Inside Mj Rodriguez's Life Before Making It Big Time — And When She Decided To Make Major Changes
Mj Rodriguez just made history. On Tuesday, July 13, the Pose star became the first out trans woman to be nominated for an Emmy Award in the outstanding lead actress category for her role in the FX drama.
She is also the first out trans performer nominated in any lead acting category, according to GLAAD.
Pose is set in New York City during the 1980s and explores the lives of queer people of color (specifically black trans women) who are involved with the underground ballroom scene. Rodriguez's Blanca is a young woman who forms her own "house" — the House of Evangelista — after receiving a positive diagnosis for HIV. As the head of the House of Evangelista, she becomes a surrogate mother to several abandoned queer youth of color.
The critically-acclaimed, breakout starring role had been over two decades in the making. The 30-year-old, who was born in Newark, N.J., always knew she wanted to become an actress. She got into performing at age seven — the same age she began to pray about becoming a female.
“I got into a stage of trying to be content with the person that I was betraying,” until turning 14, when she came out to her parents as "bisexual/gay," she previously told Playbill.
After graduating from Newark Arts High School, she attended Berklee College of Music, where she was a 2009 Star-Ledger scholarship recipient and a 2009 Young Arts first level scholarship recipient. She eventually took the stage name "Mj" after the Marvel Comics character Mary Jane "MJ" Watson, being a self-described comic book geek and from putting the letters together from parts of her birth name.
While attending college, Rodriguez was cast in a theater production of Rent as Angel Dumott Schunard, the show's pivotal character who is a drag queen percussionist with AIDS. It was a role she had wanted to play since first seeing the 2005 film adaptation, to which her dad used to tell her would happen "in due time."
"Fredi Walker-Browne [Rent’s original Joanne Jefferson] came to see the show, and we both found interest in each other," said Rodriguez. “She had me do one of her readings, and then she told me, ‘You need to be seen for Angel in the upcoming Off-Broadway production,’ and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? What? I just did this! This is crazy! I don’t even know if I’m going to succeed in this. I may not even get it.’ And she was like, ‘No, you need to audition.’ And then, after that, it just took off…”
Rodriguez landed the role in the Off-Broadway production, and the performance garnered her the 2011 Clive Barnes Award that was established in honor of the late English writer and critic Clive Barnes. It was "the biggest stepping stone in my life," she told the outlet.
Her career was on the upswing, but still Rodriguez said she felt incomplete. “Every single time I came out of the stage [door], I felt like there was some part of me that was missing,” she explained. "I started to look into [the transition process] more because I knew deep down inside I’m putting on a smile for these wonderful people who see me backstage… I’m not putting it on just to put it on — it’s genuine — but deep down inside, I wish they could see me like the character that was up on that stage. Her hair and [clothes]… Just living. But I couldn’t. And, I’m not saying the company [made me feel like] that. It was me that was holding myself back because I felt like I had to fit into this mold of what people want to see.”
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Following the conclusion of the Off-Broadway revival in 2012, Rodriguez made the decision to go on hiatus to begin the transitioning process. Beginning with hormone replacement therapy in early 2016, and allowing sufficient time for privacy, Rodriguez reemerged to start a new chapter as a female actress.
“I’ve always felt I was the same person,” she said. "There was never really any change; there was just evolving that had to take place. There was an enhancing that had to take place — mental enhancing, physical enhancing, all those things — but that was specifically for me, and I needed time for myself.
"I couldn’t put that in the public eye yet, because I wasn’t ready for the public eye to see it, so I had to take time to myself to figure a lot of things out," she continued. "And, as you go through a transition, it's not like, 'Here are my boobs, and here is my butt!' I have to think about all of this stuff. What is it going to entail? What am I going to go through? What are the chemical changes I’m going to go through? It’s a lot of stuff that you have to think about, and I took that time for myself to do my research to know what I wanted to do, and then I just [started] my journey."
Rodriguez then contacted her representation to inform them that she was no longer auditioning for male roles. Despite her concerns, Rodriguez found her representation to be fully supportive of her new gender identity.
“I was really scared,” she said. “I didn’t know what they were going to think. To be quite honest, I was afraid that they would drop me, and I wouldn’t have had anyone to represent me, and I would be struggling again, but fortunately, after I sent the email, they said, 'What? Are you kidding me? We love you.' And they said, 'It doesn’t matter. We still love you, and we don’t care.' And things have been good moving forward."
As far as Rodriguez’s personal journey, her family and friends only showed support, and her confidence skyrocketed. "I haven’t had any problems,” she told Playbill shortly after her transition, "but I am scared. Every day, I walk the streets with my head held high, but deep down inside, sometimes I’m like, 'I just hope I can get through the day.’ I don’t want anybody bothering me. I don’t want anybody hurting me. And those are my biggest worries. I hate the term ‘passing,' but I would say I’m one of the girls who are lucky enough to ‘pass.’ I don’t get as much problems when I’m walking down the street. Most of them do not know until I tell them…
"But, we have a long way to go," she said. "You can’t force anyone to understand anything that they don’t want to understand. I’m patient,” she added. "To each his own."
Little did she know when she gave that Playbill interview five years ago, she herself would be breaking boundaries. After appearing in small television roles, including Nurse Jackie, The Carrie Diaries and Luke Cage, in 2017 she was cast in the leading role on Ryan Murphy's Pose following a six-month casting search. The show made history by casting five transgender actresses in leading roles.
Rodriguez continues to shatter standards. She became the first openly transgender woman to win Best Actress - Television at the Imagen Awards. In the fall of 2019, Rodriguez played Audrey, the leading lady in Pasadena Playhouse's production of Little Shop of Horrors, becoming the first transgender woman of color to play the role in a major production. She also landed a contract with Olay Body, becoming the first Latina trans woman to enter a partnership with the company.