Billy Porter Reflects on Healing Through Playing Pray Tell on Pose

Billy Porter earned his third Emmy nomination for Pose and says the show helped him and others process their trauma.

By Lauren Piester Jul 13, 2021 11:55 PMTags
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Pose may have come to an end, but for Billy Porter, "It's time to tell a different story." 

The 51-year-old actor just scored his third Emmy nomination for his role as Pray Tell on FX's Pose, which aired its series finale on June 6. The show ended with Pray Tell's death after his battle with HIV/AIDS, just a few weeks after Porter revealed that he had been living with a positive HIV diagnosis for 14 years. 

In the wake of his latest Lead Actor nom, Porter tells E! News that playing the character was a true healing experience.

"What I understood from day one was that I could use Pose and the character of Pray Tell in proxy for my own healing and my own journey with trauma and grief as it relates to that time period," he says. "One of the things that has stuck out for me about the whole thing is a lot of my older friends were calling and saying, 'Oh, I didn't know that I had anything left to process.'" 

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The final season was set in the mid 90s and saw Pray Tell getting a spot in a HIV drug trial, though in the end he sacrificed himself for his lover. Porter says that when drugs were developed that made HIV easier to manage, "everybody moved on, as if it never happened." 

"So there's a whole generation of us who haven't really been able to process what happened to us in relation to healing trauma," he explains. "And that's been the biggest part of this particularly in the last season, is how I've been able to use it as an agent of healing. And I hope that as an example we can be that for others." 

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Porter says that for him, Pose was always meant to be an example. 

"The whole process for me, from start to finish, has really been about stepping into what visibility means and how art has the power to change the hearts and minds of people from the inside out," he shares. "It's like my goal has always been my art as activism, my art as healing. It has been very healing to me and to be able to share that energy through this work with the world has just been my greatest, greatest honor." 

Pose has been groundbreaking in many ways, from its portrayal of AIDS patients to its cast full of trans talent. Porter's co-star MJ Rodriguez made Emmy history this year as the first trans woman nominated in a major acting category, and Porter says he's always been singing her praises.

"As I've been saying from the beginning, there would be no Pose without MJ Rodriguez," he says. "She's been carrying this show on her back like Jesus on the road to Damascus from day one. And it's about time that the world sees it and acknowledges it. This is something that should have been acknowledged a long time ago so I'm just thankful that in this last season they did right by her." 

Pose may have ushered in a lot of firsts, but it will hardly be the last. As Porter says, "It's just the beginning." 

—Reporting by Brody Brown

Visit E!'s 2021 Emmy Awards page for a recap of TV's biggest night.