Mass Appeal
Actor & Director Linus Ignatius Explores Body Dysmorphia and Gay Men in an HIV-Conscious Context
by John Francis Leonard

I recently had the opportunity to interview an incredible actor who directed, produced, and starred in an autobiographical short film entitled Mass that premiered this fall at New York’s NewFest. Mass explores themes of HIV, gay body dysmorphia, sexual consent, and the pressures of life for a young gay man who desires to be what he finds most attractive, a well muscled, i.e., masculine, gay man who seems to dominate the NYC scene. This film addresses with great skill more serious issues for the gay male community than most full-length mainstream features even touch on with much truth, and even some humor. The young actor who wrote, directed and starred in this film is Linus Ignatius and even if he hung his hat merely on his acting in this riveting piece of social commentary, he could only be lauded.

He has acted onstage, on television in The Blacklist and Law and Order: SVU, among many others, and on the big screen (Faking Real). Along with Mass, his films include Upper and Positive, a documentary memoir.

I met up with Linus for coffee on a rainy November morning just off Union Square in Manhattan. I was nervous about getting the address mixed up and being a few minutes late, but he immediately put me at ease. Linus is a warm and handsome young man who wears his good looks lightly and with ease. I wondered how he, like so many of us in the gay community, could allow himself to be so driven to gain the acceptance of others and fit into a mold dictated by them. I was quickly reminded by him, in a remarkable conversation about his life and work, that these ideals are self-imposed. We are not just victims, but fully culpable participants in our own lives. Following is some of what we talked about in what was a long and fascinating conversation.

Photo by Linus Ignatius/Photo assistant: Adi Ignatius

John Francis Leonard: What inspired you to make this film?
Linus Ignatius: All of my work deals with some kind of puzzle——some kind of issue that I don’t know how to process. This body dysmorphia is basically a kernel for anything that feels like it’s not enough. For me, that’s the way it manifested personally. I think it’s unique because it’s connected to so many things. It’s connected to gay male body culture, it’s connected to masculinity, it’s connected to sex, and to health. It’s kind of at the center of a wheel. So basically I didn’t know how to deal with my own feelings and instead of beating myself up over them, I put them into the work. I sort of distill everything down to the basics, so that everything that happens in the film has in some form happened in my life. So it is a distillation; it’s a boiling down to the essence that occurs.

I think that there are lots of things that are just beginning to be talked about, that are now in people’s awareness. It’s these issues of sexual abuse among men, these issues of body image and men… I’m not saying that people haven’t been talking about these things, but that maybe it hasn’t been central to the conversation.

The other thing that comes into a lot of my work is that for two decades, HIV and AIDS was a storytelling device for loss and tragedy——there’s a lot of art around those themes that I really love, but we now live in a time when the medical reality is different. Now we can tell stories that include HIV/AIDS. I said in the talk-back (during the recent screening of the film) if the reality in the medical field is that it’s no longer a death sentence, the narrative in our story telling can change. It was still a shock to me when I seroconverted that it wasn’t a death sentence, that I really was going to be fine. I didn’t want to make a short film that was about my process with HIV; this is not that. This is a film about not feeling that you are enough with HIV, just an aspect of it. Basically, why I made it was because I had all of these unanswerable questions——issues that had so many different directions they were going in——that I had to put it into the work. I had people ask, ‘Why didn’t your character disclose his HIV status?’ He may have tried to, but how hard? Everyone can interpret it differently. I intentionally don’t tell people my own thoughts about it. The point of the project is that there’s very little dialogue, it’s open to interpretation and that’s unusual for me because I tend to write in a wordy way and this is a lot like a silent film. It’s got some almost comedic bits that work like a silent film would.

Scene from MASS. Courtesy L. Ignatius

What do you think the connection between HIV and body dysmorphia in gay men is?
I don’t know how aware of this I was when I was making the film, but I’ve sat with it a lot since. I talk a lot about the invention of the “Chelsea gay” and the fact that at a certain point in time the downtown Greenwich Village scene was starting to get sick and die. Images of wasting away were starting to dominate people’s ideas of what it looked like to be gay and so this whole subculture moved ten, twenty blocks north, got buff, and paraded around. There’s always been a Tom of Finland physique culture, but it began to stand for something else. I don’t know that people are really aware of that. I talk to people today that are buff, buff and poz, or perhaps neither. When I mention these ideas of wasting away versus being a paragon of health, it’s sort of a new thought for people, whereas, for me, they seem deeply connected. Friends of mine in their sixties or older talk of an era before the eighties where body culture was different. There were people who were muscular and there were people who were not. There was less of a dominance by one particular body image. I don’t know exactly what to attribute that to, but I know that it’s taken on a certain importance recently. I told a fellow actor on a film not long ago that I was HIV-positive and her response was one of surprise that I didn’t really look “sick.” I think that just says it all. I think that overall, within our community, that it’s a case of fetishism and good health that drives us to show off; it did me. The desire to remain healthy and healthy-looking also drove me. I got sober, more fit, and found my way to more psychological stability. My diagnosis was a wake-up call.

Do you plan on exploring further the themes you explored in this piece?
If and when I expand this project into a feature, it will be about HIV criminalization. It will serve as an elaborate set-up for the abuser character to then learn that my character is HIV-positive and prosecute him in criminal court for non-disclosure. There’s an ambiguity whether or not the character is undetectable yet, as well. It’s important for me, in my work, not to become a victim, but also leave a space where it’s obvious that my character had some missteps. In this film, he doesn’t know for certain that he’s undetectable, he doesn’t know how to share that, and he doesn’t know how to say no. The idea that gay men can be portrayed, not as cartoonish, not as Disney villains, but as complex people with flaws, is important to me. How can I be part of an era moving past, moving representation past where gay people are always heroic, where people with HIV are always heroic, and allow them to be human and flawed. We learn more from people with flaws than we do from super heroes.

Scene from MASS. Courtesy L. Ignatius

I know that, for myself, in my youth, I strove to look a certain way, to have the perfect body. It was part of the scene I belonged to. I’ve left that scene behind me along with that pressure. Have you been able to do that, to let go of that pressure, or is it still with you?
No way. So you mention of the “scene.” I’ve felt the pressure of that scene as an introvert. Before moving back to New York City, and living in Berlin, I was kind of a party monster. I took a lot of drugs. I’ve left that behind me. I’m sober now and lead a much lower-frequency lifestyle, which is good for me. It’s allowed me to to be more creative. But I think that for people who live through trauma, there’s a tendency to turn to their bodies as a way to control. For a lot of people, that really doesn’t go away; it’s a question of how much you want to believe your negative thoughts. So there are moments in life when these questions seem weightier and more believable and there are moments when you feel them less. I haven’t really been dating for a year. Some of the pressures to perform have made me less inclined to be sexually active. I’ve been able to be more “with” myself without these pressures.

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John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.