Editor’s note: This cover story originally ran in the October 2009 issue.
A Hero’s Voice
James Kyson gives voice to his character, Ando, on NBC’s Heroes, but he also has
another voice—the voice to challenge AIDS stigma in the Asian community
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&u by Adam Bouska
No, it’s not James Kyson. It’s a high school student on the 1980s TV series 21 Jump Street. HIV-positive, the young teen can no longer endure the hostility and bigotry of his classmates. This was a racy theme for television back then. Ironically, James viewed this episode at the same time he was taking a sex-ed class at his middle school on Long Island. The scene is still etched in his mind. It was James’ introduction to the disease.
“At the end, Johnny Depp embraces this guy and that was really powerful,” recalls James of the episode entitled, “A Big Disease with a Little Name.” “I think it helped to overcome some of the AIDS stigma at the time. It may have been one of the first, if not the first primetime program to address this subject. There were so many misconceptions about this disease, so much fear. People battling this disease were going through isolation and personal struggle because of the stigma attached to HIV. We’ve learned a lot since then, but we still have so much farther to go,” James points out, sitting comfortably on his ultra white-white leather sofa in his San Fernando Valley home in Los Angeles.
A few minutes earlier, my associate, Terry Ray, and I had arrived a bit early when we buzzed James from the front door intercom at his four-story Spanish-California style condo complex. He asked if we could give him about ten minutes, and then clicked open the black iron gate. We meandered through the street level courtyard of ornamental stone and manicured foliage. Five minutes later James shouted over the railing from the top floor asking us to come up.
James greeted us at his front door and apologized for the delay. He welcomed us into his home, asking us to please remove our shoes. (This cultural practice should be a health practice in every home.) Understandably, the stained wood floors are immaculate. His two-year old pad is spacious and airy, populated by an eclectic mix of antiques, knickknacks, art, and contemporary furniture. I sense that the décor of this young bachelor’s pad has had a mother’s touch. James looks spiffy in long, light-gray polyester workout pants and a white T-shirt that’s elaborately printed with light blue dragons, crosses, and eagle wings that center around the V-neck. A long silver chain hangs from his neck and drapes over his smooth, muscled chest. (He used to model underwear.) He sports a stylish, short brimmed, herringbone cap. “I’m a big hat guy!” he jovially reveals, looking younger than his thirty-three years. “I’m really big on accessories, because I feel like it’s just one of the ways I can express myself. Women have so much more going on with their fashion….”
Heroes, a show about everyday people with extraordinary powers, is James’ big break into celebrityhood, having bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles back in 2001 as an aspiring actor. Since then he’s appeared in J.A.G., Las Vegas, The West Wing, and All About the Andersons, and James has several films awaiting release: White on Rice, How to Make Love to a Woman, Hard Breakers, and Doesn’t Texas Ever End. He was born in South Korea and moved to New York with his family when he was ten. Kyson, his middle name, comes from the first letters of his parents’ surnames (K & Y) and they added the word “son” to complete it. Kyson also means, “Child of the Spirit.”
Just this morning, the journalists who had been captured by the North Korean government, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, arrived in Los Angeles on a private jet accompanied by Bill Clinton. We briefly discuss this topic before segueing into HIV and AIDS. “What impacted me was when Magic Johnson announced that he had AIDS,” says James, crossing his legs, exposing bluish-grey material-lined Crocs on his feet. “I was in high school when he gave that big press conference saying he’s retiring and not coming back to the Lakers. That’s the first time it became personal. I followed basketball so closely that he had become like a family member. 21 Jump Street, Magic Johnson, and sex-ed class all brought to consciousness that I needed to be fully educated about this epidemic.”
James not only educated himself, he began to educate others. For nearly two years, he’s been national spokesperson for the Banyan Tree Project, a national campaign to alert Asians and Pacific Islanders about HIV/AIDS. He recently made a “Get Tested” PSA and, in May, the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team (APAIT) bestowed upon him an Unsung Hero Award. “James has consistently stepped up to the plate when it comes to AIDS work,” comments Noël Alumit, author and program manager of APAIT. “He uses his celebrity status to help those who need it most.”
James’ motivation in joining the Banyan Tree Project was linked to his experience with the death of his “uncle-in-law,” his aunt’s husband. While James was growing up, his uncle was a strapping healthy six-foot-three man in his forties, but when James was in high school, his uncle was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He was ill for several years and signed up, unsuccessfully, for a transplant. Soon after James moved to Los Angeles, his uncle died. “I was very close to him,” he stresses. James fondles his lower lip for a moment. “Whenever you lose someone close to you, you become more aware. I felt the need to support and get involved because it connects me into the bigger consciousness.”
After James moved to Los Angeles, he attended a musical theater class and made the acquaintance of a fellow about the same age as his uncle. “I was new here, didn’t know a lot about the city, and I befriended him. He was gay and a former dancer. He talked about how his friends were literally dropping like flies in the eighties. This was my first conversation with someone who had had such a big personal loss. I couldn’t fathom it,” he sighs. “I had lost one person; imagine losing ten in a year!” He shakes his head and a few strands of hair fall over his Mars-brown eyes, which he sweeps back under the cap.
