MJ Rodriguez Finds Roles That Reflect Her True Identity
MJ Rodriguez '11 always wanted to be a star. Even as a high school student, the New Jersey native had a soulful, sublime voice. Coming to Berklee gave Rodriguez the training to maximize all the star power packed into that voice. She still loves that Berklee took a chance on her, and she loved the community and classes on campus.
Fredi Walker-Browne, one of the original cast members of Jonathan Larsen’s Rent, also saw Rodriguez’s potential. The two met shortly after Rodriguez attended a Berklee Five-Week summer music program. Then, a few months after arriving in Boston for college, Rodriguez heard from Walker-Browne. The veteran Broadway actor had secured the teenager an audition for the 2011 Off-Broadway revival of Rent.
The audition was for the part of Angel. Typically envisioned by directors as a drag queen, the character had always been a trans woman to Rodriguez. Although she was not yet publicly living as a trans woman, Rodriguez saw herself in Angel. Rodriguez wanted the role, but she also wanted to stay at Berklee.
“When I saw Angel’s character [in Rent], I saw a female. But they didn’t have the vernacular; they didn’t have words back in the 1990s when Rent was being created, for us. So when Angel came along, I said, ‘This is me. I have to do this.’”
“I auditioned for Rent, then came back to finish up my classes. Then, around finals, I went back to New York four or five times,” Rodriguez said. “The day before I was headed back home [for winter break], I got a fourth callback.”
Not knowing what to do, Rodriguez asked two of her favorite mentors at Berklee, Lynette Gittens and Winston Maccow, to help her decide if she should stay in school.
“Both of them gave me different answers,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “Lynette said, ‘Stay in school.’ And when she said that, I thought, ‘She’s right—I can’t just leave school.’ Then Winston turned around and said, ‘I think you should do it.’”
Rodriguez ultimately committed to the role in Rent and began her campaign to change the way the world looks at trans actors. Shortly after Rent closed in September 2012, she began to transition and has since become the breakout star of FX’s Pose. The hourlong drama features the largest-ever cast of transgender actors on a scripted show and will return for a third season in 2020. But Rent was pivotal for Rodriguez.
Finding Her Truth on the Stage
Her vision of the role clearly resonated with audiences: she won the 2011 Clive Barnes Award for her work on the revival. Playing Angel also helped Rodriguez become who she always knew she was on the inside.
“People used certain words for me when I was little: ‘weird,’ ‘special,’ ‘different,’ and when used in specific contexts, I would feel like I was being ostracized,” she said. “When I reached 7 years old, I identified as female. I remember praying to God to make me a girl.”
“When I saw Angel’s character, I saw a female,” she continued. “But they didn’t have the vernacular; they didn’t have words back in the 1990s when Rent was being created, for us. They would call trans women drag queens because they didn’t have the words. So when Angel came along, I said, ‘This is me. I have to do this.’”
Rodriguez feels the same way about her character in Pose.
Set in the late ’80s and early ’90s and created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, the series provides a window into New York City’s ballroom culture, a space where African-American and Latino LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming people could live openly as themselves. Rodriguez plays Blanca Evangelista, a trans woman with HIV and the matriarch of a house of runaways.
“During the timeframe the show is placed in, people were dying in a matter of weeks,” she said. “I’m glad that I can be a vessel to speak for these people who are not here.”
Making Art for Everyone
Pose has raised Rodriguez’s profile to a national level, and her success on the screen has reopened doors to the stage. She spent much of this fall playing Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors at the Pasadena Playhouse. Her performance of a character typically cast as a blonde, cisgender white woman was so magnetic that James Corden invited Rodriguez and her costar, George Salazar, to perform the song "Suddenly Seymour" on The Late Late Show.
Rodriguez has become a star. But she never imagined acting would be the vehicle that made her a success. She’s thrilled with her career, and she’s also ready to get back to her first love: singing pop music.
“It’s been a busy, busy, busy year, but music from me is coming,” she said. “I finally have time to focus on my music and possibly, hopefully, in January or February, I will be sitting down to make something, maybe an R&B/pop album or even an EP. And I’m looking to hit every age group: older adults, teenagers—I want to make something for everyone.”
There was a time when Rodriguez didn’t think she’d be making art for everyone. But that time is nearly a decade in the rearview mirror.