It's no coincidence that Pray Tell (Billy Porter), the emcee with the raspy golden voice in Pose, injects whole albums worth of musicality in the words he speaks while commandeering the ballroom floor: Billy Porter is an accomplished Broadway vet, best known for winning a Tony for portraying Lola in Kinky Boots. Of course, Porter is also black and gay and thus already familiar with the rhythms and tones in ballroom language; his arrival in New York (from Pittsburgh) in 1985 placed him smack dab in the middle of the scene's mythic modern origin, documented in Paris is Burning and dramatized in Pose. While Porter pumps Pray Tell full of joy and pastiche whether in the ballroom or when playing sister to Blanca or godfather Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), Porter also knows a lot about the suffering Pray Tell experienced too. Like Pray Tell, Porter was also coming into his own as a young man in New York just as AIDS was turning New York into a ghost town, all while he faced discrimination and underemployment that made opportunities scarce. As he tells TV Guide, Porter faced constant rejection on Broadway and in Hollywood because of his sexual orientation and natural flamboyance — he was constantly told he had no chance in the industry. Thirty years later, Porter is thriving as a singer, actor and performer for being exactly who he is, and playing a role that honors his experience. As he wrapped the finale episodes, Porter talked with TV Guide about how Shakespeare and Judi Dench informed Pray Tell, why Pose feels like a watershed moment and the giddy irony of being the most masculine performer in the room.
First of all, the name Pray Tell — what's the backstory, how did the name come about?
Porter: That's Ryan Murphy. That bitch is a genius. The character didn't exist until I walked into the room. He created and developed the character for me. The first time I knew who the character was, was when I went to my first costume fitting. I was like, 'Wait - my character's name is Pray Tell?' (Laughs) It's hilarious!
There is so much musicality in the way Pray Tell delivers his words. It's very much how black gay people speak with one another but how did you go about bringing that to the screen?
Porter: One of the things that I am really proud of is that I trained as a classical actor at Carnegie Mellon. I had a really hard time when I first came to New York City; I was pigeonholed into being The Coon Show. It was really difficult to convince people what I was bringing to the table wasn't happenstance — there is craft and thought behind it, not just, 'All black people can sing!' or 'Just be crazy!' I have not been in the ballroom scene — I have been ballroom adjacent — but one of things I find interesting in ballroom and the black church too are these people who stand in the front and hold forth in front of the congregation. They have to feel and appear elevated. One of things they do is adjust their speech. Sometimes the heightened energy is layered into the approach so it was, 'How could I make this character grounded?' I went back to the Shakespearean. I said this character appears in this material in the ballroom in a Shakespearean way. How would Judi Dench or Sir Ian McKellen do it? What would be the black gay version of one of those actors doing it?
When you say Shakespearean, what does that mean? Do you mean the delivery?
Porter: It's in verse. When you learn Shakespeare, the meaning of the line comes in the cadence. The iambic pentameter of it. And in (black) culture, with rap and and hip-hop, it lends itself to it naturally to that. I've tried to make it sort of sing in that way.