He looks like papi

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call the penultimate episode of "Pose" as one of the strongest of the series. Like many of the groundbreaking series’ most impressive episodes revolves around "Something Old, Something New" to another triumph of trans* people. This time around, it’s about an expensive, swanky wedding between a trans* woman, Angel (played by Indya Moore), and her doting fiance, Lil Papi, played by Angel Curiel.

Warning: the following interview contains spoilers for the third season of "Pose", which is not yet available in Germany!

Contributing to Pose: Never a given

Curiel, the actor who embodies Lil Papi with a definite yet tender determination, is certainly not oblivious to the significance of this episode. As one of the only cis-hetero men in a cast that has long been recognized for its unprecedented trans* representation praised, the 25-year-old always felt the importance behind Pose’s mission, but never took his participation in the series for granted. From the beginning, he used the show as a way to further his personal education, viewing the unique opportunity as a way to learn information about the complicated History of the queer and trans* community to learn.

Of course, it helped that Curiel immediately fell in love with Lil Papi, a character whose rough history resonated with him. Growing up in Liberty City, Miami, Curiel knew not only what it meant to fight, but also that "fight" doesn’t always equate to Roughness, aggression and machismo must be. His aim was to use this figure to predominant media portrayal of afro-latinx men rewrite. To date, he has done just that through uplifting stories about making it out of the "hood," achieving professional success, being a loving partner, and becoming a Father figure for a son you didn’t even know you had is being. Looking back on his career, Curiel can’t help but feel proud of the work he’s done so far.

"I think [Pose] was one of the few times I picked up a script and felt like: ‘Oh, I’m not going to be made a token’. I thought: ‘Whoever is writing this is really trying to portray me in the best way possible’. This is something that has never happened to me before. I wasn’t even on set yet and I already felt seen, I already felt heard."

New narratives about Afro-Latinx men: Angel Curiel interviewed by NYLON

On Sunday, the U.S. aired the final episode of "Pose". In a Zoom call, Curiel told hierzuvor why he thought he was the only one who could play Lil Papi. He also talks about what it feels like to be part of the cast of a series that has the experiences of queer people of color focuses on how meeting his father for the first time two years ago influenced his approach to being a father and draws parallels between his Relationship with poseur Janet Mock in real life and the one to Angel on the screen. He also revealed which moment of the wedding episode was the most difficult scene to shoot.

What Curiel learned about his own history, masculinity stereotypes, and relationships

When did you first get involved with Pose and what attracted you to Lil Papi?
Let’s take a deep dive. When I got the audition, read the pages and started digging in, trying to figure out who this character is and what he represents, I read the script very instinctively and said: ‘Oh, man. This guy is me.’ I think it was one of the few times I picked up a script and felt: ‘Oh, I’m not going to be made a token.’. I thought: ‘Whoever’s writing this is really trying to portray me in the best way possible’. That’s something that had never happened to me before. I wasn’t even on set yet and I already felt seen, I already felt heard. So I said: ‘This guy is me, and I’m the only one who can do this. When someone else plays it, you might not see the joy. You might not see the heart that comes with this role. Coming to the casting and feeling that sense of confidence was a "first time" for me.

Daddy comes from a tough background. In the first season, he talks about being just 20 years old and only attending eighth grade, growing up in foster care, and having to sell drugs to survive. How did you put yourself in that character’s shoes to give her the right amount of care??
It came naturally. I grew up in Liberty City, a neighborhood in Miami that is comparable to the Bronx and Compton. That leads back to my first point: if someone else had played this role, he might not have brought that love, light, and joy with him. Unless you’re really from a "rough neighborhood"-or, let’s put it bluntly, the "ghetto"-and you’re trying to approach this character, you’re going to play him too hard because that’s the idea of how people in those neighborhoods behave, right? At the end of the day, we’re just mimicking what we’ve picked up and interpreted from TV and movies.

But for me, growing up in Liberty City, the impression was: ‘Oh yeah, that’s me. This is my best friend back home still struggling to make ends meet while he has his regular job. But he doesn’t come around the corner and say, "Here’s a 9-millimeter pistol. Let me rob you. Give me your necklace!" He’s so much like Papi. He’s a nice guy. It’s just that he has to handle his business [differently] to be able to support himself, his mother and his sister. I took all those things from my upbringing and from the relationships and bonds I built growing up and put them into this character.

