Actress and singer Mj Rodriguez has appeared in ‘Rent’ Off Broadway and had a breakthrough role as Blanca on the TV show ‘Pose.’
Who Is Mj Rodriguez?
Actress Mj Rodriguez’s love of the arts led to her starring as Angel in an Off-Broadway revival of Rent in 2011-12. This role influenced her decision to medically transition. Despite concerns that transitioning might hurt her career, Rodriguez continued to be cast in shows, most notably as Blanca, a trans woman who’s part of the New York City ballroom community of the 1980s and ’90s in the television series Pose (2018-21).
Rodriguez, who is also known as Michaela Antonia Jaé Rodriguez (she chose to call herself Mj in honor of Spider-Man‘s Mary Jane Watson) was born on January 7, 1991, in Newark, New Jersey. Rodriguez’s mother is African American and her father is half Puerto Rican, half African American. Rodriguez, who was raised in Newark, has said, “At a very young age I knew that being a young Afro-Latina, there were going to be some uphill climbs for me.”
Rodriguez grew up with an interest in the arts: “When I was little all I could think about was just being on some kind of stage, whether it be on a live stage, whether it be on a set stage.” Her mother encouraged her daughter via programs like the Summer Youth Performance Workshop at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
While a student at Newark Arts High School, a 14-year-old Rodriguez joined a ballroom house in New York City (a similar experience to her character in Pose). She sometimes snuck out to participate. Rodriguez found acceptance and built confidence in the ballroom community, where “There were people like me living unapologetically.” She has stated, “If I hadn’t had that scene, I would never have been the person I am today.”
‘Rent’ and Decision to Transition
When Rodriguez saw the 2005 movie version of Rent, she felt a connection to the character of Angel, telling her father, “I feel like that is me, Daddy.” At 18, she was cast as Angel in a production of Rent at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
While studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Rodriguez had the opportunity to audition for an Off-Broadway revival of Rent. She landed the part of Angel and joined the cast in 2011. Rodriguez had her own take on the role — instead of playing Angel as a drag queen, she considered Angel a trans woman. Her performance won her accolades, including a Clive Barnes Award for young performers.
In addition to being a career milestone, portraying Angel sparked Rodriguez’s desire to medically transition. She had understood she was female from the time she was 7, but being in “Rent was one of the main defining moments, and it was like the precipice of my transition.” Rodriguez said in 2018 that the role “let me live out loud and see the woman that I was on stage.”
Her mother was supportive of her decision, but Rodriguez worried about the risks that transitioning might pose to her career, fearing she could “lose everything.” Fortunately, her agency stood by her and agreed to only have her pursue female roles going forward.
Building Her Career: ‘Pose’
In 2016, Rodriguez auditioned for the role of Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds for Hamilton‘s Philadelphia production. The tryout was significant, as Rodriguez explained, “That’s a cis female role, and a trans woman was called in for that, and I think that’s actually very, very important.” However, she had mixed feelings about the attention that resulted from her audition, not wanting her transgender identity to dominate her art. Ultimately she was not cast.
Rodriguez successfully landed smaller parts on stage and on the TV shows Nurse Jackie, The Carrie Diaries and Luke Cage. In 2017 she had a role in the independent film Saturday Church. But her big break was being cast in Pose.
Pose let Rodriguez work with series co-creator Ryan Murphy, after an earlier unsuccessful audition for his show Glee. It also reunited her with Billy Porter, the associate director of Rodriguez’s Off-Broadway production of Rent, who starred in Pose as ballroom emcee Pray Tell, and Indya Moore, who’d co-starred with Rodriguez in Saturday Church.
When Pose first appeared on screens in 2018, it made history for having the most transgender actors as series regulars on a scripted TV show. Pose focused on gay and trans people of color in the New York City ballroom scene at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the ’90s, when HIV and AIDS were decimating communities. As Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista, the HIV-positive mother of the House of Evangelista, Rodriguez became the heart of the show. She appeared in the second season of Pose in 2019, and in Pose‘s third and final season in 2021.
Rodriguez recognizes Blanca and Pose‘s personal impact, saying in 2019, “It’s changed my life as far as awareness and being seen and being heard and obviously, most importantly, being taken seriously as an actress.” But she also understands how meaningful the show has been to viewers — “Pose has put a lot of trans women of color on the map, and shown that we have much more to our lives than just the stigma. It shows that we have chapters to our lives.”
In 2019, Rodriguez starred as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors at California’s Pasadena Playhouse. Following Pose, she set to appear in a new TV comedy with Maya Rudolph.
Starring on Pose elevated Rodriguez’s public profile. She has attended the Met Gala, sat in the front row at Fashion Week, appeared on magazine covers, become an Olay spokeswoman and joined other Pose cast members as grand marshals of 2019’s Pride March in New York City. Rodriguez also delivered the keynote address at George Washington University’s fifth annual Diversity Summit.