There's something powerful about seeing a role performed by an actor you have no familiarity with. That anonymity is what allows star-making roles to live in people's memories, because you don't see that actor at first as a professional, but simply as the character. Damon on FX's Pose is not a real person. Still, you may walk away from the show's premiere believing that Pose feels more like a documentary than a narrative series given the number of newcomers in the cast, including Ryan Jamaal Swain.
Pose examines the ball culture that flourished in New York City in the late '80s. The show follows a variety of ball participants through not only their walks, but through their lives outside of the ballroom. Damon, in particular, sees a stark divide between the freedom of balls, filled with unapologetic, exuberant expression, and the formal academy where he's training to become a professional dancer. While Damon is looking for his big break so he can become a dancer on the Broadway stage, Pose may prove to be Swain's own breakout. The character of Damon is the actor's first ever television job.
The casting of an actor previously unknown to television — although Swain's own website confirms he has a hefty theatrical résumé — helps lend credibility to Damon's fight to be noticed by the various gatekeepers of that high culture world he longs to be a part of. He's pulled between trying to impress the strict, cold, and educational setting of his dance academy, and making a splash in the welcoming — if competitive — ball scene. Faced with this struggle via Damon's experience, the audience will see that the fun, rewarding art doesn't always pay the bills, and working on the art that does pay the bills can be draining.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Pose showrunner Ryan Murphy said at a Television Critics' Association event, "The show is about the search for being authentic, about creating opportunities ... It's time to think differently and offer more opportunities to people who want to work." Vogue reported that Murphy had initially wanted to option the rights to the seminal 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, which documented ballroom culture in the late '80s, but had difficulties getting the blessing of the surviving family members of some of the documentary's key subjects.
While unable to re-create the authentic stories of Paris Is Burning, Murphy chose instead to tell a fictional story about the same era. His Half Initiative seeks to create "equal opportunities for women and minorities behind the camera" and is a key ingredient. Murphy spoke to Deadline about his interest in ensuring authenticity by working with collaborators, saying, "Pose started off as a script written by Steven Canals, an Afro-Latino gay male who was having a lot of trouble breaking into the business. And now he’s the co-creator of Pose, making hiring and casting decisions."
The ensemble cast of Pose very strategically doesn't have the star power of many of Murphy's other series. In the American Horror Story franchise as well American Crime Story and Feud, Murphy assembles starry (and then reconfigures) starry groups of actors. Though Pose does have a few recognizable names attached — namely James Van Der Beek and frequent Murphy collaborator Evan Peters — the cast makes history by including the most lead roles played by transgender actors in any scripted series, many of those performers getting their first mainstream break.
As Damon, an outsider who gets pulled into the stunning world of balls, Swain will be the surrogate for much of the audience, discovering the subculture's majesty and expression for the first time.