Actor, singer and culture guide Jai Rodriguez has been giving it his all. We had the pleasure of talking with him about: his career; his life experiences and how being “out and proud” has shaped his outlook on life; not being afraid to get in drag to perform some very historical roles; and always finding the heart in every project.
Jai on the COVID-19 pandemic:
I was really panicking at first, because I hadn’t really thought much before about how much of my career is with folks in person and having live audiences. When I’m not working on a television show, I usually tour my cabaret show, promote parties and nightlife or do speaking engagements and all those require crowds. All went away and I panicked for minute. And then in July, I hosted the Daytime Emmys, safely in an isolated studio and it was a sign that things are slowly turning back and we are figuring out ways to keep everyone safe and still make television. That’s been really great and I’m feeling really optimistic. We shot a “Queer Eye”-style reunion with my OG cast and that kind of gave me less of anxiety about work. And I love that “Equal” is out, but it’s HBO Max, and some of these streaming platforms have very, very small budgets and so you’re doing these projects out of labors of love. It’s not like a traditional network or anything else so, it’s really exciting. I’m feeling like during the pandemic, I’ve used the time wisely and productively, I launched a website, I go live every day at 5 on my Facebook, connecting with this new audience. It’s been nice and cathartic to be able to share my journey every day and then document more fun stuff for the website and kind of find some purpose in this time of “whatever.” It’s been very anxious times for all of us, but, you know, finding a purpose, I think has been really helpful for me.
I had two aquariums prior to the pandemic beginning, now I have six. I have kind of created my own little ecosystem here at home and it keeps me busy. It’s been tricky to kind of stay connected with folks because those Zoom parties and all that, that was cute in the spring and a little bit in the summer, but then I was just like “OK.” I’m one of those people that I’m just very much about following the rules because usually for us show business folks, if you’ve been exposed to COVID, you can’t get on the set, or if you test positive they’re not going to hold production for you. No, they will just get someone else. It’s a livelihood thing too for many of us. So, I’ve been obeying the rules and making the best with the fur babies and just trying to have some semblance of a new normal, but I definitely think we’re in this for a minute!
Growing up Puerto Rican/Italian in Long Island:
It was pretty common in Long Island. There’s always some speculating of a couple of different groupings. Usually it’s Puerto Rican, Italian, Jewish people on Long Island; you could get a mix of all three. That certainly was my experience growing up. So, it was really common. And then when I moved here, I remember people asking, “So where in Mexico is your family from?” And I was like, “Oh, no, we’re not, oh wait, I’m on this side of the country now,” usually if you are any kind of beige there, they just assumed you’re from somewhere in the Caribbean, you could be Puerto Rican or Cuban. It was a spicy childhood. And then in California, it was interesting how that was not the first thing that people guessed.
Realizing that he was Gay:
Not to be funny, but in hindsight, I think it is funny. I didn’t think it was a thing. Meaning I didn’t believe it was true, I thought it was just a cruel joke and it was a slur that people used. But no, homosexuality actually wasn’t real because I didn’t have any exposure to it. Certainly not in media or in the limited amount of access I had to the outside world. I grew up very evangelical. So, if it wasn’t for the glory of God, it wasn’t in the house. You remember, the internet in my teens was new and reserved only for people with money and computers in their homes and even then, it was dial up. The only access I had to the cyber world was in the computer lab at school. It was the beginning stages of the internet, you try to Google a picture of a naked man and it took 47 minutes for a search result but by then, I’d have to get to my next class. I could not wrap my brain around how two men could be intimate with one another because I had never seen it and I thought I was the only one experiencing it. So honestly it wasn’t until my first musical (“Rent”) at the age of about 17 that I saw a gay couple but even then, it was kind of interesting because of all the love songs and the “lovey dovey” moments. In that musical, being that Angel was in drag, from the audience perspective; many people didn’t notice that it was the same character that they had met as a boy in the beginning. But that was the first time I was able to talk about those things with friends. Certainly not at that point identifying myself but I knew that I had an attraction and a curiosity about the logistics of how it worked. So therefore, I didn’t say anything. And then when I booked “Rent” a year later at 18, right after graduating high school, I knew I had to share it with family because I couldn’t just leave home to do this Broadway show so I think in many ways, talking about the character was kind of my backdoor way (pun intended) of coming out because they were so against everything that Angel stood for; an HIV-positive drag queen who was very comfortable in her skin. This wasn’t necessarily something that my family could wrap their brains around. I remember when I told my mom, her exact words were, “I don’t want that sickness in my house. You’ve got to go.” So I was disconnected from my family for a long time. My dad left when I was young. I don’t even know his whereabouts. So really, in many ways, I remember well, my mom had me so young that basically we moved back in with her mother; my grandmother and my grandmother raised my mom and I like siblings and we grew up in my mother’s childhood bedroom, two twin beds and a small room. That was normal to me until I was 12 or 13 when we got our first place. But at that point, we functioned as roommates so I was basically on my own at 18 but thankfully with a big job. I really explored my adolescence in my late teens and early 20s because I had exposure to the outside world and to mentors and a bunch of LGBTQ+ folks who really stepped in and became my family of choice.
