Ruby’s Rap
by Ruby Comer

Todd Lien

Photo by Bettina Niedermann

Todd Lien is a Star Walker! He raised more than $1,000 for the AIDS Walk, which qualified him for that moniker. A Star Walker is invited to join other Star Walkers at the breakfast served before the walk. That’s where our friendship began.

From an early age, actor and model (Gap ads) Todd (Tin-Yu Lien, his Taiwanese birth name) was inspired by an ethics class in his Taiwan school to help others! His passion led him to the good ol’ U.S. of A., studying medicine at the University of Washington. Todd changed his program of study to a PhD in Pharmaceutics. Then, fate stepped in. His grandparents died, and Todd took it hard. To deal with grief, he began singing in competitions. Along the way, he had an epiphany, realizing that art has the power to heal. He decided to move to Hollywood to study acting at the New York Film Academy in Burbank, California.

To receive his MFA degree in acting, his thesis project was a short film called Straight A, which he wrote, starred in, and directed, about his own coming out story. The film soon became a winner on the LGBTQ+ festival circuit and the film now can be viewed on Todd’s YouTube channel. His purpose for making this film was to raise awareness in the gay community.

It was the same when he was back in college. He felt academics were not talking enough about STIs, so he joined a student-run health group, UHELP, which brought awareness about sexual protection to his peers.

Then it hit home. Todd began dating a person living with HIV, who later became his boyfriend. Ever willing to help, he read up more on the virus to lend support to his beau.

Though they broke up, Todd continues to support and bring awareness to his community—

Illustration by Davidd Batalon

and others. He’s currently part of the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus, where his continually inquisitive mind urges survivors who witnessed the early beginnings of the epidemic to tell him their stories.

Due to COVID-19, Todd and I talk via Zoom, one early afternoon. Last year, Todd wrote an all-children musical about bullying and loving yourself for the Hollywood Fringe Festival. It got rave reviews. Earlier this year, he wrote the sequel, and he’s playing the lead. The sequel deals with LGBTQ+ homelessness. By the time this article appears, we hope the production is being staged!

Ruby Comer: Hey Mister. You look good! I hate how I look on these screens. [I cringe at myself looking at the little square; then look at him.] It looks like you’ve maintained quite well through all of this! [He nods with half a smile.]
Todd Lien: I’m busying myself with different projects, ranging from writing scripts to teaching acting [online], and singing to Asian-American kids from my home studio via Zoom and video chats. I stay in touch with friends and families through FaceTime.

I don’t need to worry about you! [He points to me to prompt my report.] Well, I’ve been doing low impact exercises online called Team Body Project, led by Daniel, an Aussie trainer—so as to keep this…curvaceous figure. [I flash a wide grin meant to assure him I am mocking myself].
[Todd chuckles.] Oh, Ruby, I want to tell you. I just co-produced and released this music video with my student, Justin Zhang, relating to COVID-19, in hopes of bringing positivity and love to people. It’s called, “Tell Me We’re Okay.” It’s on Spotify.

Congrats! Hey, before I rave about your film, I want to know what film you could watch over and over again.
Hmmm, it’s hard to name favorite films. [He ponders, looks off.] Well, since I’m a hopeless romantic, I will probably have go with Sleepless in Seattle or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Ahh, Mr. Smith—Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart together. What a treat! Todd…. I love Straight A! I’ve watched it about half a dozen times. Chills and tears always enrapture me! Tell me a bit about it, like where was it shot, how did you cast your costars, Zach Cramblit and Nathan Chen, how many days did it take to shoot, and so on?
It was shot at an Asian household in L.A., through one of my students at the acting studio where I taught. It was incredible to have that support since we didn’t have to pay for the house. [He winces lightheartedly.] I found Zach through LA Casting, but the funny part is I had met him before, when we were training for a competition together. Nathan Chen, who plays my father, was the husband of my vocal coach at the time. He had the right accent and the right demeanor for the character. He was more of a random choice, because I wasn’t satisfied with the casting choices LA Casting provided. I was very lucky to find both co-stars. It took about two twelve-hour days to shoot.

