The Life and Times of Ron Woodroof
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB Captures One’s Man Journey Through the Landscape Of The AIDS Epidemic
In the early 1980s, Michael O’Neill, who portrays FDA official Richard Barkley in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, was a working actor living in New York City. With so little known at the time about how the illness was spreading and with misconceptions rampant, he remembers how “everyone was so confused and afraid.
“One evening, I was on a subway and I saw this big kid who looked like a sweet guy from the Midwest. He was trying to cover his lesions with make-up. I thought, ‘He came here where it is okay to be who he is, and he is going to be gone.”
Bigotry and prejudice against the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community is cited as a reason for the U.S. government’s initial slow response to H.I.V., including insufficient funding for AIDS research. The association of AIDS with homosexuality triggered a ferocious anti-gay backlash, as patients died in the trenches of an undeclared war.
H.I.V. and AIDS devastated neighborhood after neighborhood. Having lived in NYC’s Chelsea – an area that had only just begun coming into its own – at the time, O’Neill reflects, “It’s important to remember this period.”
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB costume designers Kurt and Bart do, all too well. They “lived through all of that, including the fear. There was so much loss during that time, and so little that was known about treatment – and so much hard work being done by people fighting for lives. There haven’t been enough movies about this.
“Everyone on the film felt a personal connection and joined up for a reason. The character of Rayon, and the bond that she forms with Ron, brought back a lot of memories.”
Through it all, the LGBT community led by example, responding to the disease with activism, research, and caring. Coming to the fight from a different vantage point, Ron rallied in a manner all his own.
Producer Robbie Brenner reminds, “A lot of people still thought, ‘well, it’s only in the homosexual community,’ and wondered if it was airborne or you could get it by touching a H.I.V.-positive person. People were scared, and doctors were still wearing masks because they didn’t know enough. When Ron found out that he would die of a disease that was seen by him as counter to everything he knew in life, he embraced education.”
Matthew McConaughey, in preparing for months to play the role, did everything he could to get into Ron’s mindset. He notes, “After listening to audiotapes and doing my research, I didn’t feel I needed any more information. Interviews with Ron were so helpful. In listening to Ron talk after seven years with H.I.V., I realized that a man speaks differently about himself and his legacy in retrospect than he does when he’s living it in progress.
“But then I did decide to meet with Ron’s family, and that made a difference. It was very informative. They are wonderful people who opened up the library of their house to me, lent me scrapbooks, other tapes, a couple of his diaries, and more.” McConaughey was quick to share the materials with members of the production team, bolstering the creative process for several key departments.
While reading journals and sitting with loved ones to talk about Ron, McConaughey gained new admiration for the man he would be portraying on-screen. “At the beginning of this journey he’s a two-bit cowboy, and by the end of it, he’s a damn scientist. He did have an engineering mind which he’d put to good use to make something of a living as an electrician. That, too, came from the will to survive. Once he grasped that he had H.I.V., he gains purpose, he had this one clear thing to do – stay alive. Everything else followed from that.” Producer Rachel Winter reflects, “When Ron shares his news with his inner circle, their response is so hurtful – and, given the fear and ignorance of the times, hardly an exception. I think T.J., whom Kevin Rankin did a fantastic job playing, represents the last vestiges of Ron’s old life.”
Screenwriter Melisa Wallack notes, “Ron’s new life starts when he goes out and educates himself. Just imagine what this was like before there was an Internet! We show how he was going to libraries, searching through microfiche files and newspapers, reading through scientific and medical publications looking for information about an illness that no one knew enough about. He knew nothing about the government agencies, the drug companies, and the medications – but he learned and then he challenged everyone.”
Throughout the screenwriting process, Wallack relished writing the lead character’s combativeness. She marvels, “Ron was a s—t-kicking cowboy who ended up taking on so much and so many. He was a very resilient person. Maybe it was a Texas thing – ‘the government can’t tell me what to do’ – that made him so proactive. He was self-motivated in the beginning because he wanted to live, but he became very selfless. He wasn’t a person who felt sorry for himself. He knew he was going to die, but he was going to die with his boots on and while kicking.”
In DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, when thwarted by his own country’s health care system, Ron turns to the black market and discovers a caché of alternative drugs just beyond the Texas border in Mexico. At the AIDS clinic there, he meets expatriate physician Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne). In Mexico, Ron finds renewed health and hope – and he also sees a lucrative business opportunity in smuggling the medications into the U.S. to sell, since he knows firsthand how AIDS patients were looking for affordable alternative treatments. His business soon brings him the unwanted attention of the FDA’s Barkley, who will dog his trail for years to come.
For O’Neill, key to his portrayal was that “Barkley can see that Ron is ill, so he doesn’t want to be the bad guy. Barkley gives him a pass, at least at first. During their initial interrogation, Barkley believes what he wants to believe – which most of us do anyway.
“I don’t see my character as being wrong. He’s standing by a system put in place to protect the American public. The question is, was that system remiss at that time?”
In learning that selling his smuggled drugs is not as easy as he first thought, Ron discovers that Rayon is a formidable negotiator – and the vital link that can connect Ron to a community he doesn’t, and hasn’t tried to, understand.
McConaughey says, “In Rayon, I think Ron finds another person who’s something of an outcast. But it’s not this ‘now I understand’ moment; that wasn’t Ron. He was determined to stay alive and get into this business, and he sees in Rayon a good business partner. So then it becomes ‘us against them,’ or ‘us against the world.’”
“Rayon and Ron are polar opposites,” comments Leto about the character dynamics. “That’s what made it so interesting: a cowboy and a queen. It is really a great pairing in terms of the construction of the scripting. It’s wonderful screenwriting that the director embraced in terms of conveying how they interact and find their way together. Partnering with Ron gives Rayon more purpose in her life, more to live for.”
As Ron and Rayon’s business grows, the Dallas Buyers Club becomes the subject of frequent raids by the FDA, DEA, and local police – with the entire inventory subject to confiscation. In turn, Ron would apply for restraining orders and defiantly re-stock. When the FDA blocked the import of some of these drugs from specific countries, Ron would travel to other countries to get them, or new alternatives.
Brenner remarks, “The FDA was, and is, a necessary regulatory agency in that this country needs a place that checks to see the food and drugs we put into our bodies are safe. But it’s also regulating powerful multi-billion dollar businesses and any time there is that much money involved, lines can get blurred.
“We were all very cognizant of doing research to make sure that everything we put into the script was accurate, and considerate of the people who lived and died during that time. Everything in the script was vetted – from all sides of the equation, including doctors and activists. Ron extended his life through a lot of alternative medicines which helped contain the symptoms of AIDS, but were not a cure.”
Winter notes, “Craig and Melisa found the right blend of accuracy – not only for the medical details, but for the legal and government issues that Ron faced. There was only so far we could go into ‘procedural’ mode; the movie had to be entertaining.
“It was so important to stay close to who Ron was – which was something Matthew felt particularly passionate about.”
McConaughey believes that Ron’s relentless boundary-pushing was an important part of advancing the fight for accessible AIDS treatments forward. He remarks, “Ron was such a thorn in the side of the FDA, and he encouraged his Buyers Club clients to raise a ruckus. He and other patient advocates and activists successfully put the pressure on to speed up the process of getting these drugs available – and, crucially, affordable.”
Those trailblazing activists and advocates often found themselves coordinating efforts, and sharing information, with Buyers Clubs. In December 1991, Chicago Tribune journalist Jean Latz Griffin reported that there were over a dozen Clubs operating out of “small offices, storefronts and lofts” – and serving an estimated 10,000 clients all across the U.S. Aside from Ron’s, Buyers Clubs at the time included the Healing Alternatives Foundation in San Francisco, the People With AIDS (PWA) Health Group in New York City, and Fight for Life in Fort Lauderdale.
By the mid-1990s, “the AIDS cocktail” combination therapies became accepted treatment protocol for H.I.V./AIDS patients. In reduced doses, AZT was an early ingredient in these lifesaving treatments. These drug combinations have saved and prolonged millions of lives; in an “ARV cocktail,” three drugs each attack different elements of viral replication, thereby greatly reducing the effects of H.I.V.
The struggle to find a cure is ongoing, as is the struggle to provide therapy for those patients in need of it; tens of thousands of people with H.I.V. in the U.S., and many millions overseas, lack access to information or treatment.
Jennifer Garner reminds, “Any progress that has been made is because of the sacrifices people make – and made; I still can’t even imagine what it must have been like to lose so many friends back then.”