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Mary Steenburgen was on a plane years ago when she realized how much of an impact her 1993 film Philadelphia had on audiences.
An airline staffer approached the actress to inform her that she hailed from “an extremely conservative family” who disowned her brother after he revealed he was gay. After two years of not seeing him, he called and asked to reunite one afternoon. “We met him and he took us to see Philadelphia and went out for dinner afterward and he explained, ‘I am HIV-positive. I do have AIDS and I’m going to die. I would love to be with my family around me when I leave.'”
Having no other experience to call upon, the flight attendant and her family relied on lessons they learned watching Jonathan Demme’s iconic film. “From the movie, the family was 100 percent there for him,” Steenburgen recalls of that conversation to The Hollywood Reporter. “I was just weeping and so grateful that she told me, and so grateful that I’d been a part of that.” It’s a story Philadelphia insiders know all too well, as many have heard similar tales over the past 25 years since it hit theaters.
To mark the pic’s milestone, the short featurette The Last Mile was made featuring castmembers Steenburgen, Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner recounting their experiences making it. (The film is being promoted in partnership with (RED) and the Coca-Cola Company through a series of events running up to Monday’s World AIDS Day.)
THR caught up with Steenburgen to discuss the film’s success, her emotional journey prior to starring in the film and how it ultimately changed her life.
How would you say Philadelphia impacted you and your career?
It was a challenging part for me, personally, because days before I went to play that character, I lost one of my best friends. He had been my roommate in New York. It was super hard for me to go be on the opposite side of someone, on the legal team, who had AIDS. Jonathan and I really talked about how this film was not about AIDS as much as it was about justice in America. Part of protecting that is that everybody is entitled to the best defense possible, which is why I had to be the best lawyer I could for something I personally — and I think even that character probably — disagreed with. So it was an interesting start in that sense because it was two things going on at all times for that character.
How were you able to cope with personal tragedy while preparing for your role in the film?
In my whole career, I’ve only had one day of work that had to be scrapped, and it was for my first day on Philadelphia because that was such an emotional mess. At the end of the day, I said to Jonathan, “You might have to recast this. I’m distraught about my friend.” And then he said, “No, that makes you even more perfect person, not a less perfect person to play it. Remember, this is not a film about ‘How do you feel about AIDS?'” Later on, he added the line which some people hear and some people don’t hear, where I whisper to [Obba Babatundé], “I hate this case.” By the time we shot that, I was playing that part with an understanding of the part, but he said, “No. I love the idea of the concept about everybody being entitled to the best defense possible. Not just the people you like or that you’re sympathetic to.” I think about that a lot since then when I see people defending the indefensible. They’re defending our entire justice system. That’s an important role. So that’s how I got through it.
Looking back on when you got signed on, do you remember getting the script for the first time and how it all came about for you?
I was out on location somewhere and Jonathan just calls me and said, “I want you to play this part.” He didn’t tell me very much about it, but I knew [the character Belinda] was a lawyer. I knew that the film had to do with a character who contracted AIDS. I said “yes” before I read the script, to be honest with you, because it was such an important subject to me. I was very active in different groups that were calling for justice and also for the pharmaceutical companies to step up. My initial involvement became very early because a friend of mine, Elizabeth Glaser, had become HIV-positive because of a blood transfusion and unknowingly passed it on to two of her children. And then my friend, one of my older friends from Arkansas, became first lady of the United States and that was Hillary [Clinton]. Elizabeth lost her daughter Ariel and she knew she didn’t have long to live, and the pharmaceutical companies were refusing to … they were putting out the early versions for HIV-positive men and women, mostly gay men. They did not see market children and so they didn’t test for efficacy for children and that meant Elizabeth thought her son would die. I had access to an important person, and so Elizabeth and I went to the White House. Hillary was very moved by all that, then began this campaign to make it possible for children to have drugs that have been safely tested so that they knew how much to give them. She lobbied them. It was heroic watching each of them. So, the movie, for me — I would’ve been one of the people that didn’t say a single word and just sat on the jury.
Do you think Philadelphia paved the way for films highlighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, such as The Normal Heart, Dallas Buyers Club and most recently Bohemian Rhapsody?
I do. We took some flak at the time from the gay community, because they wanted the relationship to be explored even more deeply. Jonathan — one the great liberals of the world and fearless — did handle the relationship between the two men with more tenderness and true love than with necessarily sexuality. He didn’t see it as a film that was supposed to say, “It’s okay to be gay.” He saw it as a film to say, “There is deep prejudice and injustice in this world toward all kinds of people, but in this case of this, towards somebody who needs full compassion and help, and that is what America is supposed to be.” So do I think it paved the way for anything to do with AIDS? Absolutely. But it paved the way for films that are about any kind of prejudice, and also about a kind of justice for our country.
Philadelphia is being rereleased in select theaters on World AIDS Day. Is there a particular message you hope audiences receive from the film?
We have made amazing advances in so many ways in terms of drugs that are available. Even on the continent of Africa, which has experienced so much misinformation and sorrow, it is so much better. But as you can see in [The Last Mile], it’s still critical to realize, both here and there, that while there are treatments, there has never fully been a cure. It’s something that people need to not assume is over.
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