Mj Rodriguez Wants to Change the World
The Afro–Puerto Rican has stolen hearts and knocked down barriers as Blanca on Pose, and she's only just getting started.
There's a lot to absorb in every episode of FX's hit series Pose — the fashion is loud, the dancing is awe-inspiring, and the characters, participants in the New York City ballroom scene of the '80s and '90s, are over the top. But amidst the sensual overload, Mj Rodriguez stands out as Blanca, a maternal figure to the other other more impulsive characters and the show's emotional center. When it seemed like Blanca might die near the end of season two this past summer (she didn't), fans lost their minds on social media. “I couldn't really say anything to the masses because they had to watch it,” says Rodriguez. “But it was great on my end to be like, “Don't worry, y'all. She's gonna make it! She's gonna push through.”
Born in Newark, New Jersey, the Afro–Puerto Rican, 28, started acting as a kid in youth theater programs. At 14, she started going to New York to check out the ballroom scene. She says she was “very much an observer” — and only participated till she was about 17, because her parents were worried about a “rambunctious” teen alone in the city — but she's incorporated some of her real-life experiences into her portrayal of Blanca.
As a seven-year-old, Rodriguez “prayed” to become female. But it wasn't until college, when she played Angel in an off-Broadway production of Rent, that she realized something was missing from her identity. Angel is traditionally played as a cisgender male drag queen, but Rodriguez decided to play her as a transgender woman; as the show progressed, she wished she could be as fearless as Angel in real life, too. Shortly after the show wrapped, Rodriguez, who'd come out to her parents as bisexual in her teens, decided to begin the transition process. In 2016, she told her reps that she would no longer audition for male roles; to her surprise, they were totally supportive.
Pose, announced in 2017, premiered last year and made headlines for its large transgender cast as well as commitment to hiring trans writers, directors and producers. It's since become one of the most critically acclaimed dramas on the air, having won a Peabody and a GLAAD Media Award.
At this year's Emmys, the show was nominated for Outstanding Drama Series, and Billy Porter became the first openly gay black man to win a trophy in the lead actor category. “It was kind of a defining moment for me,” Rodriguez says of attending the ceremony. “Being regarded in that space and people seeing me and giving us accolades, it felt really, really good. It felt validating in a way that I don't think a lot of black trans women like myself would ever get the chance to feel.”
Along with Porter, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson and Angelica Ross, Rodriguez has become one of Pose‘s breakout stars. She's modeled for Rihanna's Savage X Fenty lingerie line, walked the runway for the Blonds at New York Fashion Week, fronted a Moschino x H&M campaign, and served as a grand marshal at NYC's Pride March with Moore and Jackson. Last year, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation honored her with a Trailblazer award for her “talent, courage and social impact.”
More recently, Rodriguez hit the stage again, this time as Audrey in the Pasadena Playhouse's production of Little Shop of Horrors. Once again, she put her own Mj spin on a classic character. “I wanted to make Audrey as real as possible,” she explains. “Everyone has seen this character as the lovely blonde who is quote-unquote aloof, and they wrote her very airy. I didn't want to do that, simply because I know that women in general, we're not airy. We're to be taken very seriously.”
Despite her recent rise to fame, Rodriguez still lives at home with her family in Newark and has no immediate plans to leave. “It's really wonderful to have a foundation that's under me,” she says. “We cut up, we have cookouts, we do everything. It's the best.” They also don't treat her any differently now that she's walking red carpets. “My mother always gets on my case! She's like, ‘Girl, pull your dress up.'”
Rodriguez loves working on Pose, but she hopes that casting directors will offer her the chance to branch out and play cisgender characters in the future. “Let's just be completely 100 and honest: Many cisgender individuals have played our roles,” she says. “If they can play us and say they understand our experience, then I have the right to play them as well. … This is what I love to do. I'm doing this for people to have characters that they can relate to, but I'm also doing it to change the world.”
For more with Mj Rodriguez, pick up the Dec/Jan issue of People en Español, on stands now.