Mj Rodriguez: A walk to me means taking all the time that you need to center your mind, free all of your inhibitions and just make sure you focus on the thing that’s most important to you, which is your body, and aligning your body. I used to walk from 31st Street all the way to 151st Street simply because I just loved to walk. It helped me get through the day.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time to Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos, and songs that have influenced their lives.
Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, also known as Mj, is a rising star with a lead role on the hit TV show “Pose”. She made history when she became the first transgender performer to receive a Primetime Emmy nomination in a major acting category. On this walk, Michaela Jaé talks about how her career took off and having the bravery to be yourself.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
Mj Rodriguez: East River Park means the most to me because I had moments here as a child where me and my parents, specifically me and my dad, would rollerblade over here. And we would just constantly enjoy ourselves while working out. I wasn’t aware that I was working out. I thought I was just having fun on my rollerblades. But it was a time for me to really take in the moment with my family but also see how beautiful it is outside and watch people.
And I think that’s one of the reasons why this park means so much to me, is because everyone is out. Everyone is active. Even as we speak right now, you just see people running and taking walks and just taking in the air. Even though we’ve been dealing with COVID, people are finally getting out and stepping out and really appreciating what life is like when you are outside and when you can move and not be so stationary.
Miss Michaela Jaé, Miss Mj Rodriguez, as a child, was rambunctious, crazy, filled with enthusiasm, filled with, obviously, the arts, and filled with energy. And sometimes, most of the time, she couldn’t contain it. I was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, but when I turned the age of two years old, my mother and father moved out to Jackson, New Jersey. They enrolled me in a school called Rosenauer Elementary School. And that school taught me a lot.
As I said, I was this rambunctious, crazy, energetic kid who just didn’t know her limits. And I found my limits when I was on the playground in the sandbox. And I was with my friend Rebecca at the time. We were seven years old, I think, or eight. And I remember seeing her fall off the monkey bars before, but I never thought it would happen to me because I thought I had it together.
I remember being by myself in that sandbox, climbing up these yellow, really mustard-colored monkey bars, smiling because of the joy I had in climbing things and having the will to do it. And I got to the top, knees on, like, the ladder kind of fixture, looking down. And I just remember laughing all by myself, enjoying. And I remember the moment my hand slipped a little bit, and there’s always that jolt of fear.
I fell straight through the monkey bars all the way down. And my face as I was falling was just in complete shock, knowing that I was about to hit the ground. Now, mind you, there was a sand pit. So, when you hit sand, it doesn’t hurt as much as regular concrete. I remember not even screaming or crying at that moment. I was in complete shock until I felt the pain afterwards. I felt the pain of these burns on my elbows and my knees and on my back and some on my face.
And I screamed out. I started crying because it hurt. I was alone at that point. So I pretty much had to, like, remedy myself and lick my own wounds. And I cried. And it burned. But there was a point where it all subsided. And the reason why that was is because I knew I was okay.
With the monkey bars, you have to be completely confident in knowing that you know how to climb that thing and that you are going to stay up on top of it. And I was… I was sadly mistaken. That’s what made me feel the heaviness of you can be on top and you can definitely fall. I lost a bit of sense of self, and I lost this thought of being invincible.
Some people learn through them telling you, but I learned physically. And the next time I went on that monkey bar, I knew I wasn’t going to be playing around again. I knew I wasn’t going to be doing anything stupid, and I knew that I had to be as careful as possible because I did not want to be in that same predicament again.
I like to think of myself as a quick learner. Something happens to me, and I absorb it. And I try my best to either not do it again if it’s something that is not good, or if it’s something that benefits me, I lock it in so that I can use it as a tool later on in life. And that was the tool that I used later on in life.
I think the correlation from the monkey bars into my life as an artist is that I have limits when it comes to my mental health and my physical health. You understand the repercussions of falling, but you also have to learn how to get back up and dust it off.
You can be at the highest point, but there’s always space between where you can fall and how far it can be. Never think that when you are so high up that you cannot fall, ever. And everyone’s like, “You shouldn’t think like that, Michaela.”
And I’m like, “No, it’s actually quite simple. You know, you have to know your limitations. You have to know your boundaries, and you have to know what happens when you don’t know your boundaries.”
[SOUND OF WALKING]
After all of these amazing life-learning events that happened in my life as a child, I grew up. And I went to an amazing high school called Arts High. But I wasn’t academically really applying myself because I felt like I didn’t need the academics.
Everyone was going to college. Everyone was getting their college applications accepted. Meanwhile, I’m sending college applications and hadn’t gotten accepted into any, none. With that came uncertainty, and I was quite lost. Then Jeff Griglak, this amazing man in my life who was a part of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, told me, “You should apply for a scholarship for the five-week program at Berklee College of Music.”
I said, “I don’t want to apply for that. I’m not going to get in there.”
