Billy Porter Is the Change
‘80 For Brady’ star on acting with legends, directing a drag queen’s story for TV and his return to music
By Chris Azzopardi
You could say Billy Porter was born to play just about all of his roles. This, of course, is true of his portrayal of Pray Tell, the actor’s Emmy Award-winning part on “Pose,” and his star-making, Tony Award-winning role in Broadway’s “Kinky Boots.” And you definitely can’t argue with the fact that he was put on this earth to bring racial and gender diversity to his Fairy Godmother part in 2021’s modern retelling of “Cinderella.”
The trend continues with Gugu, the iconic choreographer he plays in “80 For Brady,” a role he slips into with such natural ease that you might be asking yourself, “Billy Porter who?”
When I tell him that having seen him as Gugu, he may now always just be Gugu to me, he embraces it: “You can call me Gugu,” he says, laughing.
In “80 For Brady,” Gugu is where Lady Gaga got her name from, so that makes Gugu immediately important to the whole gay world. He, with his smooth moves and flashy tracksuit, is also instrumental in the lives of four other ladies whose dream he helps to fulfill: Lily Tomlin, Sally Field, Rita Moreno and Jane Fonda, or rather their characters (Lou, Betty, Maura and Trish, respectively).
In addition to “80 for Brady,” the 53-year-old stage and screen actor stepped behind the camera to direct an episode of “Accused,” an anthology series on Fox. The Porter-directed episode, called “Robyn’s Story,” features J. Harrison Ghee as a drag queen tangled in complicated legal drama after an escalating fling with a closeted man.
In our recent interview, Porter spoke about how his own life experiences inspired the episode, returning to his R&B roots for his upcoming album and why he thinks “80 For Brady” is the gayest sports movie ever made.
I want to know who Gugu is at night when he’s not helping older women sneak into the Super Bowl.
Gugu is fabulous. Gugu is a brilliant choreographer, director of superstar shows, and he sprinkles magical creativity all over the world.
Who else has Gugu worked with, aside from Lady Gaga?
Gugu’s old enough to have worked with Michael Jackson.
Well, I have to say I am not a football fan, but this movie made me think that perhaps I could be, if football always involved Sally, Jane, Lily, Rita, you and Tom Brady.
“Gayest sports film ever made.” That’s what somebody said earlier.
I think that might be true, honestly. I haven’t seen a lot of sportsball movies, but…
I’ve seen a few. It’s the gayest.
Thinking about the toxic masculinity in sports that I experienced as a gay person, this movie is turning sports on its head.
I feel like I know that art has the power to transform hearts and minds, and what I loved about this when I read the script is it creates a space for us to have really complex and complicated conversations subversively without even knowing we’re having them, and I think that’s what art does so beautifully at its best, at its core. So it was very exciting for me to be a part of it for that reason. It’s very queer and it’s very positively queer in spaces that aren’t so positive, historically, with queer subject matter or anything that’s queer. So it’s really lovely to see that collective humanity modeled through this piece. It really is lovely.
Did you play sports as a kid?
Honey, they tried to have me play something, tried a couple of things. I tried softball. I tried tag football, I think they called it. I got sacked one day and the wind got knocked out of me. I had an asthma attack and I never went back.
This movie has four national treasures in it. What was your reaction when you knew you’d be in a movie with Jane, Sally, Lily and Rita?
Well, when I lifted my chin up from the ground… these ladies have been an inspiration to me for decades. I am a student of life. I’m a student of the arts. I’ve studied, I’ve trained and I’ve watched these women in their careers and have been inspired not only by their work, but also how they move through life. The humanity, the philanthropy, the activism, all of those things. The 360-holistic approach that they’ve all had to their lives has just been inspiring and a blueprint for me in how I have tried to make choices and set up my own path. So it’s been magical.
Was there a particular moment that you shared together that was just something that you’ll never forget?
My favorite part of doing this was being able to sit in holding with all the ladies while they were setting up the camera shots, because that was the fun part. That was the really fun part. We got to know each other, we got to talk, we got to kiki. They’re fun and naughty.
Had you hung out with any of them before?
