HBO Max’s Equal, an enlightening new docuseries profiling LGBTQ historical figures, is dropping in October as a nod to LGBTQ History Month, not Halloween. But two actors featured prominently in the series say they felt the presence of the real-life pioneers they portrayed while filming.
Hailie Sahar and Jai Rodriguez are two of the many out actors cast in the four-part series, which blends archival footage with historical reenactments of key moments in the modern fight for LGBTQ equality. Sahar was the creative team’s first pick to portray Sylvia Rivera, the revered trans activist who took part in the game-changing 1969 uprising at New York City’s Stonewall Inn. Rodriguez auditioned for another role but was ultimately cast as José Sarria, a Latinx drag queen and activist in pre-Stonewall San Francisco who became the first openly gay person to run for public office in U.S. history.
Sahar says she was “thrilled” to depict a real-life hero like Rivera. “She’s someone who was a lot different than most of the roles I’ve taken on,” the actress tells NewNowNext. “Often times, I’ve been cast as the pretty girl or the mean girl, and to take on a different persona has really allowed me to show my acting chops and bring this iconic figure to life.”
It helped that Sahar felt an instant connection to Rivera, who like her was a trans woman of color. Rivera famously co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), an activist network and resource group for houseless LGBTQ youth and sex workers in New York City, with her peer and close friend Marsha P. Johnson. Sahar’s connection to her character runs so deep that she believes Rivera was with her in spirit on set.
“Something really funny happened to me on set: I would get these massive headaches while I was filming,” she recalls. “I don’t know if this is true or not, but I felt like Sylvia was around me, her energy. I felt like she was this big-hearted person who had so much to give with so little resources and so little help. And when I got these headaches, I was like, ’Sylvia, is that you? Are you inside me while I’m trying to play you?'”
Rodriguez, too, was innately drawn to Sarria, a Latinx gay man like him. The Queer Eye for the Straight Guy alum admits he was a little daunted by the role: “I thought, this is a beautiful opportunity to give our community a sense of history and pride in our history. But as an actor separate from that, I thought, oh my gosh. It’s very rare you get these moments to play such trailblazers. I need to get this right.”
Undeterred, Rodriguez dove headfirst into researching Sarria. It wasn’t an easy task. Sarria died in 2013, but his career spanned decades. He spent years performing at San Francisco’s Black Cat Bar before running for a spot on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961. (Harvey Milk won a seat on that same board 16 years later.) Sarria also founded the Imperial Court System (ICS), one of America’s oldest LGBTQ organizations.
The turning point came when he spoke to Empress Nicole, Sarria’s successor in the ICS. “Knowing that I had access to not just what I could find, but also to speak with someone who José was incredibly close with, kind of helped guide the character,” he says. “One thing [Empress Nicole] said to me before I ended the call, which haunts me to this day in a beautiful way, was, ’José is going to be with you tomorrow on set.’ And I’m not a super spiritual person in that way, but I felt it.”
Although Equal is an example of LGBTQ television done respectfully and intentionally, Rodriguez, an industry veteran, says Hollywood still has plenty of work to do as far as LGBTQ representation goes. It’s even more evident to him as a gay actor of color. TV executives want to tell diverse stories but are reluctant to hire new queer writers to write them, meaning emerging creatives rarely get the writing credits they need to climb the industry ranks.
“This is the underbelly of Hollywood right now,” he explains. “We’re in this weird space where people aren’t allowed to be in charge of telling their own stories, and what that looks like is, sometimes I’ve gotten upset when I’m being directed or guided in a way that’s problematic, to accurately tell an LGBTQIA story.”
Sahar cites Pose, Ryan Murphy’s groundbreaking FX drama about the house and ballroom community, as another shining example. The Emmy-winning series is the first show of its kind to feature five trans actors in lead roles—including Sahar, who plays Lulu Ferocity (formerly Abundance). She’s currently in New York City shooting Pose’s third season. Filming resumed recently after pandemic-related shutdowns stalled productions nationwide.
“I know that Pose is the first show of its kind, but I’m still in it,” she says. “So I really haven’t stepped away to look at the body of work that we’re doing, to really see the significance of it. I’m just one to do my due diligence and make sure that I am being as positive of a voice as I can.”
She regards Equal in a similar way: “Being a newer generation and giving homage to an older generation—it feels like a connection. It feels like we’re all in this together. And I’m just really humbled and excited to be a part of that.”
Equal is streaming now on HBO Max.
Main image: Hailie Sahar as Sylvia Rivera in Equal.