This interview contains heavy spoilers to season two of Pose and American Horror Story: 1984
Angelica Ross went from stealing scenes to breaking hearts in her pivotal turn as Candy Ferocity on the Emmy-winning FX drama Pose. A fierce competitor in the ‘90s LGBTQ ballroom scene depicted on the show, Candy was ever able to ruffle feathers of both rivals and friends. Yet, through Ross’ charismatic performance, she emerged as an audience favorite — particularly following the character’s shocking demise at the hands of a murderous motel hookup.
While the series sent Candy off with a fabulous funeral — and a lip-sync performance of R&B classic “Never Knew Love Like This Before” — Pose executive producer Ryan Murphy immediately announced that Ross would join the cast of American Horror Story in its slasher-spoofing season nine, AHS: 1984. Co-starring as mysterious Nurse Rita (later revealed to be serial killer psychologist Dr. Donna Chambers), Ross became one of the first transgender actresses to land multiple series regular roles. A vocal activist for LGBTQ rights, and the founder of tech talent incubator TransTech Social Enterprises, Ross talked to me about finding and following your passion, and about which stars she hopes might join her in the cast of AHS season ten.
I’m sure TransTech must have worked out a guidebook, or program for teaching people how to approach getting into tech fields. But if you were to boil it down, what is your advice for somebody who wants to pursue tech, coming from a background of any kind of disadvantage?
How I would break that down is, focus on your passions. Because everybody’s very willing to create a box, a role, and to try to cram you into that. And I can tell you, every time, that boxes are uncomfortable. And so if you want to avoid being put into a box, focus first on what you’re passionate about. First comes the passion, then comes finding your purpose and doing all those things. First comes service, then comes success. So it’s mixing those things in the beginning, where if you’re someone who’s passionate about, say, flowers and about nature and all those things, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a tech person. I just actually downloaded an app called iNaturalist that’s about going into nature and being able to identify different forms of wildlife and being able to share it onto a platform where everybody can see it. But without having someone who actually knows something about that world it’s just an app. So there are many teams that build apps that involve people in the tech industry who have nothing to do with coding. And that is a message that I want for folks to get is that you’re not just valuable if you’re a coder. There are so many creative aspects to being in the tech industry. It’s just about finding first, what are you passionate about? What is your specific unique lens, and let’s start there.
AH: So how did you step from a passion for software, programming, and coding, into acting?
AR: I’ve always started with my passion. My passion has always been acting. It’s always been being a performer. And so I’ve always performed, since diapers. I have a résumé that goes back to the first grade, to me playing one of the dwarves in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but also to being in church choirs and swing choirs and chorale in high school. Then going on to the community plays and doing eleven plus years of community theater. And musical theater, where I had to learn also movement and voice and sound and tap dancing, and bringing that into the film and television space. I’ve done so much background work, on CSI: Miami and on — J. Lo executive produced this show once called South Beach. I was on there somewhere in the background. It’s a career that I’ve always wanted to do, but I’ve always had to navigate in interesting ways to prevent folks from finding out that I’m trans, you know. So, once I transitioned, it was, it was hard for me in the beginning to find work because I didn’t want anybody…my agents, most of my agents didn’t know that I was trans. Then, eventually, I found an agent that knew I was trans who was willing to work with me, and helped me not disclose when I didn’t need to disclose, but if there became an opportunity that made sense for me to disclose, then that we would eventually do that. But I never actually disclosed while I was there. I was even in a music video by Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz with Busta Rhymes. And I was in the music video, but no one knew I was trans. But I just realized as well, in doing that I was still putting myself in a very dangerous situation, because the toxic masculinity on that set, and the small outfits they were trying to give us, and all the different things that were going on could have put me in a harmful situation. So it’s nice to now be in a place in my career, where I can freely be myself and freely express my creativity.
Let’s talk about Candy. Her trajectory as a character in the second season was really surprising to a lot of people, both her death and her ongoing spiritual presence. How much of that came as a surprise to you?
One-hundred percent. I was completely sideswiped with that one. I was living in Atlanta, Georgia, in my apartment in Midtown, excitedly anticipating starting season two of Pose and I get a call out of the blue from Ryan Murphy. His assistant is, like, “I have Ryan Murphy on the phone for you.” And I’m like, “Oh, really?” It was just out of the blue. I’m like, Ryan Murphy’s calling me? So he basically just told me, “I’m gonna pull the bandaid off.” And he begins to tell me what was going to happen with Candy, and that I would have to keep it a secret from the rest of the cast, and everybody. It could not get out. I did a really good job. I mean, it was one of the hardest things I’ve done, because I am so close to all of the cast. And so I felt like I was holding back part of myself at times. It was just, it was hard. And I was in full-on mourning. It had started early on. As an actor, I would have to say, this is my first time playing a character that dies and that people loved. As an actor, I don’t know what other actors say and feel, but for myself, I’m still dealing with the death, I’m still dealing with it. It’s almost like when you play different roles, you kinda carry those people with you. So, Candy, the ghost of Candy, she’s still with me all the time. I cry for myself, in the sense that it was such a fun role to play, but I also just cry for the fact that she deserved better. And I mean Candy. Yes, we had to tell this story, but just saying, just like any of her friends would say in the show, that Candy wanted better, she deserved better, she worked hard. People just didn’t see it for her. So I’m glad to be on American Horror Story. I’m glad that Ryan Murphy trusted me enough to be able to take that performance, and then go on into the American Horror Story franchise. But it was a painful process. I can’t say that it was easy. I mean, I’ve cried more than I’ve ever cried in my life, and every time I see that episode I still cry. It’s because I think that the wound is just so fresh, and I feel like it is so fresh because I keep hearing about another trans woman being murdered currently, and I was hoping and praying…I know it was naïve of me or whatever, but I suppose a small part of me was praying that Candy’s death would help stop [this]. Like just completely stopped. That’s what I wanted. That’s what my prayer was, that in doing that [story], we would vicariously experience this in a way that we would not want this to happen to anyone else. And I think it has had that effect on many places around the world. I’ve seen ripple changes. People are in my DMs sending me messages about how their families have become closer or their mothers now understand, but we still have so much more work to do.
