Billy Porter Says 'Pose' Role Was a 'Proxy for My Healing' amid His Own Experience with HIV

"I really had to learn how to take care of myself in the process," the actor says of shooting the final season of the FX series

billy porter
Photo: Pari Dukovic/FX

This article contains spoilers from Sunday's Pose series finale.

Billy Porter's experience playing Pray Tell on Pose has been both therapeutic and transformative amid the actor's own experience with HIV.

Porter's character first learned of his HIV diagnosis in the FX drama's first season, but he later discovered he had AIDS-related lymphoma in the show's third and final season. Porter, meanwhile, openly addressed his own HIV-positive diagnosis for the first time last month.

"Pose and Pray Tell have been a proxy for my healing," Porter, 51, tells PEOPLE exclusively. "The trauma was so difficult. The grief was so heavy."

"The antiretroviral drugs [for HIV] came, and everybody moved on. There's a whole generation of us that really never got a chance to process having lived through the AIDS crisis [and] having lived through an epidemic," he adds.

In season 3 of Pose alone, Pray Tell battled alcoholism alongside AIDS before ultimately succumbing to the disease during Sunday's series finale. Viewers also got a glimpse at his character's family backstory, and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather.

billy porter
Eric Liebowitz/FX

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Porter — who helped provide input on the storyline based on his own abusive childhood — says practicing self-care is what helped him get through filming the more emotionally charged scenes this season.

"I really had to learn how to take care of myself in the process [through] self-care [and figuring out how to] balance boundaries," he explains. "I really had to take care of myself. But it really just came down to how long I was inside of something. I couldn't be in it for too long."

Billy Porter
Eric Liebowitz/FX

Since its premiere in 2018, Pose has received critical acclaim for its focus on New York City's Black and Latino LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming drag ball culture scene amid the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s. It also made history for having the largest-ever cast of transgender actors on a mainstream network.

In addition to Porter, the cast included Mj Rodriguez (Blanca Rodriguez), Dominique Jackson (Elektra), Indya Moore (Angel), Hailie Sahar (Lulu), Dyllón Burnside (Ricky), Angel Bismark Curiel (Lil Papi), Ryan Jamaal Swain (Damon) and Angelica Ross (Candy).

Saying goodbye to the series after three short seasons is "bittersweet," Porter tells PEOPLE.

"We really had a chance to say what we needed to say," he says. "And that makes me happy."

Pose's first two seasons are currently available on Netflix.

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