Remembering Our Future
Wilson Cruz advocates keeping the past alive to make a positive impact tomorrow
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Around noon, Wilson Cruz unceremoniously enters the Café. He embraces one of the servers. A popular neighborhood restaurant, it’s located just a few steps from his home, here in West Hollywood.
Wilson’s ease, charm, and friendliness exemplify my afternoon with the actor-activist.
The solidly built actor is clad in a tight V-neck T-shirt, dark Jeans that are rolled up at the bottom, and black patent leather bucks. Sporting stylish short-short cropped hair, several days worth of trimmed salt and pepper stubble, and with his glowing complexion, he could have just stepped off the pages of GQ magazine. It’s obvious that he takes care of himself.
He greets me and then snuggles into my corner booth. The server sweeps by, inquiring about drinks. He orders café latte.
Wilson was fifteen when his life was powerfully impacted and radically changed. His artist uncle, Luis Angel Cruz, who lived with his family, died of AIDS-related complications caused by intravenous drug use. “It…was…shocking,” laments Wilson, “and it affected my whole life. I’ve never recovered….” This is evident as his sparkling eyes moisten. A year later, Luis’ wife died of the virus as well.
His uncle was thirty-three and was more like an older brother to Wilson, who’s the eldest of three kids. As fate would have it, two characters Wilson portrayed were named “Angel”—in the bio-pic Party Monster, on Broadway in the HIV-themed musical Rent; and, in the television show My So-Called Life, an angel follows his character Ricky around in the Christmas episode. “I wouldn’t be shocked that my uncle was a part of all that,” he admits, lifting a worldly brow. “We were extremely close.”
The tragic and complex situation was intertwined with Wilson’s own sexual identity. Sex and death were forever enmeshed. “You couldn’t have sex,” he says, “without having death, if not at the forefront of your mind, at the very least at the back of your mind.” The server returns to take our order and then dashes. “Back then we had to have the conversation, but we were kids—and we were horny. We didn’t want to talk!” He winces and flips a quick, bracing smirk.
Wilson first went for an HIV test at sixteen. “I began to have sex around that age, maybe a bit earlier. I was fast.” From then on he’d say a prayer every time he tested. Back then there was a two-week waiting period for the results. “During that time we would all be making these contracts with God,” he hiccups, wobbling his head, taking a sip of Joe. “It was crazy.” Today Wilson gets tested regularly.
“Guys my age were dying!” he passionately screams about the era, then begrudgingly ticks off, “They looked like me. They were young like me. I couldn’t sit still. I felt a responsibility to lend a voice about this disease, to protect my peers.” Wilson kept that commitment. For more than half his life, he’s been on the frontlines, combating this epidemic. Indeed, Wilson was featured in A&U in June/July 1995. He’s also a militant advocate for human rights.
“In the mid to late eighties, we were living the biggest battle of the war,” he says, bridling, placing a firm hand on his heart. “Literally, our lives depended on being involved, acting up, being loud, and lying [down] in the streets. We were a part of a generation who said, ‘Enough!’” Wilson stops. “Now we’re seeing it being played out again with gun violence. We’re reliving those days. Some people say, ‘Oh, they’re just kids.’ But it’s kids who change the world! It was youth who helped to end the Vietnam War, it was youth who rose up for LGBT rights, it was youth who fought to give women a voice about abortion, and it’s youth who are going to resolve this gun issue.”
He forks a portion of his spinach, mushroom, and tomato omelet into his mouth. Wilson looks up. “We live in revolutionary times. We need to support these kids the way we were supported when we were fighting in the early days of the LGBT movement and the war on AIDS. This is an important opportunity.”
Wilson’s involvement has been extensive. He’s made PSAs, has sung at the ending festivities of the annual AIDS Life/Cycle, performed many times in David Galligan’s [A&U, December 1999] S.T.A.G.E. and Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Divas Simply Singing! [A&U, August 2015], among others. He even has peeled onions at Project Angel Food. “My favorite has been the AIDS Danceathons!” he concedes, with gusto, waving his arms. “Rosie Perez and I would do them together, or sometimes she would be at New York’s Javits Center and I’d be at the Universal backlot in L.A., and we’d talk to each other during it!” Wilson is totally jazzed as he recalls those events. “Believe me, I do it as much for myself as I do for anybody else,” he confesses. “Volunteering gives me great pleasure.”
On the other end of the spectrum, exhaustion currently besets Wilson as he navigates in the icy waters of the dating pool. Announcement: Mr. Cruz is available and looking for a husband. There are requirements.
Marriage seems to run in his family. Not long ago, Wilson, an ordained minister (an accreditation which he obtained online), officiated at the wedding of his younger brother, Josh, and his boyfriend. “That was one of my life’s joyous moments,” he boasts with pride, his glistening peepers softening. “It was magical.”
Living in West Hollywood, with its predominant LGBT community, can be challenging. “I don’t think my husband is in L.A., but who knows, maybe it’s me,” he reasons with a resigned tone, noting that he’s considering moving back to New York. Wilson uses dating apps, but gets frustrated with them, and warns, “Don’t say hello with one of your body parts [pics], otherwise I will literally block you.” The server comes by to check on us and then leaves. “Look,” he declares, “I’m straightforward: I’m dating. I’m not here for a hook-up. Those days are behind me….”
