By Chris Azzopardi | photos courtesy of Starz
Model and actress Dominique Jackson can’t say a thing about the third and final season of one of the most groundbreaking LGBTQ+ series ever made. It’s mid February when we connect, just weeks before it was announced that seven new episodes of “Pose,” the FX drama about New York’s drag ball subculture during the HIV/AIDS crisis, will premiere May 7. And then it will end, with a tide-changing legacy forever linked to its name.
When it debuted in 2018, the series set a record for the number of out LGBTQ+ people in its cast, especially trans women of color. At the time of our talk, Jackson said the cast was in the process of shooting. But when pushed to offer even the slightest tease of what’s to come, she remained playfully taciturn about her character: “All I can tell you is Elektra is going to be Elektra.”
Elektra Wintour, of course, is the fiercely resilient house mother, who last season formed her new house, the House of Wintour, and went full-on dominatrix. In season two’s last episode, in a leather bustier, with a whip in her hand, she ordered a client to heel. And then there’s that dead client whose body she housed in her apartment.
So no, Jackson’s life doesn’t completely mirror that of her character. But their experiences are, to some degree, shared. Like Elektra, who is the fictional protégé of ball-culture icons like Crystal LaBeija, Pepper LaBeija and Paris Dupree, Jackson also found refuge in the underground world of ballroom culture while in Baltimore and New York in the ’90s, after a period of childhood trauma she experienced while living in the dual-island nation Trinidad and Tobago. She jumped around to several houses primarily populated by Black and Latinx trans outsiders, eventually settling into the House of Sinclair in NYC, a safe haven that helped her survive homelessness and substance abuse.
Aside from her breakout role on “Pose,” Jackson is upending gender norms on the third season of the Starz series “American Gods,” a series about the culture clashing of Old and New Gods. She embodies the latest incarnation of the shape-shifting “Mr. World” as a ferocious, bat-wielding, glam Black woman, now called “Ms. World.”
Just after giving a keynote address at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference, which was virtual this year, Jackson spoke about how reliving Elektra helped her survive the pandemic and why “Pose” actors other than Billy Porter deserve awards acknowledgement. She also explained how the superhero fantasy world of “X-Men” aided in her survival as a trans woman, even though she initially hesitated because “everyone, the people, are talking about it” on the internet. In other words, they really, really want Dominique Jackson to play Storm.
How’re you doing? How has lockdown been for you this past year?
Lockdown was kind of a push to revitalize myself, a push to really look back at myself, look back at my life, understand the things that were happening for me and start to create what I wanted. Of course, in the beginning, there was a panic, there was great fear, there were even times where I just felt like, you know, just give up. Because during the pandemic, we were locked down and it was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m blessed with all these amazing opportunities and now I’m gonna lose them.” There was that fear.
And then George Floyd was murdered and that just pushed everything over the top. And trans women were being murdered back to back every week. I was ready to give up. I didn’t give up, but I was ready to give up. I just felt like there’s no place for us in this world. If they were killing Black men, what are they gonna do to trans women? And there we were being murdered.
What kept you going?
I’m the type of person that I really looked into myself first. I tried to find out what I could do to make things better, and in speaking to people and doing little Electra things on TikTok, it gave me hope reliving my character, to really just do something besides just sit in the house and worry.
My fiancé and I were doing challenges together. That really helped to brighten me up, pull me out a bit. And I realized that sitting there and panicking was not going to help me. It was just gonna make me sick. It was gonna keep me in that depressive mode, and I had to fight through it. I remember how I fought through not having a green card and fought through wanting to be on television, just fighting all my life, and I was like, “Now is not the time for me to stop.”
I read recently that when we’re experiencing despair it’s important for us to remember past moments of resilience in our lives. It can get you out of that spiral.
Yeah, it did.
You famously don’t do many interviews. Based on what I’ve read, you don’t like talking so much about your success, because you kind of feel like it paints a false narrative for the trans community as a whole. Is that right?
Well, yeah. I’m really selective with interviews because I feel like sometimes it’s just, “OK, let me get the story.” And you give the story and you keep reliving your traumas. It’s just something that is put out there over and over and over again; it becomes exhausting reliving your trauma. I’m reliving trauma by some of the things that we have to do on “Pose.” So, for me, I want interviews to be about and really for my community. I really want them to have a message that’s going to be sent to my community, and not just an article to say, “Oh, we represented the trans community; we have Dominique Jackson.”
