When I first met the smart and talented actor, filmmaker, photographer, and activist Linus Ignatius a few years back, I was struck by his unconventional good looks and charm. He's tall, fit, and has a shy, disarmingly wicked smile that both put me at ease and made me want to know more. I was surprised to find out that he, like a lot of us, struggles with his self-image and how he fits into the world as a gay man living with HIV.
Ignatius' new short film Mass, which recently had its debut at the 2019 NewFest, New York's LGBTQ Film Festival, is a semi-autobiographical work, exploring an everyman's struggle with inferiority in the face of hulking muscular "manly" men, shameful secrets, and internalized HIV stigma. I recently had a conversation with Ignatius about his life, his HIV journey, and the brave decision to use his own life challenges in the film.
Charles Sanchez: Tell me a bit about Linus. Like, where did you grow up and stuff?
Linus Ignatius: I grew up mostly in Hong Kong. Hong Kong, Russia, and Belgium. My parents are journalists and were working overseas and traveling a lot. I was what they call a third-culture kid. So, like, not fully American, but definitely not Chinese or Russian or Belgian. I'm in the middle, in between.
CS: Wow. So how long have you been in New York, pursuing the dream?
LI: I moved here before high school, and then went to college in Ohio, and then went to film school in the Czech Republic. Then I lived in Berlin for a couple years after college, and then came back to New York about four years ago.
CS: Now you're settled in Brooklyn.
LI: That's right!
CS: Tell me about your HIV journey.
LI: I seroconverted when I was in Berlin. I didn't have much of a support system. I was 22 or 23. I didn't have any health insurance. I had very few friends there. I was plunged into chaos. I was in a world of hedonism, a lot of party people around me, and I became one of them. That was my way of coping.
I very quickly became very public about my HIV status and made a documentary right away with the help of RYOT Films. It was called Positive. It was a short doc, basically like a video journal, tracking my journey over the first three months after I seroconverted. I had a boyfriend at the time, which somehow made me feel protected. And then at the end of the doc, we broke up, and it was almost like I had to deal with my status in a new way or kind of really process it, because now it was like, "I have to be single, active in the dating world, dealing with the way people react to this." It felt like my safety had been taken away and was a new frontier.
I also had chaos going on because I couldn't get meds in Berlin. I got some meds the first month, which I paid for out of pocket and was reimbursed partially by health insurance. That was like a thousand or two thousand euros. Then I couldn't get my meds in Europe because I had American [health] insurance, and you can't send it from America because it's against custom laws. I was going back and forth [from the U.S. to Europe], or my family would send the meds with other family members that were traveling. It was really crazy. I was living pill bottle to pill bottle for a while.
By the grace of the Universe and some really important support people in my life, I made it back to New York. I got back in therapy. I started seeing my doctor in New York regularly, plus a social worker that he works with, and I got sober.
CS: What kind of creative work did you do then?
LI: Well, HIV wasn't really present in my mind then, except for activist work. That's when I met Bruce [Richman] and did some work for the U=U [undetectable equals untransmittable] campaign. Then, I started researching an article. I'd told my HIV story, but then I started interviewing a lot of people about their stories. I was interested in a wider network, so I met people in Russia and Indonesia and around America who were living with the virus, and I thought I might create another documentary. All of those interviews continue to inspire what I write.
CS: Is that when you developed Mass?
LI: I started gearing toward more narrative fiction, which led me to Mass. Mass really deals with that sensitive period soon after seroconverting. And what does an HIV diagnosis mean in 2019? And what kind of insecurities does it raise?
CS: How long did it take for you to develop Mass?
LI: Well, I wrote it in a day or so. I'd been chewing on the ideas for a while, and we shot it almost a year ago. It's kind of a genre defier. I mean, it has a comedic structure, then it takes a dark turn. There's something disturbing about it, but it's also funny. Much of it is dialogue-less, playing out almost like an early silent film. Every shot is supposed to highlight how small and alone my character feels. You're in a distorted world where you're seeing the world through the main character's perspective. Everywhere he looks, there are people who are bigger, badder, stronger. And he's kind of dwarfed by everything around him. He sees everything as this kind of competition or skirmish of masculinity. It's a very subjective little slice of life.
CS: What do you hope people get from the film -- like, the takeaway?
MASS - a short film about getting BIG (trailer) from Linus Ignatius on Vimeo.
LI: The film raises more questions than answers them. It raises questions around why people don't disclose [their HIV status]. Around what kind of insecurities might be lying underneath modern gay hookup culture. It raises questions about body dysmorphia [a body-image disorder characterized by intrusive worry about an imagined or slight defect in one's appearance] and being trapped in a cycle of that. What happens when you're body dysmorphic, and everything you see is affirming your deepest insecurities?
And what does it mean to live with HIV today? There's a mention of [the character] being undetectable and he doesn't know whether he's undetectable yet, because he's been on meds for a few months and he's waited for the test to come back. For some people, that might be the first time they hear that term "undetectable," right? Other people, they might have recognition of like, 'OK, I know this. I know what this is like, and this is what it's like psychologically to be in that space.'
[Mass is] a crystallization of me at my most insecure, because it's very autobiographical. And I say that in the movie -- that it's based on a true story.
The full 10-minute short film is set to be released online very soon, available on Vimeo. You can also follow Linus Ignatius on Instagram @linusignatius, or find him on Facebook.