Reinventing HIV on Screen in Unsure/Positive

Christian Kiley

For the new hit web series Unsure/Positive, creator and star Christian Kiley (above) drew inspiration from his personal seroconversion. After premiering online, the series — which follows Kieran from the moment of his HIV-positive diagnosis — hit Boston’s International Film Festival and Wicked Queer, the city’s LGBT film fest. 

The project began as just a few pages of dialogue Kiley wrote for his graduate film program at Emerson College. His fellow classmates didn’t know that Kiley was pulling from his own experiences as an HIV-positive man learning to deal with a new diagnosis. Soon, Kiley began working on the script outside of class and his assignment quickly turned into a passion project. 

“I remember very specifically a conversation, over drinks, with my close friend Jacqui,” he recalls. “We were talking about the value of serialized storytelling in media, specifically on TV, and the idea of following characters through multiple episodes — letting them act and react against a constantly changing backdrop.”

During that conversation, Kiley says, “things crystallized. I was going to write a serialized narrative about a character like myself.” 

He admits that HIV-positive people have been “pigeonholed or simply not represented in the mainstream media since the epidemic began,” something he wants to change. For Unsure/Positive, Kiley took inspiration from other serialized shows that resonated with him (Nurse Jackie, Louie, and Breaking Bad to name a few), shows that helped him realize what was missing.

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“Protagonists whose imperfections were their defining aspects,” he says.

"I think this trend is actually a vector for creators who are making shows that are more true to their central characters. Shows like that can tell stories that…run the gamut in terms of emotions and reactions: from affection to disgust, and back again. That’s where Kieran comes from. In Irish, the name Kieran means ‘little dark one,’ and that seemed perfect.”

Reactions from viewers have run a similar gamut, Kiley admits.

“My father-in-law — who I admire greatly — saw…a few seconds from the scene where my character, Kieran, relapses with three other guys in a sexually suggestive montage. He was so dismayed. I think he’s still on the fence about watching the show.”

That’s not the only scene viewers have reacted to. “One of the most hopeful and upbeat moments of the show,” Kiley says, has “drawn out a bit of controversy. I’d talk about that more, but I’m only allowed one spoiler.”

There’s also a fairly intense episode in which Kieran uses meth.

“I consider that high praise!” he says. “We aimed to shoot the scene so that the adrenaline rush that one might experience before deciding to relapse was something tangible, palpable. Casting that scene was one of the longest processes in the production. We needed our actors to fully commit to the specifics of what that world is like. It paid off though, because everyone involved understood… [it] was crucial in getting things right. So I have to give props to my crew and cast for maintaining a completely professional set while we shot this difficult scene.”

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Kiley says the realism paid off, perhaps too well.  “On a personal level, I had to compartmentalize the relapse scene very carefully. My husband, who was my fiancé at the time, did not like that scene. We had to discuss it a lot, and I would remind him over and over that we were just acting out a situation, that this wasn’t reality. His worry was that the scene might act as a trigger for me, which was a very legitimate concern. But in the end, I think acting out that whole scene, explaining to my very talented cast members what this situation was really like from my own past experience, was in some way a turning point for me and my struggle with past meth use.” 

Kiley felt it was necessary to include the scene, in part, because Kieran’s story is derived from his own personal history and because “it’s something that people don’t like to talk about. Sometimes when a subject like crystal meth use comes up, people instinctively try to change the subject. I think the problem of meth use in the gay community is that it’s treated as a taboo subject, which just creates stigma around those who use it. The only way to make progress on that front is to actually engage in fruitful discourse around the subject. There was a time when talking about interracial marriage was similarly taboo. I’m all about moving the discussion forward.”

With season two on the horizon, he says “everyone is very excited to do it and part of the reason for that is, with the world of the show now established, we’re looking forward to delving into some of the characters lives in more detail. Allie, played by Amy DePaola, and Paula, played by Maureen Kieller, are characters that we really want to explore — not to mention Ottavio, played by Ken Breese, the weird roommate.”

He says that Kieran’s story, which has really just begun with season one, is important for a few reasons. “Most importantly, there needs to be an HIV-positive character, who is relatable, accessible to a mainstream audience, giving voice to the scores of young people who are newly infected and living with HIV now.”

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Kiley admits it’s a completely different thing to receive an positive diagnosis today than it was 20 years ago, but the media hasn’t caught up. “When I was first diagnosed, [if] there had been a series about a character who was dealing with post-diagnosis depression, along with life — which goes on for us poz folks these days—I might have felt more empowered to reach out to friends and loved ones and ask for the help I needed. Unfortunately, I had no model for that, so Kieran’s three months of silence is actually nothing compared to the nearly five years of isolation I experienced after my diagnosis.” 

Unsure/Positive (UnsurePositiveSeries.com) is filling that gap, and dozens of viewers have thanked him “for offering a perspective that they hadn’t ever considered,” he says. “Some of them are HIV-positive long-term survivors; some of them simply have never really felt affected by the epidemic. Maybe, now, they feel as though they know someone who is HIV-positive.” 

Despite the high praise (or perhaps because of it), viewers shouldn’t expect controversy to go away next season. 

“A second season will also allow us to contribute to the discourse around life with HIV and all that goes with it — PreP comes to mind, and so do other topics, like having an undetectable viral load, the perspective of long-term survivors, and the people who love them. There’s a lot to work with, and if you walk into my apartment, that fact manifests itself physically — as lots of Post-it notes, lots and lots of color coded Post-its. They really are a miracle.” 

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BONUS: Plus readers can watch the first episode FREE here; click RENT and then enter the coupon code ENDHIVSTIGMA.

Watch the trailer below:

unsure/positive from Christian Kiley on Vimeo.

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