A Golden Globe Is Nice, But Michaela Jaé Rodriguez Wants More
The Pose star — formerly known as Mj — sets her sights on comedy, music and LGBTQ+ liberation.
“Hey y’all, so we getting ready over here,” Michaela Jaé Rodriguez says in a voice so peppy I almost look around for the cameras. We’re not broadcasting live, but we are meant to be multitasking, conducting our interview while Rodriguez is in hair and makeup for the accompanying photo shoot. I pull up a chair beside her and we begin a shoddily choreographed dance, bobbing our heads between direct eye contact and locking eyes in our mirror reflections. A manicurist preps her nail beds, and several hair systems are placed on her head. She finds one that satisfies and shifts it into place, adjusting the bangs à la Beyoncé in Dreamgirls. Then: “I’m so sorry, I’m getting a little distracted. Can everyone clear out?” The dance stops, and in stillness I see her clearly at last. “Hi,” she says, in a tone that suggests now we may begin.
Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, who first came to public consciousness as Blanca in FX’s groundbreaking series Pose, was known as Mj for the better part of the series run. Rodriguez first gave herself the nickname after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Recently, however, she switched up to Michaela Jaé to signal what she describes as a rebirth, and the expansion of her career into new creative terrain, including music. Her reputation as a trailblazing actor is already on lock: Pose, which was set in the New York City ballroom scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and featured scripted television’s largest cast of transgender actors, became a beacon of possibility for queer storytelling and made Rodriguez the first transgender woman to be nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe in a major acting category, and the first to win the latter.
“You can push the award aside,” Rodriguez tells me, sitting wrapped luxuriously in a terry cloth robe and slides. “Just to be noticed means that they're making others in that quite conservative space aware of me and everyone else who is just like me or who’s a part of a group or a community like me.” Now Rodriguez, 31, wants the door she’s kicked open to stay open. “I want more change. I’m young, so I want things to happen quick.”
In terms of her own career, that meant following Pose, which ended in 2021, with a role that would show her range as an actor. “I didn’t think I was going to get a job after Pose,” she tells me. “That’s just my insecurities, being a person of color, being trans. All of that stuff just traps down on me. You have to do a lot of work on yourself, therapy, all of those things, [...] but my mindset was like, ‘Well, I'm from New York City. I'm originally from Jersey. I gotta hustle. I got to make something happen.’”
Enter: Sofia Salinas, a character Rodriguez describes as tense, starchy and stern — everything Pose’s Blanca wasn’t — on the Apple TV+ series Loot. The series, which was recently renewed for a second season, revolves around Molly, a newly divorced billionaire’s wife played by Maya Rudolph, on a journey of self-discovery. Sofia runs a charity foundation Molly forgot she started. With newfound time on her hands, Molly takes a more active role in the foundation, and thus a working relationship with Sofia quickly develops into an unexpected friendship.
Loot creators Matt Hubbard (30 Rock) and Alan Yang (Parks and Recreation) struggled to write and cast the part, they said in an interview on The Hollywood Reporter’s TV’s Top 5 podcast. They needed someone that could hold their own against Molly’s wealth, status, and power. Someone with an impregnable moral authority who also could display warmth, vulnerability, and comedic chops. They found Rodriguez.
“The first time we saw her read for Sofia we fell in love with her because she combines strength with an undeniable warmth,” says Maya Rudolph, who also serves as Loot executive producer. As a colleague, Rodriguez is “raw, unfiltered joy,” Rudolph adds. “She’s all insides on the outside and has no problem telling you exactly how she is feeling: happy to be here.”
Hubbard and Yang asked Rodriguez if she wanted to make the character trans (yes) and, if so, whether she wanted to talk about her identity on the show (no). While cis actors have been lauded for playing trans characters, few roles exist for trans actors that don’t center the character’s transness (let alone cis roles for trans actors). Is Sofia trans? Yes, Rodriguez says. Much in the same way the sky is blue.
“I think it’s important not to have a poster attached to me or any trans person when they go into a role,” she says. “After a while you start to think, I’m not just this one thing. And that’s what I wanted people to see when they saw this character. She’s a trans woman. She’s Black. She’s Latina. She’s all of these intersectionalities wrapped up into one. More importantly, she’s human. If they know she’s trans, great. If they don’t, great. But what did you take away from this individual that's on the screen? I think it’s important for any actor not to be put into a box. It should be the human experience.”
