'Pose' Star Angel Bismark Curiel Was Born To Play Lil Papi
The breakout star from FX’s beloved ballroom series reflects on the show’s legacy and how his character has helped to rewrite the narrative around Afro-Latinx men.
It’s no stretch to call the recently aired penultimate episode of Pose one of the series’ strongest. Like many of the groundbreaking show’s most impressive outings, “Something Old, Something New” centers on yet another revolutionary feat of trans triumph — this time, an expensive, flashy wedding between a trans woman, Angel (Indya Moore), and her doting fiancée, Lil Papi.
For Angel Bismark Curiel, the actor who plays Lil Papi with a determined yet tender resolve, the significance of this episode was certainly not lost. As one of the only cisgender, heterosexual men in a cast that has long been praised for its unprecedented trans representation, the 25-year-old has always felt the weight of Pose’s mission, but has never taken his involvement with the show for granted. Since the outset, he has used the show as an avenue for his own personal education, treating the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as an opening to learn invaluable information about the complicated history of the queer and trans community.
Of course, it helped that Bismark Curiel immediately fell in love with Lil Papi, a character whose rough background resonated with him. Raised in Liberty City, Miami, not only did Bismark Curiel know what it meant to struggle, he was also aware that “struggle” didn’t always have to equate to roughness, aggression, and machismo. His aim was to to use this character to help rewrite the dominant media narrative surrounding Afro-Latinx men — and, to date, he has done so through uplifting stories about making it out of the hood, achieving career success, being a loving partner, and even showing up as a father figure to a son you didn’t even know you had until years after he was born. Looking back on his trajectory, Bismark Curiel can’t help but to be proud of the work he’s done.
Ahead of the Season 3 premiere of Pose, NYLON hopped on a Zoom call with Angel Bismark Curiel to talk about why he thought he was the only person who could play Lil Papi, what it felt like to join the cast of a show centering the experiences of queer people of color, how meeting his father for the first time two years ago influenced his approach to playing a father, the parallels between his real-life relationship with Janet Mock and his on-screen relationship with Angel, and why singing in last week’s wedding episode was the hardest scene he ever filmed.
How did you first get involved with Pose and what drew you towards Lil Papi?
Let's go deep. For starters, when I first got the audition and read the sides and started to do my deep-dive into the work, trying to get to know who this character is and what he represents, I read it very instinctually and said, "Oh, man. This guy is me." I think it was one of the few times I had ever picked up a script and felt like, Oh, I'm not being tokenized. I thought, Whoever is writing this is really trying to represent me in the best of ways. That’s something that had never happened to me before. I wasn’t even on set yet, and I already felt seen, I already felt heard. So I said, This guy is me and I'm the only one that can do it. If anyone else does it, they might not see the joy. They might not see the heart that this character brings. Coming into the audition room and feeling that sense of confidence was a first for me.
Papi comes from a rough background. In the first season, he talks about being 20 with only an eighth-grade education, growing up in and out of foster homes, and being forced to sell drugs as a means of survival. How did you get into the mindset to bring the right level of care to this character?
That came very naturally. I grew up in Liberty City, which is a neighborhood in Miami that's equal to the Bronx, equal to Compton. It goes back to my first point that if anyone else did this role, they might not have brought that love, light, and joy. If you're not really from "rough neighborhoods" — or, let's just speak frankly, from “the ghetto” — when you're trying to approach this character, you're going to make him too hard because that's your perception of what people in these neighborhoods act like, right? At the end of the day, we're just mimicking what we pick up and interpret from TV and from films.
But for me, growing up in Liberty City, I was like, Oh yeah, this is me. This is my best friend back home, who still moves weight to make ends meet while having his nine-to-five. But he's not over here like, “Here's a 9 [mm gun]. Let me rob you. Let me take the chain.” He’s very much like Papi. He's a sweet dude. It just so happens that he has to handle his business [differently] to be able to provide for himself, his mom, and his sister. I took all these bits from my upbringing and from the relationships and bonds that I established growing up and put it into this character.
Pose is primarily a show about queer people of color. How did it feel for you, as a straight man, to come into this world and try to help tell this specific story?
I was nervous and scared because I grew up not even really understanding what being trans meant — just from a vocabulary standpoint, let alone the traumas and complications and conflicts that come with being trans, with being a Black trans woman. So I immediately went into this headspace where I was like, Oh, OK, there's some learning I have to do. Otherwise, I won't be able to do this character justice. Off the riff, I watched Paris Is Burning. Then, I started having conversations with my castmates, trying to get to know them, trying to understand their story, their backgrounds, and their experiences so I could absorb that and better inform myself.
You didn’t have a love interest during Season 1, but by Season 2 had moved toward center stage thanks to your romantic storyline with Angel. How did you feel when you first got those scripts and saw the direction your character was heading?
Above all, I was honored that the writers, producers, and directors all believed in me. I was also nervous because I was just like, Man, can I do it? Can I fill these shoes? I feel these shoes getting bigger and bigger. The character that they were building in the writers’ room was just this really good dude with a heart of gold. He shows up for his family. If he loves you, he loves you and doesn't shy away from it. He's vulnerable. He tells you what it is that he's feeling.
I grew up with this concept that men — particularly, Black and brown men — the only emotions we're allowed to evoke is anger or silence. And if it's neither of those things, then forget about it — it doesn't exist. So here was this character doing the complete opposite of that, and it was just a moment of saying, “OK, there's more personal work that I have to do to be able to really encompass this character because look how good of a man he is.”
You also started dating Janet Mock, a writer, producer, and director on the show, around this same time. Considering the learning process you found yourself in, did you find yourself using elements from your own relationship to enhance your performance?
