Steven Canals Wants TV to Go Beyond Striking a Pose

Steven Canals, cocreator of Pose (Photo credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

This article was published in Glamour Issue #84 | Fall 2019

Steven Canals always wanted to be behind the camera. After earning an honorable mention in a UCLA script competition, Canals spent several years trying to sell his drama about New York City’s ballroom culture and the queer and trans people who populate it. Now, Pose, FX’s Golden Globe–winning series, is helping Canals prove that he’s one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers.

What inspired you to pursue a career in television and film?

I grew up in the Bronx in the 1980s. If you know anything about New York in the ’80s, it was a bleak period for the city. There was the crack epidemic. There was the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And my family was living in a housing project. It was tough, and the experience as a young, sensitive boy growing up in the midst of violence, poverty, and disease was tough. Film and television became the salvation for me. I was really fortunate that my parents were in their 20s when they had me, so they were great about not policing content. Depending on your parenting method, some folks would say that that’s problematic for a host of reasons, but my parents were really good about allowing me to watch whatever content I wanted and then explaining to me that what I was consuming wasn’t real. I was hyper-aware that film and television was being created by someone. So [television and film] just became a love and a passion, and in a lot of ways, it became another language for me to communicate.

[When] I was a sophomore in high school, I joined an after-school program called Youth in the Streets for Peace and Justice. [That’s when] I had the opportunity to create for the first time. I collaborated with eight of my classmates on a documentary short about turf violence. At this point, it was 1994 or 1995; we were coming out of the crack epidemic, and then suddenly gang violence re-emerged in the city. [My classmates and I] wanted to highlight the experience, so we worked on this documentary for about seven months. A week before we finished the editing process, one of my classmates, who was also a producer on the documentary, was shot and killed. So I went from highlighting an experience through this documentary to suddenly having the experience; that was really the point where film and television stopped being something that I consumed and suddenly became a career path.

I don’t know that I ever really cognitively connected film and television being both equal parts entertainment and education. I knew that I loved the way that the medium made me feel, but that was really the first time where I recognized the power of cinema, where I could wrap my brain around the fact that film and television have the ability to hopefully create discourse [around] experiences that are often overlooked. [Film and television] has the ability to open up hearts and minds, so at that point I know that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

When people have those awakening moments, especially around television and film, they often desire to be in front of the camera. What made you gravitate toward writing the shows opposed to starring in them?

To be honest, a big part of it has to do with my queerness. I grew up being teased relentlessly, and to a certain extent, having my masculinity policed by friends and by family. So I was very self-conscious. I was just hyper-aware of my body, how I was moving, how I was speaking, and how it was walking, so I was just too self-conscious and too self-aware to even consider being in front of the camera. I didn’t like being the center of attention, so the notion of being in front of a camera or having everyone focusing on you was not at all appealing. But the other thing is that I’m most interested in what television and film a writer, producer, and director are responsible for. I’m interested in the crafting of the story. I’m much more interested in the words that the actors are saying and adjusting and hopefully modulating the performance of the actor. I’m much more interested in the beginning and the middle of the story. So it really makes sense that this is where my life led me as opposed to being the person who’s inhabiting the character and bringing it to life.

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I imagine it was difficult to pitch a series about ballroom culture that stars a predominantly trans cast. What was that process like for you, and how did you end up connecting with Ryan Murphy and bringing the show to FX?

Well, let me take you back. The kernel of an idea for Pose came to me while I was an undergrad. I was studying cinema at Binghamton University, and I had a professor who screened Paris Is Burning for me. My parents grew up in Harlem, so after watching the documentary, I was so struck by his incredible and resilient community that existed just around the corner. My father grew up around the corner from the Apollo Theater, so it blew my mind that the ballroom community was performing in the same neighborhood that my parents grew up in, and I had no idea. I didn’t know that they existed and that this community was surviving in the midst of the same epidemics that I grew up in. So I took a lot of strength from their strength, and ultimately, I came out because I was so inspired and strengthened by their story.

