Billy Porter Is Redefining the Teen Comedy With 'Anything's Possible'

CUL Billy Porter
Billy Porter poses for a portrait at the 2020 BAFTA Tea Party on January 04, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California. Emma McIntyre/BAFTA LA/Contour by Getty Images

"When I first read the script, all I could think of was, 'Oh, my God. There's finally a story about trans joy.'"

John Hughes created the mold for teen comedies, but many of those films were lacking something: diversity. That's where Billy Porter's Anything's Possible (July 22) comes in. "There wasn't anybody that looked like me in those [Hughes] movies, so I had to superimpose myself onto an archetype that was white." Porter's directorial debut tells the story of Kelsa (played by Eva Reign), a teenager who is also trans as she navigates life and love in her senior year. "She is not Molly Ringwald, right? She's not the typical ingenue in the way that we're used to receiving it." Porter says Eva was perfect for the film because of the maturity she brought to the role. "She's a transgender Black girl who came out before she was 17. That means she has a different kind of maturity, [one] not required by cisgendered white girls or cisgender Black girls." Busier than ever, Porter is most glad one of his first projects after his Emmy-winning turn on Pose focused on joy. "Pose is about the trauma, and we choose joy anyway; we choose love. But Anything's Possible is pure, unadulterated joy."

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Have you always wanted to direct?

Yeah, I've always known that I wanted to direct. I will admit that I thought I was gonna give Clint Eastwood realness in my twilight years when I was done performing or when I was bored with performing, that I would transition. I never anticipated that I was going to be bored with performing so soon. And by bored, let me be clear, bored may not be the right word. But when I was in my mid-20s, in the first decade of my career, it became painfully clear to me that the kind of work I wanted to do was not accessible to me. So in order for me to create the kind of work that I wanted to put out into the world, I was probably going to have to create it and shepherd it myself. Which means I would probably have to write it and direct it and do all of those things. So the gift and the blessing inside of the disappointment of not having the kind of success that I felt I was entitled to because I was talented pushed me deeper. It made me ground myself in a different way. And here I am. It's made me a better artist. It's made me a happier human being inside of this business. Like it's helped me navigate the business and keep my sanity in ways that I don't know is possible, if one doesn't have some charge.

So often with queer stories there's a lot of trauma, but not so with Anything's Possible. Was that intentional, to focus on joy?

Absolutely. When I first read the script, all I could think of was, "Oh, my God. There's finally a story about trans joy." I've just come off Pose. Pose is brilliant. Pose is about the trauma and we choose joy anyway, we choose love anyway. But Anything's Possible is pure, unadulterated joy. And it's a coming of age rom-com about a Black, transgender, high school senior. And it happens to take place in my hometown of Pittsburgh. I was just weeping. Tears of joy. The first time that I read it and thought, "Wow, if I can be a part of this in any way, what a transformative experience this will be for the world." And the world does need it. We need it right now. We need it.

This type of story with Eva as the lead is unfortunately rare. Considering she's new to acting and the scrutiny she'll likely face, how did you help her along?

The thing about Eva is, I was very specific in the casting of her. She's very grounded. She may be a little bit more grounded than people are used to characters being in rom-coms, coming-of-age stories in the spirit of the old John Hughes movies. She is not Molly Ringwald, right? She's not the typical ingenue in the way that we're used to receiving it. I was really looking for that. I chose her on purpose because this story that we've never seen before requires a different kind of depth to lead it. She's number one on the call sheet. The whole story is on her shoulders. So therefore, she has to be strong enough. She has to be grounded enough inside of this space to help the audience along. Help us understand the importance and the why. She's not a little white girl. She's a transgender Black girl who came out before she was 17. That means she has a different kind of maturity. A maturity that's not required by cisgendered white girls, or cisgender Black girls, or cisgendered straight anything. The thing I love about her performance is that it's very grounded. It's very present.

I see Zendaya in Eva.

Yes. And Ximena [García Lecuona], our screenwriter, wrote a story about an empowered, Black, transgender girl. "Empowered" being the operative word. We're so used to the trans community, the queer community, not being empowered. From the get-go, I wanted to make sure that everybody knows she's not begging nobody for nothing. She don't need a man to do nothing.

Billy Porter is Redefining the Teen Comedy
Eva Reign stars in Billy Porter's directorial debut of Anything's Possible. Courtesy of Amazon Studios

You're so known for your personality. In what ways were you able to impart some of your personality into the film?

Well, nobody can do this alone. There are artisans all around me. The costumes, the D.P. [director of photography], the hair, the makeup. Outside of the kids, almost all of the adult actors in the movie are friends of mine. Artists who I've worked with since I was a teenager, some of them still live in Pittsburgh. On my first time out, praise the Lord, I was able to surround myself with all of the things that I needed to make sure that my vision, and my personality, as you say, was grounded in the piece. I've been watching for a long time. I've been on the sidelines. I've been directing in theater for a long time. I do have a point of view. I do know exactly what I want to say, and I know what I want it to look like. I know how to tell it to the artisans around me who can then take it and make it even better than what I had in my mind. It was magical to watch it come together. My first time out on a film like this. It was magical.

The films of John Hughes are often credited with creating the mold of the modern teen comedy. What films did you watch for inspiration?

I started trying to watch some John Hughes movies. No shade, please. No shade. They don't necessarily age very well. It was a different time. And in the moment that they were in, they were extraordinary. They were magnificent. They were wonderful. They were our life's blood. You go back to it and most of the time, the entire cast is all white. When there is a minority, the stereotypes abound. And what I wanted when I began was to extract the joy. I want to extract the importance of adults taking our young people seriously, because I think that was one of the real important parts of those movies, that the kids were taken seriously. I wanted to bring that and I also just wanted to reflect what the world looks like. That's the one thing that, in retrospect, was always so difficult for me. There wasn't anybody that looked like me in those movies, and so I had to superimpose myself onto an archetype that was white. So now we have a movie in the spirit of those films with a cast that looks like the world today. That makes me so happy.

For me in those John Hughes films, it was the supporting characters I related to so much. It's the same thing in Anything's Possible.

You got exactly what it was that I was trying to do. Because when you have the straight characters, and by straight I mean, the grounded ones. You have your two leads that ground the film, and then everybody else around them can just be magical. Sprinkling fabulousness all over everything, and that was actually intentional. So it's really cool that you recognized it.

How did Pose change the landscape of entertainment for queer POC people?

It really did. It cracked open a space and a conversation that didn't exist before, and there's no turning back. What I love is that Ryan Murphy, in his infinite art and wisdom, understood that it was his ally-ship to the queer community, particularly the POC community, that would be the springboard for the entire space, cracking open and moving forward. He taught all of us how to fish. There's the saying, don't feed me, teach me how to fish so I can feed myself. That's the idea of that. It's like he set up a space for all of us to learn how to do it ourselves so that we could go out into the world and keep going. I'm here because Mr. Murphy took the time to care and do something about it.

Listen to H. Alan Scott's full conversation with Billy Porter on Newsweek's Parting Shot. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Twitter: @HAlanScott