‘Pose’ star Ryan Jamaal Swain on abuse, fame, LGBT history, and defining as ‘queer’
The Daily Beast
December 3, 2018
In a candid interview, the actor talks about his stepfather’s aggression, why he doesn’t think LGBT people should have to come out, love, labels, and the power of ‘Pose.’
A beaming, cheek-punctuating smile broke across Ryan Jamaal Swain’s face as he recalled the moment, aged 4, when he had just finished a tap dance routine on stage.
“The rest of the cast had left the stage. My mom was saying, ‘Come on Ryan, leave the stage.’ People were laughing. But I didn’t care. I was like, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’ That was the first time I found myself.”
The second time was while watching Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary film Paris Is Burning, and its LGBT people of color subjects, especially Octavia St. Laurent, “who was so regal with her cigarette.”
And now, the 24-year-old actor said, his third, profound finding-himself moment is unfolding as the success and significance sinks in of playing Damon in Pose, FX’s acclaimed drama centered on a group of trans and gay people of color living, loving, fighting, resisting, and thriving within the ‘ballroom’ community of 1980s New York City.
“I’m getting close to what makes me happy and drives me,” Swain said. “I’ve always known, unconsciously, that I’m here for a reason. Whatever I’m about to do with my life, I want it to impact people.”
Strongly political, Swain will talk today about why he wants Pose to stand as a corrective to the bigotry of the Trump era. He is also recovering from heartbreak, and determined in his artistic ambitions to be as “multi-hyphenate” as possible. He is not so unlike Damon, having endured the aggressive homophobia of a parental figure when he was young. Like Damon, he is scarred, witty, full of ambition, and determined to succeed. He calls himself queer, rather than gay, and thinks LGBT people shouldn’t have to come out.
His voice frequently breaks and tears well as he tells his story. “I’m such a Pisces, very emotional. There are a lot of water signs in my family,” he said.
In the last year, Swain’s life has zoomed “literally from zero to 60 really quickly.” He has gone from having $50 in his pocket and sleeping on a friend’s couch to experiencing TV stardom, having money, and now living in his own place in Harlem. In starring as Damon, Swain is part of a TV show changing LGBT representation on screen—and specifically people of color LGBT representation—in the most radical, entertaining ways.
Taking off the softest, coziest-looking winter coat on a recent afternoon visit to The Daily Beast, the handsome and brimming-with-energy actor recalled that, just before Pose, he was living the life of the nervous graduate (from Howard University) turned jobbing actor. He had a job in a new Japanese restaurant. He had just been in D.C. starring as Paul in a production of Six Degrees of Separation. He had made his off-Broadway debut.
He had just gotten another hospitality gig, and was “very, very unhappy. I made a vow to myself, around my birthday on March 13, 2017, never to work in hospitality again. The next couple of months were very hard. Coming out of an acting degree, what can you do but teach or wait for that moment?”
When his agent presented the possibility of Pose, Swain said he felt “bogged down in emotions. ‘This is TV. I don’t know. I’m a theater kid.’ But then I read Pose. It felt tremendously magical. It was one of most brilliant things I had ever read, and I saw myself in it.”
But Swain thought he wouldn’t be successful in the audition; he had just graduated.
The scene he had to perform was when, in the first episode, soon-to-be house mother Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) finds Damon dancing in Washington Square Park. Swain recalled reading Leslie Odom Jr.’s book, Failing Up: How To Take Risks, Aim Higher, and Never Stop Learning, in which the actor wrote that he risked everything in his auditions, and so it was that Swain came to his in a cut-up sweatshirt and dance shorts, “ready to give it my all to Janet Jackson.”
Afterwards, Swain went home, watched the movie Dear White People, and then heard from his agent that the producers wanted to see videos of him dancing. “I don’t brand myself as a dancer. I’m an actor who moves extremely well,” said Swain.
The videos were sent. He didn’t hear anything for three weeks, and prepared himself for appearing, he hoped, in the Hamilton national tour.
Then his manager called. Co-creators Ryan Murphy and Steven Canals, executive producers Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson, and casting director Alexa Fogel wanted to see him again. Fogel’s only note was that Swain “should find spaces for my vulnerability. I said, ‘Oh, I’m a Pisces. I’m always sensitive. I cry at the drop of a hat. I feel all the time. I’m a water sign.” He laughed heartily.