He said, “Girl, you need to go. It’s important, and I think you would love it. It’s somewhere where you, I think, would be in your element.”
So I auditioned. I got into the five-week program, and I spent five wonderful weeks in Boston, Massachusetts. By being in that space, it felt like a magical, musical Hogwarts. It was the place that I needed to be. I enjoyed every moment of it. I auditioned to try to get into the school, and I got in, and I started literally three weeks afterwards.
I went into my first semester guns a-blazing. I knew that I had to make sure I was a reflection of my mother, my father, and my mentors who sent me there. And I knew I had to do it, most importantly, for me because this is what I wanted to do in my life. There is no way, girl, you can fail here. There’s no way.
I hadn’t had any plans on leaving until I got this opportunity at the end of semester, and a friend of mine told me, “Girl, you need to audition for this show. It’s called “Rent”.”
I said, “Oh, I know about “Rent” already. I don’t think I’m available to do it and I don’t think I’m able to. I got college going on right now, and nobody looking for me.”
And he said, “Girl, you just need to go ahead and do it.”
So I said, “Okay.”
I get this opportunity to do the community version of “Rent” at New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Through doing this community version of “Rent”, I met Fredi Walker-Browne.
She’s a prolific, amazing performer who originated the role of JoAnne in the original production of “Rent”. And she took me under her wing. She saw the potential in me, as well. And when I tell you it was so comforting to have a strong woman like that in the industry to educate me, and to actually push me on into my next venture, a blessing.
She was the woman who got me an appointment for auditioning for the off-Broadway production of “Rent” in 2011. And honey, five auditions in, I got the part of Angel. Fredi Walker-Browne made that happen for me. She gave me hope that there was possibility for me to achieve my dream.
I remember going back to Boston literally two days after that and finishing my finals and speaking to a woman named Lynette Gittens and another individual who was her husband, Winston Gittens. And Winston was my teacher at Berklee, and Lynette was my guidance counselor at Berklee. And they were both married.
And I remember asking them, “There’s this huge opportunity that’s happening for me, and I just don’t know what decision to make. I feel like I’m at… I’m caught at a crossroads. I want to graduate college. I’m at the college of my dreams. But I also got this opportunity to soar in my career, something that I’ve always dreamed of doing. And that’s the reason why I came here.”
And I remember my guidance counselor saying, “Stay in school, girl. It’s important. You shouldn’t go and do something that you know is not going to be promised to you.”
Meanwhile, her husband says, “Go and do it. I’ll even give you credit to go.” I knew at that moment I had to make my own decision, and I made my decision. I chose to pursue my career as an actor, as a singer, as a performer.
It was important for me to take that role at that moment because I knew it would never possibly happen again. And I had to just go in, arms wide open, and accept what was to come whether it be a success or whether it doesn’t. And I’m glad I made the decision because it really, really put me on the map like how I planned on.
The people who taught me and raised me, the mentors that were infused in my life through art, they all taught me that you have to make sure you build your confidence, learn yourself so when you become a grown person, when you become an adult, that you will be sturdy, strong enough, confident enough to make your own decisions.
Always have the courage. Always have the audacity. And if you have the stamina to keep going, the mental capacity to keep going, to keep pushing forward, to keep walking that walk and stay on that path, never, ever give up. There are testimonies all around the world, and I just so happen to be one of them, but there are many. And if I can be a testament, you can be a testament, too. If you put your mind to it, you can make anything happen.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
Believe it or not, how I got my break was kind of weird to me. I was this young, vibrant person who had built up this guard to noes and had received so many noes until I got this audition call.
I saw this breakdown. A breakdown is just a description of each character regarding who they are and how you can relate to them so that you can go into an audition and actually depict them the way you want. And there were five women on this breakdown: one that goes by the name of Lulu, another that goes by the name of Candy, one that goes by the name of Elektra, a young lady that goes by the name of Angel, and lastly another one that goes by the name of Blanca.
Blanca was me. I read this description and I saw nurturing, caring, not as quote/unquote “passable.” And she looked past all of that. I knew that’s who I should play, and I knew that I would be a great depiction of who this character was, who this woman was and how she fit in the world.
I remember contacting my agents but not really hearing back from them. I guess they probably had already did their work, but they never really said anything to me about it. So I took it upon myself to send in my own headshot, send my own email professionally, and let them know how interested I was in playing this specific role.
I received a email back from them. They said, “Don’t worry. Your agents got back to us. We’ll contact you.” And mind you, I hadn’t gotten anything in three years. I was not working at all. I had already given up on the idea of thinking I was going to be a television and film actress until that second week hit, and I get a call to come in for a recording, test recording.
