Max Greenfield Embodies A Challenging Role, Discovering a Distinctive Connection to the HIV Epidemic
by Dann Dulin
I knew Max Greenfield was in Ryan Murphy’s Emmy-winning The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, but I almost missed him when I sat down to watch it, admittedly a year after it was released. He plays Ronnie, and the audience is introduced to him as he perches on the porch of a run-down Miami Beach art deco hotel.
Max as Ronnie is clad in worn jeans and dirty tenny’s. A non-descript tattered ivory-colored hoodie is draped over his white tank top. Legs crossed, he quietly smokes a cigarette. His pack of smokes rests on an old table, with lighter squarely on top.His character sports a close-cropped buzzcut, a Freddie Mercury moustache, and clearly hasn’t shaved in days. He’s unkempt and emaciated. With his gloomy and lonely presence, he looks like a dried-up stream.
The transformation was so devastatingly authentic that I didn’t realize it was Greenfield until the end credits rolled.
Aired earlier last year on FX, the nine-part Emmy-winning series is a disturbing portrait of one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives, Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer who murdered Gianni Versace on the pitted marble steps of his South Beach mansion in 1997. The narcissistic preppy from San Diego, a compulsive liar, with a Mensa IQ, went on a senseless killing spree through America, leaving five slaughtered victims in his wake.
Cunanan meets Ronnie on the porch of this Miami Beach hotel. They strike up a ships-passing-in-the-night friendship, becoming junkie pals, several days prior to the Versace slaying. Ronnie shares with Andrew that he’s HIV-positive and that not long ago he found himself at death’s door. Then all of a sudden, the cocktails appeared and he survived, though many of his friends did not. Ronnie is a lost soul.
Brash and disgustingly creepy, Ronnie riveted me to the television screen. The subtext throughout the series is homophobia, which is one reason why Cunanan was not caught earlier. Many deaths could have been prevented, if it wasn’t for the ignorance and prejudice of the Justice Department.
Through the series I relived the chaos that Cunanan created. Through newsfeed, I vividly recall his every hair-raising and moronic step. In fact, I had once met one of his victims, Lee Miglin, whom Cunanan brutally murdered. I worked for his wife, Marilyn Miglin, the business entrepreneur of fragrance, cosmetics, and skin care. Judith Light plays Marilyn and gives a bravura performance!
Being cast as Ronnie was a dramatic turn for the Emmy-nominated New Girl alum—and a challenge. His underplayed gestures and demure quality in his portrayal of Ronnie make for a stellar performance.
It was intense portraying the murky Ronnie, and heartbreaking as well. “I watched a lot of documentaries, especially How to Survive a Plague, which I had seen before. I highly recommend it,” Max shares, in the contemporary living room of his Brady Bunch-style Los Angeles home.
“Oh my gosh, it is an excellent film.” He pauses thoughtfully. “If you need a good cry for a week, watch it. Bob Rafsky is one of my heroes. He’s the one who went to a Bill Clinton rally and aggressively cried out, ‘What are you going to do about AIDS?!’ Clinton pushed back, which preempted Bill’s statement, “I feel your pain.” Bob is incredible and he fought to his very last day!” (At forty-seven, Bob died in 1993 of AIDS-related causes.)
Decked offhandedly in a white T, jeans, comfy black Vans, and sockless, Max is kicked-back, and sports a five o’clock shadow. One might say he is a bit under the weather, lacked sleep (he does have a young child), or perhaps it is just his daydream-y demeanor.
Postured on a hefty light-grey sofa, I feel like Tom Thumb. The massive living room is awe-inspiring with its wood beamed cathedral ceiling, gigantic coffee table with a polished wood top piled with picture books of Frida Kahlo, photographers Nan Goldin and Helmut Newton, and artist James Turrell. The bookshelf takes up the entire wall and houses an entertainment center as well as memorabilia, framed family photos (wedding photographs), and books.
Artfully decorated throw pillows hug every chair. Near a stacked-stone fireplace sits a children’s rideable fire engine truck, and on the opposite wall hangs a good-sized original painting of a marshy lake in muted green tones. Sharp classy lines and features throughout—the overall design here is minimalism.
Resting comfortably in the lapis lazuli blue Emery Accent chair, Max ponders on Ronnie, a real-life person whom Max never met. To fit into this character’s skin, besides viewing documentaries, Max also reached out to his friends who lived during the first and second decades of the HIV pandemic and were personally affected by the disease. “I drew a lot from them,” he notes.
He crosses his legs, holding on to one foot. “I mean, here you are a person with this disease for a certain amount of years and, also, were totally convinced you were going to die [from it], saying your goodbyes, and then all of a sudden this [regimen] arrives…and it works. Mentally, I don’t know what that would do to a person.” He shakes his head. “Some of the guys I listened to talked about this, and even twenty years after the drugs, some of them say, ‘I still don’t trust the fact that I am going to live.’” Max compares it to a fat person who loses weight, but still feels fat.