It was down to two actors: Swain, and another darker-skinned African American actor. “I’m fair. I knew it would be one of us. I knew the guy. I said to him, ‘If you get it, great. If I do, great for me too.’”
That audition featured him acting out the scene when Blanca talked to Damon about sex, a transformative, beautifully written and acted moment for both characters.
Murphy gave Swain one final note: “Find the humor.”
He acted the scene out again. Murphy teared up and told Swain, Swain said: “You’re just so very special. Thank you for sharing. I hope we can work together.”
Swain also submitted an interview on tape, which was so emotional Swain thanks Murphy today, “for allowing me the space to heal. Some of those things I shared didn’t have to heal because things really did go from zero to 60, especially with Pose. I would see the pages we would be filming and think, ‘Oh God, I have to deal with this today. Then it turned out to be quite cathartic. I was able to share something with the public I had gone through, and felt better for it. Being an actor means creating a space where you can find humanity with everyone.”
Four days after the second interview, Swain was in Mexico City teaching an acting workshop and visiting his ex-partner when he received the call that he had gotten the part.
The scene where Damon’s homosexuality is discovered by his parents and he is thrown out of the family home was particularly hard to film.
It was the first time he had met his TV parents, and the scene was very close to Murphy’s own experience: “I knew this was sensitive for him as it was something that had happened to him. To be given that permission, I was very humbled. The pressure was on. I thought, ‘This is Ryan’s story. Oh God, I hope I do it justice.’ I was not only a vessel for my experience, but also his,” Swain said.
Swain acclimated himself to Damon’s bedroom, then meditated. They filmed the scene. “12 hours later he said, ‘You did well kid. Now go get a drink.’ I thought, ‘Oh good, Papa Ryan is happy.’”
Part of Swain’s charm (there is a lot of it), is that he still feels he is the newbie. He recalled that on his first day of filming, his dance audition scene took eight hours to film, with editing and script changes interspersed in the filming. “Oh shit, I fucked it up,” he kept thinking. “It was a lot of pressure, being afforded this amazing opportunity, being this vessel of experience. Sometimes I second-guess myself, meaning: ‘I just graduated. What the hell do I know about this? I hope I’m doing it justice.’ I was always thinking I was not good enough.”
Damon felt the same, he noted. “It was useful to feel that duality for myself and for him. It allowed me to think that Damon is mine, and he will be in the safest arms and care under my tutelage.”
Swain had some knowledge of LGBT history before doing the show. In preparation for a student show, he had read David Carter’s book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked a Gay Revolution. He had watched Andy Warhol movies and seen Paris Is Burning, “which floored me. I saw myself in each and every one of those people. Octavia St. Laurent with her cigarette looked so regal. I was instantly transported to that world.”
How are he and Damon similar? “We are both the epitome of what a dreamer is. He and I always wanted to do the things we are doing and always envisioned ourselves doing them. I think that’s where we find each other, and so communicate that nothing is going to stand in the way of our dreams—no trials, tribulations, or hardship. The insecurities that may stunt his growth are very much things I deal with. The challenge is not to let those things paralyze or arrest me, but to use them as fuel. We’re both not jaded by the world. We’re both bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”
OK, so how are they different?
Swain laughed. “I don’t know. There are too many ‘interwebs’ between us that have already been crossed there. Our DNA has been crossed.” He paused. “I think he’s a bit more tentative, a bit more shy.”
Then he roared with laughter. “Because Ryan is not. Very much not. I’m full speed ahead. I risk it all the time. His inability to articulate himself stands in his way. As actors we’re supposed to be limitless, whereas as humans we have a ton of limits.”
When Swain delved into civil rights history he thought of his grandparents fighting for civil rights in Alabama, into the 1980s (his father’s father and his stepmother; he has never met his father’s biological mother).
For his own research Swain asked social workers in Harlem if they knew anybody who lived through the era, then called them or had lunch or coffee with them to hear about their experiences. He also spoke to Murphy about his memories and experiences of the time. “So few of the black and brown narratives of that time are around, so much of that information is scattered,” Swain said. “Now there are new drugs and medications that can help prevent HIV. I never knew a time when that wasn’t the case.”
