Much-loved for his “10s across the board” portrayal of Pray Tell in Pose, Billy Porter is a Tony, Emmy, and Grammy-winning creative force and cultural icon. The actor, singer, director, composer, and playwright, is also celebrated for his groundbreaking red carpet looks, including what Vogue described as “the most fabulous entrance in Met Gala history” in 2019. He recently got a star dedicated to him on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (about darn time), and his directorial feature debut Anything’s Possible is in the running for Outstanding Film in this year’s GLAAD Media Awards. GLAAD previously honoured Porter with its Vito Russo Award for openly LGBTQ+ media professional who has made a significant difference in promoting equality for the LGBTQ+ community. He received his first Tony Award in 2013 for his starring turn as Lola in Kinky Boots on Broadway, and his second in 2022 as a producer of the Best Musical winning A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson.
Porter’s latest role, in the heartwarming comedy movie 80 For Brady opening in US theaters on Friday, February 3rd, sees him appear opposite four legendary actors—Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno, and Sally Field—as a choreographer (Lady Gaga’s no less) who runs into four best friends trying to get into the Super Bowl LI to see their hero Tom Brady in action. Behind the camera, he recently directed an upcoming episode of the Fox drama series, Accused, which follows a drag artist played by Broadway star J. Harrison Ghee, who finds themselves on trial in a high stakes case.
Ahead of the release of 80 For Brady, Billy Porter spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about what it meant to him to be a part the film’s incredible cast, the importance of focusing on older characters, his favourite Super Bowl Half Time Show moment, and the piece of queer culture that’s had the biggest impact on him.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: what chimed with you about the script and why did you want to be involved?
Billy Porter: “The script has so much love in it, so much joy in it, so much humanity in it. And, it’s the gayest sports movie ever made! There’s movement in that, there’s conversation in that, there’s hope in that, and that’s what we as artists get to do with our art, particularly in times like this that can feel so broken.”
It was exciting enough seeing these four legends together on the poster, in the trailer, and then of course in the movie itself, but what did it mean to you to share the screen with these women who continue to have exceptional careers, as they have done for decades now?
“They were always inspirations to me as a student of the arts. I studied these women early in my life, not only their work, but also how they moved through life; the philanthropy, the activism, the humanity; what you do on screen, and what you do off screen. All of it. The synergy of that was really a blueprint for me. It’s been magical to be in the same room with all of them because it’s a reinforcement of the choices that I’ve been able to make. And, they are so much fun!”
Speaking of philanthropy, there’s a high stakes poker game in the movie and a major donation is made to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which you and Rita Moreno, who’s in that scene with you, both have history with. How meaningful was it for you that it was that charity in particular that was mentioned?
“Well, it’s the most meaningful. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS was founded around the time that I moved to New York in the 90s. It was right in the middle of the AIDS crisis and they taught us, an entire generation, how to activate, how to engage, and how to fight for what is right and to lobby. I don’t know who I would be in this world had I not been associated with that institution. So it actually brought tears to my eyes, because it was in the original script that I read. I don’t know if it was on purpose, but it felt very deliberate and I’m grateful for that.”
Me too, it was a special moment in the film. There’s a memorable dance scene involving you and the ladies, how much fun was that to do and did you rehearse it with them?
“The ladies rehearsed together, then when I got there on the day the choreographer taught me the choreography and it just organically evolved into a fun kiki! It was so much fun and I think you can see that on screen. I think you can see the joy, it’s palpable.”
I’m one of those people who watches an episode of The Golden Girls nearly every night to go to sleep to. It’s one of the most popular and enduring comedy shows of all-time, but it’s rare that we get to see all older women at the centre of a movie, especially a comedy. Was that something that struck you about 80 For Brady?
“Yeah, it’s necessary to have the conversation about aging in a society that really has an issue with aging. It ain’t over till it’s over. There are no time limits to your dreams. Live your life to the fullest until the wheels fall off! It’s so great to see it and to be reminded of the humanity of all ages.”
Congratulations on your GLAAD Media Award nomination for Outstanding Film, steaming or TV, for your directorial feature debut Anything’s Possible starring Eva Reign and Abubakr Ali. What does that recognition for the film mean to you?
“Just the fact that people remember that we exist is a really good thing. The market is oversaturated, there’s a lot of stuff to watch and to try to catch up on. I’m grateful that we were able to break through in this way.”
Eva Reign is also in an upcoming episode of the Fox series Accused which you directed, starring J. Harrison Ghee, who is of course on Broadway right now.
“Yes! Broadway star J. Harrison Gee in Some Like It Hot. Go see it!”
Tell me about directing that powerful episode of television.
“What I loved about it is that it’s a drama about our justice system seen through the eyes of the accused. The episode is about a drag artist who falls in love with a Southie Boston closeted man and things spiral out. It’s a difficult story and I loved that I got the phone call to direct it because Howard Gordon knew that I would bring authenticity to it and that I would tell it the right way, and that is fantastic. Something has cracked open where not only are there more types of stories being told with different kinds of people, but we’re also moving into this space where the actual people whose story you’re telling are the people who get to tell it. I am grateful to be on that trajectory in this business. It’s been a long time coming.”
I’d like to ask you for your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“That would have to be Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. I saw the original production in 1994 and that is the moment that changed the trajectory of my creative intention, and therefore my life.”
Finally, what’s your favourite ever Super Bowl halftime show?
“Diana Ross. She was singing ‘Oh, I will survive…!’ It was at the end, her hair was blowing in the breeze, and she literally looked up and said, ‘Oh my God, here comes my ride!’ A helicopter lands on the stage. She gets strapped in, hooks her arms in, and it flies off and she’s waving to the people with her hair blowing. The back of my head almost blew off! The fact that I can answer that question is hilarious because I have watched many a Super Bowl concert!”
By James Kleinmann
80 For Brady opens in US theaters on Friday, February 3rd, 2023 from Paramount Pictures. Anything’s Possible is available to stream on Prime Video now. Accused airs on Fox on Tuesdays at 9pm ET/PT, 8pm CT. Robyn’s Story directed by Billy Porter airs on Tuesday, February 21st, 2023.