock because here were, first of all,
00:22
all of these beautiful black people
00:25
in high fashion and gowns and hair and makeup, and you know.
00:31
You didn't see a lot of people of color on television
00:34
dripping in style and fashion.
00:36
And then Jennifer Holliday sang.
00:38
She sang like me and here she was on television.
00:42
So the connection of money and television really sort of
00:47
launched me into this space where,
00:48
Oh, I'm gonna do that.
00:50
That's what I'm gonna do. [woman laughing]
00:57
Paris Is Burning was like my favorite movie, my tome.
01:02
It came out in the early '90s right when I was
01:05
coming to New York City and it was really the first time
01:08
that I saw LGBTQ people of color
01:10
in any sort of space like that.
01:14
It's a movie that me and everybody I know
01:17
had revered for a very long time.
01:19
I was the star of Kinky Boots,
01:21
I won a Tony Award for that, I won a Grammy for that,
01:23
and so I got the call and I got the script
01:27
for the character that they were calling me in for
01:29
and it was the dance teacher and I was like,
01:31
Well, this ain't quite the role I want,
01:34
but I went in, I did my reading,
01:36
and then said,
01:37
I don't wanna overstep my bounds
01:40
but I feel like I've lived through this,
01:43
through the AIDS crisis.
01:44
I was ball-adjacent, I say.
01:46
[woman laughing]
01:48
I went to many balls and I lived in those circles
01:51
for many years and would you need somebody who's an energy
01:56
that is older, perhaps.
01:59
And I thought,
02:00
If you're gonna tell this story,
02:01
you're gonna tell the depth of it.
02:03
One of the things that's so powerful about Paris Is Burning
02:05
is that it's about a culture, a marginalized culture
02:09
of people, a group of people who had nothing,
02:11
literally nothing, and chose life anyway.
02:14
I wanted to tell that story.
02:16
He basically came back and said,
02:17
If you could do an impersonation
02:20
of the emcees at the balls, we'll create something for you.
02:24
And it was like,
02:25
If?
02:26
Miss thing?
02:28
The whole world is doing an impersonation of the emcee
02:32
from the balls for the last 30 years!
02:34
So yes, dahling, I can and I shall.
02:39
That's how Pray Tell came to be.
02:42
I feel like I'm the kind of person who doesn't know
02:45
how to do anything else but keep going.
02:49
My mother is my hero.
02:50
She has had a disability her entire life.
02:53
I sat and watched her get out of bed every day
02:56
and show up for her life every day.
02:58
It gave me that kind of tenacity to never give up.
03:01
I also come from a space where you speak life,
03:04
you speak the things that you want into existence
03:07
no matter how long it may take.
03:08
It took a long time for me.
03:10
The systematic homophobia in the business at large,
03:14
the attack on my masculinity really led me to a crossroads
03:19
'cause it was like,
03:20
Well, you have to fix yourself
03:22
or you won't ever have success.
03:25
We talk about authenticity.
03:26
We throw that word around all the time
03:28
and I always say it's easy to be who you are
03:30
when what you are is what's popular.
03:31
What I am and who I am ain't popular.
03:34
People are listening now.
03:35
People are paying attention now.
03:37
It's always about commerce.
03:38
People in the entertainment industry, in the arts industry,
03:41
we masquerade as being inclusive.
03:44
We are inclusive when it's convenient.
03:47
We are inclusive when it's gonna make somebody some money.
03:51
When I went to see Angels in America,
03:54
it was the first time that I had seen a black gay character
03:58
who was not the butt of the joke,
03:59
who was not the one to be reviled,
04:02
who was actually the moral, spiritual compass
04:06
of this crazy world.
04:09
I was doing Grease, the revival of Grease,
04:12
prancing around with 14 inches of orange rubber hair
04:14
on my head like a Little Richard automaton on crack.
04:19
[woman laughing]
04:20
And I knew that if I stayed on that trajectory,
04:23
I would never get to what my heart really wanted,
04:25
what my soul really desired,
04:27
so I walked away from all of it.
04:29
I look back at it and I think,
04:30
Wow, if I knew how long it was gonna take
04:34
to get to the other side,
04:36
I don't know that I would've had the courage to do that.
04:38
I'm so glad that I lept off the ledge and just flew.
04:42
When Pose came along,
04:43
feeling dismissed from the film and television world,
04:48
feeling overlooked, dismissed, disrespected, whatever,
04:52
even after the Tony, even after the Grammy,
04:55
I came back to performing onstage with the first revival
04:58
of Angels in America in 2010
05:00
and then the next gig after that was Kinky Boots.
05:03
The subversive energy that existed with me doing it
05:07
was that, no, I am not a clown,
05:09
yes, I am a sexy drag queen woman.
05:12
I'm playing it for the truth.
05:14
The other side of that, too, was I'm also a black man
05:18
and people who don't live in those worlds don't understand
05:23
the impact of that.
05:24
That had never happened before.
05:26
Zaza in La Cage aux Folles was never a black man.
05:28
Hedwig was never a black man until Taye Diggs.
