Nearly every morning this past year, Jeremy Pope -- the star of Netflix's Hollywood and Broadway shows like Choir Boy -- sat down and wrote in his journal, a new ritual he adopted during quarantine. In the past, he was never an ardent lover of writing. But in a tumultuous time, he felt the need to "get all the gunk out" through journaling in order to "stay sane."
The act was at once purgative of toxic thoughts and an opportunity of "realigning what my priorities are, what it is I want from the universe," Pope shares.
And what does he want? "I want to be safe. I want to be healthy. I want to feel love. I want to give love. And that's really it. That's the foundation, I think, of why I do all the things that I do," he affirms. "I just happen to use art to do that."
Pope details these intentions to me via phone from the front porch of his mother's home in Orlando, Florida, where he was raised. At the time, he was on break from projects in New York City, where the final season of Pose is being filmed. For a while, at least, he is "letting my parents take care of me" before production begins on Scandalous!, a biopic in which he will star as Sammy Davis Jr.
"I really feel like I'm in a season of alignment right now," he reflects. "And kind of recharging, the calm before the storm."
Hat and boots by United Nude Coat; bodysuit and underwear by Menagerie Intimates; necklace and ring lace by Tanaya
While much of the entertainment industry was suspended due to the pandemic, Pope had a banner year. He was a breakout star of Hollywood, Ryan Murphy's Netflix miniseries, which reimagined a more inclusive history of Tinseltown. In it, he portrayed Archie Coleman, a screenwriter dating Rock Hudson (played by Jake Picking).
Art has a funny way of imitating life. While his character received an Oscar in the series, which challenged Hollywood's racism and homophobia, Pope garnered an Emmy nomination for the role. He enjoyed the virtual ceremony with his family, an experience that was "better" than in-person because they were able to watch together while enjoying his grandmother's "Southern food ready for us to eat" during a milestone career moment.
"It's awkward, you know, but it's beautiful," he says of having such success in a surreal, distanced year. "That nomination or any nomination is just a reminder that you're in the right place, and to kind of keep moving forward."
Today, the 28-year-old is receiving fans and acclaim for roles he once believed would never exist. When he first arrived in New York City as a green actor a decade ago, Pope feared that being an out gay actor, who is also Black, would inhibit his career.
"There's just a tricky way in which you have to move, especially in an industry that is predominantly white," says Pope of first navigating the stigma surrounding his intersectional identities.
"Black men, I feel like a lot of times, our masculinity is our armor," he says. "We're meant to be built strong and tough because we've had to endure so much. So when you tell someone that you're gay or you're queer or you identify within the community, it's like, do you lose that badge of honor? Do you lose that respect? Do you lose your safety because people feel like you're vulnerable or you're fragile?"
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As the younger Pope grappled with the meaning of coming out to his career, he also weighed its potential impact within his family. Pope's father is "extremely hypermasculine," he shares, traits rooted in his dual callings as a pastor and a professional bodybuilder. Pope's parents are separated, but he was close enough with his father growing up to consider him a best friend, a partner.
"I didn't want to lose that dynamic," he says of his coming-out fears. "I watched so many of my cousins and a lot of my Black friends maybe not have a relationship with their father."
Being the son of a pastor also came with its own expectations in his faith community. "There's an image that you have to uphold," Pope says, adding, "You feel like you can't make mistakes, because you are the example. You are the first family, especially in the Black community -- what everyone is striving to essentially be, or your relationship to God is supposed to feel the closest."
A breakthrough moment for his career and personal life came in 2013. At the time, he was the lead in the New York debut of Choir Boy, a play by Moonlight writer Tarell Alvin McCraney about an effeminate gospel choir singer grappling with his sexuality at a preparatory school for Black students. Offstage, Pope felt "a burden" by not telling his family members about his own gay identity. So, he called them -- first his mother, then his father -- to share his truth.
Pope "blacked out" about the details of those initial phone calls. But he found that his parents had open hearts and ears, and a series of conversations ensued. In these talks, he and his father even talked Scripture and how "religion can be sometimes very dangerous," particularly when it is used to demonize LGBTQ+ people.
"The fact that he was open to...having these conversations and expanding his heart and his mind, to learn and to love me further, it's so precious and important," Pope says. "And I feel very grateful to have that because I know so many people who don't have that, who end up getting shut out."
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Rather than the term "coming out," Pope sees the process as a long-term invitation to "coming in -- let me bring you into the beautiful world that we have." This not only means making phone calls, but also letting family meet LGBTQ+ friends, boyfriends, and, say, coworkers like Janet Mock, the transgender multihyphenate who directed Pope on Pose and will collaborate with him again in Scandalous!
Today, he knows he makes his family proud. "There's nothing like seeing the twinkle in your parents' eyes," he attests.
