‘Those Friends people make $100m a year! I’m getting six-cent cheques! It’s not OK!’: Billy Porter on race, recognition and the Middle East | Movies

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Billy Porter is known for going big. The 54-year-old actor and singer routinely stole scenes as the drag ball emcee Pray Tell in FX’s drama Pose, a role that won him an Emmy. In Amazon’s 2021 update of Cinderella, he turned the fairy godmother into a fabulous, tough-talking fairy “godmuvva”, as he puts it. But his latest role, in the Bill Oliver-directed relationship drama Our Son, takes a different tack: as Gabriel, a relatively meek stay-at-home dad divorcing his husband, Nicky, (Luke Evans), Porter is required to play small, wounded and, sometimes, bitter, without any of the glitz or glam of his best known characters.

It’s the kind of role that Porter always knew he could pull off, but has rarely been considered for. Even fans, he says, don’t really get it. “At the premiere, somebody said to me, ‘Oh my God, Billy, how do you act like that?’” he recalls. “Would you ask Viola Davis that question? Would you ask Al Pacino that question? The world has a difficult time understanding that fabulous and serious do coexist – and you’re looking at him.”

In case you were wondering, yes – this is basically how Porter speaks 100% of the time. Over the course of our 45-minute interview, he compares himself with the four-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis on three separate occasions; he punctuates his musings on a ceasefire in the Middle East with the word “doll”. Peering out from Zoom in a hotel room in Florida, dressed (relatively) casually in a white T-shirt with sparkly rainbow accents, he comes across as a born orator, delivering every response as if he’s playing to the cheap seats in an auditorium. His charisma, which made him a star on TV and on Broadway, is on full display.

Porter, Christopher Woodley, centre, and Luke Evans in Our Son.

Our Son, though, is the first time Porter has been able to properly flex his dramatic chops on screen. Preparing for the role, he says, was relatively easy. “I could connect to the complexities of what it is to be in a marriage,” he says. Although relatively circumspect about details of his personal life during our conversation – particularly because his mother died only a week before – he does reveal that working on Our Son ended with a case of life imitating art. “I was married at the time, and I am no longer, and I knew in the filming of this movie that I probably wouldn’t be married after it was done,” he says. There is one way, of course, that his divorce, from his husband of six years, Adam Smith, felt “vastly different” from that of Gabriel and Nicky: “It’s not amicable – that’s all I can say.”

Gabriel is the kind of complex queer character that Porter dreamed of playing when he was struggling to make it as an actor in the 1990s. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Fine Arts in the early 90s and moved to New York shortly afterwards. He soon found that complex roles for Black performers were few and far between; his big break was as the Teen Angel in the 1994 Broadway revival of Grease – hardly the multifaceted opportunity he had hoped for. “I was wearing 14 inches of orange rubber hair on my head and prancing around like a Little Richard automaton on crack,” he recalls. “I was a clown.”

He soon realised that he had to “shift the consciousness of the people” in order to find work that he felt was meaningful – and that would involve hard work on his part. He saw Viola Davis – “a friend of mine, not close … colleague … we’ve worked together … we know each other,” he says before mentioning her name, seemingly unsure of how to classify their relationship – as an example of how a serious Black performer could make it in the suffocating Hollywood system.

Porter with Camila Cabello in Cinderella (2021). Photograph: Lmk Media Ltd/Alamy

“She played every crack mother, every mother of a drug addict, every stereotypical dark-skinned Black woman role they threw at her, and she imbued those characters with dignity. I was like, ‘That’s what I’m gonna do,’” he says. He decided that he “didn’t care about being pigeonholed in the business”, and that he would “take the queer roles and imbue them with so much dignity” that by the time the industry was ready to give a serious, nuanced role to a Black gay man, he would be “the bitch that you call”.


At this point, Porter has been working in entertainment for more than 30 years, and has had a front-row seat to the seismic shifts that have taken place as the industry has reoriented itself around streaming. During last year’s Screen Actors Guild (Sag) strike, he was an outspoken critic of studio chiefs such as Disney’s Bob Iger, who suggested that striking workers’ demands were unreasonable; he also revealed that the instability resulting from the strike meant that he was putting his house on the market, for fear of no longer being able to afford it. A few months removed from the resolution of the strike, he feels like Sag and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) “came to some really good terms”, but he’s still miffed that “the burden and the fallout still gets passed on to us, and not the people in the C-suite”.

“Our deals are going away, our jobs are going away, everyone’s downsizing, but the people in the C-suite are still making [money],” he says. He’s still frustrated that there’s no accountability for “the people who ran the business into the ground”. “Whose fault is it that the business can’t sustain itself and is going to implode?” he asks, his eyes steely behind thick-rimmed glasses. “Streaming destroyed the artist’s ability to make money, our ability to participate in capitalism. Being an artist, we’re always freelance, and very often blue collar.”

That it took so long for the streamers to renegotiate terms with Sag-Aftra, Porter says, has resulted in a shrinking middle class of working actors. “Those Friends people are making $100m a year!” he exclaims. “I’m getting six-cent cheques! It’s not OK!”