So how do you navigate that behind the scenes? How do you know who to talk to and who not to?
I’m a person that believes in doing research, and I have a great management team. So they know exactly what I’m looking for. And the other thing is, I’m about my work, and I’m about putting that onto the screen. And I put everything that I have (into it), because I want people to understand that being trans is just a part of my journey. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be a great actor. It doesn’t mean I can’t be the best doctor there is, it doesn’t mean that I can’t mow the lawn or lay concrete. It doesn’t limit me. And I want my community to know that hard work does pay off.
I’m curious to know what some of the questions are about being a trans woman that you don’t want to answer anymore. And do you feel like it’s a tricky situation that you’re in given the fact that you’ve become this accidental activist?
Well, yes, and you see that’s why I’m selective with my interviews. Because I am, kind of, and that’s what I’ve been deemed. It was not what I was trying to do. It just happened. I realized I was getting so many responses on Instagram of how I inspire people, and I was looking at myself going, “Who, me?” For me, it’s not about, “Oh, look at me, I’m an activist.” It’s just that I know that I want what I want, and I know that I’m going to have to work hard to get to it.
And questions — it depends. If I’m speaking at a college or I’m speaking to my community, it’s a different story. But when it comes to my surgeries, some people ask some really stupid questions like, “What made you want to do that?” And I also have a book. So I feel like, you know, sometimes people can just read the book. I mean, it’s as raw as possible. And you know, you can get that information.
I’d like to shift gears to “American Gods.” From what I understand, you didn’t even have to audition for the show; the role was offered to you. Before, you had to really fight for roles. So what did it mean to you to just be offered a role like this?
It was beyond phenomenal. It was just a thing of like, I’m validated, I’m seen, they see me as an actor. And that’s what this is all about: It’s about the visibilities, about being seen, it’s about being acknowledged, and being acknowledged so that people don’t fear you. This is not about acknowledgement and validity to say, “Oh, look, I’m a queen.” This is about: I am here, I am a human being just like you, so see me, allow me the comfort and allow me the ability to fail, if that’s how you see it. But don’t judge me just based on my journey as a woman.
Do you find that you are now being offered more roles in general?
(Laughs.) Well, I’ve only really been offered two. (The other was in the movie) “Chick Fight,” and still, of course, I did a little reading for them. It feels great. It’s just a phenomenal feeling, and to know that at times I felt ashamed that I didn’t go to school for this. But it just goes to show that sometimes, some things are just in you.
Working at (Bronx LGBTQ Community Center) Destination Tomorrow and raising kids in the past, I always say, “You have to guide kids,” because if someone was there to say to me, “Look, I see you like to build characters and act, I see you love the stage” instead of limiting me from the stage by saying to me, “Look, only girls do that” or making it about gender — it was limiting to me. And so, when I danced and I did ballet, I was laughed at, and I was like, “Listen, I wasn’t even doing this for anything but for the art, for the love of being able to escape normality for a second and bring something else to life and see people enjoy it.” I loved when I danced and people just sat in awe. It made me feel like I had purpose.
Is that the same feeling you get when people watch you as Elektra and they tell you how much they love you in that role?
Sometimes that can be a bit overwhelming, because, again, I wasn’t receiving love like that before. So it’s like, “Wow.” It’s comforting to the heart, it makes me feel like I’m a part of the human race. It makes me feel like I belong.
Regarding your role as Ms. World on “American Gods,” what do you think that we can learn from her?
Well… (laughs), that’s a really, um, kind of difficult question to answer since this lady is walking around busting heads open with bats. So, I don’t recommend that you walk around, bashing people in the head with bats for having an opinion. But Ms. World, again, it’s about a woman, and people don’t understand, when you are marginalized, anything that you get makes you feel like you are coming out of that when you have faced oppression.
So, as a Caribbean woman, as an immigrant, as a Black woman, as a trans woman — as all these women combined to make my whole — I see strings, I see power, I see now we’re not looking to those that are in power. When we create Loki, it’s usually this male thing. So therefore, when we see Ms. World, we see that a God can transform, a God can change, and Mr. World now is of the world. And being of the world, you should be inclusive of everyone.