"The character that the writers* developed was just a really good guy with a heart of gold. He’s there for his family. If he loves you, he loves you and doesn’t shy away from it. He is vulnerable. He tells you how he feels."

Pose is first and foremost a series about queer people of color. What was it like for you as a straight man to come into this world and try to tell this particular story?
I was nervous and scared because I grew up not even really understanding what it meant to be trans* – just in terms of vocabulary, let alone the trauma and complications and conflicts that come with being trans* and being a Black trans* woman. So I immediately thought, ‘Oh, okay, I’ve got some learning to do there. Otherwise I can’t do this character justice. In the beginning I looked at "Paris Is Burning" to. Then I started talking to my fellow actors, trying to get to know them, understand their history, their background, their experiences, so I could soak that up and get better informed.

"I grew up with the concept that for men – especially Black and Brown men – anger or silence are the only emotions we are allowed to evoke. And if it’s neither, forget it – it doesn’t exist."

Learning to Understand: The Storyline of "Pose

In the first season your character didn’t have a love affair yet, but in the second season she becomes the center of attention thanks to the romantic story with the character Angel. How did you feel when you first got the scripts and saw the direction your character would go in?
Above all, I was honored that the writers*, producers* and directors* all believed in me. But I was also nervous because I thought to myself: ‘Man, can I do this? Can I follow in those footsteps? I have the feeling that they are getting bigger and bigger. The character that the authors developed was just a really good guy with a heart of gold. He is there for his family. If he loves you, he loves you and doesn’t shy away from it. He is vulnerable. He tells you how he feels.

I grew up with the concept that for men – especially Black and Brown men – anger or silence are the only emotions we are allowed to evoke. And if it is neither one nor the other, forget it – it does not exist. So here was this character doing the complete opposite of that, and it was just a moment where I said: ‘Okay, there’s more personal work that I need to do to really capture this character, because look at what a good man he is.’

Note on the word "Brown": Angel Curiel uses this term in the original English-language interview. In English, this term is used, among other things, by and/or for people who are read as non-white, but who also do not describe themselves as black, for example. Since in German-speaking countries there are various terms for non-white read people and the general translation of Brown with "brown" has been used only sporadically, we have left the term here as an English word and capitalized it as a self-designation. For a perspective on the subject, see z.B. here at Deutschlandfunk.

He looks like papi

Pants and shirt by Aime Leon Dore, shoes by Vans, jewelry by David Yurman

"In this industry, the stories that are told are very white, and there is very little room when it comes to black or Afro-Latinx stories. But here’s Papi doing just that, right? That is, [these stories are] possible and here’s a template for how to tell them in a healthy way."

This is also when you began your relationship with Janet Mock, a writer, producer and director on the series. Considering the learning process you’ve been in, you’ve used elements from your own relationship there to enhance your presentation?
Yes, one hundred percent. My relationship with Janet was the greatest learning experience. I’ve always said this in a very factual way, but I’ve never been with a trans* woman before Janet. The deep, insightful conversations I was able to have, and her willingness and ability to just speak up and say: ‘You can ask. Let’s talk. Are you curious about this? What are you curious about?’ – all of this information, insight and knowledge has allowed me to keep a good record of [my experiences] and then sprinkle some of it on Papi.

Too little room for non-white stories: Soon to be a career screenwriter?

This season begins with Papi now fully immersed in a real career: he’s a boss with people working under him. Knowing in the back of your mind that you can relate well to Papi’s story: How did it feel for you to see him actually do something for himself in the end?
It means a lot to me. Growing up, I didn’t really have the opportunity to see much of that on the big screen. Even now as an actor, when I’m auditioning and looking for other projects, [I don’t see that]. In this industry, the stories that are told are very white, and there’s very little room when it comes to Black or Afro-Latinx stories. But here’s daddy doing just that, right? That said, [these stories are] possible and here is a template on how to tell them in a healthy way. So I have to start writing. I got to put a pen in my hand and make sure I’m doing everything I can to produce my own projects and have the career I crave – and it’s all because Papi showed us some kind of template for how to do it.

"So I had to bring in a lot of the things with Papi and his son that I wish my dad had done [when I was younger]. Emotionally, I kept thinking, man, you know how it feels to long for your father day in and day out, wondering where he is and why he doesn’t call you on your birthdays."