“I’m not just this one thing. And that’s what I wanted people to see when they saw my Loot character. She’s a trans woman. She’s Black. She’s Latina. More importantly, she’s human.”
Rodriguez grew up in Newark, New Jersey, in a family of driven individuals, as she describes it. Her mother enrolled her in local arts programs at 7 years old. It was meant to be fun, but it was made clear to a young Rodriguez that this was an investment in her future, one she’d need to take seriously if she wanted to succeed. “My mother would always tell me, ‘If you are going to go out and do something, you better do it to your best ability. If you're going to give 100%, great, but you should always have that [extra] 10% right behind that 100.’”
Regional theater gigs were her entryway to professional acting, followed by bit parts on Nurse Jackie, The Carrie Diaries, and Luke Cage. When she was cast on Pose in 2017, she was suddenly No. 1 on the call sheet above television vets including Evan Peters and Kate Mara. But the daunting part, she says, was doing right by the other LGBTQ+ cast members who, like her, were being handed a rare opportunity. She knew intuitively that her success would be their success, which would be a success felt by a community beyond those working on the show. “I look back and though they were tumultuous and crazy and 21-hour days, it was all worth it,” she says. “I miss it a lot. I miss that energy. I’m very thankful for the new energy I have around me, but it’s nothing compared to the queer community and the Black community [that Pose brought together].”
It always comes back, as you’ll quickly learn spending even an hour with Rodriguez, to the community. When she talks about showing “people” her versatility post-Pose, she’s not talking about casting agents or producers. The people, she clarifies, are the people like her, aspiring to be in a position like this. “It’s not just that they can get here, it’s that they can be versatile and well-rounded once they get here.”
Which is not to say Rodriguez is satisfied with her own evident success. “I know it’s weird to say, but I don't feel like a great actress just yet. I feel like I have so much work to do. I'm just making waves in Hollywood. If I was maybe 16, and in some really well-developed film or television show that had blockbuster views, then maybe I could say that, but it's only been five years, and damn, only three of actually really solidifying myself as an actress. I still feel like I'm not there yet.”
On her route to wherever there is: more musicals. Her breakout was a 2011 off-Broadway production of Rent, and she earned acclaim for her turn as Audrey in a 2019 Pasadena Playhouse production of Little Shop of Horrors. She’s also releasing her own music; her debut “Something To Say,” a smooth R&B track that evokes Chaka Khan and Phyllis Hyman, is the first single off an EP she hopes to have out later this year. She wants to do more movies, too, she says. Are there any roles she’s manifesting at the moment? “There are so many that I could say and you’d be like, ‘Calm down, girl,’ but if I give you one archetype: [The Matrix’s] Trinity. A bad-ass bitch with some harnesses on her and some…” she stops herself. “I don’t want to say guns because we in a bad time right now.”
As much as Rodriguez yearns for diverse parts for trans actors, she doesn’t shy away from representing trans identity in the industry. That doesn’t feel like a burden to her. “The bigger picture is that there are people who feel like they're misfits,” she says. “There are people who feel like they're not wanted or needed. Most obviously in the LGBTQIA community, but also outside of it. Why not be the example?”
She doesn't even mind being stopped on the street and asked to pose for selfies. It energizes her. This is what she worked for. Not the recognition from any type of academy, but from her peers. It doesn’t come with a trophy. “People are rooting for me,” she says. “I’m rooting for them too. This is the collective. If I were to give up, then what’s the point? What gives me hope is the people that surround me, that love on me and that I can love back easily. Most of the energy I surround myself with is calm.” Then: “Maybe not that calm. We have fun.”
Top Image Credits: Gucci clothing, Sarah Sokol hat, Louise Olsen x Alex and Trahanas c/o Dinosaur Designs earrings, Sterling King rings
Photographer: Jason Kibbler
Stylist: Caitlin Burke
Hair: Kyrsten Oriol
Makeup: Camille Thompson
Set Designer: Robert Sumrell
Talent Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Jasmine Velez