Wednesday, December 1, 2010

WLS World AIDS Day With Michael Sutton - Part One

He was the central part of one of the most important AIDS stories in American history.  His portrayal of Stone Cates on GENERAL HOSPITAL made millions of viewers think about HIV in a way that they had never imagined before.  But how did the young actor cope with such an important role, and how did it change his life today? WE LOVE SOAPS TV honors World AIDS Day and Michael Sutton's contributions in this two-part interview.

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: It is wonderful to get to speak with you.  As someone who has been involved with HIV prevention work for most of the past 20 years, I am thrilled to acknowledge your contributions to AIDS Education and prevention in your role as Stone Cates.  As a young actor, what was it like to be handed this emotionally and politically significant story line?
Michael Sutton: To be honest with you it was a little overwhelming.  That was partly because I had just started acting.  I had been to film school, and I knew that when I got on a soap that the level at which I was able to manipulate the material was underwhelming to say the least.

So I already had my challenge to get my game together to get to the level that I wanted it to be at. And when I got this material, I knew I had to step up the level of my acting ability times one thousand.  My motivation of telling this delicate story right, to be accurate for all the people I was meeting who were actually dealing with this disease, combined with needing to excel my acting so I could get to the level of being able to do this, was a bit much.  That’s what set me on this journey.  It was life changing, I was so blessed with the opportunity to do it.  To be honest, I can’t imagine being able to call myself an actor if I had not been given this storyline. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: How did it change your life?
Michael Sutton: I don’t think there’s a way it did not.  It effected me on a molecular level.  You’re dealing with the importance of the meaning of life and what we are doing here and how you effect and interact with people.  I think that is what this journey is all about.  So the material was treated so delicately and accurately.  They were so sincere in the time in which they allowed the story to be told.  They did not rush it.  They really took you through a nine month AIDS storyline from beginning to end and how it effects the people all around.  I think that’s why fifteen years later people remember it and can’t forget it.  It touched your soul.  I don’t think there are a lot of films, short stories, books, that touch your soul that way.  And the ones that do are the ones that stick and resonate.

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: What kind of research did you do for this story?
Michael Sutton: A lot of this was documented in the After School Special [EDITOR'S NOTE: A documentary with Michael Sutton and Kimberly McCullough in 1995 talking to individuals living with HIV/AIDS].  It was going to AIDS hospices, doing the AIDS Walk, talking to doctors, really preparing ourselves for the educational process and getting everyone’s perspective on this disease.  I really got a good feeling for it from talking to AIDS patients, talking to their friends, the doctors, the relatives, really realizing that each person had a take on this disease that was completely the same.  That is, “It is unfair, it’s bigger than us, we don't know how to stop it, help us.”  There was a lot of despair, confusion, and frustration. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Some people may not remember that back in 1995, the primary emotion associated with having HIV or loving someone with HIV was despair.  We didn’t have the medications or the hope then.
Michael Sutton: Absolutely.  It was just a matter of when it would go from HIV+ to AIDS.  We didn’t have people living with HIV the way we do today.  We have come a long long way.

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Had you known people with HIV before this story?
Michael Sutton: No, only in an indirect way.  I had known some artists that had contracted the disease.  When I was about 15 years old I met someone HIV+ for the first time.  The mother of one of my best friends growing up was very active in the art community in Los Angeles and was always having a lot of charity events.  That is how I met this person.  That was my first encounter, and my first significant reference to it.

I will never forget it.  I was a kid growing up in Beverly Hills and had been somewhat isolated or removed.  But when I met someone who was HIV+, I was a bit freaked out.  That was a kid’s mentality.  I used that when I did the storyline.  That if you were from a suburb or small town, if you were biased or bigoted or prejudiced or had that lack of reference, that is where they were coming from.  It was an ignorance, naivety, and sense of fear and hatred.  In a weird way being 15 and not knowing anything about it, my first reaction was not to embrace it. It was to get away from it.

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Especially in the '80s there was a lot of fear, and just a lot we didn’t understand.  I loved that Stone’s story demonstrated that there was nothing to be afraid of, the other characters couldn’t get HIV from touching him and loving him. 
Michael Sutton: I think that’s the beauty of telling the story the way we did.  There’s not just one side to it.  We all want to think, “If you just knew better you would realize it was something you have to embrace and see the beauty in it.  You’d see that life is fleeting and you try to help people.”  On the flip side you have to realize there are people walking the earth who have not been enlightened, and don’t come from that place, who haven’t figured it out yet, who don’t get it.  I think that is part of the challenge of the story, to show both sides, even when it’s frustrating for those that get it.  But its important to not forget the side of those who don’t get it. 

WE LOVE SOAPS TV: Things have changed quite a bit in these past fifteen years.  What are the biggest changes you have seen as far as HIV since the story ran?
Michael Sutton: The medication and the changes in treatment.  One of the most startling announcements I can remember was when Magic Johnson announced he was stopping his NBA career because he was HIV+.  Everyone thought that would be the end of his career, and that meant he would cease to exist.  But look at him now.  He seems pretty healthy.  I think it’s a testament to his soul and the fact that he remained such a positive person.  He never gave in to the negativity, and projected he was not going to be okay.  That was the best example over these past fifteen years because he is such a public figure and affected so many people with his announcement.  I think that has become more of a typical story, that people now live with the disease.  Fifteen years ago, “living with the disease” was a contradiction in terms.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Click here for Part 2 to learn more about reactions to Sutton's work, and the toll this story took on him personally. To learn what YOU can do to stop the spread of HIV, please visit or write Damon at [email protected]

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Therapist now accepting new clients in New York City.  He is also the author of the popular book "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." For more information about scheduling an appointment, please email him at [email protected].

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