Ron Vawter finds himself in a disconcerting position. Featured in Jonathan Demme’s AIDS drama, Philadelphia, the HIV-positive actor says, ”I’ve had to make AIDS a cause—I wish I didn’t have to. I’d rather talk about acting.”
One of at least half a dozen openly gay actors in the film, Vawter, 45, plays a sympathetic partner in the law firm that fires AIDS-stricken associate Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks). With similar open-mindedness he defends the movie, though he admits, ”I’m sure some gays will have problems” with Philadelphia‘s coy handling of Andrew and his lover (Antonio Banderas). He himself finds the film ”very moving.” Applauding Hanks’ portrayal, Vawter says, ”He accepted the fact that he could have been gay. He went deep, without any limp wrists.”
Vawter himself hardly fits the limp-wristed stereotype. A Green Beret officer who had also spent four years in a Franciscan seminary, Vawter dropped his guns in 1973 to join New York City’s Wooster Group theater company. ”It’s experimental theater,” he says. ”You have to take off your clothes.” Also provocative was his 1989 film debut as the psychiatrist in sex, lies and videotape, in which, he recalls, ”I had to ask Andie MacDowell if she masturbated.”
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was Vawter’s first project with Jonathan Demme, who would later go to great lengths to cast him in Philadelphia. Determined to feature an actor with AIDS, Demme interceded with TriStar to hire Vawter even though the actor was rejected by the film’s insurance company. And Vawter says that when he fell ill just before filming began, Demme changed the shooting schedule to accommodate his monthlong hospitalization.
But because few are as understanding as Demme, Vawter’s openness about his condition has become a risky career decision. ”I was amazed at the discrimination,” he says. ”(Industry people) would just like you to go off somewhere and not have to think about you. And other actors would say, ‘Keep your mouth shut.”’ But, he says, ”I wasn’t ashamed of having AIDS—I’m not.”
Vawter continues to choose projects that reflect his condition. His 1992 Obie-winning one-man show, Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, about two gay celebrities who died of AIDS, has been filmed and will soon be circulated to film festivals. In March, he’ll perform in a European production of Sophocles’ last play, Philotiles, in which a general is bitten by a snake and develops lesions. Like Philadelphia, says Vawter, these works serve as important reminders: ”AIDS is such a sensational subject, it can lose its human dimension.”