Yes. One-hundred percent. My relationship with Janet has been the biggest learning experience. I've always said this very matter-of-factly, but before Janet, I had never been with a trans woman before. So the deep, insightful conversations that I got to have and her willingness and ability to just open up the floor and say, "You can ask. Let's talk. Are you curious about this? What are you curious about?" — all of that information, insight, and knowledge just enabled me to hold [my experiences] nice and close, and then sprinkle some of that onto Papi.
This season starts with Papi now fully immersed in a real career: he’s a boss with people working underneath him. Knowing how much you resonated with Papi’s background, how did it feel for you to see him actually make something for himself in the end?
It means the world. Growing up, I didn't really get an opportunity to see a lot of that on screen. Even as an actor right now, as I audition and look for other projects, [I don’t see that]. In this industry, the stories that are told are very much white, and there's very slim room when it comes to Black or Afro-Latinx stories. But here is Papi doing it, right? Like, [these stories are] possible and here's a blueprint to telling them in a healthy way. So I have to start writing. I have to pick up a pen and make sure I'm doing what I can to start producing my own projects and have the career that I long for — and it's all because Papi has shown us a blueprint for how to do it.
This season, Papi also finds out that he has a five-year-old son and his immediate response is to raise him. Talking about the way Pose is helping to change the narrative about people of color, it’s inspiring to see an Afro-Latinx man like Papi be determined to show up for his child, particularly one he didn't even know existed. It challenges this stereotype about fathers of color — that more often than not, they’re absent.
I didn't take that lightly. From personal experience, I just met my father, like, two years ago, as a grown man. I grew up my whole life without him. So going back to the Dominican Republic and seeing him eye-to-eye and being able to hold space with him, there's not enough words to share how healing that was for me. It’s something I wish every young man that grew up without his father could experience. So I had to bring a lot of what I wish my father would have done [when I was younger] to Papi and his son. Emotionally, I kept thinking, Man, you know what it feels like to long for your father day in and day out and wonder where he's at and why he doesn't call you on your birthdays.
So I was bringing my personal experience with my father and wanting to make sure that there was a different narrative that we could share — which is like, nah, man, Black and brown fathers show up for their kids too. It's not just this stigma that they run and turn the other cheek and then you never see them again. In this storyline, and in my own personal one, we can say that that's not entirely true and that we need to start stripping away that stigma.
In the Pose pilot, you’re introduced by approaching Blanca about joining the House of Evangelista. She lets you know that she doesn’t really have a whole lot to offer, and your response is, “That’s perfect for me though. You guys ain’t shit yet. But I ain’t shit yet either.” Looking back, what is the most inspiring part of Lil Papi’s trajectory?
I think the most inspiring part is how he built the family he longed for. He pulled up to that first scene as an orphan … he made himself vulnerable by saying, "Yo, I really like you all. Whatever you all just did in there is exciting to me and I want to be a part of that. I want to be a part of your house in whatever capacity you’ll allow me to be because I'm longing and looking for family, for connection." To see that be the opening beat, where we first meet Papi, and then fast-forward all the way to where he is now, where he's built his family and is trying to be a good man and show up for them, was just amazing.
Is there a scene you recall being particularly difficult to shoot?
The most difficult scene I had to shoot was definitely in [Season 3, episode] six. It's the wedding scene where Papi sings. I had never done anything like that before. The fact that I was going to have to sing in front of castmates, crew, writers, and producers terrified me. It was this feeling of like, Man, can I do this? Are people going to think I'm bad? Am I going to embarrass myself? All these thoughts were racing through my head. They got me a coach and prepped me as much as they could, but I was terrified. And when time came, I opened my mouth and I felt so naked. But at the same time, it was the best thing I had ever experienced because it forced me out of my mind and into my body; that was the only way I was going to be able to perform this.
But the thing that really tops it all off for me was watching it back. When I met my father, he explained to me that my grandparents were artists themselves. My grandmother was a singer and a dancer in the Dominican Republic in the 1950s and my grandfather was an opera singer and an actor. So when I saw that scene, I had to pause it, because it was the first time I didn’t see myself or Papi — I saw my grandfather reflected back at me. That was like a big whoa moment because I realized, then and there, that I am my ancestor's wildest dreams. I’m [doing] something they pursued their entire lives, something they did for a living. And without even so much as meeting me as an adult, here I am doing it. That was full-circle for me.
Now that Pose is coming to an end, what do you hope audiences take away from both the show in general, and more specifically, from your character?
I have this dream of a young man sitting on his couch, flipping through channels, looking for something to watch, stumbling upon Pose, seeing Papi, and then seeing a reflection of himself. As he's watching, he starts to take notice and says, "Ah, who is this kid? He reminds me of myself a little bit” or, “He reminds me of Rico over there, down the block.” And as he's watching, he notices Papi's relationship with Angel and says, "Oh, he likes this? But she’s trans! Oh, he doesn't care at all? You don't care what people think, bro? Well, okay. I love my shorty too. I get it."
My hope is that that individual that was sitting there watching Angel and Papi's love scenes can use that as an avenue to get to know the traumas that follow Black and brown trans women. Then, he can grab that information and bring it back to his friends, so any time some toxicity arises, that individual can say, "No, no. Fall back, man. Let me explain to you. Let me show you that there's a different way." Because, if we’re keeping it buck-50, anytime there's violence inflicted upon trans women, anytime they're murdered, it comes at the hands of men who are too ashamed to say that they're with them. If we can get these young men to start realizing that there's no shame, that who you love is who you love and it’s all gravy, I think that would be a joy.
The series finale of Pose airs this Sunday on FX.