About the show ‘Equal’ and Jose Sarria
Things have shifted where an LGBTQ+ character or actor can openly carry the series as a one, two, three on the call sheet, meaning they have one of the top largest roles and who they choose to love or their gender expression or their gender identity — those things are now just a piece of them. But they can also now be a lawyer, they could be funny, they could be an assh*le. It doesn’t matter. I mean, we still have a lot of bias in Hollywood and we still have a lot of work and pressure we need to put on production companies and studios to tell stories accurately and allow our community to tell our own stories. I love our allies, but sometimes they get it wrong from the executive level down in the best efforts of trying to tell our story.
That’s what was so great about being part of “Equal.” Scout Productions (the producers of “Equal”) also created “Queer Eye” and while they weren’t necessarily hands-on when I was on set or anything, they had a great director, Stephen Kijak, who directed a couple episodes of “Queer Eye,” coincidentally enough. I didn’t initially audition for Jose Sarria, I auditioned for another character. They basically had everyone auditioning for, I think, five characters. I think mine were specifically the New York storylines. And I was like, I don’t look anything like this white man with blue eyes who is Jewish. There’s no way I’m going to be able to play this. But they just wanted to see people’s acting ability. I remember I had worn my Apple Watch (like an idiot) to the audition for a series that takes place in 1916 (way to go, Jai) and it was blowing up during the audition. I was getting all these texts and I knew that my “Queer Eye” boys were flying in from the East Coast because we were shooting “Family Feud” the next day and they were trying to make plans to meet up. My phone was blowing up, and so I get out of the audition for “Equal” and as I’m returning texts, I noticed the creator of “Queer Eye” is on the group chat and I thought “that’s funny,” I have not talked to him in years, I was wondering what he needed and he was wondering what all the guys were doing in town? Because anytime we do anything now, it’s nothing to do with the original producers, the minute “Queer Eye” was done, anything we’ve done outside of that has never been sanctioned or organized by the OG producers. So, they were clueless, but they were like, “oh my God, how cool, you’re reuniting.” And we said yes at “Family Feud.” I apologized for my delay in returning texts, “I was just auditioning for an HBO show.” He asked, “Which one?” I was said “Equal,” and he replied with, “that’s our show.” And although I’ve never done this, I said, “I’ve earned this next comment. So can we just cut through the red tape, why don’t you just offer me something in this?” First off, because I felt like if you’re going to use trailblazers and such, I definitely fit that part. But also, I felt confident with the audition I had just done, and I knew that the role I was auditioning for probably wasn’t right, but that maybe they could find something else. He replied, “Oh my God, if you really want to do it, let me talk to my production partner.” So, he had his production partner call me. He’s like, “hey, I’m in South America right now traveling, but I will reach out to you and see if there’s something.” And they came back two weeks later with the role of Jose. I could not have been more thrilled because there are so many similarities in terms of who I organically am, set aside from the fact that I can sing and that I tour in “Cabaret” and all the other stuff. But we just have so many crossovers. I was thrilled because it is a better part than the one I went in for.
