Even before FX's Pose was aired, the show had already made television history. Set in New York City in the 1980s, the series co-created by Ryan Murphy (Glee and American Horror Story) gives viewers a glimpse into the ball scene during the time of Paris is Burning, featuring the largest LGBTQ+ cast ever.
For Jeremy McClain, who plays a voguing wonder child named Cubby, the show makes history on a more personal note; this is his first major role and one in which he works alongside the likes of Evan Peters, Kate Mara, and Janet Mock. And with each episode of the show rating higher every week, it's starting to look like this fresh face isn't going anywhere.
We spoke to the young actor slash dancer about getting that call, what it's like to have Ryan Murphy "watching you," and how it feels to be a part of the most diverse cast on television.
Do you remember hearing you got the part? What was the audition like and how were you cast?
Yeah. I was upstate with a few friends on a Friday night and I got a call from my manager late at night, which is just not a thing unless something major has happened. He told me I got the role of Cubby and that I had to be on set the next Wednesday. It was terrifying but so crazy exciting. I read on tape, vogued a bit and that’s it. The audition was literally about 5 minutes so I was pretty certain at the time that I didn’t book it (laughs).
This is your first major acting gig. What’s something about the industry that you learned when you started filming Pose that would surprise us?
How intricate the entire filming process is. There were times when we had to look at a pole with neon yellow tape on it and pretend it was the person who was talking to us so that the eye line wasn’t off. You have to maneuver your body in different ways so the camera can move around you. Sometimes I had to rest my head against the camera lens so the person speaking at me was basically looking right into the camera. People don’t realize how intense it is but it was so interesting.
The series was expected to include over 50 transgender characters total - making it the cast featuring the most transgender regulars and LGBTQ+ actors and actresses in television history. What has been the vibe on set, knowing that you’re making history and representing a huge part of the population who are often tokenized or ignored in the film and television industry?
I think I was quite spoiled having Pose as my first project as everyone on set was so supportive and we pretty much immediately became like a family. For me, it was and still is, very surreal that I’m a part of this one-of-a-kind show. I definitely felt a huge responsibility to make sure that I wasn’t doing a disservice to the people watching who have been waiting for a show like this their whole lives. At the time, I was just trying to make sure I got the moves right - which can be quite nerve-wracking when you have the legends from Paris is Burning and Ryan Murphy watching you.
Another aspect of the show that is contributing to the positive changes in television is its racial diversity. You’re half black and say you’re the “whitest person in the ballroom section of the cast.” What has that experience been like for you and how has that affected your racial identity?
It’s connected me to, and made me proud of, my blackness in a way that I have never experienced before. I think I rejected the black part of me for a lot of my life because I associated it with my father who left my mother when she got pregnant with me. On top of that, the white side of my family is from the Deep South, so I was exposed to a lot of racism against black people when I was growing up.
However, because I was this little blue-eyed, blonde kid and “passed” (as white), I was accepted by the ones that didn’t completely reject my mother when they found out she had a baby with a black man. Even though my mom married my stepdad, who is also black when I was 8 and I finally had a strong, black figure around me, the damage had sort of already been done, so to speak. It’s something that’s taken me years to get over and is still something I have trouble with to this day, but being in Pose has opened up a whole new world to me and I’ve been able to shed a lot of that shame I had.
Who is your favorite cast member in Paris is Burning?
I love them all so much I could never choose!
The House of Abundance is said to be modeled after the famed House of Xtravaganza. How would you describe your house?
That’s a hard one but, to put it simply; I would describe our mother, Elektra, as Cinderella’s evil stepmother if she were in head-to-toe Mugler. Candy and Lulu are like the cackling stepsisters with hearts of gold. Lemar and I are like the mice…but fierce and kinda shady (laughs).
You have such big and up-and-coming names you’re working with behind the camera–Janet Mock, Our Lady J, Silas Howard, Steven Canals and, of course, Ryan Murphy, just to name a few. Have you learned anything watching them work? Can you share any stories?
The things that I’ve learned are honestly beyond measure. The amount of vision, professionalism, creativity, and passion within them is unprecedented. They truly are all such visionaries so none of the time I was able to watch them was lost on me. As far as stories–what happens on set, stays on set!
What message do you have to send to fans across America who are watching Pose, who perhaps live in a more conservative part of the country, and see something they want to be a part of?
You can be whatever you want to be. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
Cover image by Ashton Do