“Back in that era, there were people who pointed fingers and blamed gays saying, ‘You deserve this,’ on top of the fact that they were saying this to a community that already felt shame about who they were.” He pulls his shoes off and then props one foot up on the edge of a chair. “This is part of what I focused on when playing Ronnie and what I love so much about the character. What’s left about that era is so much of the ACT UP movement, those advocates, and those people who were loud and angry and were in your face. What you don’t see are all the other people who were recipients of that blame, who felt it deep in their hearts, ‘I do deserve this. I’ve been told that I’m less for being different and I should be ashamed of who I am. Now I’ve got this disease and I do deserve it.’ For me,” says Max, “that was the most heartbreaking part of this. That’s what I tried to convey with Ronnie. I genuinely cared about him.
By playing Ronnie, I’m not only representing a large group of people who were directly affected by this, but an era. I felt a very strong need to get that right….
“By playing Ronnie, I’m not only representing a large group of people who were directly affected by this, but an era. I felt a very strong need to get that right,” he utters adamantly, arching one brow over his greenish eyes.
“The best reaction I received [from playing Ronnie] came from the gay men who were alive at that time and who were scared. They tell me that watching me recreate it meant something to them that I got it right. Thaaat’s what touches me! When you care about something and it’s successful, that’s the reward.”
Greenfield is surprised Ryan Murphy (Pose) cast him. “He showed me some sides of Versace,” Max tells me. “I didn’t know if I could do it. So I put myself on tape, which I filmed in my bathroom. It was just my way of finding Ronnie. The next day, Ryan called and said, ‘Good. I’ll see ya in Miami.’” Max feels blessed for having Ryan’s continual support, as they have worked together before.
They filmed on location in Miami (even using Versace’s mansion, now a hotel) during the early months of summer. Most of the snowbirds had flown north, so the city was quiet. “I just shuffled on the set and it didn’t feel like I was shooting a film. It always feels like you’re shooting a film. It was very seamless…,” explains Max, taking a quick glance over my shoulder where the four glass doors open up to a House & Garden lawn. Just outside the doors is a ping-pong table, and beyond that a swimming pool enclosed by a combo wood and cement block “fence,” with mid-sized leafy trees throughout the property.
“I love Ryan’s hair and makeup team!” he says energetically. “Their makeup magic really helped create Ronnie.” Max wore transparent teeth that were darkened in, brown-purplish splotches were drawn on his body to make it look like he had Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions, and they thinned his thick ebony locks.
Max offers me something to drink. He swiftly brings back a Perrier from the kitchen. It’s in a cute mini can. He asks if I want a glass. I decline. He has bottled water.
Max is gracious, friendly, and low-key. Born on the fourth of September in 1979, he shares his birthday with Damon Wayans, Sr., Mitzi Gaynor, Dick York, Dr. Drew Pinksy, Beyoncé, and even this writer. He was raised an only child in Westchester, New York. We have a good laugh over the realization that it appears all of us babies were conceived around the holidays or possibly even New Year’s Eve!
Married to Tess Sanchez since 2008, he and his wife have two kids, Lilly, nine, and Ozzie, four.
Beyond his winning turn in New Girl, the family man has garnered accolades with his work in TV’s Ugly Betty, Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls, Melrose Place, The Mindy Project, Will & Grace, and Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Hotel. On the big screen he’s appeared in The Big Short, About Alex, The Glass Castle, and Hello, My Name is Doris, a sweet heartrending dramedy with Sally Field, who Max calls, “just plain love.” He appeared on the big screen recently in What Men Want. His current project, The Neighborhood, premiered on CBS in 2018 and is in its second season.
When he was growing up, AIDS was not part of Max’s orbit, but it collided with his world when he was twelve. Magic Johnson, one of his heroes, announced he was HIV-positive. Max, a sports fanatic, remembers, “I was with my mom, oddly enough. I was going to pick up a pack of baseball cards——I loved baseball cards when I was younger. I can’t recall if mom told me or we had heard it on the radio together. But that was the first time I was truly impacted by this disease,” says Max somberly. “I mean, [I thought] this meant that Magic was going to die. It was a death sentence. That had a huge effect on me.”
His parents had friends who died of AIDS-related causes, but Max feels that they sheltered him from it. “It was not a part of my personal experience growing up, even though we lived next to New York City and were aware,” he informs, combing through his thick hair with his hand. “This is probably naive on some level, but HIV just didn’t fully affect me.” Note, this is way before computers, cell phones, and social media, where nowadays, global information is at one’s fingertips.
At sixteen, Max did receive a surprise jolt when his parents went to Costco one day and returned with a box of condoms. His mom handed them to him and said, “Here. Be safe.” Max’s embarrassed retort was: “MOMMMMM….PLEASE!”—and he ran off, pretending he had somewhere to go. Sitting upright from his seat, hands clasped behind his head, he reveals, “By the way, to be honest, I got through three of the condoms, but there were 300 in the box!”
“You don’t want to have a sex talk with your parents!” Max exclaims. “And this is probably partially why conversations didn’t take place at the onset of the epidemic, and still don’t. I was unable to listen to any warnings, because it was my parents. It’s just like ‘one-more-thing’ they are telling you to do.
