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Billy Porter on Finding Joy in Telling Queer Stories: ‘The Change Has Already Happened’

"The pushback is so acute because the change has already happened," Porter told IndieWire of LGBTQ representation. "Let's celebrate the joy in that."

Billy Porter arrives for the 71st annual Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony held at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, California, USA, 22 September 2019. The Primetime Emmys celebrate excellence in national primetime television broadcasting.Arrivals - 71st Primetime Emmy Awards, Los Angeles, USA - 22 Sep 2019

Billy Porter

ETIENNE LAURENT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Known worldwide as a dynamic powerhouse performer, first for his Tony-winning role as Lola in “Kinky Boots” and then for his Emmy-winning role as PrayTell in “Pose,” Billy Porter isn’t afraid to take on new challenges. The actor makes his feature directorial debut this month with “Anything’s Possible,” a teen romance about a trans girl experiencing first love. As a longtime member of and advocate for the LGBTQ community, the “Pose” star was a natural fit to helm this story that treats its trans protagonist as any other teenager. Love and joy are central themes in the movie, which never makes an obstacle of the character’s trans-ness.

Shot and set in Porter’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the movie stars many of Porter’s friends from his early days in the theater. “Anything’s Possible” was also produced by Killer Films’ Christine Vachon and David Hinojosa, prolific and celebrated producers of many acclaimed queer films. Wth their backing, Porter felt confident stepping into the director’s chair (at least, on a film set) for the first time.

IndieWire spoke to Porter amidst shooting for his new movie “Our Son,” in which he stars opposite Luke Evans.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

IndieWire: How was it stepping into film directing for the first time?

Billy Porter: I’ve been directing theater for about 20 years, and it’s been a dream of mine to direct film for about that same amount of time. I love being able to be at the helm of telling the stories of the intersection of my communities. Stories that we don’t get to hear very often. We don’t get to see very often. I’m grateful to be able to be a leader in that now.

Lots of things shoot in Pittsburgh, but this movie is actually set in Pittsburgh. How did it feel shooting in your hometown?

There’s a lot of people still are stuck in thinking that Pittsburgh is some old, gray, steel town. And steel hasn’t been there in 50 years. There’s tech there, the arts, medicine. So I wanted to create a love letter to my hometown, and I think I had a chance to do that.

Were you able to cast much local talent?

Everybody in this, outside of the kids, were all my friends and locals. The art teacher at the beginning is my mentor. Carl’s mom is a friend of mine. We did Kennywood Park together. The principal is Billy Hartung. I was in dance class with him. His parents drove me across the other side of town every week after dance class. Renée Elise Goldsberry and Vanita Harbour, the mothers of the two girls, we all went to Carnegie Mellon together, every single person. The librarian is my instrumental teacher from the sixth grade.

Everybody in the movie is connected to me in some way like that. So that was lovely to be able to especially give back to the city that raised me. All those people raised me, chosen family, friends, and mentors. They raised me. And so it was great to be able to lift those people up.

Eva Reign and Billy Porter in "Anything's Possible"

Eva Reign and Billy Porter in “Anything’s Possible”

Tony Rivetti

Wait, the art teacher is your mentor?

Lenora Nemetz. She’s a Fosse dancer from way back. She was Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon’s standby in the original “Chicago.” She was my teacher. She was my mentor and she still lives in Pittsburgh. She’s back living in Pittsburgh now, and I called her up and was like, “No, you have to come and play this part.” And now be in pictures. I’m going to put you in pictures.

Amazing. How was it working with Christine Vachon?

Well, she’s the queen, honey. She’s the queen of queer cinema. She called and I was like, “Wait, you’re calling me? To check on my interest on a project? Yeah. Whatever you say I’m doing.” So it was wonderful to be in the space with her, to learn from her. I feel like because of her, I’ve sort of been ushered into this new world. I don’t know that it would’ve happened without somebody like her really believing in me and taking the leap. She has the power to do that and so she did and I’m really appreciative.

It’s not finite, filmmaking. It’s really long, hard work that is expansive. And the answers aren’t immediate, and I learned a lot from her stillness. I learned a lot from her grace. I learned a lot from watching how she responds to the different things that sort of come at you. Stuff is always coming at you when you’re making a movie. Problems are always needing to be solved every moment of every day. So you have to be grounded in a very specific way. And she taught me how to do that. I’m not always necessarily the calmest person.

You’re shooting something right now, right?

I’m shooting a movie that I’m in opposite Luke Evans called “Our Son.” It’s a gay marriage divorce drama in the vein of “Kramer vs. Kramer” or “Marriage story.” And Luke and I are husbands and we have an eight-year-old. It’s highly dramatic. It has been really great to work with Luke, he’s fantastic. So is the director and writer, Bill Oliver. It’s a great project. It’s a small, intimate project that I’m in love with.

You’re always so good with the inspiring words. How do you maintain, creatively and emotionally, during such difficult times?

I’m just trying to remind myself that I deserve to experience joy. And joy and happiness and peace is actually my oxygen mask. That’s our oxygen, so that we can then regenerate ourselves and be back in the fight. It is a fight we are in, we are in a horrible, horrible fight for humanity right now. And we have to fortify ourselves. For me it’s by not feeling guilty about having joy and experiencing my success and life still continues. And so it’s all of the things, all of the things belong at the same time. This is what it is. Let’s pull it together, people.

What have you seen lately that is really inspiring you creatively?

Well, I’m one of the producers of “A Strange Loop” on Broadway, so I think that is pretty brilliant. I also think “Loot” on Apple TV+, I’m really loving that show. My girl Mj Rodriguez is on the show and she’s just wonderful. It’s just so wonderful to see.

There are good things about this time. I think one of the things that we don’t talk about enough is the positive. Our news cycles are based in the negative. One of the things that I’ve been trying to lean into is the positive. The reason why the pushback is so acute and so severe is because the change has already happened. We have to remember that. I stand before you as an out black queer artist who’s in the mainstream. The changes already happened. That’s what the pushback is. So let’s celebrate the joy of that.

“Anything’s Possible” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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