He feels a “huge sense of responsibility,” then, when it comes to evoking a time when such medications were not available, and when there was such toxic homophobia, bigotry, and ill-informed government inaction.
His co-star Billy Porter, Swain said, “has lived a full life and seen a lot of people go. He got to New York in 1984. He saw the plague hit. He shares all those stories and how jarring that was for him, with such openness and humor, and as he speaks you feel transported.”
It has been, said Swain, “amazing to have some of the original trailblazers of ball culture, like Freddie Pendavis, Sol Pendavis, Hector Xtravaganza, and Jose Gutierez Xtravagnza, with people from the House of Ninja, House of Amazon there, to share that with integrity when so many foot-soldiers and heroes laid their lives down especially for this. I have to transport myself even if it’s haunting and uncomfortable, because they had to see those people whittle away, literally.”
Despite the intensity of the material, the actors do have fun on the set of Pose, especially with the scene’s real-life participants there. “We are all happy and thankful they are there, and that Pose is being shown in prime-time, for families from the Midwest to the South able to be exposed to this for the first time,” said Swain. “I was so ‘insulated’ watching Paris Is Burning.
“I like that this is a show being watched by families who see how a ‘chosen family’ operates. It’s the most beautiful gift we can to give America at this moment. We have so many things trying to separate us coming from this administration. Pose gives us an opportunity to relate to someone else’s experience, and the vocabulary and empathy to deal with people who are not like us.”
For trans and LGB people feeling under attack right now, Swain hopes that “Pose gives you the plan behind the passion.” Swain’s commencement speaker at Howard was Barack Obama, who told the students, in Swain’s words, “you can be angry and upset, but if you don’t have a plan nothing is going to happen.”
“To my millennial brothers and sisters I would say, ‘Understand how much voice and passion there is in our vote.’ The moment we allow ourselves to be passionate and angry is good, but the next step is to plan and be purposeful and understand that we live in a democracy that yes, is wonky, but we still have the power to negotiate with lawmakers and disruptors.
“I hope Pose empowers you to know we are not going anywhere. They can try but they will never succeed. I come as one, but I stand as 10,000. That is what Pose represents. These are individuals who want to live freely, not hurt anyone else, and just live in their truth. But the moment you try to take that away, they fight. And today, we must continue to fight to use our power. The House is now Blue. We are initiating change. But don’t let this be a moment, let it be a movement.”
For Season 2, Swain wants Damon to continue to “expand in his maturity and humanity that challenges him to ask and answer hard questions and constantly fight for what he believes in.” And yes, to stay coupled to Ricky (Dyllón Burnside, who Swain loves working with).
“Damon represents the whole conglomeration of young queer black people who didn’t have that voice back then, the duality of what it means to be black in America and what it means to be black and queer in America. In season 1 you saw Blanca faced the transphobia in gay bar spaces. In season two I would like to see the racism that black queer people experience in those spaces.” He smiled. “My people are cooking up some good stuff.”
Through the show, Swain feels “catapulted to a space and platform for social change. I’ve always been around and part of that coming from Howard University which had all these people: Thurgood Marshall, Donny Hathaway, Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen, Toni Morrison. I feel the spirit of that. That’s what humbles me.”
“My mom still curses me out when she needs to. ‘Shut up.’ ‘Yes, I’m still your child.’”
And yes, he said, it’s cool being recognized and being treated as famous people are treated, but it is also odd having people stare at him having dinner with friends and loved ones, and unsure if his safety is about to be compromised.
Swain started dancing at 4, first at Kollege For Tots, in Birmingham, Alabama where he grew up, and then Beverly Dance Unlimited, where he was sore after every one of his three classes a week. Today he thanks “Miss Beverly” for her discipline. He recalled his first tap dance number, “all the glitter and rhinestones,” to Carwash.
Perfection, something to master, was important to him. He did theatre at his public high school (making his professional debut at Birmingham Children’s Theatre in a play about agricultural scientist and master peanut innovator George Washington Carver), before attending a performing arts high school. Swain played the violin and trombone for two years, and balanced an intense commitment to rehearsals and performance with his schoolwork.
