With her gothy punk clothes and Bettie Page bangs, Pauley Perrette still looks a bit like the New York club scene bartender she once was—minus the white Mohawk that first attracted TV producers and modeling agents in the ’90s. Today, as Abby Sciuto, the forensic wunderkind with a heart of gold on CBS’s number 1 drama, NCIS, Perrette is one of television’s most popular actresses. She’s also one of the most active in support of HIV causes. In August, Project Angel Food, a Los Angeles–based organization that’s prepared and delivered more than 7 million meals to people with HIV/AIDS or other life-threatening illnesses since 1989, honored Perrette, an active board member, for her philanthropic leadership. How the actress found the time (Project Angel Food is one of 30 charities she’s involved with, including groups focusing on marriage equality, global disaster assistance, and animal rights) is another story altogether. We caught up with the New Orleans–born Perrette to talk about why activism is important, the role churches should play in HIV outreach, and what it was like to portray an HIV-positive woman on the silver screen.
Why is using your celebrity to further causes, especially HIV and AIDS awareness, important to you?
I remember once when I first moved to New York City, when I was like 21. This was before the drug cocktail, and the environment around HIV had not even evolved to where it is now. But it was Christmas Eve and I was alone in New York, and I didn’t have any money at all [laughs], I was always broke and alone. So, I went down to 14th Street and bought a little bag of Christmas tree balls and took them over to St. Vincent’s Hospital and went up to the HIV ward. I just went in and gave them each a little Christmas ball. What struck me the most was that everyone in there was alone, and that really broke my heart.
I remember when so many of my friends were dying.
Fortunately, I missed the first wave of where everybody was dying. I think a lot about all of the wonderful things that are happening with HIV research. I have so many friends now who are HIV-positive and they’re living completely normal, healthy lives. But also for young people, the medications are working well enough to let people live their lives so well that people think HIV is over. And it’s so not over.