Learning About HIV History, Actor Spencer Curnutt Discovers Powerful Inspiration from Another Indianan Named Ryan
by Dann Dulin
Photos by Cayla Sumner
Cnut the Great who ruled over Denmark, England, and Norway around 1015 was an ancestor of Spencer Curnutt. Egad, with a history like that I’m honored to make this person’s acquaintance.
However—it seems the Viking was such a brutal king that his descendants eventually fled the region, changing their name to “Curnutt” to disassociate from him! Alas, discovering one’s family tree can sometimes be disturbing. On the other hand, if we quickly zoom to the present, we find Spencer, instead, discovering a hero.
Ryan White, the teenage poster boy for the epidemic, became core relevance for Spencer while attending elementary school. For the few of you out there who don’t know about this champion…
Ryan came to national acclaim in the late eighties when his school banned him due to his AIDS diagnosis. Ryan was also bullied. Tragically, he died at eighteen years old. His story was turned into a must-watch movie called The Ryan White Story, starring Lukas Haas, Judith Light [A&U, July 2007], Sarah Jessica Parker, and George C. Scott. Ryan himself makes an appearance in the film.
Several celebrities including Elton John and Michael Jackson befriended Ryan. Four months after his death, Congress enacted The Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act (CARE), which federally funded programs for AIDS patients. President George H.W. Bush (the older Bush) signed it into law. Around that time, former President Ronald Reagan stated:
“We owe it to Ryan to make sure that the fear and ignorance that chased him from his home and his school will be eliminated.….It’s the disease that’s frightening, not the people who have it.”
Spencer, learning about Ryan White early in his life, vastly enlightened him about the epidemic and cemented a life-long impression. An Indiana boy, Spencer was raised in Tipton, not far from Ryan’s hometown of Kokomo. At one point, Spencer was so moved and influenced by his hero that he visited his grave in Cicero.
An actor and musician, Spencer attended the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, majoring in Musical Theatre. In 2010, while still in college, he was cast in his first movie, Trust, playing the son of Clive Owen and Catherine Keener. He also played another son, this time to celebrated actor John Heard, in 2014’s Warren. A year later he appeared in the exquisite coming-of-age film, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, with Cole Doman [A&U, October 2016].
Spencer has also worked in television (Chicago Fire and Empire) and on stage in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston, where he became acquainted with Broadway Cares. Indeed, Spencer followed the tradition and held the little red collection bucket after performances. Besides HIV fundraisers, Spencer has been active with the National MS Society, as his mother was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
For my two cents, Spencer hit the summit when he acted in the enchanting short (six minutes in length), Homecoming (viewable on YouTube), directed by talented Jennifer Blair. I won’t say any more so as to avoid spoiler alerts. Spencer was luminous.
The gifted gent is a singer songwriter as well. As a kid, his dad introduced him to the music of Billy Joel and Elton John. As a teen, it was nineties country and punk pop. When it comes to songwriting, a smorgasbord of artists, such as Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Jimmy Webb, Ray Charles, and Harry Nilsson have influenced him. Spencer’s current playlist is Billie Eilish and Lizzo.
In fact, music replaced acting for a couple of years when Spencer was appearing at Howl at the Moon, an Indianapolis dueling piano bar, where he accompanied himself, crooning out tunes. His thespian card was reactivated when Spencer was cast as Ralph in the dark classic drama Lord of the Flies at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. As a second gig, he continued to dazzle those eighty-eights at the renowned, The Zebra Lounge. As an actor, Spencer is smitten by the work of Joaquin Phoenix and Elaine Stritch.
On the personal side, at the end of 2020, he and his long-time beau, Cayla, tied the knot. Nearly a decade ago they met in Indiana on the only-then available app, OKCupid. They have three kids, a dog, Cooper, Jupiter the cat, and a puppy, Zoey. Besieged by a romantic vision, Spencer wrote a song about their meeting and courtship called, “Indiana Girl.” Check it out on Spotify.
