[dropcap]H[/dropcap]iro is my hero!
Hiro is a fourteen-year-old electronics prodigy who demonstrates his gift in the extravagant Oscar-worthy animated Disney film, Big Hero 6. Based on a Marvel comic book, the lifelike action adventure dramedy is a rollercoaster ride of a story. Hiro also has an older brother, Tadashi (their parents are deceased), who protects him and inspires him. Though they have a typical put-down razz-’em relationship, they’re extremely close. It’s heartfelt to witness their bond.
Ryan Potter, who entrancingly voices Hiro, is no stranger to the brotherly relationship, though he acquired his brother in a slightly different way. He received a brother through the Big Brothers Big Sisters Association of America (BBBS). In my twenties, I was a Big Sis to a girl, whose name was Rhoda, who lived in the hills of Alhambra, just east of L.A. We had some fun times together, hiking, Disneyland, skateboarding (yes, if you can imagine this ol’ non-athletic redhead on one of these), and even bungee jumping!
At fifteen, Ryan entered show business playing the lead, as Mike Fukanage in Nickelodeon’s Supah
Ninjas. George Takei [A&U, December 2013] played Mike’s grandfather. Ryan’s film credits include Senior Project and Underdog Kids. He’s currently in New York filming the mystery, Sidewalk Stories.
At his young age, Ryan is already a humanitarian. Gee, I didn’t get out of my ego until I was, well, er, I don’t think I have yet, at my tender age of…well, we won’t go there.
During his high school years he was homeschooled. His hobbies are painting and fashion (designing clothes)—spawning an Internet show called, RStyles. Ryan is also an amateur photographer and often fuses his hobbies to create art. The actor is skilled in martial arts and the Star Wars series are his all time favorite films.
Ryan devotes his extra energy to youth mentorship, and at nearly twenty-one is a role model. In 2011, he founded Toy Box of Hope, which holds an annual holiday collection drive for children in homeless shelters and transitional living facilities in the Los Angeles area, collecting things like bed sheets, jackets, and toys.
We hook up at the new Broad (pronounced with a long “o” like “bro”) Contemporary Art Museum in downtown L.A. The opulent space-age architecture houses many works, including some by Warhol, Basquiat, Rauschenberg, and Koons. After a tour, we settle on the plush lawn in the museum park, next to a full-branched olive tree. While my back leans against the tree, Ryan is in lotus position sitting across from me.
Ruby Comer: How can you not love L.A.?! Besides stunning weather, it offers so much. [Ryan eagerly nods.] Though, disappointingly, L.A. has skyrocketed in prices, so much so that there’s a mass exodus from the City of Angels. But, I’ll save that for another time. Ryan, have you lost anyone to AIDS?
Ryan Potter: No, I haven’t.
Good, let’s keep it that way.
It’s a growing epidemic. I’m often reminded of the truly serious nature of this disease by social media, film, and all of the visual content out there. When I began to look at the numbers, I was startled. [He shakes his head tirelessly, flicking a stand of hair that has fallen on his forehead back in place.]
How did you hear about the epidemic?
I had heard the words “HIV” and “AIDS” when I was younger, but it wasn’t until middle school health class that I learned exactly what it was. To be honest, I didn’t have a good understanding of it until I saw the film, Dallas Buyers Club. Then I understood the extent of the epidemic and the physical and emotional toll it takes on one’s body and mind.
Talk about stress! You’ve had some stress in your short life….
You mean bullied? [I nod.] Well, I think nearly everyone has been bullied—physically or emotionally—at some point in their lives. For me it was during middle school. I was mentally and emotionally drained. My “best friends” turned on me and bullied me. [He pauses, strumming his nimble fingers over the thick luscious grass.]
The more I let the pain and memories go and focused on my future, the stronger I became. It’s not easy, but it’s a wonderful feeling when you finally get there.
You’ve conquered the art of forgiveness! Bravo, Ryan. I think it’s great that someone your age is not only interested in causes, but has founded an organization, too. Tell me, where does that drive come from?
My motivation comes from the empathy I have for people. I don’t want kids to go without guidance and a proper role model. BBBS changed my life. I hope that kids all around the world who need a mentor can have one like I had in James.
What calls to mind a favorite outing that you had with James, your Big Brother?
[Fired up, Ryan instantly responds.] My eleventh birthday surprise party! James picked me up from my home to go to the batting cages—or so I thought. Suddenly, I realized that we were going in the wrong direction. I was so excited, making guess after guess, but he wouldn’t tell me. I didn’t know what he was up to until we arrived at El Torito Restaurant. I walked in to find forty people, my family and friends! It was so special and James really made it all come together.
Extraordinary! You’ve got a fan there, boy. Did James clue you in on sex?
Yeh, he had the obligatory ‘birds and the bees’ talk with me. He made sure I knew how to be a responsible sexually active adult.
Bravo to your BB. Besides James, who else do you look up to?
George Takei. His work ethic is unparalleled and he’s one of the most funny, humble, smart, intellectual people I have ever met in my entire life. I always seek him out for guidance. He’s the man!
I had the pleasure of working with George as well, at an APLA [AIDS Project Los Angeles] event, I believe, and your assessment is right-on. He’s definitely a sweetie and a tireless advocate for human rights. Why did you create Toy Box of Hope?
It was painful to see children on the streets with nothing. It’s amazing to see what a teddy bear or a board game can do for a child.
Being that your generation has high stats in rates of HIV infection, how do you think is the best way to reach them so that they hear the message?
[He replies simply and precisely.] Social…media…campaigns. The amount of time the average teenager spends on social media is insane and those sponsored apps are always popping up whether you want to see them or not. TV advertising would be valuable as well, but for my generation social media is key!
In your opinion, what’s the most widely used social media preference among your age group?
Hmmm…it really varies. I would like to believe Instagram, because that’s where I do my networking, but I’m seeing a huge switch to Snapchat. You can get personal with your favorite celebrity and athlete on there and the user—or fan—can keep up to date with their favorite people. It’s pretty remarkable actually.
You’re right about all this, but, for me, Twitter, Snapchat, Moneygram, or whatever that’s called [Ryan politely corrects me, Instagram], I just can’t get the hang of it all.
[He chuckles and continues with his suggestion.] With the public’s ever-shortening attention span, visual content is so effective, Ruby. It creates visual reminders and passes on safety tips and health warnings that are incredibly useful. Education is key. [A noisy plane passes overhead. Ryan’s golden-hued peepers dart upward then he swiftly looks back at me and concludes] I genuinely hope that there is more HIV content hitting media to reach my generation….
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].