Early on he wanted to be an archaeologist. “I loved history and unearthing things, and—as an actor—that’s what I try to do. I love history, especially as my African-American ancestors were put on the boat here. As African-Americans we all yearn for that which is going to anchor us.” He paused, and smiled. “Wow, you just made me realize this. My therapist will be pleased. Also, in order to know where we’re going we need to know where we’ve been. You should look at the people who lived before you to assess how to make your humanity better.”
Swain laughed naughtily. “I also wanted to be an anesthesiologist, because I heard they made a lot of money and put a lot of people to sleep. All my family are involved in healthcare. I love biology, but hate chemistry, physics, and all of that.”
As a child, he recalled being reprimanded for something, and going to his room and writing in his journal that he wanted to kill himself. His mother saw it and spoke to him. He said he didn’t mean it. “I was a child, lashing out. I didn’t know how to express myself, and felt very policed in what I said and did. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about what I was going through. I felt very singular and alone. I didn’t know what to do, how to do it, and who to talk to.”
Growing up, attending church had been obligatory, Swain said, “every Sunday for three hours, then dinner, bed, and school on Monday.” As a young boy, he said, he didn’t know why his mother wasn’t with his biological father. They didn’t see their biological father at the time. He watched Degrassi, and “everyone was killing themselves on Degrassi. That’s why I wrote it. I wasn’t trying to do any harm to myself.”
Britney Spears was the young Swain’s primary hero (“Part of being a pop star is being fantastical”), then Hathaway, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier (the last three via his biological father’s parents). “Poitier and Harry Belafonte inspired me. Belafonte did a marvelous job of understanding art as activism, or being an ‘artivist.’ My grandparents were both Freedom Riders, who were arrested with Martin Luther King. This is very much in my DNA.”
Swain recalled Belafonte playing a bank robber in Buck and The Preacher (1972) and thinking how different Belafonte looked compared to how smooth he looked on the TV specials Swain was more familiar with.
“He was not being himself any more. I loved that and I love all transformative artists who, when I see them on screen, I don’t know who they are: Meryl Streep, Eddie Redmayne, Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat. Angela Bassett: I thought she was Tina Turner for the longest.”
One of the first albums his mother bought him was Spears’ Oops!… I Did It Again. “I always wanted what Britney had which was just the grandeur of fame. I wanted to be a singer, I wanted to dance. I wanted to be Britney Spears. Shortly after that, I remember singing along to a song on the CD and him telling me to shut up. I did not know how to brush that off. It affected me. I started trying to appease everyone around me, and do what was demanded of me—being a star athlete, all of that—until, after a while, I realized I was unhappy.”
The concordances between Swain and his fictional character are sharpest when it comes to his stepfather. In the show, Damon’s father throws him violently out of the family home.
When Swain was 12, before going to football practice, he would hide his leg and knee pads in the lining of his bed, because he didn’t want to go to practice. “It was becoming excruciating for me to go. Something inside of me was not being fulfilled, and I needed to figure out what that was and how that was.”
At 14 he was doing ballet and tap and going to dance recitals, while also playing football and basketball and “doing all the sports any Southern kid does.”
“I noticed that my stepfather (who Swain declines to name) wouldn’t be at my dance recitals, but would be at my football or basketball games. There was a dissonance, and I felt what I was doing was wrong. My biological father had left my life at around 5 or 6. (Swain will talk later about his recent return to Swain’s life.) This male figure, my stepfather, was supposed to be my god, my knight, my armor. and I didn’t understand what I was doing wrong. As a child, when you don’t have that articulation, the feeling is it’s your fault, rather than something is wrong with the other part of the equation.”
Swain said that after his stepfather had married his mother, he first tried to enforce discipline and the need for Swain and his sister Raven (now 22) to do chores. Swain said he was “always a sensitive child,” and was “trying to find out who I am” as he grew older.
His stepfather, said Swain, would comment on how he walked and talked (especially if he put on an English accent). “Why are you talking like a fag?” Swain recalled him saying. “It was very much homophobic, very hard. A child needs to be told they’re safe, heard, and loved.” On one occasion, he told his stepfather to stop talking to him in the derogatory way that he was. “We got into an argument. He pushed me. I pushed him back. He pinned me down on the bed. My mom came in and split the whole thing up.”
When watching Damon’s aggressive rejection by his father, “it was the first moment my family could see some of the things I had to deal with.”
