The actor, 30, who makes his lead film debut in The Inspection (out Friday in select theaters), is only the sixth person in Tony Award history to be nominated in two categories for separate performances during the same year (for Choir Boy and Ain't Too Proud in 2019). But before his career took off, Pope wasn't sure what his future held.
"Growing up I had never seen a Black queer movie star," he tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "If that was something that I was going to be, was my queerness something I was going to have to hide? It's definitely been a challenge to abandon a lot of fears that have been put on me."
As a teenager in Orlando, Florida, Pope recalls having "to choose between running track or doing the school musical, which was Cats" one year. "I got to meet this community of people who were so fun, free, loving and supportive, in a different way outside of sports," he says. "It changed my life.
In The Inspection, the actor and singer plays a young gay man who joins the Marines after being rejected by his mother (Gabrielle Union) and kicked out of his family home. The powerful drama is based on writer/director Elegance Bratton's own coming-of-age story.
Pope says he could relate to his character's struggles as "a Black queer man in the country."
"Masculinity is so fragile to some people, specifically in the Black community, that I had to relearn how to show up for myself," he says. "So I think working in a project like The Inspection, obviously very personal to Elegance, but for me to be able to put some of my own truths in it and get some of my own healing through it, was so necessary and so important to me. I know how important a film like this could have been for me to see."