“At that age, you’re young and stupid and think, ‘Oh HIV will never affect me. I’ll risk it.’ For me, I was so concentrated on getting a girl to kiss me, forget about an STD!” he says. In his twenties, he got tested as part of a regular exam, but there was no reason for him to believe that it would ever come up positive.
“I’m a full advocate of safer sex, but look, people are going to do their thing. To blame them for doing so seems ludicrous to me,” Max bluntly says. He compares condoms to putting a seatbelt on. ‘“Alright, I’ll put it on…,’” he mocks lackadaisically, “‘I’m not going to stop driving the car, so I put a seatbelt on!”
With his own kids, he says that he will keep an open dialogue with them. “But definitely with a clear sense of not judging them and accepting that they are going to do what they do—just …be… safe.”
Max and his wife are actively involved with several charities including, Milk+Bookies, which provides reading material to those who can’t afford it and also teaches kids to give back through reading; Young Storytellers, an arts education program in Los Angeles; Chrysalis, which assists the homeless and others to land employment; and Children’s Hospital of L.A., which has the annual Nautical Malibu Triathlon. Max has participated for the past five years. I ask if any of the AIDS organizations have reached out to him after being in this mini-series. “No!” he replies thunderously then continues in a playful singsong style, “…and I’m waiting for the phone to ring!” We have a hearty chuckle.
Reaching out to others to make a difference is paramount for Max. He explains, “Look, I feel so grateful to be in the position I’m in. I mean, I’ve been ri-DIC-ulous….” He halts and then finishes, “Ridiculously lucky.” He coughs and clears his throat. “I’m extraordinarily fortunate and because of that I feel a direct need to say ‘yes’ when people ask for help.”
There’s a Versace castmate that Max looks up to and considers a role model. A while back, the production team had a screening of the Versace finale, with a Q&A following, with the director and actors. “When it comes to speaking about the series and this role, I always preface it by saying that AIDS did not affect me personally,” clarifies Max. “What did affect me and was the most striking comments that night came from Ricky Martin, who is gay and who came up closeted in this era. When I listened to Ricky, who was so directly impacted by this disease, as were others, it is these people who fully understand it.
“Sitting there on the panel I thought for sure someone was going to call me out and ask, ‘Why do you take gay roles from gay actors?’ [He played a gay character on Will & Grace.] Playing a gay character was very low on my list of characterizations, but I related to so much of him that his being gay was like an afterthought.”
On the panel, Max listened as other actors answered questions from the audience.
“But then when Ricky would talk,” notes Max emotionally, his face aglow as his eyes broaden, “you just go, Ricky should be the one answering these questions [about the epidemic]!” His arms are stretched out and his fingers spread widely. “It was a special…and important night,” he says.
As Max watched the finale he had an epiphany. This role granted him the opportunity to learn more about the epidemic and enabled him to tap into a whole generation of historical significance.
“This was the first time I was seeing it,” Max points out. “I thought, man-oh-man, Ryan did the OJ project [The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story] and that was meaningful, but that story had an element of Hollywood to it. Versace was the exact opposite. It was an unflinching look at homophobia. Since the story starts with the ending, you know it is not going to end well. It’s dark from the beginning, when Versace is murdered. I believe Ryan is saying, ‘I am going to make you watch it! Fuck you….you’re…going…to…watch…this.’”
Max found the finale extremely tough to watch. “But that’s what Ricky’s sentiment was on that stage that night.” Max’s voice quivers, his eyes moisten. “Ricky stated that the film cast a tremendous sadness over him, having to relive a lot of the suffering. Being such a bold piece, when you saw Ricky speak about it, it was a completely different conversation.” Max is plainly moved.
Greenfield confesses to feeling humbled around Ricky and Ryan, both being HIV advocates. “These two are my heroes…,” asserts Max simply, couching one leg under himself, while the other foot dangles off the rim of the chair.
His confession is a testament to his honesty, humility, and bravery in taking on such a complex character. Max’s compassionate portrayal of the heart of Ronnie left a deep imprint on his own.
Field of Green
What is your favorite classic film?
Dog Day Afternoon…which by the way, never gets classified as an LGBT film, but should be at the top of the list. Right?! …There is not a better movie!
Where is your favorite place to disappear to?
Anywhere my wife wants to go.
Name one of your pet peeves.
Loud, loud eating.
What is your favorite city?
Who have you been starstruck over?
It’s never actors. (He ponders.) It happened when I met Al Gore. Good politicians are so rare.
What do you believe happens after we die?
I can’t wait to find out!
Who would you like to meet?
Anybody who’s going to change my mind.
Would you rather hang out with Bette Midler or Lady Gaga?
Bette Midler. She has more stories.
By what basic philosophy do you live by?
You’re looking at it, man. Just be in the moment.
MAX offers up a short reaction to those he knows/knew:
Prince – The epitome of cool.
Darren Criss – A good dancer!
Naomi Watts – She… has… the… best… laugh.
Taraji P. Henson – Fun, but also ferocious.
Jack Klugman – A teacher.
America Ferrera – Strong woman.
Zooey Deschanel – A blast!
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U.