Swain’s mother and stepfather separated when Swain was in college. He recalled he had a horrible dream in which she was dead, woke up crying, and called her immediately. “It was right around the time they were signing the papers.”
Alongside Raven, he has a brother RJ, 15, and sister Dianna, 11 (who his mother had with his stepfather). His biological father had two other sons, so Swain also has one older brother who is 26, and another brother, Kendyl, who died of bone marrow cancer aged 12.
They never met each other and didn’t have the chance to establish a relationship, said Swain. He found out about Kendall when Kendall was sick, and is sad he never had the chance to meet and get to know his little brother. He has met his older half-brother.
Swain said his stepfather hadn’t come to his or Raven’s graduation ceremonies.
When his mother’s side of the family found out what his stepfather had done, they were “very protective. If he ever showed his face there would have been discrepancies.”
At the time of the pinning-down incident, his mother had been a young parent, he said. “I think she gave everything she could possibly give. She was like, ‘My children are my life. She always put us forward.”
He smiled. “My mother is one of the craziest, wackiest people in my life. She has always accepted me. We have always been close. She’ll call me ‘superstar,’ and I say, ‘Girl, quit calling me that. I’m still your child.’ She’s just thrilled for me. She knew I wanted this for a very long time.”
His voice broke again, and he sighed.
“She’s a warrior woman. he’s seen how hard I worked. Even when she hasn’t understood why I wear make-up on stage, she’s never made me feel like shit. She’s always supported me. She’s always been there with open arms and a full tank of gas, ready to take me wherever need to go.” He laughed, and impersonated her driving him here and there, “running up my gas. You’re not the only child I have.”
Swain bought his mother, grandmother, aunt, and sister to Pose’s first season premiere in New York City. He smiled at the memory, recalling how he made sure they had a special, glamorous evening.
When they saw the scene where Damon is thrown out of the house, Swain recalled, “I’m holding my mom’s hand, and I could feel her holding her breath, and then, watching it, she released her breath and teared up. No-one else knew that moment, when my stepfather pinned me down, except me and her. I looked at all the strong women around me, and they were all crying. I had to say, ‘Stop. I have to watch this. And there’s more.’”
When they watched the ballroom scenes, filled with all kinds of LGBT faces and presences, Swain’s female relations “were like, ‘OK, this is fun. Everyone wants to express themselves.’” His family knew more about the emotional baggage he carried, Swain said, and watching Pose had been “cathartic” for them.
He knows his mother was trying to balance the competing needs of her then-husband and the needs of “a growing boy and her first husband, who has some kind of problem with what her child is doing. That was hard for me especially. She was not yet 19 herself, and trying to figure out how to raise a young man.”
Fortunately, his biological father’s parents were a positive influence, and showed Swain “that there was nothing wrong with me, and nothing wrong with being sensitive and a man.” (Today, Swain said, roles like Damon, and those being played by Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges, show this is now current.)
“It was very different to find my artistic space, and my grandparents took me under their wing. My mom was fine about it. I’m forever indebted to my grandparents,” said Swain.
Growing up, Swain’s grandfather was his paternal figure. “My grandfather wasn’t afraid to embrace his sensuality and emotions. He would say of another guy, ‘That’s a handsome fella.’ ‘Really granddad?’ I’d say. But that’s what’s needed when you’re a child. It was such a contrast with the negativity around my stepfather. My grandfather showed me a man could be soft, and still everyone admires and loves him. He introduced me to tennis, golf, reading books. It wasn’t a toxic space, but a welcome and open one.”
This openness helped foster Swain’s ambition, and “wanting more” from whatever he was doing. When playing tennis as a teenager, “it was to win that tournament, that grand slam, get to Wimbledon.”
He played intensively and competitively from 13 to 15. His serve was “whack” but he had a strong top spin forehand, which used to bounce cruelly over particularly short opponents. He had to ultimately choose between it and acting. Acting won, although a lot of acting books, he said, “say tennis and acting are alike because of the transference of energy.”
Maybe, he laughed, Damon could suddenly develop a liking for tennis in season 2 of Pose, which will be set in 1989 and 1990 and about which he insisted, not entirely convincingly, he knew nothing at all.
For a long time, Swain wanted to change his last name to his mother’s name, but the example of his grandfather made him determined to keep it. “I wanted to be whoever my grandfather was, I wanted to be like him. His blood runs through me.”
