Warning: This article contains spoilers for “Anything’s Possible.”
Billy Porter is a man on a mission. After wrapping up his three-season run as Pray Tell on the groundbreaking FX drama “Pose,” the Emmy- and Tony-winning actor has made his feature directorial debut, helming a coming-of-age romantic comedy about a Black transgender girl and a Muslim American boy who fall in love during their final year of high school.
Directed by Porter, written by Ximena García Lecuona and produced by MGM’s Orion Pictures, “Anything’s Possible” — which debuted at Outfest and premieres Friday on Prime Video — follows Kelsa (Eva Reign), a high school senior navigating life with her first boyfriend, Khal (Abubakr Ali), and the ever-changing expectations of her friends and single mother (Renée Elise Goldsberry).
Having worked with a bevy of trans trailblazers on “Pose,” Porter, the first openly gay Black man to win in a lead acting category at the Emmys, was looking for another queer-led project last year when he took a call from the film producer Christine Vachon, who asked him to read a script that was titled “What If?” and set in his native Pittsburgh.
“The screenwriter’s obvious intention to present the transgender community in a new light blew me away: JOY!” Porter wrote in his director’s statement, which outlines his vision for the film. “The ultimate result is a film like none other we’ve ever seen … populated with the diversity our world demands. It’s a true celebration of the authentic, human spirit.”
After boarding the project as the director, Porter knew he needed two key ingredients: a mature, down-to-earth Black trans actress who could guide audiences through a story that has rarely been told on screen, and a handsome male actor who was comfortable with embodying an unabashed, unconditional kind of love. In the end, he chose Reign, who is making her film debut, and Ali, who will soon become the first Arab Muslim lead in a comic book adaptation in Netflix’s “Grendel.”
“When I was starting theater classes in high school, there was a lot of tension just around my gender and how I presented myself, and people told me that there just wasn’t a place for me when it came to acting,” Reign told NBC News. “I started to lose a lot of my confidence. But through the process of auditioning and playing Kelsa, I started to gain a lot of that back.”
While she believes there are certain roles that don’t require actors to bring their own lived experiences, Reign understood the unique responsibility of playing a character that she always wanted to see.
“This was my chance to give that younger version of myself a gift, and hopefully it can be a gift for all of the young trans kids who are coming up now,” she said.
When the audition for Khal landed in his inbox, Ali, who admitted that he was too busy to thoroughly read the script, skimmed over the material and believed he was auditioning to play the best friend instead of the male lead.
“Just having been jaded by what I’d seen before, I’d never seen a script where someone from my background or my history was a leading man, other than Aladdin,” he said, referring to the beloved Disney character.
Once he landed the role and completed some memorable callbacks over Zoom with Porter, who “was talking to me as if we were going to shoot the next day” and reiterating the groundbreaking nature of the project, Ali said he had to adopt Khal’s tactful, soft-spoken nature, which is part of the reason Kelsa is drawn to him in the first place.
“There’s a little butterfly in his heart that is always fluttering; there’s a kindness and a softness there,” Ali said of his character.
From the moment they cross paths in art class on their first day of senior year, Kelsa and Khal find a rare sense of safety with each other while trying to find their own place in the world, Reign said.
“Kelsa and Khal are both two people who have a lot of love in their hearts from the jump,” she said. “These are two really, really sweet kids, and they happen to cross paths at the perfect time in their lives and also at a time where they both need the other person, and I think that’s what a loving bond looks like.”
While Kelsa’s gender identity is a key part of her characterization, Khal does not heed external criticism about dating a young trans woman. Instead, Khal’s peers are the ones who are confronted with their own transphobia.
“When it comes to love, you’re going to find a way to look past what other people are saying,” Reign noted.
“People don’t wake up with hate in their hearts; they’re taught that out of fear of something that they just don’t quite get,” she continued. “When it comes to most of these bigots, they don’t know any trans people; they didn’t grow up with trans people. It’s usually someone telling them that something is wrong … and luckily, Khal is someone who isn’t listening to any of that. And I think that’s how simple life should be for everyone.”
Many Muslim Americans, including Khal, have historically “been denied the opportunity to allow the ugly parts of themselves to exist” and have had to present a certain façade to make other people feel more comfortable around them, Ali remarked. But in “Anything’s Possible,” Muslims are able to see not only “the beautiful parts” of themselves but also a more progressive perspective on interracial, transgender relationships.
“Oftentimes, we portray the older generation in a caricature sense, and we only allow them one specific point of view,” Ali said. “So frankly, most people would watch this movie and expect Khal’s parents to kick him out of the house for having feelings for Kelsa. And it’s beautiful to see that generation given the opportunity to explore something else. Hopefully, within the world, we have older members of my community seeing that and being like, ‘That’s a possibility. What historically is supposed to be my reaction does not have to be the case.’”
Having worked in the industry for three decades, Porter said, he has seen it all and has managed to turn his queerness into his “superpower” after repeatedly being told it was going to be a professional liability. As artists, he added, “we get to empower ourselves with stories like this and inspire and encourage ourselves.”
With the prevalence of anti-LGBTQ legislation being passed across the country right now — including the potential threat to same-sex marriage — Porter said he believes the pushback and backsliding on LGBTQ rights “is so severe because the actual change has already happened … and that’s what I want to show.”
“That’s the kind of work I want to do, because that’s our oxygen, and we have to put our oxygen mask on first so that we can face what’s coming ahead,” he said. “Because it’s a f------ fight right now, and it’s going to be one for a long time.”
In addition to casting two romantic leads from communities that are still underrepresented on the big screen, “Anything’s Possible” redefines the classic fairy tale with a surprising ending that even caught Reign off guard. At the end of their first summer as a couple, Kelsa and Khal decide to go their separate ways, agreeing that it wouldn’t be fair to either of them to pursue a long-distance relationship in college.
In young adult stories, Ali said, "there's always someone who sacrifices a part of themselves or gives something up for the relationship." In "Anything's Possible," he said, Kelsa and Khal's final scene together was one of his favorites to shoot, because Kelsa chooses herself.
"We see her honor herself while still fully loving the person in front of her," he said. "It’s not selfish; it’s not pretentious; it’s not hurtful; it’s just life.”
“We live in a time right now where, specifically with men, we’re so caught up in our feelings … and instead, we see this boy be fully hurt but choose to smile through it in support and in honor of this person in front of them that he loves,” Ali added, choking up. “It’s beautiful to see someone who is hurt — and it’s not denying that — but [he] chooses to put that away and create the space for her to do her thing. That’s rare. I don’t think we see that very often.”
Porter said he believes "people come into your life for a reason," whether it's for "a season" or "a lifetime."
“And just because a romantic relationship doesn’t work, does not mean that the relationship doesn’t continue and even deepen post-romantic relationship, and I just love that part of the film, too. There’s a maturity to it that I think is necessary,” he said.
Reign agreed that “there’s something very honest” about the ending.
“Yes, it’s a breakup, but it’s not a sad breakup. They both still have a lot of love for the other person, and I think over time, they’re probably going to try to open the door for that again,” she said. “Kelsa is just a strong young woman, and she just wants to see what else is possible for her.”