I had been working in San Francisco a lot for the charity the Richmond/Ermet Aid Foundation. They do a couple of gala concerts and I do about four a year for them. I’m always there and there are so many people from the Imperial Court System who attend the events and I remember going for the first time and thinking “who in the British Parliament Hell is this gentleman with the sparkly crown?” I had no idea. So, over the years, I got to really unpack the history of the Imperial Court. Now, while “Equal” doesn’t cover that because it’s just what they call a primer. With each character, you’re basically just learning the base coat of their lives, which I kind of hope and I said it on set and I keep repeating it in every interview, I hope they do a season two and that we get to unpack more because Jose’s contributions of serving in the war and also politically energizing an entire generation of people as well as founding the Imperial Court, his contributions in politics and speaking out about those who were not politically engaged, getting them involved, having people’s voices matter and bringing them to the polls — we’re talking about the same things today. So, knowing that call to action has been in place for decades, it gives you a stronger sense of pride to understand that we come from a long history of heroes who have fought for our community in times where it was literally illegal. I think if you try to explain that to a kid who grew up in this generation when they have marriage equality, when they might have grown up and seen the White House lit up with rainbow colors, you get complacent and you might think that everything’s OK. And then this administration comes in and suddenly we’re now back, in a space where we have to talk about some of the trickier issues among ourselves. I think one of the shocking things is people are very surprised that there are supporters of this administration who happen to be part of our community. And that’s tricky. I think when you see shows like “Equal” and you hear the kind of things that these characters, these real people were fighting for, it really gives you pause because it shows how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
On being a trailblazer for the Latino LGBTQ+ community
First of all, it’s funny because the first time that I was kind of spoken about in that way, I thought was, “Oh God, I’m old.” But now I think that it’s great. Billy Porter has this interview were he says, “As a trailblazer, usually it’s pretty rare that you get to reap the benefits of the trail you blaze. Usually you get it the hardest and the people behind you have it a little bit easier.” And he was saying for the first time in his life, the trail that he helped blaze, he is actually getting a bit of, call it recognition or whatever but he’s now reaping the benefits of the work, because he’s been out for so long and had a really hard time getting work at a certain portion of his career, he talks really openly about that. And just to highlight why that’s important is people will tell you not to say things like that. “Don’t say that because they won’t hire you for stuff.” But it’s the truth. And unless you start having these conversations about, “Oh, he’s too Latin.” I remember doing “Queer Eye.” All my brothers on the show got these six-figure or multimillion-dollar endorsement deals. I couldn’t get anything to happen. I couldn’t get a book deal, nothing. The common response back then in coded language was just bottom line, “He’s just not marketable, he’s too ethnic, he’s slightly fem and it’s just not what America will latch onto.” Never mind that I had one of the highest Q ratings (which is how the audience sees you) and that didn’t matter. There was still stigma around not being straight presenting. There were the Gays who always got the cover of the magazines. What’s their next project? And they got two lines in the show. And I just did six episodes on this and I’m not getting coverage. It was like a tier system, there was a kind of Gay that was acceptable to be and I can only speak to my experience. But the Gay was, you had two choices. You could be straight passing or someone that people would say, “I can’t believe he’s Gay.” Or you could be, what was called at that time, flamboyant; where you are the soundbite quippy Gay. But if you felt anywhere else on the spectrum of being a Queer man, it was like, “I don’t know, he’s not fabulous enough.” It was just very interesting. Now, I think there’s a stronger push to be authentic. But at the time, it was very much “we need to put you in a box and if we don’t know what that box is, we’re just not going to put you in anything.” And so, I understand the weight of that.
So when people say, “you’re kind of an iconic part of LGBTQ+ history because for millions of people is the first time they saw themselves reflected in that way,” I can embrace it and accept the part, but I always think it wasn’t as easy as people think, behind the scenes are really tricky and definitely cause moments of questioning your own self-worth and trying to (at times) fit into certain spaces and just being on a show that the themes were style, taste and class and I just thought that sounded so elitist. That piece was really hard for me. So, what I brought was the heart and a more grounded sensibility that was probably more in line with what the straight guy needed in that moment. So, once he had this fancy situation occur to him, getting to the real root of the heart of the issue and helping him in that space was always my passion. I think that’s one of the biggest takeaways of the work I do now is I want that heart in all the work.
What’s next for Jai and where can we catch him?
I’m on all social media. It’s just @JaiRodriguez, every one with the blue checkmark. That’s the best way to stay connected with me. I have a new website, which is really exciting because the joke was, “When are you going to get an OnlyFans page” and I was like, “probably never.” So, my answer to that was something I’m calling Jai’s World and it’s basically exclusive footage and behind the scenes; there is a podcast and pictures and videos and how-to guides, recipes and cooking things and that’s JaisWorld.pubninja.com. So that’s been really fun because there’s different tier systems and every day, I go live on my Facebook page at 5 p.m. and I’ve developed this global community because it was so scary when everything started and I wanted a way to connect, and on Mondays, I do like a human jukebox — you type what you want me to sing and I perform it. But the community that was formed from these people, from all over the world, now they’re friends and we just welcome everybody at 5 p.m. It’s been a beautiful thing to kind of find this virtual community, because you never know who is following you on social media, and I really got to know these people. Then the “Queer Eye” reunion will air next summer and outside of “Equal,” if you want to go back this year. If they miss me on “The Rookie,” season two, the episode was “The Overnight.” And it is a different kind of character. I think the fun thing would be to watch that and then watch “Equal” because I definitely don’t play the same character at all. I play kind of the bad guy in “The Rookie,” but it is quite a departure, where people were like calling me and commenting, “Oh my God, you were so scary.” So I guess a job well done. That was the best part of it, to be able to play someone who was disturbed or like I like to say, “He is going through a hard time. He had a very bad night and you didn’t catch him at the best time.
Later in the month, Jai will be receiving two of the Imperial Court’s highest honors, The International Jose Julio Sarria Equality Honor and the International Empress 1 Jose Medal of Distinction.