At this point, does anyone really need to be told that there’s just something undeniably magical about Billy Porter? The Tony, Grammy and Emmy winning actor is known as much for his fierce—and fiercely empathetic—portrayal of ball culture veteran Pray Tell on FX’s ground-breaking series Pose as he is for his own ground-breaking, gender defying red-carpet style. Whenever he attends a premiere, it’s like getting a glimpse of a fantasy being from another realm.
So, naturally, he was a shoo-in to play Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother in Amazon Prime’s new jukebox musical adaptation of the well-worn tale. In fact, it turns out director Kay Cannon wrote the part of the non-binary Fab G with Porter in mind. Ahead of the film’s premiere this week, Porter chatted with GRAZIA about reinventing the classic character, carving out a creative path of his own and honoring Whitney Houston’s turn as a very different Fairy Godmother.
Kay Cannon has said she wrote the character with you in mind. When you first got the script did you know that? Did you kind of recognize yourself in the character?
I did not know that she wrote it with me in mind until a few days ago. I did feel like it was in my voice when I read it for the first time over two years ago. So, it’s not a surprise. One of the things that I gravitated towards is—I feel like my life has changed, having chosen my truth, having chosen my authenticity all those decades ago in the time and space where that authenticity was not received. Being Black and queer in this world was not popular. It’s easy to be who you are when what you are is what’s popular. I chose the road less traveled, and to open up that script and to read something that sounded like my true authentic self was a gift. And I saw it, and I felt it, and that’s why I said yes.
Did the two of you talk about why she wanted to reimagine the Fairy Godmother as a fabulous non-binary character?
No, it was an unspoken inevitability. What else is it gonna be? If we’re gonna do something different, if we’re gonna take these problematic classics, fairy tales—if we’re gonna take them and flip them on their ear—what else is it? You have to depart from the original conceit completely to make a fully different choice. There has been progress. You know, the Cinderella that is the most resonant with me is the Brandi/Whitney one. As a Black person, that’s the one that I care about the most. That’s the first time I saw a Black princess. That’s the first time I saw a Black Fairy Godmother—in the original traditional setting. They used the original Rodgers and Hammerstein score. And my 14-year-old self wanted to grow up and be the male Whitney Houston.
I feel like a lot of people will make the comparison between your role and Whitney Houston’s. Did you have her performance in mind at all as you were crafting your take on the character?
No. Because it’s a completely different thing. It is not the Rodgers and Hammerstein score. So, I get to show up and put my own stamp on it, as she put her own stamp on that. And if it was the Rodgers and Hammerstein score, I would have put my own stamp on that as well. I am 52 years old. I’ve been in this business a long time. I feel comfortable and safe putting my own stamp on stuff.
However, the honor—honoring what came before me is very necessary, in terms of how the torch gets passed. The torch has been passed to me and I had to fulfill the assignment. And I think I did.
The role also feels like kind of a nod to the role that gay men and queer fems play in cisgender straight women’s lives as arbiters of style.
Right! I think it’s implicit in the writing, so I don’t have to do a lot of work but say the lines. The whole gag around the heels hurting—that was already there. But the thing that I brought to the table, I believe, is how to talk about it. How to talk about it in this space where so much of our conversations are in soundbites. “Magic has no gender” is the soundbite that kept coming to me. It’s a quick and easy way to get inside of the inner workings of the “Why?” and “Wherefore?” Magic doesn’t have a gender. Why has it always been a woman? And a white woman until Whitney Houston? Why is that? It doesn’t have to be that. So, now it’s not.
I also read that Fab G was originally going to sing a different song. How did you settle on Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star?”
Well, I had a lot less to do with that. I read the first script. It was the Eurythmics’, Annie Lennox’s “Sweet Dreams.” I loved it. When I got the shooting script, the song had changed to “Shining Star,” Earth, Wind and Fire. Therefore the assignment changed. Therefore the character shifted. I was like, “Oh, so ya’ll just want me to slay all day?” Ok. I got it. [Laughs] When it shifted to that song, it was like, Alright, you’ve unleased the Kraken!
You’re known for playing these bold, sassy, fabulous characters that seem to sort of reflect your own red-carpet image. I’m curious if, after three seasons of Pose and this role in Cinderella, you’re looking to pivot to something unexpected.
I just finished directing my first feature film. That’s about as pivot as you can get. I have new music coming out in the fall. I just signed a major record deal with Republic Records and Island in the U.K. Another pivot. That’s an actual comeback, because I’m coming back to pop music with this new project. I have a memoir coming out in October that I wrote myself. So, I don’t have any limitations placed on my inside of my creativity. I have cracked open a space where I get to live inside of the fullness of whatever creative space I want to navigate. I sold a pilot to Peacock that I created. So, there is no limit. There is no pigeonholing or boxing me in ever again. That happened early in my career, and I spent decades pulling myself out of that. So, to dream the impossible, to live the impossible is the only goal I have in my life. And I wake up every day putting one foot in front of the other, living that kind of truth. And it’s amazing.
I kept thinking of Fab G as Pray Tell reincarnated as this magical being.
You know, someone else actually just said the same thing! And I’d never thought about it until she said it. And it’s really sweet, and it’s really moving that people connected that intensely with Pray Tell and his journey that, you know, they would connect a reincarnated, heavenly version of Pray Tell this. I think it’s really magical. That’s really moving to me. I had not thought about it, but now I do.