He never felt hopeless. He had his sister, and his father’s parents when he found them at 13; and with them the first time to be himself.
His voice broke again. “When I came out we had a tiff. We didn’t see eye to eye. They were questioning me. I was 20, in college. I’m 24 now. It hasn’t been the same ever since, which is disheartening. There are reservations on both sides. They asked questions about my sexual history, and so did my aunt. At the time I didn’t know how to process that. Their own grandparents had asked them the same kinds of questions, though in my family my mom didn’t ask me anything like that. I didn’t want to have those conversations. They’re personal.”
Again, Swain smiled that his family were a family of “very emotional water signs, so when I came to them with the emotion of coming out they hit me with emotion. Now we’re both feeling very hurt. I hope we work it out. They mean the world to me.”
Today, Swain said he was “working through my conditioning. My trauma is not my fault. My healing is definitely the kind of thing I have to take hold of.”
He recalled that during one episode of Empire—“where Jussie Smollett played the first 4-dimensional black queer man on camera” Swain had ever seen—his grandmother said under her breath, “Ryan is like Jamal (Lyon).”
Swain was too scared to come out until he went to college. Until then he felt he was “making sure he was “the golden child in my family’s eyes, making the honor roll, doing all my homework. I was making everyone else happy, not allowing myself to be happy.”
Howard University had really helped him be who he wanted to be, he said.
Swain came out to his mother when his ex-boyfriend, who was his production manager for A Negro Writer, a one-man show he wrote and starred in about Langston Hughes, came to stay and Swain told his mother about their relationship. “She said, ‘Wait, does that mean you’re gay?’ I said, ‘That just means he’s my boyfriend.’”
Before Swain started filming Pose, he told his family all about it so they could ask him any questions they wanted to.
For Swain, Damon’s story “is of a 17 and 18 queer teenager being thrust into a world he knows nothing about.”
“There is a power in names and labels, and I think I am more a queer individual, rather than gay. I am part of a spectrum. I don’t see sexuality as black-and-white, I see it as a grey area. When I was growing up I had girlfriends and boyfriends. I think for me theatre so early in my life was important. It really articulated the language for me to identify my experience. I’m in this very southern town, but the school had kids from all parts of Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi. I had a friend from Niagara Falls. It was a melting pot of all cultures and perceptions of sexuality. I didn’t feel unsafe. It was only when I got home that I felt more the reality of my conditioning.”
“Let me be very clear,” said Swain. “As a queer person or LGBTQIA+ person, there’s no necessity for you to come out. Straight people don’t have to. It’s not 2005. People don’t have to come out. No announcement is needed. You were born that way. That is you.
“I love the bit in Love, Simon where the question is asked: what if straight people had to come out, and it’s farcical and satirical. As a person who you love is your business and you allow yourself the space to welcome people into it, and they see something you chose, not chosen for you.”
But a lot of people think they are born LGBT, and also believe coming out is powerful because there is still so much homophobia and transphobia around, especially in the current political climate. Didn’t Swain feel it was important to say who we are, if only as an encouragement to people to show that there was nothing wrong or unusual about it?
“Yes,” Swain said. “‘Coming out,’ the label, is what I have a problem with. I want to reverb and rewire it and remake it to be ‘inviting-in,’ so we invite people into our experience, and into my experience as a queer male. I have never hidden who I am. I hope we get to a time where we don’t have to hide for our own safety.
“But in ‘coming out of the closet,’ it’s like I have to reveal myself. No. I’ve always been here, now you’re invited into that experience. That’s more powerful, and it comes from a space of unifying different things.”
Pose arguably does the same thing, although it expects its audience to understand its characters, which is particularly significant given the range of queer people of color characters it long-overdue contains.
Swain calls this queer people of color invisibility until now a “symbolic annihilation. If you don’t see yourself represented, you think you are less-than or less important-than. I think this is the start of a moment or movement where we see more black and brown and colorful people on our TVs, and we find both universality and specificity. I am forever indebted to the whole team at Pose. They have allowed me to find my own freedom and use my platform wider than I could have ever imagined.”
His castmates are “some of the most special people I have met in my whole life, and I am blessed to be in the space of such transformative individuals, from my sisters’ lives and experiences to Billy Porter’s coming from the 1980s and now—and Ryan’s (Murphy) stories about being kicked out of his home,” Swain said.