Being true to himself paid off professionally as well. Pope went on to reprise his role in the 2019 Broadway run of Choir Boy, which garnered him a Tony Award nomination; he also received a nod that same year for the Temptations-inspired musical Ain't Too Proud. His theatrical success literally opened the doors to Hollywood. He counts the miniseries' gay co-creator, Ryan Murphy, plus McCraney and Mock, as mentors who helped him find "the ultimate freedom path," where he found his footing as an out artist. Their support has helped assuage a fear he still sometimes harbors about being a Black gay man in the entertainment industry.
"Is there space for me?" he asks. "I feel like I'm at the beginning of my career. So far, a lot of times I'm occupying the space as a first. The more I'm aligned with myself, the more I see the world showing me the spaces and the people that do value and respect me and want to see us win, want to see me win, want to see me soar."
Even in 2021, however, when some actors like Pope can flourish by being authentic, the glass closet persists. In a recent interview, Kate Winslet acknowledged that she knew at least four actors who won't come out due to fears that doing so would kill their careers. And while there are far more out LGBTQ+ actors today than at any point in history, there are few, if any, out "leading men" carrying major movie franchises.
For Pope, the cost of being closeted -- or working in anti-LGBTQ+ settings -- just isn't worth it. He shared that he recently left a project after he "wasn't being valued and respected" due in part to his queerness, and he has no regrets about that call.
"I think a lot of people have had to sacrifice a huge part of loving themselves at the cost of wanting to be, quote-unquote, successful, whatever that looks like to you," he says. "Success to me doesn't look like 'I have all the money, I have all the opportunities, but I can't be myself.'" For Pope, success means having love and respect from "my tribe of people, and we're kind of pouring into each other, we're wanting each other to win."
Pope now feels like his work as an actor is intertwined with his activism; championing for equality "feels very spiritual" and "part of my purpose," and also a reflection of his background with faith. "I've had to create my own kind of way of looking at the world and who God is to me and my relationship in that," he says.
Watching television, a film, or a play is "an opportunity to bring people in on a journey or a narrative that they maybe don't understand or that they don't see enough of ...to think differently, to expand their minds and their hearts, to empathize more, and to also activate, to make a change, whether that's in your community or in your family," he says. It's a privilege for him to star in productions like Hollywood and Choir Boy that can spark that kind of change.
TOP: Tank top, pants and gloves by Menagerie Intimates; pearl necklace by Dior; rings by Mckenzie Liautaud; boots by United Nude. BOTTOM: suit and shoes by Alexander Mcqueen; necklace by Mina Stones
"I didn't go out initially looking for those roles, but those are the type of roles and stories that found me," he says. "And ultimately, those stories and those roles are the ones that...fulfill me the most."
Pope also feels the responsibility to help others on that "freedom path" in the entertainment industry. Portraying the love interest of Mj Rodriguez's Blanca on Pose, he felt he was "joining the family" of a pioneering cast of transgender and queer people of color. On set, he felt a love and a need to "protect them at all costs." But he knows the season is not an end, but a beginning in the movement toward greater trans representation. (Read more about Pose's legacy on page 34. )
To help in this movement, Pope successfully advocated to help bring on Mock as a director of Scandalous! She is "one of the best" he's ever worked with, and a necessary voice in a filmmaking landscape that is still dominated by white straight men. He's also "honored" to work with her in telling the story of Davis, "the ultimate entertainer" who, like him, was a first, navigating a space where he had to be "four times as good as everyone...just to be in the room."
This Out cover story -- and his self-directed gender-fluid photo shoot of himself adorned in fishnet and pearls -- is also a testament to "how far I've come." In releasing these images, Pope says he asserts to the world that his body "can be lucid, it can be free, it can be broken, it can be masculine, it can be feminine, and...I'm allowed to possess all of those things."
"A couple of years ago, I would have been scared to be on the cover of Out," because of what it would do or what that will mean or how people will take him in, he says. "But now, it feels like a whole different season and a whole different journey."
Pope says he hopes "for anyone out there who sees the images or reads the article...[to] feel that affirmation...and maybe feel a little bit clear, free to be themselves, to lean into whatever direction they feel on any given day."
Pope fondly recalls the freedom he felt at his first Pride celebration in New York City. He was standing in Jeffrey's Grocery in the West Village while a nearby reveler whipped a fan in rhythm to Robyn's "Dancing on My Own."
In a still socially-distanced world, though, he envisions this year's Pride as "a moment for us to take in how far we've come, who we are, who we are striving to be" and to "continue to push these barriers -- to keep pushing, and fighting, and believing for more."
LV mixed chains necklace by Louis Vuitton Men's; shirt and pants by Menagerie Intimates
Creative Director & Talent Jeremy Pope. @jeremypope
Photography by Sophie Chan Andreassend. @sophieandreassend
Style by Ugo Mozie. @ugomozie
Special Thank You to HD Buttercup Studios Event Venue #6.
This cover story is part of Out's 2021 Pride Issue. The issue is out on newsstands on June 1, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.
Cover look: tank top, gloves, and pants by Menagerie Intimates; pearl necklace by Dior; rings by Mckenzie Liautaud