What You Don't Know About Mj Rodriguez

Mj Rodriguez is proud to be a trailblazer. As the first trans woman to be nominated for a major Emmy award (for best lead drama actress), she told Variety she's excited by the added visibility her nomination gives the trans community. "I do believe this is a pivotal moment. There's never been a trans woman who has been nominated as a leading outstanding actress and I feel like that pushes the needle forward so much for now the door to be knocked down for so many people — whether they be male or trans female, gender nonconforming, LGBTQIA+, it does not matter," she shared.

But Rodriguez's Emmy nomination didn't come out of nowhere. As she told Dr. Drama, she's been singing and acting since childhood, passions that initially led her to musical theater, where she earned early recognition for her performance in "Rent." From here, she expanded into television, taking roles in "Nurse Jackie" and "Luke Cage" before being cast in "Pose" along with four other transgender actors, according to the Motion Picture Association. But as Dr. Drama noted, no matter where her acting career takes her, she's proud to advocate for the LGBTQ community.

Mj Rodriguez wanted to act since she was 7

Mj Rodriguez started out like most little kids, dreaming of a range of possible future careers, but by the age of 7, she'd zeroed in on her career of choice. "I wanted to be everything under the sun," she told Dr. Drama, "but my main passion was singing and I wanted to act while doing so. And thank goodness I can move well, so I can get past some dance audition." By this point, she was already thinking about the professional opportunities her passions offered her. "When I was 7, I wanted to see if that acting world would accept someone who was predominantly a singer. And it's just carried through, throughout the years," she said.

Fortunately, her family was supportive of her interests, enrolling her in programs at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center when she was 11, as Broadway.com reported. She became a fan of Broadway musicals early, seeing the movie "Rent" at age 11, and, soon after, seeing "Wicked" onstage. "And then I went to see "Rent" on Broadway right after because I had to see it," she told Dr. Drama. Fortunately, Rodriguez's family lived in New Jersey, so getting to Broadway wasn't too problematic.

She later attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music, according to Broadway.com — and from there made the stage and screen her full-time job.

Her chosen name was inspired by a Spider-Man character

Mj Rodriguez knew from an early age that her given name didn't fit. By her teen years, she was known to her friends as Mj, a name she chose, in part, because it allowed her to incorporate parts of her birth name. "I put 'Michael' and 'Junior' together, and it worked perfectly," she told Broadway.com. But this wasn't the only influence on her choice of a new name — it also honors "Spider-Man" character Mary Jane Watson. "The first time they called her MJ, I thought, 'That's a cool name!'" she told Broadway.com.

It's not surprising Rodriguez turned to comic books as inspiration for her evolving identity. As she told "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," she'd always been a serious comic geek, often sneaking comics from her uncle's collection. She's even been trying her hand at creating her own comic book, showing her sketches during her appearance on the show. Her main character is a tall, striking woman. "I've been building her up. She's kind of like me. She's just this misunderstood girl in the world. She has a lot, obviously, that's stacked against her, but she defeats the odds," Rodriguez explained.

Her singing got noticed when she was just 11 months old

Mj Rodriguez was a precocious performer and started singing — and singing well — at an age when most people can barely stand up or pronounce their names. "It all started when I was 11 months old, singing a song by Jodeci in the back seat of the car," Rodriguez told Broadway.com. "My mother turned around and said, 'Who is that?' When she saw it was me, she said, 'I think we have a singer on our hands.'"

Rodriguez's parents took this discovery in stride, supporting her love of music and performing by enrolling her in theater programs and introducing her to Broadway musicals. She recalled to Broadway.com the excitement and inspiration she felt when seeing "Rent" for the first time with her father. "I turned to my father and said, 'I want to play Angel.' And he said, 'In due time.'" That "due time" came only a few years later, when she got to play that role in a youth production of the show. And only a few years after that, her portrayal of Angel off-Broadway would launch her professional career.

Mj Rodriguez modeled her character in Pose after her mother

Mj Rodriguez feels a strong personal connection to Blanca, the powerful trans woman she portrays in "Pose." In the show, set in the gay ballroom culture of New York in the 1980s, she plays a woman determined to make a bigger impact on the community after discovering she's HIV positive. To this end, she starts her own house (basically, a team of ballroom performers), the House of Evangelista, and becomes a de facto mentor and mother figure to its members.

But while her role allows Rodriguez to honor her trans identity and share the trans experience with a wider audience, it also allows her to honor another important female role model in her life: her mother. When talking to the Motion Picture Academy about a scene in which she goes to a dance school to advocate for a house member seeking admission, she cited her mother as her inspiration. "I remember when I was younger — my mom did the same exact thing for me," she told the Motion Picture Academy. "She vouched for me. I wasn't a bad kid, just like how Damon isn't a bad kid. But sometimes you're conflicted with things as a kid." She added that her mother always had her back, even when she was being difficult. "Sometimes I became closed off, and I would almost miss opportunities. But my mother fought for me, and she made sure that I never missed an opportunity," she said.

