“When I first read the script, all I could think of was, ‘Oh, my God. There’s finally a story about trans joy. “”
John Hughes created the mold for teen comedies, but there was something missing in many of these films: diversity. That’s where Billy Porter is Everything is possible (July 22) enters. “There was no one who looked like me in these [Hughes] movies, so I had to superimpose myself on an archetype that was white.” Porter’s first film tells the story of Kelsa (played by Eva Reign), a teenage girl who is also trans as she navigates life and love during her senior year.” She’s not Molly Ringwald, is she? She’s not the typical ingenue the way we’re used to receiving it.” Porter says Eva was perfect for the film because of the maturity she brought to the role. “It’s a transgender black girl who came out before she was 17. It means she has a different type of maturity, [one] not required by white cisgender girls or black cisgender girls.” Busier than ever, Porter is very excited about one of his first projects after his Emmy-winning turn on Laid focused on joy. “Laid is about trauma, and we still choose joy; we choose love. But Everything is possible is pure, unadulterated joy.”
Have you always wanted to direct?
Yes, I always knew I wanted to direct. I will admit that I thought I was going to give Clint Eastwood a reality in my twilight years when I was done playing or when I was bored of playing, that I would transition. I never expected that I would get bored playing so soon. And by bored, let me be clear, bored might not be the right word. But when I was in my mid-twenties, in the first decade of my career, it became painfully clear to me that the kind of work I wanted to do wasn’t accessible to me. So in order for me to create the kind of work I wanted to bring to the world, I was probably going to have to create and pilot it myself. Which means I should probably write it and direct it and do all those things. So the gift and the blessing inside of the disappointment of not having the kind of success I thought I was entitled to because I had talent pushed me further. It made me ground myself in a different way. And here I am. It made me a better artist. It made me a happier human being inside this company. Like it’s helped me navigate the business and keep my sanity in ways that I don’t know are possible, if one doesn’t have a charge.
Very often with queer stories there’s a lot of trauma, but that’s not the case with Everything is possible. Was it intentional to focus on joy?
Absolutely. When I first read the script, all I could think of was, “Oh my God. There’s finally a story about trans joy.” I just got out Laid. Laid is brilliant. Laid is about trauma and we choose joy anyway, we choose love anyway. But Everything is possible is pure, unadulterated joy. And it’s a coming-of-age romantic comedy about a black, transgender high school student. And it happens to be in my hometown of Pittsburgh. I was just crying. Tears of joy. The first time I read it and thought, “Wow, if I can somehow be a part of this, what a transformative experience it will be for the world.” And the world needs it. We need it now. We need it.
This type of story with Eva as the headliner is unfortunately rare. Considering she’s new to acting and will likely come under scrutiny, how did you help her?
The thing with Eva is that I was very specific in casting her. She is very down to earth. She may be a little more grounded than people are used to characters in romantic comedies, coming-of-age stories in the spirit of old John Hughes movies. She’s not Molly Ringwald, is she? She is not the typical ingenue the way we are used to receiving him. I was really looking for this. I chose it on purpose because this story that we have never seen before requires a different depth to lead it. She’s number one on the call sheet. The whole story rests on his shoulders. So she must be strong enough. It must be sufficiently anchored within this space to help the public. Help us understand the importance and why. She’s not a little white girl. She is a black transgender girl who came out before the age of 17. It means she has a different kind of maturity. A maturity that is not required by white cisgender girls, or black cisgender girls, or anything straight cisgender. What I love about her performance is that she’s very grounded. It is very present.
I see Zendaya as Eva.
Yes. And Ximena [García Lecuona], our screenwriter, wrote a story about an empowered black transgender girl. “Ability” being the key word. We’re so used to the trans community, the queer community, to not being self-sufficient. From the start, I wanted to make sure everyone knew that she wasn’t begging anyone for anything. She doesn’t need a man to do nothing.
You are so well known for your personality. In what ways were you able to give part of your personality to the film?
Well, no one can do it alone. There are artisans all around me. The costumes, the DP [director of photography], hair, makeup. Apart from the children, almost all of the adult actors in the film are friends of mine. Artists I’ve worked with since I was a teenager, some of them still live in Pittsburgh. On my first outing, praise the Lord, I was able to surround myself with everything I needed to make sure that my vision and personality, as you say, was anchored in the room. I have been watching for a long time. I was sidelined. I have been directing in theater for a long time. I have a point of view. I know exactly what I mean and I know what I want it to sound like. I know how to tell the artisans around me who can then take it and make it even better than what I had in mind. It was magical to see him come together. My first participation in a film like this. It was magical.
John Hughes’ films are often credited with creating the mold for modern teen comedy. What movies have you watched for inspiration?
I started trying to watch John Hughes movies. No shade please. No shade. They don’t necessarily age very well. It was another era. And when they were, they were extraordinary. They were magnificent. They were wonderful. They were the blood of our life. You come back to it and most of the time the whole cast is all white. When there is a minority, stereotypes abound. And what I wanted when I started was to extract the joy. I want to emphasize the importance for adults to take our young people seriously, because I think that was one of the most important elements of these films, that children were taken seriously. I wanted to bring that and I also just wanted to reflect what the world looks like. It’s the one thing that, in retrospect, has always been so difficult for me. There was no one who looked like me in those movies, so I had to superimpose myself on an archetype who was white. So now we have a film in the spirit of those films with a cast that resembles the world today. It makes me so happy.
For me, in these films of John Hughes, they are the secondary characters with whom I identified the most. It is the same in Everything is possible.
You understood exactly what I was trying to do. Because when you have the straight characters, and by straight I mean the grounded ones. You have your two leads that ground the movie, and then everyone around them can just be magical. Sprinkle fabulous all over, and it was actually intentional. So it’s really cool that you recognized him.
How did you Laid change the entertainment landscape for queer POC people?
It really was. It opened up a space and a conversation that didn’t exist before, and there’s no turning back. What I love is that Ryan Murphy, in his infinite artistry and wisdom, understood that it was his ally in the queer community, especially the POC community, that would be the springboard for the whole space, opening up and advancing. He taught us all to fish. There’s the saying, don’t feed me, teach me to fish so I can feed myself. That’s the idea of it. It’s like he set up a space for us all to learn how to do it ourselves so we can go out into the world and move on. I’m here because Mr. Murphy took the time to care and do something about it.