Spencer and Cayla have cascaded through lockdowns by binging on series like The Queen’s Gambit, Survivor, and Murder on Middle Beach. On an early spring day, I chat it up with the musical theatre guy at his Hollywood home over a video call who’s snappily geared in a plain black T-shirt underneath a multi-colored worn-in flannel shirt. Steaming off Spencer is an infused air of “Patrick,” David Rose’s boyfriend in Schitt’s Creek—down to earth, self-assured, centered, and wholesomely attractive. At one point during our time together, he uses the word “curious” to describe his personality.
Dann Dulin: With all those biographies I see on your bookcase over your shoulder, indeed, you are a curious fellow! I espy a slew of acting books and some fiction too. What’s your favorite biography?
Spencer Curnutt: Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda [he replies instantly!].
Sum up in a few words what you got out of it.
Gosh, how to say in a sentence or two. Yogananda’s words affected me in such a way that it reawakened my belief in and understanding of God. It rerouted my spiritual path, which before reading Autobiography of a Yogi, had come to a dead end.
Hmmm, I may need to read it to get back my god mojo. [He grins with an altar boy’s innocence.] Where did you first learn about Ryan White?
I was in Mr. McNew’s fifth grade science class. He was a childhood friend of Ryan. [He halts to reflect.] I remember watching interviews of Ryan and seeing the support he received from celebrities I admired.
What impact did Ryan have on you?
First I just want to point out that I have been moved deeply by the stories of my friends and teachers who have been impacted by the virus. [Spencer’s tone is somber with an empathetic lilt.] As to Ryan, his story made me aware from the beginning of the many misconceptions people had. But it wouldn’t be until college that I fully understood the devastation that the epidemic caused and its social impact.
And that played out for you how?
It just led me to be careful in my exploration, to be open about the topic with my partners, and to practice safe sex by using protection and getting tested.
What an advantage for you and a novel way to be educated! How old, and where were you, when you first got the HIV test?
I was twenty and a sophomore at Roosevelt University. I had recently gotten out of a long-term monogamous relationship with my first and only sexual partner at that point. As I began seeing other people, I decided it was time to check in with a doctor. I grabbed my best bud [I offer thumbs-ups] and he accompanied me to a med check a few blocks from school.
After the routine exam, I informed the doctor that I was sexually active and needed to be tested for STIs. She asked me if I’d like to do the rapid HIV test that provided results in five minutes. I said sure. [He clears his throat, quickly raking through his long auburn locks.] Five minutes isn’t much time, but it feels like forever when you’re waiting for results that could potentially change your life. I got nervous even though I hadn’t walked in particularly concerned about it. Thankfully, my results came back negative.
Okay…returning to the past for a few. Tell me about your hometown Tipton…
Tipton is a small conservative town. It’s full of good people, many of whom are my friends and family, and some wonderful teachers to whom I am so grateful! But I would definitely say there’s a lack of exposure and narrow interests there, at least that was my experience, and I was in for an awakening—of the best kind—when I moved to Chicago for college.
Elaborate on the HIV education you received in Tipton.
I was taught STI prevention, including HIV, in school. I just remember the education being scary as if it were meant to detour us from having sex altogether and abstinence was certainly the favored method as it is in many conservative communities.
Ugh! [I grimace.]
Outside of health class, sexuality was sort of an uncomfortable subject with adults. Luckily I was able to have more candid conversations about sex with my older brother and friends, and I learned a lot that way—especially when it comes to the good stuff. [He displays a glistening sheepish smile then adds] I personally don’t think fear-based sex education is the best approach and I hope things have improved. If Cayla and I ever have kids, we’d like them to have a better rounded education that makes them feel confident and safe in their sex lives and able to come to us with any questions they might have.
What a fantastic papa you would make. When you and Cayla met, how did you two broach the subject of STIs?
We were never shy about the topic of sex or safety. It came up naturally as our relationship progressed physically. We had similar practices and we both valued safe sex and communication.