It was mostly biographical, Ruby. For example, the same lines were used that I said to my father. I came out to him over the phone because he lives overseas. I really wanted to capture that dynamic relationship I had with my father through this film.

….I hope you direct more! Give a backstory about the short, Todd.
One of the fun anecdotes during the production was that the co-star Zach is actually straight and he was having a hard time creating a natural kiss in a scene between him and me, so we ended up doing several takes.

Very cute. Tell me, where did you first hear about the epidemic?
I was in Taipei when I first heard about it on the news about famous actors who were diagnosed with HIV, and then they were found dead due to depression. There was nothing but negative media coverage about the “gay” disease.

Wow. Dreadful. When you came of age, the cocktails had been established, but even so, sex was still dangerous. Here you are, young at heart, hormones raging and you wanna have sex! How did that play out for you?
I was not very scared, Ruby. I knew abstinence is the only 100% protection against contracting STIs. However, educating myself about what each STI is and how to treat/cure them is what got me over my fear. Having the knowledge made me understand how to protect myself, to be cautious, and yet have fun at the same time.

Smart sense, Todd. I mean, it takes someone who has healthy self-esteem to say that. Kudos. How old were you when you got tested and what prompted you to do so?
HIV testing was always just a part of my regular STD testing, so it wasn’t specifically for HIV. [He pauses.] I was twenty-five and I was becoming more sexually active. I got my first test at Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center in Hollywood. Understanding how the disease works, regular testing becomes a responsibility to ensure my health and the other person’s health, as well.

Good boy! [We both titter.] Tell me what you learned about dating someone living with HIV. When did he disclose to you?
He told me right before we had sex for the very first time, to ensure that I would feel comfortable. I was a bit more nervous but the conversation was normal, like any two people would have before sex. That’s responsible—even in the heat of the moment. [He halts, leisurely combing his hand through his thick dark hair.] My HIV knowledge allowed me to share physical intimacy with him worry-free.

He certainly was fortunate to have such a supportive partner. Now when you date, when do you broach the subject of STIs with a potential partner—or even with a hook-up?
Usually before our first penetration experience, by asking verbally whether they get regularly tested and when they had their last test. For hook-ups, sometimes in the heat of the moment I have allowed sex to happen first, and then discussed STIs. But, that’s too late.

Photo by Bettina Niedermann

Thanks for your honesty. I think we’ve all been there. The stories about the early days of AIDS that you hear from other Gay Men’s Chorus buddies, how has that affected you?
It’s just incredible to learn the history. There are stories I’ve heard from survivors about how they went through the first HIV drug trials. [He shakes his head in astonishment; then I join in.) How these people overcame the epidemic medically and socially….

Yes, yes, yes. I know you’re involved with the organization ALIVE MUSIC PROJECT, where you go to schools and talk. Tell me more.
We go to middle and high schools. The main thing we talk about is bullying and loving yourself. We always provide resources, too, like the Trevor Project. We want to make these kids understand they are not alone.

Say, what advice would you give about how to handle an HIV diagnosis with family members?
[He squints and his dashing eyes pop.] It is a very tricky topic to explore indeed. My advice is to know that you are never alone in this situation, and finding a support system is extremely important. As an Asian, it’s always the default to assume that everyone does not know about issues such as HIV or sexual orientation. But often times, we need to give our family members more credit, which they deserve.

Hear, hear!
It’s hard for them to bring up those topics, as well. However, I still advise against rushing to reveal difficult topics sooner than you are ready. It’s your decision. [He stretches his arms behind his head.] It’s good to learn, Ruby, that there are so many more resources out there and so much more support from communities than you might be aware. It’s possible to find help when you are ready to come out or to share your HIV diagnosis.

Solid advice Todd. So, what’s your mantra for living life?
[He casts a beaming grin, as his penetrating dark eyes glow.] Go with the flow…but…prepare yourself.

To listen to Todd Lien’s COVID song:

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].