How have superhuman fantasy roles been helpful to you in navigating your own identity?
Well, OK, I don’t want to really say this, but I have to. Because I really don’t wanna talk about it, because everyone, the people, are talking about it. For me, I’m just honored by them talking about this: But growing up the X-Men was very dear to my heart. Because, at that time, I was basically homeless, and couch-surfing at times. A group of us were staying at one of our friend’s grandmother’s houses; she was in the hospital at the time. And so we were all gathered there because that was our place to stay for the moment. I didn’t have to pay for a hotel for the night; it meant that I didn’t have to go to the street. So when we found comfort and warmth, we kind of gathered there. And there was the “X-Men” saga, “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” that was playing at that time, and we were just so enthralled.
And while growing up, of course, I watched the “X-Men” and I loved them. I loved them, but it was in that moment, and again in meeting my children’s family in Baltimore, and then coming to New York, we all watched the “X-Men” because the “X-Men” represented us. We would go to the grocery store and help someone carry groceries. We would do everything for someone, and they would still turn around and talk down to us and curse at us and throw things at us. Imagine you helped someone to their car with their groceries and they turn on the light and they realize that you’re different and then they take their fruit and throw it at you and tell you to get away from them. You just helped them.
For me, Storm had an accent; I’m Caribbean. So Storm was just my girl, my go-to. I love her character. I love everything about her. And it was the resilience, the beauty of her, the resilience of where she came from as Ororo Munroe, from her origin stories of being in her village, of even having a nephew and going back wanting to help her village but yet she protects her village even when they called her the Weather Witch. But she still protects them. And I see that in a lot of the trans community. We are so pushed to the side, but yet we’re there to be mothers, we’re there to be fathers. We’re there to protect people. We have kids of our own. So the superhero fantasy, for me, was always her, because it not only helped us escape, but it let me know that people saw and would realize that at some point in time that being different or strange from what society deemed to be the norm didn’t make us bad people.
You have no idea, if you sit back and listen to the things that people would say about us, I would even be afraid of myself. Before I even understood who I was, I would hear people speak, and the way in which they spoke about people like myself, I was like, “Oh my god, I need to kill myself because I know I’m different.”
I feel like every young person needs a role model like that, because oftentimes we don’t have ones in real life to look to, so we have to look to imaginary characters.
She-Ra: Princess of Power was another one. I love She-Ra.
Regarding “Pose,” what are your thoughts on the response from the LGBTQ community who think it’s time for other actors from the series to be recognized for their roles and their accomplishments on the show?
Well, yes, I do believe that my castmates should be recognized for their work, especially Angelica Ross and Mj Rodriguez. Billy has been given his flowers, and I am extremely ecstatic for him for that. As far as Indya (Moore) and the rest of the girls, I do believe that they should have been nominated at least for some of the awards. Because we’re not just telling a true story or doing research to tell a true story — we’re telling our own lives.
We are reliving our trauma, we are being triggered constantly by things that we overcame in life, and constantly giving it back and giving all our energy just to be able to show people what we go through and those that are going through it that they’re not alone. So, I believe that recognition should be there for my castmates. For myself, I really, really want to be undeniably everything. I really want to go into fantasy roles. I believe that there’s a lot more I have to learn and I have to give before I start receiving awards. (Laughs.) I’m so serious because I just feel like, you know, Elektra is me. She’s dear to my heart. She is the woman that I said I would never become, but the woman that I was surrounded by all my life. I want the opportunity to show that I can play outside myself, like with “American Gods.” Give me a vampire role and I am there.
When it comes to trans representation, what is the next frontier? Where do we go from “Pose,” which has been so groundbreaking, obviously.
Yeah, “Pose” has been extremely groundbreaking, but we have other things that have come about. We have “Legendary” on HBO Max. Hollywood is opening their eyes and realizing that this is not just a cash cow. These stories need to be told, and especially in this time. I feel like we are gathering all these stories, telling the truth of everything, removing the blinders from people’s faces, so that we can move forward and really, really get to equality.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.