Billy Porter is about to recite his mantra. Sitting in his light-filled New York apartment, with a slice of Manhattan skyline visible in silhouette through the blinds, the 52-year-old Emmy, Grammy and Tony-winning actor and singer is relatively dressed down, especially if you’re used to picturing him bejewelled and bewinged in his red carpet finery. He famously wore golden wings and a headdress to the Met Gala in 2019, embracing and embodying the theme of “Camp”, while for the 2021 Emmys his wings were black and ruffled. Today it’s just a loose, colourful smock and thick black glasses. Long braids cascade over his right shoulder and there are flecks of distinguished grey in his neat goatee. “I have a mantra,” he reveals. “I do not now, nor will I ever, adjudicate my life or humanity in soundbites on social media.” He says it with Shakespearian gravity, his chin tilted upwards, enunciating every word as if he were projecting his voice over the breadth of Broadway. He then mimes mindlessly thumbing his phone. “I will go on and waste time and scroll,” he says. “I do do that, but if negativity starts to show up I have the discipline to put it down. I just don’t engage with it.”
Porter has had good reason to ponder the many ways the internet has reshaped social interaction, and not just because of his 2.2 million followers on Instagram alone. After two decades directing for the stage in New York he’s just helmed his first feature film, Anything’s Possible. A sweet-natured contemporary coming-of-age tale, it made history as the first major studio romcom to feature a Black trans protagonist. In the film, Kelsa – played endearingly by newcomer Eva Reign – documents her transition on YouTube, while dreamy beau Khal (Abubakr Ali) writes unusually sensitive posts on Reddit. Their experiences online are both specific and to some degree universal, as Porter weighs the worrying dangers of viral overexposure against the promise of finding genuine connection through the screen.
“It’s so weird to me, because it’s real and not real at the same time,” says Porter. “In my day, the bullies were alive, in my face, and they beat my ass in real time. I don’t understand cyberbullying, because I lived before there was a cyberanything. There’s a whole generation where this is all they know, and I have to say, it breaks my heart a little bit. We as a society and a culture, all around the world, have yet to understand the balance of it. It’s still the Wild West right now.”
Making Anything’s Possible took Porter back to school in a very literal sense. He shot much of the film at his alma mater, Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School, as well as at scenic locations around his hometown, including the lushly beautiful Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and the Andy Warhol Museum. “I wanted to create a love letter to the city that raised me,” says Porter. “While I suffered a lot of trauma there, there were also a lot of angels in my life that made sure that I could be set up for success in this world.”