Steven Canals isn’t supposed to be here. He’s not supposed to be succeeding in Hollywood — Black, brown, and queer from a working class family in the Bronx. He’s not supposed to be a graduate of UCLA’s MFA screenwriting program. And he’s most certainly not supposed to be the creator, co-executive producer and writer of the Golden Globe-nominated television show, Pose. He’s just not supposed to be.
And yet, here he is — and somehow, he’s working harder than ever. “Every time I attack the page, I write as if it’s the last time I’m ever going to have the opportunity to write–because it could be,” he says. His career so far embodies the mantra that often drives people of color: To get even half of what white folks have, we must work twice as hard. “In those moments where I’m feeling tired or I’m feeling a little lazy, I’m constantly having to remind myself, like, ‘No bitch. Get it together. You have to do this because the work matters, but also the opportunity is here right now,’” he says. And then, there’s that lingering, distinctly Hollywood fear: “When Pose ends, is this going to continue? Who really knows?”
Canals first had the idea for Pose in 2004 while studying film at Binghamton University in New York, after a professor suggested he watch Paris Is Burning. The documentary was the first time he’d seen people who looked and sounded just like him. On his way back to his dorm, he thought to himself, That would make a really great television show. “At the time, I was really struggling with my identity, and I just remember feeling that if in the face of poverty, disease, and violence, these incredible individuals can walk unapologetically in their truth, then I have no excuse,” he says.
A decade later, as a second-year student at UCLA, the idea for Pose revived itself. Canals wrote a pilot about a young kid who moves to New York and gets enmeshed in a ballroom war between two house mothers. The script would later be sent, through a friend, to two major networks. “This is not a show,” he remembers being told.
A year later, he submitted the same script to a screenwriting competition at his school — and won. The meetings with industry executives began shortly thereafter. But while the Pose script got Canals in the door, all the decision-makers saw was an idea “too niche” to land him a job. “The meetings were varying degrees of, ‘We love the characters and we love the world, but what else do you have?’ to ‘You’re never going to get this made because it’s a period piece and too Black and too brown and too queer and too trans.’ It was just too much.”
The script eventually landed Canals in front of the prolific Ryan Murphy who, along with his producing partner Brad Falchuk, had optioned the rights to Paris is Burning. Canals left the meeting with a green light. Since then, the last few years of his career have been on the ascent. But while offers to work on other LGBTQ+ projects have come his way, Canals is looking to push the envelope of queer and trans storytelling.
“I’m not as interested in telling a story about a young person who’s struggling to come out, especially after having told a story that centers queer and trans people who are going through the struggles that we all go through every day in terms of figuring out love and life and career,” he said. “I don’t know know if I want to take a step back and do something that leans into the tropes.” After all, he’s in a position now to call some of his own shots.
As one of only five people in the Pose writers’ room — Janet Mock and Our Lady J keep him good company — his new industry voice is equally as important as everyone else’s. “Pose makes me feel like the stories I want to tell have value,” he says. “Now if people are telling me, ‘I don’t know if that’s going to work,’ it’s hard to keep my mouth shut.” “My attitude is, ‘But it did.’”
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