And it wasn’t like a regular test. People were behind tables like I was going into, like, a Broadway audition call. Steven Canals, Ryan Murphy, all of these really prolific, strong presence in the Hollywood realm. And all I could remember was Ryan saying, “Are you ready?”
And I said, “Hell, yeah, I’m ready.” I was excited and nervous at the same time.
I had never had a television show reach out to me the way FX reached out to me. I was a guest star on certain shows, but I wasn’t being considered for a leading female role. In my mind, I was thinking, “I’ve been waiting for this forever.” You know, I had been in the industry since I was 11 years old, trying to pound the pavement trying to make a way in. It finally hit at 26 years old. That’s young, and opportunities don’t happen like that. But I was fighting hard as a trans girl. It was not easy for a trans girl.
So… I remember receiving a call from the Ryan Murphy. I was in my room on my computer. I’m a nerd at heart. And he says, “Hello, is this Mj? Hello, Mj.”
And I said, “Who’s… Who’s this? Hello?”
And he says, “Hi, Mj, it’s Ryan. I just want to let you know that you have nothing to worry about. The part is yours.”
I quietly and timidly said, “Okay, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.”
He said, “How do you feel?”
“I’m really excited about it. I don’t know how to react. I cannot believe it. Are you sure?”
He said, “Of course I’m sure.”
I remember getting off that phone and running downstairs and screaming to my mother and screaming to my family in pure joy, crying, “I got it! I got the part. I’m going to be leading in the show. I’m going to be the lead woman of a show.”
Mama Audrey, she didn’t show no type of reaction because that’s just Black mama for you. She’s like, “All right, girl. Well, we’ll see when it gets on the television screen.” You know, one of those kind of feelings. But in her heart, I knew she was proud of her daughter for really stamping it. So, for about a week, I was in a state of bliss. I was in a state of happiness and joy knowing that I finally got my chance.
I can go on for ages about my joy in working on a show that was centered around five trans women… one specifically who a lot of people didn’t think the odds would be given to her, but she beat all of them. I would say it was just a blessing and a wonderful testament to not only my life story but the many stories that are out there as far as a young trans woman really trying to make it into a world that doesn’t really see them.
This show has changed the landscape of all of that now. The representation is beyond. Not only were we just trans women, we were trans women of color, Latina and Black and so many arrays of colors that were on that set and not to mention a slew of LGBTQAI members, something that you would never see five, seven, ten years ago. That speaks volumes.
So no matter how many noes you receive, there is always going to be someone who’s going to see you. I had so many opportunities that fleeted away from me because I was too quote/unquote “specific” that I didn’t fit into. But the moment someone sees me, it all happened. And mind you, I had been ready, but it was depending on whether they were ready for me.
There is a lot of hard work and a lot of ups and downs, but the hard work pays off. The hard work pays off. Keep your feet rooted in the ground, knowing where you came from, knowing the obstacles that you had to get through in order to get to where you are at this very moment, whether you be an actor or whether you be somebody who’s just a regular jogger running the street. There’s always a fight, and there’s always beauty when you get past the fight.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
So we’re here at the Williamsburg Bridge, and this takes me back to a time when me and my dad just constantly came over here and having fun watching people, enjoying the time with each other. I love my dad so much. I go and see him every Sunday as much as I can now. And coming back here really brings back a lot of memories.
When I’m moving, I’m always thinking. I’m always thinking of music. I’m always thinking of what’s going to get me to the next step literally and physically.
I know that when I’m feeling at my best and I want to be as active as possible and I want people to see me while I’m being active is when I’m listening to Ariana Grande’s “Focus”. I mean, just hearing that beat, hearing that rhythm, and hearing that beautiful voice collectively together just gets my body moving. And I just love it. [MJ RODRIGUEZ SINGS A LINE FROM “FOCUS”]
[MUSIC - “FOCUS” BY ARIANA GRANDE]
I’m always an overthinker, and sometimes it doesn’t benefit me…
[MUSIC FADES IN]
…and there are other times that it does. And I think when I listen to the song “Hourglass” by Zedd, my overthinking definitely benefits me. We’re limited on time, every single person on this earth. So you have to seize it as much as you can. And when I’m listening to that song, honey, that’s what I think about the whole time.
[MUSIC - “HOURGLASS” BY ZEDD]
When I’m emotionally in a place where I’m lifted as far as my existence as not only a Black woman and a Latina woman and being a trans woman, I think I listen to “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan. It makes me feel stronger. I just feel so rooted in my womanhood even though there are so many people that don’t think I deserve to have womanhood. It reminds me of how my mother just, like, raised me strong and raised me to be the strong woman I am today.
[MUSIC - “I’M EVERY WOMAN” BY CHAKA KHAN]
After this walk specifically, I feel so zen. I feel complete. And I feel at ease with people knowing my story and what I think about while I’m active, while I’m moving.
Thank you for taking the time to walk with me today.