Two days before the filming of the finale of How to Get Away With Murder, a legal drama that shows how a murder upends the lives of a law professor (Viola Davis) and her students, actor Conrad Ricamora was approached by his cast mate Jack Falahee with some troubling news.
“Did you hear? Did you hear?” Falahee asked Ricamora.
“No, what?” he responded.
“You tested positive,” Falahee said.
Falahee, who plays gay character Connor Walsh, was referring to Ricamora’s character, Oliver, who is Connor’s romantic interest on the hit ABC drama. The show regularly features shocking surprise twists that involve murder, sex, intrigue, and scandal.
But this twist floored Ricamora in a way the others hadn’t.
“I just stood there, stunned, staring off into space…like I had just found out a real person tested positive, and going though all the grief and denial,” he said.
It was a reaction shared by many of the 9 million viewers of Murder’s season finale, who came to adore Oliver for being, as Ricamora describes him, “an open, honest, and levelheaded” person in a show full of schemers and backstabbers.
Oliver had been the one to encourage Connor, who often engaged in risky sex, to get tested for HIV. When Connor’s results came back negative and Oliver tested HIV-positive, the scales of justice — and the audience’s preconceptions about who has HIV — were turned upside down.
“People have demanded it be rewritten,” Ricamora says of viewers’ responses to the news. “Some people are really, really heartbroken and sad. People come up to me and tell me all the time, ‘Oh! I cried so much when I found out!’ Just a lot of sad people, because, I guess, everybody loves Oliver.”
But the cloud has a silver lining. With the stroke of a pen from the writers’ room, Conrad became the first major HIV-positive character to appear on a U.S. broadcast network TV series since a gay character, Saul Holden, tested positive on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters. That series ended in 2011.
For years, Hollywood has avoided telling HIV-related stories — or even just including poz characters — like, well, the plague HIV once was. This lack of storylines does not reflect reality. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV, and more than 35 million are living with the virus worldwide, reports the World Health Organization.
Oliver’s positive test has helped break this small-screen dry spell. Though the character’s future remains uncertain, his presence on such a popular prime-time TV show could very well save lives by sparking conversation and encouraging others to get tested and seek treatment.
“It’s a huge honor to be able to bring this back into the consciousness,” Ricamora says. “I remember growing up in the ’90s, it was such a big educational topic.… [But] in the last couple of years, it’s slid out of the consciousness of mainstream America.”
He adds that it’s “good to remember that this still can happen — it still does happen — and just to be aware and let people know that safe sex still matters.”
Before How to Get Away With Murder revealed Oliver’s positive status, the only other television show to include an HIV-positive character in 2015 was HBO’s Looking, a little-seen but well-reviewed cable series following the lives of gay men in San Francisco. Because the city has many residents living long, healthy lives with HIV, it’d be a surprise if there wasn’t at least one character that was positive.