Ominously, in the last few years, the rate of HIV infection has risen in the Asian community. Like many other cultures, male Asians can have a machismo mind-set, which acts as a barrier to directly confront the issues of HIV/AIDS. James wants to penetrate that barrier of silence and denial. “That’s why I got involved, so that I could send the message that it’s okay to be who you are,” he offers. “I wanted to give HIV a voice in the Asian community.”
James’ voice can also be heard singing a tune at Hot in Hollywood, an annual event that benefits AIDS Healthcare Foundation and other AIDS charities in Los Angeles and globally. Hot in Hollywood began in 2006 with the idea to be just a ninety-nine-seat theater event, but quickly grew out of that venue. Last year, Avalon Hollywood hosted the event with over a thousand people in attendance. The entertainment event presents musical numbers and cabaret acts starring TV and film actors. “It’s fun because you get to see these people in a different light,” remarks James.
Last year’s event, the third year, raised half a million dollars. James’ friend, Michael Medico, who created Hot in Hollywood, was the executive producer. “Michael is such an inspiration to me. He turned his vision into reality,” he notes, shifting his legs apart, leaning his elbows on his knees, and crossing his hands. In doing so, his sleeve slides up to reveal a tattoo. I interrupt him asking what it means. He grins. “I was twenty-two when I got this in New York. It says justice, righteousness, courage and love,” says James, pointing to each Chinese character. “Though for me it means, live justly and love fearlessly.” He continues. “Hot In Hollywood, or any of the benefits I attend for that matter, is one side of Hollywood I really enjoy. Ya know?” He sits up and laughs. “So much of L.A. there’s this need to be pretentious, keep a certain façade, and they’re super conscious of who they’re seen with and how they’re viewed.”
Any pretention is left to the spectators when James dribbles a basketball down the court to sink a shot. If you spin together his love for basketball and his desire to help others, presto!, you have the Hollywood Knights, a team comprised of entertainers who play for charity—Hollywood’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters. Not long ago James returned from a USO tour in Hawaii (his first time to the Islands) where the Hollywood Knights played against the Army, the Navy, the Marines, and the Air Force. “I met a lot of guys who just came back from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were like between twenty and twenty-five years old,” he says, breaking a moment to shoot a bewildered look, surprised by their young age. “We met some high-ranking officers who have been in the military for twenty years. I noticed that all of the soldiers had a huge sense of pride and commitment, even when just giving us a tour of the shops and their bunks. They have a strong belief in what they’re doing.”
He halts. James hears a key turning in the front door. His eyebrows arch, his expressive eyes dart to the side, and his mouth gapes open. “Hold on one second,” he blurts tentatively to me, then yells toward the front door, “Mark?” A female voice utters something in Korean. “Mom? Hi. Oh my god!” he says relieved. “We’re doing an interview.” He whispers an aside, “I had no idea she was dropping by!” They hug as they exchange a few words in Korean. He introduces us, and his mom is friendly and gracious. She’s carrying groceries and James chuckles to us, “This is why I love her!” We engage in a short conversation with her and she offers us vitamin-infused drinks. His mother goes into another room, James brings the drinks, and sits back down. “I think she told me she was coming but I kind’a forgot about it,” he says sheepishly. “I rent out one of the rooms to my old [college] roommate, but he does a 9–5, so I knew it couldn’t have been him coming in the door!”
Who are TV hero James Kyson’s heroes? “Magic Johnson, of course, and Lance Armstrong. This guy had cancer, overcame it, and won seven Tours de France. He just recently finished third. He’s superhuman,” he says. “It’s the amount of training these athletes have to endure that inspires me. Though life may hand you a dirty deal, I admire people like Lance who turn it into something positive.”
Margaret Cho [A&U, February 2000] is another hero for James. “I love and admire her!” he elates with childlike enthusiasm. “She was one of the only Asian-American faces on TV when I was in high school. While I was in college in Boston I went to her first standup, I’m The One That I Want. She speaks her mind! I like that….She’s a good role model, especially since she’s done a lot of work with HIV and AIDS.”
Though ethnically Korean, like Cho, James doesn’t quite feel part of that culture. During his college years he didn’t fit in. Unlike his peers, he was vocal and responsive. “It made me feel like I was very loud and that I needed to tone myself down. But we’re all human beings, I thought. How can you just keep it all to yourself?! People need other people. They need to feel like they can relate to somebody. If you don’t have that, you become so isolated,” he explains, his arms stretched out, palms to the ceiling. “It’s so important to have publications like A&U and campaigns like The Banyan Tree Project. Voices need to be heard.” He’s content as he glances out the living room window onto the street where just down the block is CBS Studio Center where CSI: NY is shot, and where Roseanne, Will & Grace, and Seinfeld were filmed.
The day after our interview, James was off on another charity gig to Atlantis on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. This time it’s with The Band From TV, which includes his Heroes castmates, Greg Grunberg and Adrian Pasdar, along with Hugh Laurie and Jesse Spencer from House M.D., James Denton and Teri Hatcher from Desperate Housewives, and Bob Guiney from The Bachelor and Date My House. Each band member donates to their own charity. At this concert, James will strum the guitar and rock the tambourine. “I’m not as musically gifted as those guys!” he claims, “but I’m there to lend support and have a good time. And hey, if I’m asked to do something for charity, I’m there.”
Thanks, James, your voice is coming through loud and clear.
With deep gratitude to Michael Medico, Leona Comer, and Mark Rebernik.
Dann Dulin interviewed Athol Fugard for the August 2009 cover story.