One comment I’ve read about the Candy storyline is how the show seemed to say that she wasn’t fully seen by her community until she was gone. Can you talk about how it feels to be a part of a cast and crew who are all representing the trans community with vitality. What is it like to know that you’re being seen for who you are, while you’re here?
Yeah, it’s absolutely amazing and I feel blessed to be working with someone like Ryan Murphy who sees me beyond a niche, beyond, “Oh, you can be a trans actor and just do this.” Because, obviously, I’m in American Horror Story and not doing or talking about anything trans. And when I go to the fact that I’m even being considered for an Emmy nomination this year for my role as Candy, and even to have my peers, other actors saying, “Yes!” That touched me, I cried. That was amazing. Or just to have that affirmation from my peers, and know that it’s not about tokenization, know that I’m not getting any kind of pity. It feels great. And I finally feel like the sky’s not even the limit anymore.
Okay, my last Candy question, then. Though her death was sad, I think it had to be some consolation that the funeral lip-sync is really just one of the best scenes of any show this season.
You’re welcome. I loved that it was a Stephanie Mills song, and that song, in particular. What was it like to shoot that scene?
You know, honestly, again, from opening the script, I was crying because the cover of the script said Never Knew Love Like This Before. And when they told me this would be the song that I would be performing to, I played the song and heard just the little organ in the beginning and started weeping. Just at the first few notes, because I knew immediately I could feel and see…I mean, as an artist, it’s just so weird, but I could start to feel all of it coming together. And when we went into that performance…It’s hard to not cry when I talk about any aspect of this, because everyone put their heart into it and I mean everyone. I’m talking about, if you look at Candy during that final scene, and you look closely, her hair is sparkling, just glittering as she’s turning around. Touches like that from the hair team, to my fringe dress. Folks know that I’m a Buddhist and my podcast is Like a Butterfly, and I talk about butterflies, the transition and all of that. So they put little butterflies around the fringes, these little details. And I had these glitter butterflies in my makeup. Everyone put in these details because they loved me and they loved Candy. It was real. And so when they rolled me into the auditorium and I stepped up out the casket. Like, first of all, Hailie [Sahar], who plays Lulu, lost it. She ran off set. So did Dominique [Jackson], who plays Elektra. Everyone lost it within like, sixty seconds into the performance. And Ryan Murphy had to come out, and he was like, “Listen, we can’t lose it this early on. We’ve got to get through this.” I had to perform it a couple of times, so they could get all the angles. And I choreographed it myself. That’s why it was so organic looking. It was for me the best way that I could say goodbye to everybody. By having this special moment, like with Papi [Angel Bismark Curiel] dancing back and forth, and with all of the characters, even Elektra in just the small moment as I passed by her. Every little thing was intentional. And the love you feel in the room, when people are watching and crying, and the joy? It’s because that shit is bursting through the seams in that room. It’s real. People were so sad to see me go. I was sad. It was really hard, but it was so beautiful to finally see Candy in the light that she deserved to be seen.
You actually touched on something I was going to ask about, choreography. Getting into AHS, both of these shows are really physical in their own ways, whether it’s voguing, dancing, or fighting off serial killers. Were you doing stunts and fight scenes on American Horror Story? How challenging was that?
That was very challenging. That was very physical doing American Horror Story, especially when we were in the woods. There was running, there was a fight scene with me and Billie Lourde, and it was just hilarious us doing it cause it’s so much work and it’s so many hours and it’s a lot of energy. And so we got the choreography for the fight, we practiced it, you know. I have to kick my leg up high enough to kick her in the face. My legs actually got tore up, and I was bleeding, because I didn’t want to wear some of the protective gear that they were giving, cause it just takes away from some of it. So it was just, like, okay, I’ll just suck it up and do it. So I’m sliding down a gravel hill, doing stuff like this that’s just ridiculous, but it also was fun to know that I could do it. Leslie Grossman, I love her, she was just telling me, “Angelica, you need to be doing action.” She and I had a scene where she had a gun and I had a knife, towards the end of the season, and it was just the choreography, where I fell on the floor and all this stuff. I was throwing myself around, and she was like, “Angelica, you are really into this. You need to be on Marvel, or something. I’m like, “Girl, I’m working on it.”