He attributes not finding love to the demands of his career. Last year he was working simultaneously on Star Trek: Discovery (a groundbreaking TV series where he and Anthony Rapp play boyfriends) and 13 Reasons Why (Netflix’s gritty drama). One was filmed in Toronto and the other in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Wilson would spend two days in one city and five days in the other. “It was like that for months—and it was the most incredible experience I ever had!” genuinely raves Wilson, who then chuckles and adds, with a slight agitation in his voice: “Who the hell is going to put up with that?!”
Wilson has dated a variety of men, including guys living with HIV. “It’s always challenging when one person is and the other isn’t.” In a role reversal, Wilson played Dr. Junito Vargas on television’s Noah’s Arc, where he portrayed a doctor who worked in HIV medicine and was positive, and was in a serodifferent relationship. “He was one of my favorite characters! It was so exciting to be a part of this series,” he says.
Dating for someone living with HIV can be excruciatingly anxiety-producing. Wilson believes honesty is the key. “Be upfront and have a conversation. The negative person must create a safe space, so that the positive person can share their status ahead of time.” He fiddles with his big-faced classy watch and states, “It’s smart to get this out of the way before one becomes too attached and feelings are hurt. It’s one of the first things you talk about…your birthday, your favorite food, and your status.”
Unfortunately, prejudice abounds and lying on the Internet is effortless. “You have to take your well being into your own hands,” he emphasizes, punching his fist on the table, “Take every precaution.” He repeats deliberately, enunciating each syllable, “Take ev-er-y pre-cau-tion!”
AIDS has been around for nearly forty years—most of Wilson’s life—but it’s much different nowadays. “I’m forty-four; I can’t believe I’m that old!,” he hoots and hollers, “and to think I was once a part of the younger generation.” He munches on some juicy green melon. “Today there is less urgency, because it is not a death sentence. Some seem to think that if they become infected, it’s no big deal. The medication is not a silver bullet,” he proclaims forcefully. “We don’t know the long term effects.” (When the topic of PrEP comes up, Wilson wishes not to reveal if he’s on it, but feels it’s an important advancement in medicine and one should consider it.)
Concerned that the youth continue to acquire HIV, Wilson reaches out to them by sharing his history. “We don’t talk about our history enough,” he beseeches. “There are valuable lessons to be learned.” He scratches his head. “What’s that famous quote?” We both toss about some words and he finally utters, “‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’”
He eats more melon, wiping a bit of juice from his lips. “Those of us who lived through the AIDS crisis need to keep that history alive—along with the Civil Rights and women’s movement. “Some believe that Stonewall [New York, 1969] was the beginning of gay rights. But there were protests all over the country, including here in Los Angeles [before that],” he points out, touching my knee to make a point. “The first riot in L.A. was at the Black Cat bar in Silver Lake. I think it was 1967.” He repositions himself, putting one knee up on the seat, as his foot dangles over the edge. “This is important history! If people knew more of what happened, they’d work harder to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Wilson is on a riff, adamant, and revved. “It’s our job to see that we keep our experiences alive.”
Regarding his Latino roots, Wilson thinks prevention campaigns should be specific for each community. “The key is found in the way we talk about HIV within the community and to that community,” he advises. “Are we using the language they understand? Are we dealing with their poverty rate, homelessness, education, employment, and healthcare access?” As to that stereotypical Latin machismo, he doesn’t believe the masculinity issue is any greater in the Latin community than in the general population. “I think others tend to make it a bigger deal,” he says. “The real issue is the socio-economic for Latinos, African-Americans, and people of color. That’s the real issue.”
His smart phone goes off, screen brightly flashing, as it has several times before. Faintly annoyed, he promptly turns it off.
Of Puetro Rican heritage, Cruz was born in New York City and raised in San Bernardino, California. He’s been delivering memorable award-winning performances for more than two decades. His first professional gig was traveling the country using his gifted singing voice in the group, The Young Americans. He then became a leading man in My So-Called Life playing Rickie Vasquez, a pioneering role in 1994 as being gay was not completely central to the storyline. Rickie wore eyeliner and preferred using the women’s WC as well. All of this was uncommon at the time—very uncommon. The role rocketed Wilson to fame. (His TV debut was in 1991 on the series, Great Scott!, playing a choirboy, alongside Tobey Maguire.)
Cruz has co-starred in such films as Nixon, Johns, Beat the Bash, Joyride and After Louie, and other television appearances, NCIS, Party of Five, The West Wing, Pushing Daisies, and Grey’s Anatomy. There were times, though, when he weathered depression, due to no employment.
In the early 2000s, it got bleak. “Nobody wanted to have anything to do with me,” he recounts. “I wasn’t working and lived on friends’ couches and made it work. It got to the point where I almost started looking for something else to do besides being an actor.”