United with dad – on screen and in real life

Dad also learns this season that he has a five-year-old son, and his immediate reaction is to raise him. It’s inspiring to see an Afro-Latinx man like Papi determined to be there for his child, especially one he didn’t even know existed. It’s challenging this stereotype about fathers of color, which is that they’re absent most of the time.
I didn’t take it lightly. From personal experience, I only met my father two years ago as a grown man. I grew up my whole life without him. Going back to the Dominican Republic and seeing him face to face and being able to interact with him…there are not enough words to describe how healing that was for me. I wish every young man who grew up without his father could experience that. So I had to bring to Papi and his son a lot of the things that I wish my father would have done [when I was younger]. Emotionally, I kept thinking, man, you know how it feels to long for your dad day in and day out and wonder where he is and why he doesn’t call you on your birthdays.

So I brought in my personal experiences with my dad and wanted to make sure that there was another narrative that we could share. One that reads: ‘No, man, Black and Brown dads are there for their kids, too.’. There’s not just this stigma that they run away and turn the other cheek and then you never see them again. In this story, and in my personal one, we can say that this is not quite true and that we need to start breaking down this stigma.

He looks like papi

In the very first episode of "Pose," you are introduced by Papi asking Blanca to join the House of Evangelista. She lets him know that she doesn’t really have much to offer and his response is: ‘This is perfect for me. You are not much yet. But neither do I." When you look back, what’s the most inspiring thing about Lil Papi’s career?
I think the most inspiring thing is how he built the family he longed for. He appeared in that first scene as an orphan … he made himself vulnerable by saying: ‘Yo, I really like y’all. Whatever you guys just did in there is exciting to me and I want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of your home in whatever capacity you allow me to be, because I long and seek family, connection.’ Seeing how that’s the prelude to us meeting Papi for the first time, and then fast forward to where he is now, where he’s built his family and is trying to be a good man and be there for them, was just incredible.

Spoilers for season three’s "Pose": this will be Lil Papi’s big performance

Do you remember a scene that was particularly difficult to shoot??
The most difficult scene I had to shoot was definitely in [season 3, episode] six. It’s the wedding scene where Papi sings. I had never done anything like this before. The fact that I had to sing in front of my co-stars, crew, writers and producers scared me. It was this feeling of: "Man, can I do this?? Will people think that I am bad? I’m going to embarrass myself? All these thoughts rushed through my head. They got me training and prepared me as best they could, but I was terrified. And when the time came, I opened my mouth and felt so naked. But at the same time it was the best thing I had ever experienced because it forced me out of my mind and into my body. That’s the only way I was able to do that performance.

"I have this dream of a young man sitting on his couch, flipping through the channels looking for something to watch, and he comes across Pose, Papi, and thus sees a reflection of himself. "

But the thing that really capped it all off for me [was the moment when I then watched the scene]. When I met my father, he explained to me that my grandparents were artists themselves. My grandmother was a singer and dancer in the Dominican Republic in the 1950s and my grandfather was an opera singer and actor. So when I saw that scene, I had to pause it because it was the first time I didn’t see me or Papi – I saw my grandfather reflected in me. That was like a big "wow" moment because I realized in that moment that I was embodying the wildest dreams of my ancestors. I’m [doing] something that they’ve pursued their whole lives, something that they’ve done for a living. And without them even meeting me as an adult, I’m doing it now. That’s when things came full circle for me.

Now that "Pose" is coming to an end, what do you hope viewers take away from both the show in general and your character in particular??
I have this dream of a young man sitting on his couch, flipping through the channels looking for something to watch, and he comes across Pose, Papi, and thus sees a reflection of himself. As he’s watching, he becomes aware and says: ‘Ah, who is this boy?? He reminds me a bit of myself.Or, ‘He reminds me of Rico, over there, down the block.’.’ And as he watches, he notices Papi’s relationship with Angel and says: ‘Oh, he likes her? But she’s trans*! Oh, he couldn’t care less? You don’t care what people think, bro? Well, okay. I love my shorty too. I got it.’

The one who sat there watching Angel and Papi’s love scenes is learning about the traumas of Black and Brown trans* women as a result, I hope. Then he can take that information and share it with his friends so that every time some toxicity comes up, he can say: ‘No, no. Stand back. Let me explain. Let me show you that there is another way.’ Because, if we’re being honest, every time violence is done to trans* women, every time they’re murdered, it’s at the hands of men who are too ashamed to say they’re one of them. If we can get these young men to realize that there is no shame, that the one you love is the one you love, and that everything is all right, I think that would be a pleasure.

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