Fifteen years after AIDS activist Pedro Zamora touched hearts and brought a dose of reality to MTV's "The Real World," his story will be introduced to a new generation through a film biography. "Pedro," written by Paris Barclay and Oscar-winning "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, will air simultaneously on MTV, mtvU, LOGO, and MTV Tr3s on Wednesday, April 1 at 8:00 pm EST/PST.
The film stars Alex Noyaz as Pedro and Hale Appleman as Judd Winick. Winick, who befriended Zamora during their time on "The Real World," published a graphic novel memoir of his friend in 2000, and a new edition of "Pedro and Me" is available this week from publisher Henry Holt.
Winick has of course gone on to be a prolific writer of mainstream superhero comics, with an upcoming run on DC's "Batman." Winick and his wife Pam Ling, another "Real World" castmate, have cameos in "Pedro." CBR News spoke with Winick about the film, his experiences on "The Real World," where AIDS awareness stands today, and his own reputed "liberal agenda."
Winick told CBR he was approached about the film by Paris Barclay, the producer of television series such as "In Treatment" and who has, in Winick's words, "won many, many Emmys and has directed episodes for just about every quality series that's ever been on television." Barclay had inquired with Bunim-Murray, the company that produces "The Real World" for MTV and which ultimately produced "Pedro," about why there had never been a movie about Pedro Zamora's life, and was told that there had been attempts in the past but nothing had achieved momentum.
"Paris said he wanted to pursue it. He came to Pam and I and basically we just sat down and talked to him about doing the movie," Winick explained. "He told about how he envisioned the movie, the story, because he A) wanted our blessing and B) needed our help."
Winick had kept in touch with Pedro's friends in San Francisco, his family, and his husband Sean Sasser. Screenwriter Lance Black then interviewed Winick and Ling, Sasser, and others to research the story.
"The Real World," which Winick describes as "the granddaddy of reality television," was in its third season when he and Zamora moved into the San Francisco house. "At the time, it was actually considered pretty lascivious," Winick said. "The season we did was coming on the heels of the season they did in Los Angeles, which was pretty much 20-odd episodes of people fighting all the time. And so the public was not necessarily on our side. When we were wandering around the city--and San Francisco is a lively, opinionated city--people were generally annoyed with our presence. Anytime we'd go to bars and clubs and things, people would be desperately annoyed because of all the cameras and lights and things--it does kick up a bit of a fuss. Not having seen the show and not knowing what we were like, it just seemed like what it was [before]: these obnoxious kids from MTV.
"But when the show began airing, they saw that it was not just twenty episodes of people fighting, people could not have been more generous or open or honest or complimentary or interested. It was really amazing. And that had everything to do with Pedro. That, for our season, injected a true level of reality into the show which had not existed before."
Winick acknowledged the long-standing joke that MTV's "The Real World" is not what most people would recognize as "the real world," but described his experiences with the show as "reality in a context." "You take seven people who, for many intents and purposes, might never meet let alone live together, and put them in a very expensive house and film them. So right there it takes you out of reality," he said. "But within this context, it becomes real. It becomes real because it wears you down. As long as you're awake, they film you. It becomes less about looking cool on camera and making sure you say the right thing, which happens at first, because it's invariably what you do. You're never not aware of it, but after a while your defenses get lowered just out of exhaustion. You can't keep it up and be on all the time. And thus begins the more human exchanges."
Pedro Zamora, of course, used this "reality in context" to bring greater attention to HIV/AIDS awareness at a time when the public was reluctant to confront such issues head on, and when there was still a lot of misinformation circulating about the disease. As to how public perception of HIV/AIDS has changed in the fifteen years since "The Real World: San Francisco," Winick believes there have been both advances and setbacks. "I think, on the minus side, with the past [Bush] administration and two terms of it, their insistence on abstinence-only education being taught in our schools--despite the fact that research has shown over and over and over again doesn't work, and young people actually need more comprehensive sex education where you're talking about things like sex and condom usage and things like that--our young people were not getting the education they needed."
Winick attributes Pedro's becoming HIV-positive to this sort of lack of pertinent sex education when Zamora was growing up in the 1980s. "As a young person, he really did not believe that he was someone who could contract HIV or AIDs," Winick said. "It was not explained to him. And AIDS and HIV are not extensively taught in abstinence-only education -- which was the mandate, schools would not receive funding if they did not agree to teach abstinence-only education. So in a lot of ways, it's been a quantum leap backward. This is a health issue, not a moral issue. The previous administration, which did a decent job with AIDS in Africa, seems to feel quite comfortable ignoring what's going on in our own country. Which is unfortunate."
On the plus side, Winick said young people now "are infinitely more worldly than we were," and are more aware of the issues facing their generation. "The generation coming up is a little more savvy, and are in many ways more comfortable with their sexuality. But they need help," he said. "They still believe that they're omnipotent, that they're not going to contract it. So it's very heartening even that Pedro, whose mission was to tell us his story openly and honestly so that we'd learn from him, has inspired, fifteen years later, another group of people to get together to tell his story again. Another generation will learn about him and his cause and what eventually killed him. I think that's very, very important."
Winick noted that because HIV/AIDS is still a pressing concern, Pedro Zamora's story remains relevant even fifteen years later. "It's really not ancient history, and like hopefully many young people watching it, he's just like them. The fact that it's fifteen years ago doesn't change the fact that when he was 13, 14, 15 years old and sexually active, that he was sitting in a classroom with a health educator who wasn't telling him that he would ever be at risk for sexually transmitted diseases.
