Magic Man

Billy Porter on bringing queer realness to ‘Cinderella’: “Magic has no gender.”

Billy Porter and Kay Cannon on the set of CINDERELLA
Photo: Kerry Brown
© 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

If anyone would ever deny Billy Porter has a magic about him…well, they’re flat out wrong.

Porter, the Emmy-winning actor, activist, fashion icon, innovator and all-around badass, takes up the magic wand of the Fairy Godmother in the new film Cinderella, debuting on Amazon Prime Video September 3.

In other words, Billy is magical, and has the wand to prove it.

Porter, of course, rocketed to superstardom beginning with his Tony Award-winning turn in the Broadway musical version of Kinky Boots. He since went on to headline the groundbreaking series Pose as Pray Tell, the emcee of the New York Ballroom scene. The role–and his work in it–snagged Porter an Emmy in the process, making him the first openly gay, African-American actor to win the Best Actor in a Drama Series Emmy Award.

Cinderella casts Porter in the iconic role of the Fairy Godmother (also called the Fab G) in a reimagining of the classic fairytale. This new version utilizes contemporary pop songs to envision Cinderella as Ella (Camilla Cabello), an aspiring dressmaker living with her stern Stepmother (Idina Menzel). When the King and Queen of the kingdom (Pierce Brosnan and Minnie Driver) launch a search to marry off their slacker son Prince Robert (Nicholas Galitzine), Ella gets a bit of help from her Fab G, and must choose between a life as royalty, and a life of aspiration and independence.

We caught up with the always-enchanting Porter to talk about his genderfluid character, his career, and the shifting landscape of queer inclusion. Cinderella arrives on Amazon Prime Video September 3.

So in researching this, I think you are the second male to play the Fairy Godmother.

Who was the first?

Ed Wynn, the comedian. He voiced the Mad Hatter in the Disney Alice in Wonderland.

Oh. When did that happen?

1960 in Cinderfella with Jerry Lewis in the lead. It was a gender swap version of the story.

Oh.

Camila Cabello and Billy Porter star in CINDERELLA
Photo: Kerry Brown
© 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

So it’s a big deal that you’re taking on the part. Part of what makes Fab G, the Fairy Godmother, so cool is that he is a totally genderfluid character. Was that the way the role was pitched to you?

Well, Kay Cannon, the writer/director of this version, had me in mind from the very beginning. I only found that out a few days ago. She wrote it with me in mind. Which makes a lot of sense; when I read the script, it felt like me.

Yeah.

So I said yes to the entire journey. She understood that fairy tales—the classics—they’re problematic and need to be reinterpreted. From right out the gate, Cinderella was empowered by being CEO of her own destiny, being an entrepreneur. To have Fab G be a man was the original intent. For it to be specifically me, where I, Billy Porter am in my life right now, and to have art imitate life, and what I stand for in the zeitgeist in general…there’s heightened energy to me.

Yes, there is.

So Fairy Godmother, Fab G, he/she/they/them/ze…it’s magical. Magic has no gender. That’s sort of what I came up with as I started delving into it. And I think we succeeded.

And this is also a scene-stealing character by nature. You’re following Ed Wynn, Celeste Holm, Helena Bonham Carter, Whitney Houston in the part. It’s also a star part. When you approach an iconic part, how does that inform your choices as an actor? Is there a responsibility to that in a sense? Pressure?

It’s interesting. The only real connection I’ve had to anything that’s a fairy tale—specifically this one—was the Brandy/Whitney Houston version of this story. My 14-year-old, lil gay self, wanted to grow up to be Whitney Houston. So when I got this call, that was all I could think about. I got the Whitney Houston part! So it was already a dream come true.

Billy Porter stars in CINDERELLA
Photo: Kerry Brown
© 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

Awesome.

In terms of pressure—I don’t approach things that way. That’s not my process. My process starts from a place of presence and where we are right now. How is it now, how is it written? How do I honor that in the present? So it was less about what came before and just being present to the assignment today.

Related: Ryan Murphy pays beautiful tribute to Billy Porter after he reveals HIV status

That makes sense. Songs always inform characters and performers in musicals. Here, we have pop songs. And you’re covering Earth Wind & Fire. How does singing a song that is already popular—that already has a meaning in the popular consciousness—inform the character?

Well, you’ve answered your own question. So historically, musical theatre, the original Golden Age in the 1950s, popular music—the music on the radio—was musical music.

Absolutely.

Cole Porter. Harold Arlen. Rodgers & Hart, Rogers & Hammerstein—all that was on the radio. So to go back to the original infrastructure of a musical, and to use pop music of the day to tell the story, is to go back in time. Just so we’re clear: we are going back to the original conceit in the Golden Age were.

Right.

So we have all this popular music that wasn’t written for it. What it brings to it is collective history. These are songs everybody knows. They are the soundtracks of our lives. So when they show up in stories like this, there is a different kind of history, and individual history to everyone watching. So it deepens the relationship, the bond between the audience and the characters. That’s really special.

Billy Porter and Camila Cabello star in CINDERELLA
Photo: Kerry Brown
© 2021 Amazon Content Services LLC

Yes.

As for “Shining Star,” for me, when I read the first script, the song was “Sweet Dreams.”

Interesting.

The Eurythmics/Annie Lennox. That’s a very different version [of the character] than when I read the shooting script and the song had changed to “Shining Star.” I understood immediately what they were trying to do with the character. It’s like you want me to just slay all day? I gotcha.

[Laughter]

I was sold. “Sweet Dreams” was the subtle version. If there is such a thing with me.

I love that. When you and I have chatted before, we have talked a lot about how you were treated early in your career, how you were typecast. I would be remiss not to point out that has changed. You are a man on fire—one of the biggest stars in the world. You’re an LGBTQ institution. An African-American icon. You’re starring in movies. You’re directing. And the thing that’s so interesting—many of the things that you’ve said prevented you from getting cast for so long are now getting you work. When people hire you, they want everything you’ve got.

Correct.

How vindicating is that? Does that say the culture has changed? Or would you have had this much popularity 30 years ago if someone had just given you an opportunity?

The world caught up. The world wasn’t ready for me. I want to highlight this.

Please.

In times of profound movement and change, it’s very easy to focus on the negative. It’s easy to focus on what is not happening, not to talk about what has and is happening. When I got into this business in the 80s, I, Billy Porter, was not possible. The way you see and receive me now, today, was an impossibility. There was no such thing as Pose or Pray Tell. There was no such thing, no space, no context for me to dream about playing the Fairy Godperson in anything. It wasn’t what happened.

Right.

So thank you for bringing light to how much things have changed. Because they have. We have a long way to go, but they have changed. And I’m the result of that.

And we’re all better for it.

Cinderella debuts on Amazon Prime Video September 3.