Personally, I’m very much into ’80s slasher movies. Were you a fan of that genre?
Well, I don’t know if I could say a fan. What I loved about the eighties horror films was more of the campiness and the fun jump scares, and stuff like that. So for me, Nightmare on Elm Street — I mean, they terrified me growing up, but they still had this, I don’t know, element that wasn’t…I feel like today’s horror, a lot of it is so gory, and not as campy and funny. So when we did 1984, I just really enjoyed the flashback. I mean, yes, some heads were chopped off, and as a teenager I saw my father gut out a woman, but, you know, I guess it was a job.
There was plenty of camp, too. Even with the Night Stalker storyline, which is sort of crazy to me. And then also the revelation that Nurse Rita is not Rita, but, but Dr. Donna Chambers. What was your template for creating that character, beyond what was on the page?
I honestly did not know much of the trajectory of where it was going. You know, we were kind of getting the episodes as they came. And so, I didn’t know that. All I knew was that Nurse Rita was a nurse. That’s all I knew in the beginning. Then, they started feeding me pieces that she was actually more into psychology, and I was like, “Okay,” you know. And then, like, the day that I was filming the scene with John Carroll Lynch is the day that I found out that my father was a serial killer and found out that that’s why I went to get my PhD. So there was a lot of information, obviously, that would be very helpful. But, in being an actor, especially coming from a place of being able to do improv, my template is always about being able to dive into the moment. Because, yes, there’s all this backstory and things that you need sometimes to build the story. But I just kinda have to make it up. So what I did is that I brought Angelica Ross into the picture — Angelica Ross, the humanitarian, the one that believes everybody deserves a second chance and everybody is good at the core of them. So when I was sitting across from John Carroll Lynch, I am telling him that I believe no one is evil. I was speaking from Angelica Ross’ conviction. I can go into any moment, as long as I can sort of ground myself in, “How would this feel for me now?” You know, I can make up the backstory, but how does this feel right now to be sitting across from a serial killer, forget about, you know, where I’m coming from or whatever. I brought myself into this room like this. So there was still a little bit of fear in the performance. I mean, there were a lot of choices that I was making. And when we talk about performing with someone like Billy Porter [on Pose], another person like John Carroll Lynch, who’s such a veteran actor, acting across from him just felt like a masterclass. For me, it was a milestone performance.
Talking about bringing yourself to the role, how does your work as an activist inform the work that you’re doing on-camera in fiction?
I’m always as an activist and an advocate saying I can’t be too inclusive, meaning there are so many times that I, as a black trans woman, fumble in places where I don’t recognize my privilege as an able-bodied person, as a person with academia or cis-assuming privilege, or all these different things. So as Hollywood shifts power to me, I’m continuing to create space to shift power to the community. So, for instance, I also not only act, I executive produce. My most current project that I executive produced, King Ester has been nominated for four Daytime Emmys. And it’s amazing, cause this is, I think, my third project that I’ve been executive producer of, and I made a cameo appearance in it, I produced it. I really wanted to highlight undiscovered talent. And so Rowin Amone, this was her first major role and she gets an Emmy nomination for it. And again, I do a cameo performance. My name helped move the project, but I got to play a background role and support other talent. I’m currently living in Atlanta, Georgia, and am building my own production company here, because I know that Atlanta, not only has its own production space here, but it also has a very huge black and brown LGBTQ community. So when I’m not acting on American Horror Story or on other shows, I’m going to be producing content that gives other people opportunities to shine, from writers to PAs, to actors and directors.
So my last question for you is really simple, and I might know the answer, but I might not. What can you share about your character on American Horror Story season 10?
You do know the answer. Absolutely nothing. There is absolutely nothing I can share with you. Even if I knew, I couldn’t share with you. What I can tell you is that, I think, from what I’m hearing, is that season 10 that we were going to be filming was weather dependent. And so I think that they’re pushing off whatever we were doing in that season to later, and coming up with something else for us to do once Hollywood opens back up. So I hear that once Hollywood opens back up, American Horror Story is one of the first projects slated to start production.
We’ll keep an eye out for it then.
It’s going to be fun either way. Right now, my fingers are crossed because I’m a good manifester, so I’m trying to manifest me, Angela Bassett, Adina Porter and Gabby Sidibe all in one season. And not just in one season, but as an actual strong pack relationship. You know, that’s my dream thing is to be, first of all, be acting with Angela Bassett. I already am getting my dream of acting with Sarah Paulson. But to actually have this strong black presence of all the black actors that have been in the American Horror Story family, and putting us all in one season, and also giving us strong relationships to each other. I kind of posted something on Twitter and Instagram, and everybody’s like, “Yes, we want this yesterday, please.”
American Horror Story: 1984 and the second season of Pose are both available On Demand or through FX streaming services. Pose S2 is also now available to stream on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
André Hereford is a critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly magazine, based in Washington, D.C. He is a Rotten Tomato-approved member of WAFCA and GALECA, and can be found on Twitter @here4andre.