Billy Porter Talks PBS’s BROADWAY & SOUL, Kinky Boots, and Lincoln Center

     April 2, 2015

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In Billy Porter: Broadway & Soul – A Lincoln Center Special, Tony Award-winning Kinky Boots star Billy Porter proves why he’s considered one of Broadway’s most versatile and best-loved performers. An actor, singer, writer and director, Porter is a force of nature who believes in passing on the empowerment, encouragement and hope that have helped him through the tough times in his life and career.

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Image via PBS

During this exclusive interview with Collider, the mega-talented Billy Porter talked about being a part of the esteemed Live from Lincoln Center roster, deciding on the content for his special, why he chooses to live with blinders on, what makes the Broadway stage different from other stages that he’s performed on, why he waited until Kinky Boots to return to Broadway, wanting to direct for the stage, and why now is the right time for him to be “the black, gay Lena Dunham” in the TV series that he’s written for himself.

Collider: Live from Lincoln Center has been bringing the world’s greatest performing artists to viewers for so long now. What’s it like to be a part of that roster?

BILLY PORTER: I have really not had a chance to think about it, if I’m being honest. If I thought about it, I wouldn’t be able to do my work. So, I have to just keep the blinders on and do it. Afterward, I’ll be able to sit back and go, “Oh, my god!” But right now, I’ve gotta write the script, make sure the background singers are singing the right part, and make sure my outfits are cute. What I’m focused on right now is the content, as opposed to what it feel like.

When you have so much that you could choose from, how do you decide on the content?

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PORTER: Well, that was not that challenging because the focus was clear, from the beginning. I’m promoting Billy’s Back on Broadway and I’m launching the new version of my music career, or at least trying to. There were specific goals with this that I’m trying to accomplish. The album has already been out, so that’s where the content was. The theme came from what the album was, with the songs of empowerment, encouragement and hope. That was already there for me, luckily, so that wasn’t a big deal. Structuring it and putting it together with what goes where took the most time.

You’ve said that you got your own empowerment, encouragement and hope from Jennifer Holliday. When did you realize that there were people who were, in turn, getting that from you?

PORTER: I actually live with blinders on, a little bit. I find that when I focus on the work, it leaves me less open to ever being bitter. It’s really easy to do that, in this business, so to circumvent that, I just work a lot. So, the kids who come to Kinky Boots make it known. I think it started when I started teaching. I had a long period of time where I did not work, consistently and with big paychecks. I went back and started teaching to pay it forward and be of service. How can you be of service to something other than your own ego and bank account, in a business that’s inherently narcissistic? So, it started with the teaching, and the teaching grew into my students being really successful and saying, “Thank you, Billy, for teaching me how to be honest and be truthful.” It started there, and now, with Kinky Boots, I get stopped in the street, I get Facebook messages, and people wait for me at the stage door. Sometimes they’re kids, and sometimes they’re grown ass people. It never ceases to amaze me that just an encouraging word form a stranger can make the hugest difference in people’s lives. I’m grateful that I get to be a part of that part of the business.

What makes the Broadway stage different from other stages you’ve performed on?

PORTER: It tends to be a higher profile. I’m not a person who believes that Broadway is the only place. I think there’s lots of work that goes on outside of Broadway and outside of New York that’s better than anything Broadway has ever seen. But, it’s historically the place. It’s one of the centers of the universe, in many ways. I think the difference is that, if you can play it right, all eyes are on you and you can really have an impact.

When there was such a big gap between the last Broadway show you did and Kinky Boots, did you ever think that you might never go back?

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Image via PBS

PORTER: Yep, and I was very comfortable with that. I made the decision that, if the work wasn’t what I needed it to be, emotionally, and if I wasn’t interested in whatever the project had to say to the world, than I didn’t need to do it, and I was done. I was really fine with that. I was real cool with it. I was teaching, I was writing, and I was directing. I found these other parts of myself that I didn’t know I had, and that I didn’t know, dare I say, I’d enjoy more than performing. I never thought that I would say that out loud. But then, coming back to Kinky Boots and coming back with Angels in America, I realized that it’s always been about the content. If it’s a piece that I believe in, than I can show up eight times a week, for as long as my body will hold out. But if I don’t care about it, I’m not interested in doing that anymore. When you’re at the beginning of your career, there are a lot of, “I don’t care about this,” jobs that you take because it’s about building your resume and building connections. There are so many factors that don’t have anything to do with choosing for the material.

That must be hard when you know you have the talent, but the roles that you want just aren’t available to you.

PORTER: It was not for lack of trying. They weren’t going to think out of the box and cast me in the stuff that already existed. It’s not like I didn’t pick up the phone and say, “Could I please have an audition for the MC in Cabaret?” I tried to be a part of these other things that already existed. But what I think is remarkable, and my mother says this, all the time, is that God has bigger plans for you than you could ever dream for yourself. My dreams were limited by what I could see. I was dreaming as big as I thought I could possibly dream. And then, [Kinky Boots] came along and it was like, “Oh, I wasn’t dreaming like that! I wasn’t dreaming like I could actually put on a dress and six-inch heels and sing and act and do it in a British accent, and change the landscape.” It’s a whole different thing now. I learned from this that I actually need to dream bigger.

Had you been familiar with the Kinky Boots movie?

PORTER: I saw the movie the first weekend.

Did you see the possibility of a musical in it, when you saw it?

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Image via PBS

PORTER: I watched it and I was like, “This is a musical!” They were trying to make it a musical. The only thing that was a little bit tricky about the movie was the music choices. It needed original music because all of the choices were so expected. I wanted the choices to not be so expected. So, I knew that it could be a musical. I didn’t think that anybody had the balls to do it, quite frankly.

You came back to Broadway for Kinky Boots, you’ve released an album, you’re doing this PBS special, and you wrote a play. Does it all just feel incredibly rewarding, at this point?

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Image via PBS

PORTER: Yeah, it takes my breath away. I can’t even believe it! I’m just like, “Wow!” When people ask me, “Why do you stay [with Kinky Boots] so long?,” that’s why. Where am I going?! This is what I live for. This is the moment that I have been working for, my whole life. That doesn’t mean that other things can’t happen. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have different dreams, and don’t want to move forward and expand. But in this moment, “Let’s do it!”

So, what’s the next dream for you?

PORTER: I would love to be able to turn my recording career into something that is substantial, and where I can go and tour with an orchestra. I want to be the next Sammy Davis Jr. meets Tony Bennett, or whatever the thing is that I’m doing. So, there’s that part of the dream. And then, I want to continue directing. I’d love to get my hands on some of these musicals and direct them. I also wrote a play that debuted off-Broadway this year. I’d love to make sure that that keeps happening. And I have a series that I wrote, that’s very much about the black, gay Lena Dunham. I’m really trying to do that. In terms of acting, that’s the piece that I wrote and will be starring in. I want to keep changing the world. It’s possible. The black gay lead is ready. It’s time.

Live from Lincoln Center with Billy Porter premieres on Friday, April 3rd on PBS.

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