Swain’s voice broke and his eyes filled with tears.
“I am so thankful to Ryan and Steven. Without them, I don’t know if this ever could have happened. What a privilege and honor. Pose speaks to my own history and my friends’. We have not seen these people on TV before, and they have not been allowed the space to use their voice and gift as their power. I can’t watch the show without tearing up.” He paused, and said softly, “Wow, we did the damn thing y’all. We’re all very close and supportive, truthfully, and we literally put or blood, sweat and tears into this.”
“I became who I was. I’m not negated by my trauma,” Swain said of surviving, and now thriving after his difficult past. A lot of his language sounds influenced by the therapy he’s now having. Canals recommended he could try it, after Swain spoke to him about all the sudden transitions in his life, from not having money to having it (including a very new tax bracket) to having to unearth traumatic things in his past in his role as Damon.
“Everything was happening so swiftly. I’m not good at compartmentalizing work and personal. It’s all in one for me. If I’m not happy at home I’m damn sure not happy on set.” He practices meditation, yoga, and therapy. Canals told Swain he found therapy transformative, as did Pose producer, writer and director Janet Mock.
Swain is single, and nursing romantic scars. He said he thought he had found his ideal partner last year, but it didn’t work out. “It was my first heartbreak,” he said. “It’s very hard for me to jump in and go full speed ahead with someone else. It happened just before we started filming Pose, and I thought, ‘I have got to deal with this.’ It was an emotional roller coaster. Everything in my life was in transition.
“It was very hard to go home by myself, shake it off and face another day not thinking about him. Very hard. I’m Pisces. My ex was also a water sign. We were very emotional, and it was an emotionally aggressive relationship.”
His voice broke again. “I was courting him for 2 years.” They met when Swain was in the U.K. studying in London and Oxford.
Is Swain ready for a relationship? “I feel like everything happens for a reason. When I go into a relationship I love hard and it is all that matters to me. Do I want a relationship? Yes, absolutely. I do want love. I yearn for it each and every day. I also know, right now because of my passion and deep well of yearning for my craft, that art is my baby right now. After that, we’ll see what opens up.”
But hang on, he’s very handsome and on a hit TV show, that must had to some interest.
Swain laughed hard. “My DMs are being slid into, as we millennials say.” He quickly got serious. “I know what love feels like, and how deeply that feels to me, and how much I give and how much I want my partner to give. If it’s less than that I don’t want it. The only thing giving me the same type of passion is my work, which always asks me to challenge myself. It always asks me to get out of my own way and be fearless.”
He laughed again. “If I can find all that in an individual partner, then saddle us up and let’s go to the church and get married.”
His siblings are happy for him. Raven and he are very close, having grown up in the same two households. “We make each other cry,” he said quietly. Dianna has told her (reportedly very impressed) teacher that her brother is “Ryan Jamaal Swain on Pose.”
Swain’s biological father came back into his life in his freshman year of college. He drove from Birmingham to Washington D.C. and watched him run lights in a play he was working on. Swain drove them around (“driving isn’t scary in Alabama but it is scary in D.C., these people don’t know how to drive”), they had dinner, and then his father attended his graduation.
They talk now, and his father is “heavily following Pose, and all the articles about me. He read about what my stepfather did, and said how fucked up it was. They haven’t talked about Swain’s homosexuality yet, “but he’s read everything and seen the videos.”
His father loves Pose, said Swain, and is eager to hang out with his son. “I’m like, ‘OK, but I may be whisked away if there’s something I need to do,’” Swain has told him. “I hope to have furniture by then.”
Father and son are so alike, “it’s uncanny,” said Swain, with a smile. “We have the same sly, witty, dry humor. When he does something, I think, ‘Oh, I do that too.’”
Nothing he learned at school prepared Swain for “the psychological shift” in becoming suddenly famous. “There are checks and balances, and people you have to answer to. You have to make sure you’re under contract and building long-lasting relationships. It’s a very particular moment. I’ve learned Damon is such a special individual. People come up to me all the time. A 60-ish-year-old black man said to me recently. ‘You’re that actor. Good job!’