"And more important than that, Pedro's story is actually quite amazing. In the movie, as I told in my book, there's a lot more to him that got him to being on MTV. Being on MTV was not his story. It was just unfortunate that it was the last chapter in it, and what he became most famous for. His history, everything from emigrating from Cuba to being separated from his family to the loss of his mother to how young he was when he tested positive to being young and gay and how young he was when he decided to -- instead of just taking care of himself, which no one would have faulted him for -- decided to make it his mission to educate people about AIDS and HIV. When he started doing that, he was really just 18-19 years old. What a brave thing it was, to be so open and honest about it. Being out and gay... well, look around right now. It's still anything but accepted right now. There were many, many mountains still to climb. It's incredible. I think what anyone will see is what we always knew: that, when you look at Pedro, you see yourself."
After "The Real World" had wrapped and Pedro took ill, Winick agreed to fill in at some of his speaking engagements. "The suggestion came from his agents. For them, it was mostly that they didn't want to lose the booking. It was really simply as cheesy as that," Winick said. "But Pedro saw this as an opportunity. I think he also just wanted to keep things going, he didn't want to lose any kind of momentum. He wanted me to do it. And my argument with him was, I'm not an AIDS educator or activist. I can't give the speech that he's going to give."
Ultimately, Zamora told Winick to tell his own story, of what it was like to know someone who was HIV-positive. "And, to be blunt, he said, 'they have more in common with you than they do with me. You're going to be talking to mostly white, middle-class college kids, and a couple of high schools here and there. They're going to identify with you more than me. If they can't know what it's like to live in my shoes by hearing me talk, they can know what it's like to know someone who's HIV-positive.' So that happened. And it went from just being a few to, he got sicker. He got the diagnosis that he wasn't going to survive this. With that, I decided that that wasn't an excuse to stop speaking about him."
Following the publication of "Pedro and Me," Judd Winick found himself attached to several mainstream comic book series, including extended runs on "Green Lantern," "Green Arrow," "Batman," and "Exiles." He has also developed a reputation for writing socially conscious stories --or, less generously, for "pushing a liberal agenda." "For me, and you can disagree with me, but I always felt that it serves story. It's always been about that," Winick said. "It's never been about shoving my social agenda down people's throats. But I get tagged for that, sure, because of 'The Real World.'"
The writer noted that over his nine-year career in superhero comics, only a handful of releases have dealt with controversial topics. The most famous among these are a Green Lantern story dealing with a hate crime against Kyle Rayner's young gay assistant, Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy testing positive for HIV, and the portrayal of a lesbian relationship in "Outsiders."
"If and when I've done story lines where a character is gay or a character is HIV-positive, the assumption is that it has everything to do with 'The Real World' and Pedro Zamora," Winick said. "I won't lie, of course it has a lot to do with it. It's how I became an AIDS activist and an educator because of Pedro and 'The Real World.' But a lot has happened since then. You know, there are a lot of other people in my life, and there are a lot of other experiences in my life. Although this experience is very, very, very important to me, it doesn't always come back to that. I think it does a disservice to Pedro, to think that it's all just about him. It's not. He was the catalyst, of course. But these issues I tackle are larger issues, that are unfortunately living, breathing issues that are still going on in this world."
Winick also said that including gay and lesbian characters in comics is necessary to reflect the current culture. "The world we live in, and our readership, is a very diverse one. We have people of all shapes and sizes and colors and sexual orientations living in our world and reading our books. Our books are even more diverse than the world we live in: we have aliens, people from other dimensions, people from cultures from different realities and whatnot. Does it seem like such a stretch that a couple of gay people show up here and there? And the old chestnut that gets thrown up there is, 'I don't mind gay people showing up in comics but does it always have to be such an issue?' And, no. It doesn't. In many occasions, when I have introduced a character who is gay or lesbian it hasn't been an issue, but it still gets tagged as the same thing, that I'm making an issue of it again.
"To put a fine point on this: fifteen years ago I was on television. Fifteen years ago. So, fifteen years ago I lived with Pedro Zamora, who was my friend, and I wrote a book about it. It was a major media event at the time and it's still a story that people want to talk about, hence the movie coming out. So when I do things that people in the media can lasso one story into another, they're going to make hay about that. If I do a story about Green Arrow's sidekick testing HIV-positive, of course the spin on the story's going to be that it's an homage to Pedro Zamora. Which it wasn't. It wasn't born out of 'Pedro's HIV-positive so I'm going to make an HIV-positive superhero.' It was born out of the fact that we'd been talking about making an HIV-positive superhero for a long time at DC, that in this day in age it was important to interject an HIV-positive storyline. And they were looking to me, down to the fact that I consider myself an educator. But in the write-ups, in the ton of ink we got on this, they're going to write about 'The Real World' again, they're going to write about Pedro again, and they're going to make that connection. And that's fine, because I hope more people read the books.
"Again, coming full circle, we do these things, but we always do these things to tell stories. Do I think there's a responsibility to interject social commentary into our comics? No, but I think we have an opportunity to tell stories with social commentary that are really interesting. I think we can make the parallels between our fake DCU world and reality, I think it makes good reading. I think it grounds us a little bit."
"Pedro'" will air simultaneously tonight on MTV, mtvU, LOGO, and MTV Tr3s at 8:00 pm EST/PST.