MJ Rodgriguez is preparing for the 2021 Emmy Awards where she’s the first trans woman to be nominated in a leading actress role.
The Pose star, 30, opens up to PEOPLE at the TV Academy Reception Honoring 73rd Emmy Awards Nominees on Friday night about what being in the running for outstanding lead in a drama series means to her and others in the transgender community.
“I’m excited. I’m lifted. I’m thankful. I’m humbled and I’m grateful,” she tells PEOPLE of her first Emmy nomination. “I feel like this moment in time has never ever happened for a girl like myself and I feel like it’s time and it’s time to keep showing up. It doesn’t stop here.”
Rodriguez continues, “Just because I got a nomination, doesn’t mean the work stops here and possibly if there’s a win, it doesn’t mean the work stops here. It has to continue because there are next generations out there who are looking not only to me, but to many other trans women out there who are pushing the needle forward.”
“I’m just out here to make sure the world keeps going around in the right way,” she says.
The Pose actress also admits, “There are times where I realize that this is the purpose and other times where I go ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening. I wonder why?’ I guess that’s the best part about it.”
Rodriguez is making history with this nomination, but she’s also hoping to see a future in which trans actors in leading roles don’t draw so much attention as it becomes normalized.
“I do believe at some point, and I pray, that it won’t be the headline of everything,” she tells PEOPLE. “Instead it will just be the actress who just so happens to be trans.”
Rodriguez’s role as mother-figure Blanca Evangelista in Pose explores the ballroom culture in New York City in the ’80s — something that continues to allow LGBTQ youth to find community and acceptance.
Her inspiration often draws from the underdogs or people in underrepresented areas where being transgender is negatively viewed.
The Pose star tells PEOPLE about one specific exchange she had with a fan that pushes her in her field.
“There was this boy. He was from Nigeria and he got kicked out of his home. He didn’t have anywhere to go and obviously, in Nigeria, there’s not a lot of resources for LGBTQ youth. He contacted me and I told him that if ever you need anything, if you need to contact me, talk to me, I’m here,” she recalls.
Rodriguez notes, “It’s hard when you’re working and a working actress, you can’t get to everyone’s DMs as much as you want to, but for some special moment I was like I had to get into contact with this boy.”
“Weeks, months go by and I haven’t heard from him and he contacts me later on and he says ‘I’m ok. I found a chosen family and I’m safe now. Thank you for talking to me and thank you for taking the time to speak to me.’ At that moment, I knew that the work was being done because that’s all I want to do is to lift somebody up,” she tells PEOPLE of her iconic role.
‘The 73rd Emmy Awards,’ hosted by Cedric the Entertainer, air live on CBS and Paramount+ Sunday, Sept. 19, at 8 p.m. ET/ 5 p.m. PT.