When it premiered at the the 21st Palm Beach International Film Festival this week, the ingenious film, Guys Reading Poems, broke all the rules by integrating visual poetry with traditional narrative, in black-and-white and shot on the new Red Epic monochrome camera. The film follows a resourceful child who uses poetry to survive when his disturbed avant garde painter mom locks him in a puppet box and builds an art installation around his imprisonment.
While there are celebs among the cast —The Last Kingdom’s Alexander Dreymon; Young & Hungry’s Rex Lee; The L Word's Patricia Velasquez chief among them. But director/producer/writer Hunter Lee Hughes also defied Hollywood expectations by casting Daniel Berilla, a young, gay HIV-positive actor.
“I believe in Daniel,” says Hughes. “He’s has a lot to offer as an actor and human being.”
On the heels of its West Palm Beach encore screening today — April 14 at 12:15 pm at Muvico Parisian, 545 Hibiscus Street (fittingly during National Poetry Month), Plus talked with two of those titular guys about film, HIV, poetry and stigma.
Actor Daniel Berilla (left) and director Hunter Lee Hughs below
ONE-ON-ONE WITH DANIEL BERILLA, ACTOR & ASSOCIATE PRODUCER
You’ve appeared in a few films and had a memorable spot on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but this project was different.
What drew me to Guys Reading Poems first was my friendship with the director. Hunter's been gracious enough to include me in his projects and he showed me the script for this film and you’re right, it was very different, very unique. And it just sounded like I’d be able to explore a new side of myself in a movie that is super creative.
What’s Hunter like as filmmaker?
As a filmmaker, Hunter is very intuitive. He listens to people’s opinions and takes them seriously. As an actor, that makes it easier to have confidence in what I’m doing.
Will audiences “get” this film or is it too avant garde?
This film does speak to a niche audience, to be honest, but it’s also going to create a whole new genre of film. I hope it’s the start of something new and innovative.
Has making this movie changed you in any way?
As associate producer, I’ve been able to experience a whole new side of this business… and without this experience I might not have [known] what I was capable of. And as an actor, I learned I look pretty damn fetch in black-and-white.
You’re one of the few actors who is out about being HIV-positive.
Yeah, I am, and proud to be. Back in 2009 when I was diagnosed, I, like anyone else in the world, was frightened, scared of what my friends and family would think. I felt lost. I knew I had a choice to make when it came to what I moved out here to do: act and be gay. So I looked deep down inside myself and thought for days on end. Should I tell anyone? The answer was “yes” and, to my astonishment, I received a resounding acceptance from friends and the people I like to call my family in L.A. I’ve never looked back or regretted the decision to tell the truth because I knew there are many people my age…that need to know that you can still chase your dreams and live a healthy life, all while being HIV-positive.
Has that impacted your career in any way?
Yes, it honestly has, but not to the point to where it’s ruined my career. I’ve always looked young, and I always wanted to do Disney and Nickelodeon shows, especially when I first moved here. But I was diagnosed less than a year after my move and I told myself, to stop pursuing those shows"… because I honestly believed Middle America wouldn’t want their sons or daughters to Google me and find out that their favorite “character” was positive. The good thing that came out of my situation was my involvement in gay charities, becoming a speaker for the LGBT Center in L.A., being in a national commercial that still airs today about being positive, being in multiple gay-themed movies…and still living my life to the fullest. I realized that trying to make a difference in the world was just as important as being on Disney.
Do you think we’ll see a day when being HIV-positive is treated as commonly as say asthma?
We can already see a change happening. Society has already begun to accept, support, and try to change how HIV is perceived.The fact that HIV is a sexually transmitted disease, means it will always have [some] opposition.
What about A-list performers coming out as poz?
It just happened—look at Charlie Sheen! Charlie is one of the most relevant people working in entertainment today, and he took the risk to put his career, his family, his life on the line because I believe deep down that he was trying to make a difference as well. He was accepted by most, but not everyone.
There’s an online list of cutest men of 2015 and you’re sandwiched between Josh Hutcherson and Tyson Beckford. How does that feel?
I’m sandwiched between them? That’s not my preferable position, but…I’m actually honored and very surprised that I’m on a list with people of that stature. So thank you, America!
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ONE-ON-ONE WITH HUNTER LEE HUGHES, DIRECTOR, PRODUCER, & WRITER
What led you to create Guys Reading Poems?
After my grandmother passed away, my mother, brother, and I had to walk through her house and decide what we might like to keep. I decided to take her poetry collection. I came to learn a lot more about my grandmother, since she had underlined key phrases, starred certain titles, even made notes in the margins. The poems became like psychological puzzle pieces that helped me figure out a fuller picture of who my grandmother was. It was just a matter of time before I found a way to try to use poetry as cinematic puzzle pieces in a film.
Are audiences ready for this type of storytelling?
At my local ice cream place here in L.A., they’re now selling a flavor called Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper. So yeah, I think we can handle a poetry neo-noir feature film. Maybe not everybody, but enough people are buying Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper to keep it on the menu. So I don’t see why Guys Reading Poems can’t find its audience, too.
What led you to cast Daniel?
He’s a charmer, but even more of a fighter than a charmer and I like that about him. He and Patricia [Velasquez], and Rex do have a lot in common because all three of them were friends of mine before we shot. I love working with actors I already know. So much of our work is about whether or not the actors trust me enough to take risks and touch an uncomfortable or tender part of themselves.
He’s one of the very few actors who is out about livingwith HIV. Does that bring anything to the project?
One beautiful part of being an actor is that even challenging moments in your life can be used for creative fuel…if you’re as open, vulnerable, and talented as Daniel. His living with HIV provides a whole range of new experiences to bring to the table. And it deepens his work, too.
Will we see a day when HIV is treated like other medical issues?
I hope so. Here in Hollywood, especially with male actors, there’s an illusion of perfection that the studios and actors themselves sometimes strive to create. That’s why I’m so proud of casting four openly gay actors in the film, between Patricia, Rex, Daniel, and myself. There’s a psychological cost to pay for denying your truth and, sadly, many artists do pay it.
What poem really sticks with you?
I was really so moved by Steven Reigns poem, “Recipe Box,” that I had to put it in our film. It takes place just after the period when so many succumbed to AIDS and the author recounts all his friends who died. He decides to sort the names of his friends into categories in the same way that recipe boxes are organized…hors d’oeuvres, entrees, desserts. There’s a reason I chose “Recipe Box” as the final poem of the film.
Photo credits: Jason Fracaro (Guys in ties); Michael Marius Pessah (Daniel); Sean Paul Franget (Hunter).