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'My Spirit Is On The Verge Of Being Broken': Billy Porter On This Moment In History

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Billy Porter is nominated for an Emmy this year for lead actor in a drama series for his portrayal of Pray Tell on the FX show "Pose."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POSE")

BILLY PORTER: (As Pray Tell) Where's the lusciousness? Where's the juice? If I squeezed you, I wouldn't be able to get enough out of you to fill a Dixie cup of lemonade.

KELLY: In "Pose," Pray Tell is an emcee in the underground '80s and '90s New York drag ball scene. And he's a father figure to a lot of the characters as they navigate the HIV/AIDS crisis. Billy Porter won an Emmy for that role last year, and it was historic. He is an out gay black man on a show that features several trans actors of color. Porter talked about the lessons the show and his art offer today with NPR's Sam Sanders.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: The historic nature of Billy Porter's acting is matched by his red carpet looks - a tuxedo dress at the Oscars, being carried into the Met Gala by muscle-bound men as he wore this wonderful metallic gold ensemble. Unfortunately, though, there'll be no spectacle from Porter at this year's Emmys. Billy Porter said, with the news of this year, the pandemic, the unrest, it just doesn't feel right to show off a glitzy look.

PORTER: My spirit is on the verge of being broken. And while I have chosen to be stylish by simply giving you caftan realness all summer because that's what I'm doing, you know, that's as far as the style for me can go right now.

SANDERS: Porter says, still, the clothes are important. He says his fashion is activism, and he wants to use his body and his wardrobe to make all of us question notions of gender.

PORTER: From every place and space in my life, my masculinity has been in question. That's what I have lived. I stopped that. I took myself out of the masculinity race.

SANDERS: That also means Porter only takes roles now where he can be his full, complete self. Porter told me it wasn't always like this. He got his start on Broadway in the '90s, but he quickly left.

PORTER: I walked away. I walked away. I want to be seen for roles, real roles, real parts, real things, and the work dried up just as I suspected it would.

SANDERS: For years, his career was pretty quiet. But around 2013, Porter got a role on Broadway in a little musical called "Kinky Boots."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "KINKY BOOTS")

PORTER: (As Lola, singing) The sex is in the heel even if you break it.

SANDERS: Porter says the role he played, Lola, it was first written straight, but he said no to that. Porter made the character gay, "Kinky Boots" became a super hit, and it won Billy Porter a Tony Award. Flash-forward a few years, and he's winning awards for his work on "Pose," a show full of queer representation. And "Pose" is particularly timely this year. On that show, the characters are dealing with a different pandemic, HIV/AIDS in the '80s, something Porter lived through himself. Porter says there are parallels between the AIDS crisis and the coronavirus.

PORTER: The death - you know, the death toll with a government whose response clearly is about not caring. That's what I'm talking about when I say I'm on the brink.

SANDERS: But even with that fear, Billy Porter told me the HIV/AIDS crisis, it has a lesson for all of us now in the midst of our current pandemic.

PORTER: Love always wins. Love always wins.

SANDERS: Tell me more.

PORTER: That's it.

SANDERS: Sam Sanders, NPR News.

KELLY: And you can hear more of Sam's interview with Billy Porter on his podcast, It's Been A Minute, from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.