Even so, Porter describes himself as one of the “extremely blessed ones” who is able to generate income through other means – “I’m a person who is so multi-faceted – I have a brand new pop album out, honey, on Republic records. I can go back to do a Broadway show, you know what I mean?” – but he makes it clear that he’s still very much a working actor. “People have this perception that we’re millionaires. You know how much I made on Cinderella? Only enough to cover my mortgage for four months, maybe,” he says. “It’s unacceptable that I’m one award away from an Egot (he has won an Emmy, Grammy and a Tony, but not an Oscar) and one strike puts me out of my house.”

Porter as Pray Tell in Pose. Photograph: Michael Parmelee/FX/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

Porter is, indeed, an impressive multi-hyphenate: in addition to acting and singing, he also made his directorial debut in 2022 with the Amazon Prime teen film Anything’s Possible, about a transgender high-school student. In his early-30s, a period of his career when “the work dried up”, he took a screenwriting course at the University of California in Los Angeles; now, he’s putting those skills to work, co-writing a biopic based on the life of the revolutionary writer and activist James Baldwin, in which he will also star. His motivation is simple: “If not me, who? I’ve been sitting around waiting for people to tell the Langston Hughes story, the James Baldwin story – anyone Black and queer, as far as I’m concerned. I’m done waiting – I’ll do it myself. The audacity, right?” he says. “Who’s going to tell it better than the Black gay man who embodies that in today’s age? It’s such an important story to tell, and I feel so blessed to be in this time where it will get told.”

Porter says that Baldwin’s story “couldn’t have been told before this time because nobody gave a fuck”, but that executives are wiser, now, to the fact that stories catering to marginalised audiences can be hugely lucrative. “If there’s green [money] attached to it, executives will care, and that’s always across the board,” he says. As often becomes clear during our conversation, Porter seems to have thought this concept through in his head, in a way that doesn’t necessarily translate out loud. He says: “How do we, on this end, acknowledge that the colour is green? It’s not black, it’s not white, it’s not yellow, it’s not Muslim – the colour is green.”

He has been inspired to see Greta Gerwig – his co-star in the 2014 film adaptation of the Philip Roth novel The Humbling, “before anybody knew her” – push a female-oriented film like Barbie to box office success in the way he hopes to with Black queer stories. “Barbie is green – [Gerwig] got all the fucking green; she can do whatever she wants, because they want that,” he says. “I’m trying to figure out for myself what that looks like, because we have to understand, too, it’s a business – it is show business, and business is the bigger word. We cannot lose sight of that.”

Porter describes his Baldwin biopic as “sprawling”, and says that a piece of the novelist’s writing will be used as a framing device through which to explore his whole life. Baldwin, of course, was a strong advocate for the rights of Palestinians; Porter has been staunchly supportive of Israel in the past, opposing the cultural boycott of a film festival in Tel Aviv in 2021, and he was one of 700 celebrities who signed an open letter last year asking Hollywood to support Israel in its retaliation against Gaza after Hamas’s attack on 7 October.

When I ask Porter how he plans to navigate Baldwin’s relationship with the Palestinian rights movement in the script, given his own support of Israel, he quickly clarifies his position. “First and foremost, I’m supportive of a two-state solution. The second thing is, this is not my hill, and I am not going to die on it. It’s not mine! I’m not Jewish, nor am I Palestinian,” he says. “What’s going on over there is horrific – the choices that we, in America, have made, are wrong. Please don’t make me a poster child for that. I don’t want to be in the conversation, because I don’t know enough about it!

“I am in support of my Jewish friends and my Palestinian friends,” he says. “It’s a two-state solution that’s been going on for thousands of years over there. I don’t know!” he says, letting out a nervous giggle. “What I do know is that we don’t need to continue to be bombing over there. I know we should stop doing that, I do believe that. And the Palestinians – not Palestinians, what are the people called, who started the shit? The extremists?”

Ahead of the Golden Globes in LA in 2020. Photograph: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

Hamas?

“Thank you! See, I don’t even know. All I know is that the extremists came in and did something that was horrific, and then they retaliated,” he says. “Now, the retaliation is a little overkill, now, doll. But why are we at war at all? That’s not just about them, that’s everywhere. We’re always at war. It breaks my heart. I don’t know what to say, and I don’t know what to do, other than hug you and say I’m sorry, and what can we do to fix it? I’m in support of peace! Fucking peace!”

At this point, Porter is the most worked up he’s been through our conversation – but in a split-second, he’s composed himself. “There’s nothing to navigate – I’m not James Baldwin, he’s a character, so I have to be true to the character. I don’t know what he was talking about in the 40s, 50s, 60s – it’s 2024 now. I don’t have the history to even know what the version of the Israel-Palestine conflict was when he was around,” he says. “It’s not a part of the script – his civil rights work in America is what we’re focused on, more than what he thought about the crisis in the Middle East.”

Our time is up, and Porter thanks me for asking the question, noting that his Instagram comments have been filled with people writing “Free Palestine”. “I’ve been getting a lot of bullshit online about it – I’m like, ‘I don’t know, y’all!’ The man’s been dead since 1987, please!” he says. As ever, it’s a big exit.

Our Son is on digital release from 25 March.



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