05:33
I couldn't even get an audition for Hedwig
05:35
the first time around.
05:37
They didn't see us like that.
05:39
It really smashed the glass ceiling.
05:41
I'm very, very proud of that
05:43
and even after that, I was still dismissed.
05:47
A man in a dress was okay
05:49
but the moment that you're real,
05:51
the moment that you're pretty, then it's an affront.
05:54
Then it's an agenda.
05:56
It's like,
05:57
Don't me mad that your husband is getting excited.
06:00
Don't be mad.
06:01
[woman laughing]
06:04
Don't be mad I'm pretty, bitch.
06:07
You know what I mean?
06:09
It's a whole new conversation
06:12
because it does challenge.
06:13
It's easy when you go and you see Mrs. Doubtfire or Tootsie
06:17
or any of these things.
06:18
It's like,
06:19
Oh yeah, that's a straight man who's going home
06:21
to have sex with his wife.
06:22
It's harder to take when,
06:25
Well, these people might be homosexual.
06:28
What does this mean to my children?
06:31
What do I tell my children?
06:33
Tell them the truth.
06:34
There are many different kinds of people in the world
06:37
and we respect everyone's humanity
06:39
even if we don't understand it.
06:41
Amen and amen.
06:43
[sighs]
06:44
So here's what happened.
06:46
I really began to try to figure out
06:48
business-wise for myself,
06:50
I am the business, I am the brand,
06:52
what is my brand?
06:55
I know for certain that my brand will also include fashion
06:58
in some way.
06:59
Fashion is hard to break into from the theater.
07:02
It also is hard to break into
07:04
when you're above a certain age.
07:06
But that's cool.
07:07
It didn't matter for me.
07:08
I'm gonna do it anyway.
07:10
So I started playing with this gender-fluid thing.
07:15
The Oscar call came out of the blue
07:18
and after all the Kevin Hart stuff,
07:20
I was on lists to host.
07:23
I was like,
07:24
People, please let's not put the cart before.
07:25
I am so not that person.
07:28
It was so not in my brain and then literally the phone rang
07:31
three weeks before the Oscars and it was like,
07:34
They want you to host the red carpet.
07:36
Me and my gay friends, my gay girlfriends, all of our lives,
07:40
we would have Oscar parties.
07:41
It's like,
07:42
I'm about to wear a gown to the Oscars.
07:43
I don't care.
07:44
Sort of teasing, right?
07:47
Not really thinking that that was really actually possible.
07:50
So I get this call, I was doing fashion week,
07:53
I was the ambassador for the CFDA for men's fashion week
07:55
and I was doing all the women's shows too.
07:57
It was my first fashion week, in heaven.
08:00
I had never been to fashion shows like that
08:02
before in my life and I'm thinking,
08:04
What am I gonna wear?
08:05
And I remember watching the Oscars with Idina Menzel
08:08
the year Frozen was up.
08:09
John Travolta said her name wrong
08:12
and out loud I said to myself,
08:14
I need an Oscar moment.
08:16
The Oscars is like the entertainment Super Bowl.
08:19
[woman laughing]
08:23
Millions and millions and sometimes billions of people
08:27
see this.
08:28
She became a household name because John Travolta
08:31
said her name wrong.
08:32
So when that call came, I was like,
08:35
Baby, what is your moment gonna be?
08:39
[woman laughing]
08:40
When we would ask for male and female things
08:44
because I wanted to do a gender-fluid thing,
08:46
many houses were saying,
08:47
We don't think he should wear that.
08:49
Once again, a silencing.
08:51
So I didn't know how they were gonna shoot it but I thought,
08:54
If it starts here, right, and it looks like a tux
08:58
and then they pull out and people see that it's like
09:01
a Cinderella ballgown, the world will gag.
09:04
That's what happened.
09:05
Now,
09:09
the good news and the complicated news
09:11
is that the world really did gag.
09:13
That literally because I showed up in a dress,
09:16
the world lost their mind.
09:18
That's a little
09:20
strange for me in 2019.
09:23
At the same time, it really boosted my career,
09:27
so, okay.
09:29
I had no idea that nobody wore a dress to the Oscars
09:32
for 91 years.
09:33
I didn't know that.
09:34
I wasn't thinking about that.
09:36
I was just trying to be as authentic as I could
09:40
in a space where it would matter.
09:43
Where was my first kiss?
09:46
[laughs]
09:48
My first kiss was with my best friend who was a girl.
09:51
She was two years older than me.
09:54
I was in love with her all the way through high school.
09:56
She loved everybody else.
09:58
She came to my room before she went to college.
10:01
I had a room that you entered the side of the house
10:03
and then it went right down to the basement
10:05
so she came to the room in a sundress
10:07
and we kissed
10:10
and that's when I knew I was gay.
10:11
[woman laughing]
10:13
And I don't mean that in a sense that the kiss wasn't good.
10:17
The kiss was great
10:18
but it was just like,
10:20
Oh, I really think what I'm feeling on the inside
10:22
is actually true.
10:24
This just isn't the gender that I'm attracted to.
10:28
It was a moment of truth, yeah.