As an undergrad, I very vividly remember thinking how incredible it would be to see a show about a young boy moving to New York, getting enmeshed in the ballroom culture, and then getting caught in a war between two house mothers. That was the original idea. I can remember thinking, “I can’t wait to see that show one day,” never thinking that I would be the person to tell it. Cut to 10 years later. I’m now working on my Master of Fine Arts in screenwriting at UCLA and I’m at the tail end of my second year in the program, I’m about to take this television drama writing course, and I have no ideas. I needed something to write, so I thought “There was that idea that I had a decade ago. I should dust that off and write that.” That’s ultimately the reason why I put Pose on the page. At that point, we were just beginning to see the proliferation of Black content on television.

As someone who worked in education for 10 years between my undergrad and then graduate experience, I would teach the importance of assessing the landscape and figuring out gaps. I brought that [idea] into my practice as a writer. I saw that we weren’t centering people of color who also happen to be queer and trans. I submitted the script to a screenplay competition at UCLA, and it was an honorable mention at the competition. After that, I signed with an agent, which was fantastic. And then I started the, as we called it, the water bottle tour in Los Angeles where I was going in and out of meetings and meeting executives. Whenever I had the opportunity, I was pitching the story. And the truth is every exec that I met with was like I really love that script. I love the voice and I love the characters in the world. What else do you have? My team and I couldn’t find a single person who was interested in committing to developing the show. We couldn’t find anyone who was interested in collaborating and teaming up to take [the show] to a studio or to a network.

It was nearly two years of going in and out of offices with this pilot not getting anywhere until I met Sherry Marsh, who’s an executive producer on Pose. She was the first person to read it and say, “This isn’t a sample. This is a show.” She was confident that we would be able to get it sold and made. We worked together for more than a month on a pitch, and then we went out with it. [Sherry has] had a relationship with Ryan [Murphy since] his days on Popular, his very first show. So Sherry reached out to his team and I had an opportunity to pitch Pose to Ryan. Little did I know, he was already interested in working on a show that took place in the ballroom community. It was just perfect timing.

It speaks volumes that on the heels of a show like Pose, we haven’t seen more queer or trans content being released.

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Pose is a success. The show has won a Golden Globe and attracted a wide audience, but has it changed anything for trans people in Hollywood? Has the show ushered in more opportunities for trans talent?

No. I haven’t noticed a shift to be honest, and the proof is onscreen. What other shows are centering trans narratives at the moment? Pose is still a young show, but it isn’t like we’re now seeing a glut of trans content being created. That’s interesting when you consider the fact that Hollywood tends to follow trends. You’ll see a show about vampires that’s really successful and then suddenly there are 15 shows about vampires being released. I certainly don’t want LGBTQ people and people of colors’ lives to be viewed as simply a trend, but I do think it speaks volumes that on the heels of a show like Pose, we haven’t seen more queer or trans content being released. I haven’t really heard of any other shows coming out that center the community. So I’m hopeful the industry will catch up and that we will see more content being created. If we’re looking at the cast and everyone who’s involved with Pose, I know that everyone that’s working on the show is going to have huge careers and that they’re going to continue to create more content. My hope is that through all of us, we will see the proliferation of more content. But the truth is I wish the industry was moving a little quicker.

How does Pose strike a balance between the boldness of ballroom culture and the sadness that LGBTQ people in New York City in the 1980s were experiencing?

For me, that experience comes from being a person who’s both Afro-Latin and queer. Our lives, our existence is exactly that. It’s happy and exciting and hopeful and ambitious, and sometimes it’s tough and sad. It can sometimes be challenging, and that’s just what it means to exist and live a life. As a storyteller, I’m always really careful tapping into the authenticity of the experience. And it’s obviously so much easier to do that when you’re surrounded by other incredible storytellers like Janet Mock, Our Lady J, Murphy, and Brad Falchuk. All of us are bringing our whole selves to the table, so when we’re crafting Pose, we’re talking about story and ensuring that the narrative honors that existance.

