How It Happened:
Being cast in Jonathan Demme’s first film after he won the Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs would be thrilling for any actor. That Demme was following up this huge success with a big-budget, Hollywood-financed movie about a gay man who fights the discrimination he faced because he had AIDS was, in a word, extraordinary. Especially for me. I wasn’t only an actor, I was an activist. An AIDS activist. The ACT UP kind. And an openly gay man — in a business and a whole wide world that was kind of freaked out by the audacity of someone like me, and the political actions I living on stage and off.
The film of course was Philadelphia. Naturally, the title stands as a metaphor for America and the principles of justice — for all. Even gays. Even people with AIDS. Yeah, everyone. That’s what Demme believed in. We shared that vision. In our own ways, we were both fighting for the same things.
I had come to Demme’s attention during his casting of Philadelphia because of the success of my off-Broadway coming-of-age solo show The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. It ran for a year in New York before touring the world. Demme saw it Off-Broadway. He brought David Byrne of Talking Heads with him. They loved it. We chatted after the show, and Demme quickly had a rewrite of the script done the next week so that he could have me play a small role as one of the lead characters’ best friends. Turns out that actor would be Tom Hanks. Wow, I thought. This is gonna be big.
Shooting The Movie:
Shooting on location in Philadelphia, PA is where I first met Tom. It happened in the makeup trailer on our first day shooting together. I think it was People Magazine that had once heralded Tom Hanks as “the nicest guy in show business”. It wasn’t some press agent’s spin. It was true. He was super nice — if a bit cautiously so. At first. See, before stepping on set, a couple of newspapers in NY had run items on me being cast. And that’s the first thing Tom said to me when we met, “Oh, so you’re David Drake! From the columns!” I was stunned with embarrassment as right there on the makeup table Tom had copies from his daily clipping service — with pictures of me in the New York Post and NY Daily News announcing that I was “just cast in Philadelphia with Tom Hanks”. After I laughed it off that the press agent for my off-Broadway show was “just trying to get some ink, so my show could sell some tickets,” Tom smiled and said something to the effect of, “No problem. I just want to be careful not to give the whole story away before the movie opens. Good with you, Bruno.” Getting what he meant, I said, “Yes, Andy.” He smiled. I sat down next to him, and the work began.
Indeed, I knew what he meant. Tom had lost some 30-50 pounds in order to look as emaciated as a man living with AIDS. He needed that privacy so that he could do his best work. So that we could do our best work. I understood.
That first day, we shot his first arrival at the hospital. My “acting” that day was to open the hospital door for Antonio Banderas. At the time, he barely spoke English. We smiled and nodded to each other a lot. He was super sweet, gracious. Always alert. Always “in the work”. Just like Tom.
It took an entire day to shoot the scene where we’re applying makeup on his KS lesions at home, and he gets sick (this was what “took” him to the hospital). Though there was the usual 30 people on tech, behind the camera, because there was only 5 of us in that scene, it was a very intimate day. That, and because it was the first time Tom went through the action of being a person with AIDS getting sick. We spent several hours on his running to the bathroom, and vomiting, while I came to the door and asked, “Andy? Are you alright?” The vulnerability was palpable. Just Tom and me and that crew, at that point of filming. Demme gave me an excellent direction, whispering to me before we shot, saying, “I want you to think of someone you really love, and how you’re afraid you’re going to lose them.”
After Philadelphia was completed, Demme told me I had the tightest closeup in the movie. In response I said, “that’s because the clock of Tom’s Andy’s life starts ticking with me.” Demme said, “that’s exactly right.” I always thought that was a beautiful, bold, and unexpected way of showing the level of concern for Tom’s character: To take the reality of this off of his gay friend’s face — not the guy’s lover or mother, but a friend. In my experience, and Demme’s, I believe, that’s what community was all about. That how we were fledgling forward toward justice, towards survival: With our friends holding us all together. Concluding this gay community trajectory, Demme choose me to be the final face in the film — as I turn on the TV set to and watch the childhood home movies of Tom’s character playing at his wake.