What kept Wilson sane during those fraught times was support of family and friends. He also exercised and meditated daily, read books, and watched I Love Lucy. “I have ‘CBS All Access’ and can call up those episodes right at my fingertips,” says Wilson, exhilirated. “Anytime I’m in a bad mood, when I feel like the world is unsafe, or I’m troubled by some shit that’s gone down in the Trump administration, I can rely on I Love Lucy to bring me back. It was also my safe space as a kid.”
As thorny as times got, he never gave up hope. “I always, always thought that I just needed to dig in and work a little harder,” Wilson says. “I believed that [more acting jobs] were going to happen. It was important to keep busy. I would try to sing somewhere, or get cast in a play. Getting through down times taught me that I was mining my path and getting better at it. I knew that the hard times would pass.” He cracks a Pepsodent smile (boy, his teeth are white!) and darts a deliberate look my way. “If you don’t know in your bones that opportunities will eventually present themselves—get the fuck out [of this business]!” He takes a breath. “If you don’t believe it, no one is going to believe it.”
One of those down times was when Wilson came out. His dad, whom he’s named after, asked him to leave the house and Wilson lived in his car for months. It wasn’t until this identical story was written into an episode of My So-Called Life, and his dad was secretly watching, that healing took place between father and son. Today he considers his father a hero, and Wilson made television history as the first openly gay teen actor to play an openly gay teen character!
When Wilson came out in 1993, he looked to Harvey Fierstein [A&U, June 1996] for inspiration. “Harvey was the only professional person I knew that was not only successful as an actor and openly gay, but using his art to tell the story of LGBT people.” When Wilson later introduced himself at an event, Wilson was shocked to learn that Harvey knew who he was! “He said some really beautiful things to me that day,” remarks Wilson, his voice cracking and tears blurring his vision. “I’ll never forget that. I think about him often. He’s been wonderful to me.”
What keeps Cruz on an even keel is honoring his mind and body each day, starting off with exercise and meditation, which he does for about twenty minutes. “I say ‘thank you’ that I have another day to try and get it right.” He ponders, looking out the restaurant windows onto Santa Monica Boulevard and WeHo’s City Hall. “I guess every day we all are just trying to figure it out and do the best we can!” He giggles, wittingly. “For me, this is a healthy way to start each day. It’s important to take care of me before I can take on the rest of the day.”
About ten months ago Wilson figured out that alcohol was not serving him, so he quit. “It didn’t bring out the best in me. I realized I was doing it for all the wrong reasons,” he confesses, offering that he drank all kinds of liquor. “I don’t miss it, and I’m leaner and my skin is much better.” To relax now, he uses cannabis, which “chills me out.”
Wilson’s face becomes reflective as if looking through into an alternate dimension. He’s interrupted by a busboy removing empty plates off the table. “I spent so much of my youth trying to become this idea of what I thought I should be that it’s nice to reach an age where I can appreciate exactly who I am right now. I earned this happiness,” says Wilson, as if quoting a Sanskrit from a Buddhist’s teachings. “I am a survivor.”
The latte steamer, emanating a shrill, irritating sound, forces Wilson to raise the volume of his voice.
“A light went off for me after I lost my step-aunt in the Pulse night club shooting,” reveals Wilson. “Soon after, I spoke at the National Council of La Raza’s [now called UnidosUS] national conference in Orlando. As I wrote that speech, I realized I had spent most of my life asking for permission to be in whatever space I was. If I were in an LGBT space, I would ask permission to be there because I am Latino. If I was in a Latino space, I would ask for permission to be there because I am gay.” He takes a beat. “To honor the memory of those Latino people who died in that shooting, I would no longer ask for permission to be anywhere. No more excuses.”
Wilson’s drive comes from his keen interest in personal growth and education, not only for himself but for others as well. “I get involved because I don’t want the moment to pass. This. Is. My. Moment,” Wilson says, firmly anchoring his voice. “There were people who fought in World War II. Well…I fought in the LGBT and the AIDS war. I am a soldier and I’m in the fight.”
Grooming: Andrea Pezzillo
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U.
What character are you dying to play?
I come from the theater, so I want to play Hamlet.
What is your favorite food?
Macaroni and cheese.
Where do you go to disappear?
It’s so pedestrian, but I’ve created a very lovely home for myself. I love closing the blinds and reading an engrossing book. That’s my happy place. (Currently he’s reading The Razor’s Edge.)
What posters hung on your bedroom wall during your teen years?
Michael Jackson, Prince, and Angela Bassett.
What happens after we die?
I don’t think you can create or destroy any energy in this Universe. Our souls are infinite. I think we come back.
Who would you like to meet?
Barbra Streisand. [The legend is his and his mother’s favorite songstress.] Oh!…and Bette Midler. Barbra and Bette. I met Liza a few years ago. I’m so gay (he flippantly roars).
Give a few words to characterize these people who have intersected your orbit:
Michelle Yeoh: Bad Ass!
Jared Leto: Surprising.
Octavia Spencer: Generous.
Lou Diamond Phillips: Musical theater nerd.
Margaret Cho: The funniest woman I know!