On a picture-perfect Saturday morning — just days after the red-carpet premiere of the second season of “Pose” and a few weeks following her Met Gala debut — actress Mj Rodriguez is sitting across from Lincoln Center eating her first-ever burekas. It’s 8 a.m., but she tucks into the Israeli cheese pie at Breads Bakery with gusto.
“I’ve been working like crazy on ‘Pose,’ so I got up early so I could actually have a full day to myself,” she says. “I just wanted to start the day right.”
The early hour stands in sharp contrast to the ladies-of-the-night that Rodriguez and her fellow castmates portray on “Pose,” FX’s radical-chic look at New York’s early-90s “house ball” scene (which was renewed this week for a third season). But she chose the morning meeting — once she’s done with our interview, she says, “I just want to go home and hang out with my family all weekend back in Newark.”
That would be the mother, father, uncles and grandmother that the 28-year-old actress grew up with — and still lives with — just over the Hudson River in New Jersey. Sure, Rodriguez may now earn enough money to, say, splurge on a leather clutch from Dolce Gabbana’s Fifth Avenue flagship (“a real ‘Sex And The City’ moment,” as she describes it). But there’s no fancy Midtown condo or sprawling suburban mansion.
“I live at home, just like I always have,” Rodriguez shrugs sweetly, casually confident in jeans and a tank top, her face aglow with minimal makeup and ever so slightly wavy hair. “Home is like my detox, it’s what keeps me grounded,” she continues. “Now because of ‘Pose,’ I’m able to help support my family, and that really feels good.”
Even in this murky political and cultural moment, Rodriguez — who’s of mixed Puerto Rican and African-American heritage — is living, breathing, vogue-ing proof that the American dream is alive and well. How else to explain the improbable success of a show like “Pose”? Mostly written by and starring black and brown transgender actors, it brazenly brings to life a subculture-of-a-subculture that rose to brief fame nearly 30 years ago (thanks to a hit song by Madonna and the cult documentary film “Paris is Burning”).
And yet the series feels profoundly relevant today: At a time when race, gender, identity and sexuality dominate the national narrative, “Pose” reassuringly suggests that we’ve lived through — and survived — all of this before. Rodriguez’s character, Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista, reigns as mother of the House of Evangelista, managing the lives, loves and pains of her young dancer family. While other characters contended with addiction, homelessness or sex work in Season 1, Blanca emerged as an unlikely island of stability — a take charge, take prisoners, take-no-BS warrior-mama.
“A lot of this strength is modeled after my own mother, who was always accepting when other parents threw kids like me out onto the streets,” Rodriguez explains. “Friends will often stop my mom on the street and say ‘That’s nothing but you there on TV.’”
It was a powerful foundation for the actress, who in the last decade has gone from hovering on the sidelines of Manhattan’s ball scene and studying songwriting and performance at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music to playing the iconic role of Angel in an off-Broadway production of “Rent,” before landing a series of independent movie roles. Meanwhile, Rodriguez — much like Blanca — completed a gender transition, and began pursuing female acting roles, which ultimately led her to “Pose” creator Ryan Murphy (she’d previously auditioned with him for “Glee”).
“Don’t get me wrong, I always presented as feminine, I always had my curves,” she says. “I first realized I was a girl when I was 7,” she continues. “So I knew who I was, and it never really bothered me if people thought I was a boy.”
She and her “Pose” castmates will serve as Grand Marshals of this year’s Pride March in NYC. Rodriguez also attended the recent Met Gala, donning a “bumblebee-meets-panther” dress by hip London designer Richard Quinn and mingled with Vogue editor Anna Wintour. “She didn’t give me a lot, but she gave me just enough to feel really solid there.”
At the same time, Rodriguez is part of a community — transgender women of color — who are now experiencing near-epidemic levels of violence. At least eight transgender women have been murdered across the nation so far this year according to the Human Rights Campaign, all of whom were African-American.
Such statistics have made passionate activism an essential tenet of Rodriguez’s life. “Today I may advocate through my art, but I’ve won my share of ’hood fights,’ ” she cooly declares. “So if I ever saw one of my sisters being beaten in the street, I’d be the first one to jump in.”
More than an hour after she first sat down, the actress is still nibbling at her burekas, doling out barbs and bon mots. Co-star Sandra Bernhard? “She’s my heart, we’re very close.” Co-star Indya Moore’s recent Elle cover? “She has this great confidence — Indya is a total go-getter.”
Eating her veggies? “Yes!” Working out? “No!” Dream vacation? “Thailand with my best friend, though if I had a little boo, he could come too!”
While she’s currently single, Rodriguez says she’d like to fall in love again (“it’s been a minute”) and, perhaps, one day become a mother off-screen. She knows it won’t be simple — yet one more transition for a woman who’s already experienced an outsized share of them.
Her character Blanca is also facing intense changes on the second season of “Pose,” which returned last week. She’s still fighting for acceptance as a woman, while battling to open her own nail salon against a nasty real-estate queen (a Leona Helmsley caricature perfectly portrayed by Patti LuPone), and struggling with the pressures of HIV.
“Blanca has matured since Season 1; she’s found her confidence and her voice while also dealing with some pretty heavy stuff,” says Rodriguez, adding that her own family’s experiences with HIV helped her prepare for the role. “She’s in denial about the disease, because she knows she’s in a race against time.”
It’s a parallel to what “Pose” itself has done for the ball scene, thrusting it squarely into the mainstream, some 30 years later. (Case in point? Wintour judged a recent Vogue battle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Rodriguez stands strongly in the center of that trans movement spotlight. But she still doesn’t consider herself famous.
“I would never try to measure fame; I’m really just a regular chick from New Jersey,” she says, while getting ready to return to Newark in a waiting town car. “But I do like to think of myself as a star. Because there’s room for many stars up in the sky — and we all have the chance to shine bright.”
Denim corset, $155, and tulle skirt, $145, both at Gypsy Sport NY; “Elsie” sandals, $1,595 at Giuseppe Zanotti, 806 Madison Ave.
Christian Siriano dress, $6,200 at Farfetch, 646-791-3768; “Simonetta” headband, $125 at Genevieve Rose Atelier.
Jeremy Scott for Swarovski dress, price upon request at Jeremy Scott; “GZxCowan” sandals, $2,510 at Giuseppe Zanotti, 806 Madison Ave.