As is the reality with making movies, after I was wrapped, the film still continued to shoot. I saw Jonathan Demme socially a couple of times after the film was done. But I didn’t see Tom until a preview screening that GLAAD sponsored as fundraiser in Nov, 1993. This was in LA. It was packed. And so as people were lining up to congratulate Tom Hanks, I kind of hovered in the crowd, hoping to say hi. He caught my eye, and yelled out to me, “Bruno!” Then waved me to come over. He grabbed me and gave me a hug. Then my friend Karen Ocamb said, how about a picture. And Tom said, “Absolutely!! I want “The Night David Drake Kissed Me”.” And so I gave Tom Hanks what he asked for.
That Christmas Tom sent everyone in the company wrist watches with the Philadelphia film logo on the front. (I still have mine in storage, somewhere.) When the movie finally came out in January 1994, I wrote to Tom to congratulate him on his performance, and told him my grandmother had taken all her friends to the cinema at the mall to see it — like 5 times. And that she couldn’t wait for the VHS tape to be released, so she could own a copy. A few months later Tom wrote me a thank you note, saying, “Hey, whatever grandma wants, grandma should get!” Later that spring, Tom won his first Oscar. And till her dying day, grandma kept a copy of the Philadelphia next to her VCR — with the box that stated Academy Award winner, Tom Hanks.
Now, 20 Years Later:
After many years of not seeing it, I recently watched Philadelphia. And despite by being completely subjective as a cast member, I really thought the movie held up beautifully. (Personally, now that I’m bald, I loved being captured for ALL-ETERNITY with cute hair, and not a line on my 28-year old face.)
But seriously, I saw that everyone’s work in Philadelphia seemed to be about going beyond what was comfortable for them. There a daring quality all over the movie; boundaries are being pushed in Demme’s filmmaking, in Tom’s performance, in Antonio’s performance, in the way Bruce Springsteen composed the opening theme song. In context of their bodies of work, they’re growing and making new choices before our eyes. For folks like me — and other activist-actors in the film, like Ron Vawter, Karen Finley, Anna Deveare Smith, the acapella singing group The Flirtations [ED: featuring Michael Callen, co-author of the original guide to safe-sex on vocals], among others — it was an act of showing up and being as authentic to the story as possible. It was them as is now in a time capsule way, a story that need to be told, needed to be witnessed. It was the way the AIDS epidemic was happening to me, to my friends, and to all affected by those we loved — and who loved us. All that is in the movie. It was then. It is now.
Perhaps what still holds as exceptionally fresh for me is fact that the protagonist (Tom’s Andy) is leading the story. He’s proactive in a way that gay characters never were 20 years ago, and barely are today! That was definitely true of the gay men I came of age with during the AIDS epidemic. We were forced into a situation where we had to fight to save our lives. And in the process, we became full grown men. We expanded the realm of what it meant to be a full-fledged citizen of not just the United States, but the world. As Philadelphia demonstrates in its telling, through its characters, we are seeing glimpses of what was missing from our lives — socially, politically. And how the actions taken buy a single individual like Andy could change us all toward the better.
And we have gone towards the better. In it’s own way in pop culture, I’m quite proud to now say that I believe Philadelphia did a very fine of job helping us steer towards the greater good… for all.
About the author: David Drake (pictured, left) is a playwright, performer and director. He’s most well know as the Obie Award-winning creator of one of the longest-running solo shows in New York theater history, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. David’s latest theatrical creation, a forgotten starlet named Tawny Heatherton, made her NY debut last February in My Tawny Valentine at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, directed by Robert La Fosse. Other NY stage credits: Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (succeeding Charles Busch for 856 performances), originating the role of “Miss Deep South” in the hit musical Pageant, co-starring with Jim J. Bullock in End of the World Party, and starring opposite B.D. Wong in A Language of Their Own. As a stage director, David has developed and directed numerous solo-shows, including new works by Kathy Najimy, as well as and the award-winning The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac. Twice a Directing Fellow at the Sundance Theater Lab, David was most recently a director of the world premiere of Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge, which made the “10 Best Lists” in The New Yorker, The NY Post, The Advocate, Paper Magazine, and won a 2010 Village Voice Obie Award.