By the way, congrats on your recent marriage…
We decided on a whim to do it, Dann! We wanted to take this crazy year out on a high note. [We both ardently nod our noggins.] We picked our favorite picnic spot at Griffith Park and had our fur babies there to witness. It was a really special day.
How extraordinary and adorable. Spencer, how did you become acquainted with Broadway Cares?
My introduction to Broadway Cares was as an audience member, seeing those red buckets after a performance of Phantom of the Opera in New York. As an actor, I became involved when I performed in Candide at the Huntington Theatre in Boston. We had many Broadway veterans in the show and this organization was near and dear to them. [For a brief time Spencer seems to disappear into another dimension, immersed in a flashback.] Oh sorry. I was just remembering a sign-up sheet being posted for people who wanted to do the post-curtain call announcement, but I was too nervous to do that. I was happy to be one of those holding a red bucket in the lobby.
A tender uplifting story, Spencer. Tell about your fascination with the legendary Ms. Stritch.
I discovered Elaine on YouTube back in the day after falling in love with the musical Company. [The Sondheim song] “The Ladies Who Lunch” is a gem. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more truthful musical theater actor. Her Live at Liberty show is something I can watch over and over again. I really wish I could have met her. I remember she died when we were filming Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party.
Wow. She is without doubt a rousing force! I enjoyed your performance in Henry Gamble. Okay. Now, Joaquin Phoenix…
After seeing The Master, I fell in love with Joaquin’s work. I also admire his activism for animal cruelty and AIDS. I find his work captivating, it’s hard to look away. I had the pleasure of meeting him at ArcLight [Cinerama movie theater] in Hollywood at a screening of one of his films. After the film, I sprinted out of the theatre to tell him how much I admired his work. He was really nice…and down to earth.
Okay, good segue. I have some down to earth queries for you! First one, what would you now tell your younger self?
[He ponders shortly, then ticks off each one as if it were a parable, listing them with a bravura staccato.] Sleep’s very important. Your career isn’t everything. Take piano lessons. Pay your credit cards off each month. Fall in love with reading sooner. Meditate more.
I really like that advice! Second query, what film would you choose to have been a part of—and what character?
Oh man, hmm… Wizard of Oz …definitely! I would be the Scarecrow.
I actually could see you playing that role, Spencer! Okay…Depression, third and final. What do you do when it crops up?
Accept it. Be present with it. Cry if I need to. Feel all the feels. [He takes a serious breath.] Cayla and I help each other process the feelings and encourage each other when we fall into funks.
Let me add, Dann…On a practical level, I deem the following also quite helpful: meditation, nature, healthy food, cold showers, less booze, proper sleep, and a bit of caffeine. [He thoughtfully imparts]…puppies help too.
Though its been moons ago when Ryan White bravely endured mega stigma and prejudice—it’s far beyond unfortunate—it still reverberates today. Continuation of this ignorance definitely impedes efforts to combat this pandemic. You being a straight chap, how can we better reach out to these macho guys to protect themselves from HIV infection?
With macho straight guys—insert Village People song here [Spencer giggles]—you gotta hit ‘em with the science! Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work. So hit them with examples too. Ryan White contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. Magic Johnson contracted it through sex with women. And…[the actor takes a pregnant pause] it’s also important to explain why gay men are disproportionately affected. As an ally, I feel like it’s my responsibility to educate my peers, to correct misinformation, and gross language. [I raise my fist in approval.] I’m not sure if I’m doing it right all the time, but if anyone has advice as to how I can do it better—I’m all ears.
You’re more evolved than many others I know, Mr. Curnutt.
I think it’s important to educate people…early! [Spencer’s gentle riveting hazel eyes sparkle as he casts a knowing grin, lifting his concerned brows, then concludes].…And those who miss that memo might need a personal conversation with someone they trust.
Dann Dulin, Senior Editor, interviewed actress Hailie Sahar for this month’s cover story.