It’s a tricky balancing act on a show like Pose because we’re talking about very real, very heavy topics that are still affecting communities of color and the LGBTQ community today. It’s not like we’ve ended HIV/AIDS. It’s still a presence. Black and brown people are still dealing with poverty and still dealing with lack of access to resources like medical care. The show is a period piece, but we’re still talking about very relevant topics to the community. We also don’t want the content to just be dark and morose because that’s often the types of narratives we’re given. More often than not, we’re the villain in stories. We’re the thug, the drug dealer, the body in the gutter. If you’re a queer or trans person, you’re always a trope, so you’re the sassy best friend. Ensuring that we’re showing the other side of that, that we’re also worthy of being celebrated and that our lives have joy, and our lives have celebration just like everybody else is critically important on Pose. That’s really what ballroom is all about. If you go back to the ballroom, it’s truly about being a safety net and being a family for young LGBTQ kids who were being discarded by their families, government, and churches. This show needed to mirror that experience.

Janet Mock and the cast of Pose (Photo credit: Janet Mock/Instagram)

I’m blown away by the writers’ room Pose has created. How did you create a writers’ room that really reflects the experiences that are portrayed onscreen?

When Ryan, Brad, and I were talking about constructing the writers’ room, we were hyper-aware that we are three cisgender men who have created this show and written the story. So we knew that we needed the rest of our room to be filled out with folks who have identities that we don’t hold. We made it a point to specifically hire trans women because our show was going to center five trans women, specifically five trans women of color. We knew that reaching out to Janet [Mock] felt like a reach at the moment She hadn’t written television before and she had just released her second memoir. We had no idea if she was going to be interested in joining our room, but we had to reach out to her. Our Lady J worked on the first couple of seasons of Transparent and authored one of the best episodes of the third season. So we needed to get the best of the best to populate this room, and we also needed storytellers who inherently understood the experiences that our characters are going through on this show. We were fortunate that they both said yes.

Terms that originated in queer and trans communities of color, such as “throwing shade” and “camp,” have become more mainstream. How do you feel about these insular terms and experiences being brought to larger culture? Is anything being lost in translation?

I do think that something is lost when a culture that was created by a [marginalized] group is suddenly used by others. Ballroom is a community that  was first colonized and then appropriated, and we see that appropriation happening even today. It continues to happen. In many ways, the creation of Pose was a way to highlight that. One of the important elements of Pose has always been for it to serve as a source for audiences to recognize that the culture—the language, the music, and the fashion—didn’t just happen in a vacuum. This happened on the backs of young Black and Latinx queer and trans people. We really owe them. We’re indebted to them because they have continued to influence pop culture for decades with very little recognition for their contribution. Pose serves as a way to say thank you and hopefully to educate the masses so that folks know that a lot of what you’re seeing in pop culture, whether it’s through your modern day pop star or reality shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race started in ballroom.

If you could give a piece of advice to a young queer person of color who’s following your journey and wants to go into television and film, what would that advice be?

I could answer this question for an hour. The most important thing I can say to any young queer or trans person of color whowants to work in this business is work diligently on your craft. Watch and rewatch the movies and the shows that you love most and that have impacted you. Read books about the craft of screenwriting. You can find them online, in a library, or find them in bookstores. After that, read actual screenplays, learn structure, and understand the beauty and the nuance of crafting dialogue. Learn subtext. Do all of that and then just write. Many folks feel like everything has to be perfect:  “I have to be living in L.A. first. I have to meet the right people first.” No. Just work on writing; that’s something you can do anywhere at any time. Just write. Write a lot, and make mistakes on the page. Write everything and anything. Trust me when I say those first couple of pieces aren’t going to be great because my first certainly weren’t. But that’s how you continue to get better. Creativity is a muscle, so you have to exercise it. You have to work it out. You have to continue to do it because you want it to maintain. You want it to be strong.

Beyond that, don’t give up. If you really, truly have a dream, that you know in your heart of hearts that this is what you’re supposed to be doing, then you will continue to work toward that goal. When I worked in education, I would always tell my students that success is being on a train standing up holding on to the rail and white-knuckled, and you have no idea where that train is headed. You have no idea where it’s going. It’s just barreling down the track, and you have a choice: You can either stay on, or you can jump off at the next stop. So I always say, if you really, truly believe in your heart of hearts that this is ultimately what you’re supposed to be doing with your life, then you won’t let go. You’ll continue to hold on.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.