“People come up and tell stories. They’ll say, ‘Oh my goodness, my heart is pounding so fast.’ I say, ‘Breathe,’ They start crying, then I start crying because I can’t hold it in. One person said, ‘Do you know what you’re doing for me? I introduced Pose to my father and grandparents. I see myself in your character. Thank you so much for allowing my family to heal.’”
Swain’s voice broke again.
“I always thought I was going to do something impactful. I just didn’t know I was going to be able to help people heal. That’s all I want to do, help people not have to go through the hardships people like me and aside from me have had to go through: being kicked out, having to go to a shelter, not having someone to call on.
“For me to be ushering another level of understanding around that, I am forever indebted to Ryan and Steven for opening that door to so many people. That’s why I enjoy what I do. It’s not about going to a fashion show wearing the latest garment, snubbed up with Nicki Minaj and Tiffany Haddish, lovely, great and amazing as that is. The real reason I am doing this and I think maybe Jesus called me to do it, is to help usher in a new wave of understanding, love and support for people who have not had that.”
Swain is a spiritual person, he said. Christianity and Catholicism were his tenets growing up, “until I realized what made my heart sing were the tenets of Buddhism and having crystals and spells, as well as religions from Indian and African culture. Anything that allowed us to persecute ourselves is not doing work that helps us. We are all human. I believe in a hodge-podge of everything.”
He meditates “excessively,” and every morning writes “morning pages,” as per the author Julia Cameron’s example, meaning before he faces the day he has rid himself of whatever “crazy-ass conversation” or thoughts might have plagued him overnight. He shadow-boxes at a gym, and sees a spiritual guide see every other week, “who makes sure my chakras are back in alignment because of all the trauma that has happened.”
Swain still feels he is a young artist, “in that I doubt himself constantly, and feel I am not good enough.” (Does any artist of any age feel different?) It was a recent thrill for Swain to be included in Forbes’ ‘30 under 30’ list, as he and his mother looked at those lists when he was young.
“l was a nerdy kid,” he smiled. “When I saw my name on the list I was like, ‘Wow,’ around all these artists, e-commerce, media and manufacturing people.”
He loves working with “Papa Ryan,” Canals, Mock, and Jonathan McCrory, artistic director of the National Black Theatre. “They are all family to me. The way I stay close to humanity is to find voices for the voiceless. I’m always happiest and most fulfilled when I’m in service. I want everyone to succeed.”
To that idealistic end, Swain is working on a non-fiction teenage children’s book about a Southern queer teenager “growing up in a time of police brutality around Trayvon Martin and that general landscape.”
He recalled growing up, never being able “to find myself represented in the book-stacks of Barnes and Noble.” His book’s character comes from the South and identifies as black, queer, and from Alabama. “It is based on my reality and personal experiences. When people not from the South think of the South they think of kind, chivalrous, gracious Southern hospitality. But there is a lot of underlying racism and homophobia, and the book is about how to deal with that.”
The book will echo the work he does with organizations like the Trevor Project, It Gets Better, and GLAAD, and he hopes it may become a movie or TV show.
“The character is non binary, so I hope there will be a power in them being universal. You can find yourself in the story no matter how you operate.”
Alongside Pose, he is taking part in workshops for theatrical pieces, and we will also soon see him in Engaged, a short film about an inter-racial gay couple. “My character’s Asian boyfriend is having a hard time popping the question to me because of internalized homophobia and circumstance. My character is the more forward one.”
Swain sees himself as “a multi-hyphenate,” just as one of his heroes, Quincy Jones, “who is also a Pisces, and shifted with the times, from jazz to rap to hip-hop. He is always redefining himself.”
Swain similarly sees himself as “a creator: an actor, a singer, film-maker, dancer, artist, activist and businessman. Creating stories is my way of creating service. The moment I stop learning is the moment I stop living. I want to make sure all of those wells are being fulfilled so I can leave this world fulfilled and leave a legacy for others.”
It was “humbling,” Swain said to be part of Pose, and give that generation of LGBT people life again.
“It has serviced a bigger thing in keeping me grounded in this thing that represents people before me and will represent people after me,” Swain said as he shrugged his cozy winter coat on to leave. “To be able to submit to this place in time and be able to part of a transformative and historic show like this, I couldn’t dream of or ask for anything more. So, thank you Ryan, thank you Steven.”