No. I mean, I knew Sally. Sally actually gave me my Tony Award [for “Kinky Boots”] on stage with Matthew Broderick back in 2013. She’s really good friends with Tony Kushner and she has a place in P-town. I just happened to be there one summer, a few summers ago, so we had tea together and watched a lunar eclipse.
What do you think is the affinity or the connection between gay men and older women?
I think queer people relate to anybody and anything that feels like an outcast. An underdog or an outcast, we always relate to because that’s what we have to navigate from the moment we can comprehend thought. And so I think that alignment, it brings us together and makes us feel hopeful, helps in helping us continue to just breathe and put one foot in front of the other when we can see examples of, “Oh, it can be joyful.” There are no time limits to your dreams. There is no time limit to anything. Ride your life until the wheels fall off with joy and hope and loving kindness and compassion and all of that.
Do you have any Super Bowl traditions?
I don’t really have any traditions — other than when the Steelers are in it. Because I’m from Pittsburgh, I watch it. I usually tape it so that I can see the concert. I call it “the concert.”
I watched the episode of “Accused” that you directed. As somebody who has seen where a story like this can go, it did not go where I expected it to.
Well, that’s [series creator] Howard Gordon who saw the script and did the thing that allies are supposed to do and picked up the phone and called me because he knew that I was one of the people on this planet that could deliver that story in the way that it should be. And I’m grateful for that.
Your stamp is certainly on it. What was it like to put your big queer stamp on an episode of a show that is otherwise not particularly queer-focused at all?
It’s one of those moments where you just… I stand in awe of what has happened to me once I chose my own authenticity. I got a second chance. I failed as somebody else very early in my career, and I’ve decided to choose myself. And so when you watch that episode, it’s a manifestation of that. It’s a manifestation of living a true and authentic life, and I get to then be able to tell the story of what that feels like in a really real way. I love that they’ve taken the risk with this particular episode.
We need to have tough conversations. As artists, we get to get right in the middle and have conversations and create safe spaces to have conversations that otherwise are rejected. This is a Middle America show that’s going to come on in Middle America on a Middle America network at a Middle America time. Folks will be changed after watching this, and I am so grateful to be able to be at the helm of something like that.
What do you hope those viewers walk away with after they see this episode?
I think the biggest thing that I’m hoping for, and in all of my work, is to be reminded of our collective humanity. There’s a dehumanization that’s prevalent in this world right now, and I’m hoping that my work can remind people of our collective humanity, because that’s what heals.
You’ve been in front of the camera and behind. What is different about both for you? Are you more comfortable doing one over the other?
It’s not about more comfortable or less comfortable. It’s just about exercising another creative muscle. My mind never stops, so directing uses every single piece of my being. It activates all of it, and I love that. Acting has its own thing, and I love it when I get to be in front of the camera. It’s another way of communicating humanity. I love them both.
What can you say about your new music?
The single, “Baby Was a Dancer,” has been pushed to March. “Children” came out last year. “Stranger Things” came out around the election. The album is called “Black Mona Lisa.” I’m really excited to return to my original roots as a singer. My first R&B album came out back in ’97. A lot of people don’t know that. I’m just really excited about this work. I got a chance to work with Justin Tranter, one of the greatest music writers of our time. I’m really excited about the work. I’m really excited about the message. I’m really excited to be able to put myself out in that way again.
With February being Black History Month, could you draw on your long career as a Black person in this industry and tell me what changes you are noticing, for better or worse?
I think that’s a great question because I want to start with the change that has already happened. We, as human beings, are sort of hardwired to only speak of the negative, always take in the negative more than the positive, always push out the negative more than the positive. If you watch the news, it bleeds; if it bleeds, it leads.
There’s not a lot of focus on the positive things that have happened in this journey. Me sitting here talking to you is the positive in the moment and in the space that we’re in. The fact that I can exist in my own authenticity in this world and show up the way that I do is the change. That’s the change.
I encourage all of us to lean into what’s positive about what’s happening right now on this planet. I think about this Biden administration. Just do a deep dive on what has really been going on. There’s a lot of good stuff. We’ve made a lot of good strides. A lot of stuff is great, and we have a long way to go. And so the hope for me is that we can take the time to regenerate ourselves through acknowledging the positive. We can revive ourselves. We can take a moment of self-care so that we can recharge and come back out swinging.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.