She's not afraid to call out the LGBTQ community for its blind spots

Mj Rodriguez is proud to represent and champion the LGBTQ community. But like any loving family member, she's not afraid to speak up when she sees room for improvement. In one difficult scene in "Pose," her character Blanca goes to a gay bar and is intentionally ignored by the bartender when she asks for a drink. This scene lays bare an ongoing struggle within the LGBTQ community, and Rodriguez doesn't mind airing it in public.

"As we all know, there is some prejudice within the LGBT community, and, unfortunately, that's a sad reality for a lot of women who are of the trans experience," Rodriguez told the Motion Picture Academy. "I've experienced that before. I've walked into gay bars with my gay brothers, and they would completely ignore me." She noted that they'd even say rude things to her. Rodriguez credits "Pose" producer Ryan Murphy for his willingness to show the full reality of the community and its culture, warts and all. "He as well as the people who are part of the team, they understand what it feels like to be ostracized, and they also know what goes on in the community."

She prayed for this from the time she was 7

At age 7, most people are just starting to get an idea of who they are and their likes and dislikes. At that age, Mj Rodriguez told Playbill, she had two important revelations: First, she wanted to be an actor when she grew up. Second, she wanted to be accepted as female. However, she didn't reveal this to her loved ones, and she didn't come out to her family until she was 14, telling them she was "bisexual/gay." 

And even though Rodriguez said her mother was her "biggest cheerleader," she was still taken aback by Rodriguez's revelation, according to Dr. Drama. "My mom is the best thing that has ever happened to me, she has always been supportive," Rodriguez explained. "But as all parents do, she went through a [phase] of asking 'Why? I don't understand.' Sometimes that may be projected as anger." Fortunately, Rodriguez said that her mom called her just one day after her announcement and told her she understood. 

Rodriguez also offered advice for other young people thinking about coming out: "Don't be afraid to talk to your parents."

Her role in Rent emboldened her to formally transition

Mj Rodriguez was aware of her sexual identity for most of her life. But getting up the nerve to physically transition took some time. As Playbill reported, her joy in portraying the genderqueer drag queen Angel in "Rent" made her realize it was time to fully embrace her feminine identity. "Deep down inside, I wish they could see me like the character that was up on that stage. Her hair and [clothes] ... Just living," she told Playbill.

She further elaborated on her struggle in an interview with Dr. Drama. "At that time physically, I couldn't be who I wanted to be but in my head I was a girl with a short haircut, a girl who wears baggy clothes but one day is going to grow out of her tomboy stage. That's who I was in my head for all of my life until that time. When I was 19 and 20 years old playing Angel in 'Rent,' I had to ask myself if I was going to stay in my tomboy stage so people could be comfortable or be in the phase of the complete feminine creature that I've always been." After "Rent" closed, she decided to take the leap — and has never looked back.

Mj Rodriguez grew up in the ballroom culture depicted in Pose

The queer ballroom culture depicted in "Pose" may not be a familiar milieu for many straight viewers. But it's a world Mj Rodriguez knows well. According to The New York Times, Rodriguez was introduced to the ballroom scene at age 14 — the year she came out — and it became a safe place and a source of companionship and support for her. As she told The New York Times, the ballroom community embraced and supported her without "policing me on how I acted or how I existed in the world."

She also credits the ballroom scene with giving her the confidence to fully embrace her identity as a trans woman of color. Her ballroom community, she told The New York Times, "was mainly made up of African-American gay men, Latino gay men and Latina and black trans women. And obviously African-American and Latina lesbians." In other words, she was surrounded by supportive people who looked like her and experienced the same challenges she did. "If I hadn't had that scene, I would never have been the person I am today," she explained.

Here's why she believes it's important for trans actors to take cisgender roles

Mj Rodriguez is proud to portray trans characters and advocate for more visibility for queer people of color. She told The New York Times, "I would like to see more representation of Latinx LGBTQ figures. There's not enough." But she feels that taking cisgender female roles is also an important part of trans representation. "I love playing who I am because that makes people more aware," she told Dr. Drama. "But also with being more aware, people need to be aware that if a [cisgender] person can play a trans role, then a trans person can play a cisgender role as well."

She reiterated this in an interview with Playbill, noting that trans women should receive opportunities to play cisgender women and trans men having the chance to act in cisgender male roles in order to "[create] a comfort." "Because, at some point, it can sometimes seem like a spectacle," she shared, "and it can put us in a place of 'We're trending.' I don't want that." 

And Rodriguez is doing her part to make this a reality. She was invited to audition for the role of Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds in "Hamilton," according to Playbill. "I've been getting calls for female and trans roles, hence 'Hamilton.' That's a cis female role, and a trans woman was called in for that, and I think that's actually very, very important," she told Playbill.

Mj Rodriguez is the first trans Latinx woman to represent Olay

Representing the trans and Latinx communities is important to Mj Rodriguez, as is proving that trans women can do anything cis women can. As part of her personal campaign to increase the visibility of trans women in mainstream culture, she's shared her beauty routines in major outlets, such as Allure and Vogue, according to The Cut. But affirming as these experiences were, they were still one-offs. To truly represent her communities, she needed a bigger platform.

So in 2019, Rodriguez was over the moon when Olay Body offered to partner with her to promote their 14-Day Skin Transformation campaign, their first-ever partnership with a trans Latinx. "When they called me, I screamed on the phone, because Olay is one of the leading forces in beauty," she told The Cut. She noted that she'd never been up for a major brand sponsorship before, saying, "A lot of girls like myself — trans women — we don't get the opportunity to have open dialogue, let alone be in partnership with organizations like this." 

And she was excited by the opportunity to share her message with an even bigger audience. "I'm just focusing on amplifying my voice, trying to get it out there as much as possible," she told The Cut.

Mj Rodriguez won her first major acting award in college

Mj Rodriguez not only began acting while very young, but threw herself into it head first, spending eight years of her childhood and teen years in the Summer Youth Performance Workshop at New Jersey Performing Arts Center and attending Arts High School, then Berklee College of Music, according to Playbill. Her singing talent and acting versatility gained her serious respect early on, earning her the 2009 Star-Ledger Scholarship and the 2009 Young Arts First Level Scholarship.

But her first major award — and the one that would launch her to stardom — came in 2011, while she was a student at Berklee. That year, she was awarded the prestigious Clive Barnes Award for her portrayal of Angel in an off-Broadway production of "Rent." The award, named for influential theater critic Clive Barnes, is awarded yearly to promising young actors and dancers. Winning this award was not only satisfying for Rodriguez, who told Playbill in an interview she loved playing Angel, but got her the industry recognition she needed to land the bigger roles soon to come her way.

Her Met Gala gown made a huge splash

Like many women, Mj Rodriguez loves dressing up on occasion. At the 2021 Met Gala — a night for the most elite A-listers to see and be seen — she rocked a head-turning, high-drama look: a high-waisted black-and-white Thom Browne gown with enormous poufy sleeves and a glossy form-fitting flared skirt with a pleated train. "I call it this beautiful oil spill, slash edgy Victorian look," she told InStyle. She said her dress choice was intended to reflect the year's Met Gala theme, American independence. "I felt like it was just so edgy, but still reminiscent of what forward American fashion looks like," she said.

And her understanding of her dress as its own form of performance art appeared to be informed by the performance skills she mastered on the ballroom scene. "You have to give what you give. That's the main thing when it comes to the Met Gala — you have to really own the piece that you're in, because the piece speaks for itself," she shared. 

Practicing what she preaches, she went all in with her look, accompanying the dress with death-defying platform shoes, which took some practice to walk in. "I [wanted to feel like] I was like dripping, but also rising outside of the oil spill," she explained to the publication. "They're really high so that it can give you this kind of elevation. I wanted people to see that I felt like I'm a statue."

Mj Rodriguez loves hugs — and inspiring her fans

Growing up as an outsider — a Latina kid who knew she was queer — made Mj Rodriguez put a special value on human connection and relationships. As the told the Motion Picture Academy, her portrayal of the nurturing, team-building character Blanca in "Pose," is inspired by her close relationship with her mother. And in real life, she continues to relish emotional connections with her fans and others. As she said to Entertainment Weekly, "I love giving hugs. I don't want to stop giving hugs for a minute."

EW also noted that her love of hugs extends to fans — she didn't hesitate to hug a woman who recognized her (even with a mask on) during her outdoors interview with the magazine. The woman told Rodriguez that she too is a trans woman, and Rodriguez and her character on "Pose" had inspired her to move to the U.S. from Chile so she could live her truth more freely. "You do meet people like her [because of 'Pose'], and there's a lot of people like her," she told EW. "That makes the job and everything that you do worth it."

She pulled an all-nighter waiting to hear if she got an Emmy nomination

Mj Rodriguez's 2021 Emmy nomination wasn't a total surprise — her show, "Pose," had received numerous Emmy nominations in the past (including multiple nominations for Best Drama Series, according to Emmys.com). Still, the thought that 2021 could be her year for a breakthrough nomination couldn't help but be a thrilling possibility. As Vanity Fair reported, Rodriguez and her family were on vacation in Cannes the day the nominations were to be announced, and because of the time difference, Rodriguez stayed awake all night to hear if her name would be called. And when her name was announced, her family erupted into hugs of celebration. "My d**n cheeks hurt I'm smiling so much," she shared.

Thrilled as she was, Mj Rodriguez, who made history with her Emmy nom, also recognized the bigger significance of her nomination. "This nomination is not just for me. It's for my community, for the many trans women out there fighting for their work and their art, for the many LGBTQIA members and people of color who have yet to be seen," she told Vanity Fair.