Inside ’Dallas Buyers Club’
"Dallas Buyers Club" tells the little known story of Ron Woodroof, a Texas rodeo cowboy diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and given 30 days to live. When he had difficulties getting into a test for the anti-viral drug AZT, he discovered a black market for AIDS treatments in Mexico. Woodroof extended his own life with these treatments, then extended them others by creating a club for other HIV/AIDS patients. Members could join the club for access to medications, and that wasn’t technically distributing, though the medical community certainly fought back.
Producer Robbie Brenner discovered the Ron Woodroof story when Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack brought her the script. Borton had interviewed Woodroof before his death. Matthew McConaughey stars as Woodroof, in a striking appearance having lost close to 50 pounds for the part.
"I think with Matthew, it really hit me when I saw him in person," Brenner said. "I thought wow, oh my God, I weigh more than he does. I thought to myself that’s just unbelievable. His commitment and his dedication to Ron was absolutely unflinching. He was so consumed with Ron. He became him. The transformation was unbelievable. He was definitely thin but at a certain point you forget that it’s Matthew and I just really saw Ron. It was really unbelievable."
Costar Jared Leto also lost significant weight to play an AIDS afflicted trans woman named Rayon, whom Woodroof meets in the hospital. "Jared just completely lost himself in the role," Brenner continued. "The two of them, it was like a master class, just the two of them together. They supported each other. They both stayed in character the whole movie but it wasn’t like you would have to get back to where you were before. Things were moving so, so, so quickly. I think they found that incredibly freeing. Normally on most movies, you’re sitting around, you’re eating donuts, you’re talking to people on the grip trucks. Whatever it is you’re doing, there was none of that here."
Rayon was not a real person. A composite character created for the movie, Rayon is a trans woman who befriends Ron, shares some important medical information and becomes integral in the club. Rayon also becomes one of the most sympathetic characters for the audience when they see the prejudices he suffers in the climate of the mid-80s AIDS epidemic.
"There was not a real Rayon," Brenner said. "That’s a composite character that Melissa and Craig created. That was something that added to the drama of the story. I think there were certain people like him along the way, but no, he was not a person that actually existed. But I think that Jared and his rendition of this character, his choices that he made, he just completely is in a lot of ways the heart and soul of the movie. I think it’s him and this amazing love affair I think with Ron."
A method actor
Leto was a method actor for the duration of "Dallas Buyers Club’s" production. "Jared was just incredible. He took on this role and never looked back, very much in the same spirit as Matthew did. He showed up as Rayon and he stayed in character the whole entire movie. I didn’t even really meet Jared until [the] Toronto [Film Festival premiere]. He was Rayon. He was definitely Rayon. He was a beautiful woman sitting in his chair on set. He just had Rayon down, the voice and the characteristics. His portrayal of this character is just absolutely unbelievable, incredible."
The character of Rayon also goes a long way to ground the film’s portrayal of LGBT and heterosexual AIDS afflicted communities in the ’80s. Woodroof himself was homophobic when he first got the diagnosis, and Rayon helps soften him, and perhaps anyone in the audience with their own prejudices.
"I think that that character in the movie in a lot of ways, if it wasn’t portrayed in the right way, it could’ve taken you out of the movie very, very easily," Brenner said. "Somebody could have played that as a caricature with a boa and heels, just sort of like a caricature of what people think that that should be. But, I think he found such an authentic way into the character in every choice that he made. There’s not a moment where I feel you watch this movie and you don’t feel like it completely feels reel and like you’re living it and breathing it. You’re with these characters and I think that’s pretty amazing because even though it’s period, it feels very timeless in a lot of ways."
Sexy and beautiful
Leto himself does not make movies very often. Since "Chapter 27" in which he gained weight to play Mark David Chapman in 2007, he’s only made two movies: "Mr. Nobody" in 2009 (now finally getting a U.S. release on VOD and theaters), and "Dallas Buyers Club."
"I think that he just fell in love," Brenner said. "I think that he read the script and he fell in love with the character and with the story. He hadn’t done a movie in five or six years and he’s worked with incredible directors, from Darren Aronofsky to David Fincher, the list goes on. He has an incredible music career and I think that he just read the script and he felt like ’I can do something really special with this. I can breathe life into Rayon and I can really, really take this character and make it come to life in such a three dimensional way.’"
Jean-Marc Vallée directed "Dallas Buyers Club." His previous films include "The Young Victoria" starring Emily Blunt as Queen Victoria and "Cafe de Flore" with Vanessa Paradis. Brenner said that Leto completely seduced Vallée to win the role of Rayon.
"I remember when we were trying to educate Jean-Marc Vallée on Jared, certainly he knew who he was and he said, ’Okay, well, I’m going to Skype with him.’ Jared was in Europe at the time. He called me after the call and he said, ’Oh my God, we found our Rayon. He just seduced me on the phone. He was dressed up like a woman. He was putting on lipstick. He was sexy, he was beautiful, he’s Rayon.’ Then Rayon was born."
What Woodroof faced in the medical community was not just a lack of available treatment for the then new disease. It was more complicated. As depicted in the film, hospitals were running drug trials, which included control groups with placebos. This would provide vital research in developing a cure for AIDS ultimately. However, the long-term goal of finding a cure didn’t help anyone that currently suffered from HIV or AIDS. Those patients needed anything that could ease their suffering right now. That was Woodroof’s battle, however Brenner sees it as something more universal.
"To me, the medicine is sort of the backdrop for to me what is an incredible emotional character piece," she said. "This man, against his own sort of adversity and his extreme nature of who he was was able to, through this experience, become a better person and ultimately learn how to embrace people and see the world differently. To me, it always spoke to me really on an emotional level, less on the medicine of what was going on. That’s certainly interesting, but it was more of the emotional journey and the arc of this character, what he did and who he was."
The story of a Texas man with old fashioned, sometimes overtly homophobic values, is certainly poignant as a historical footnote. However, "Dallas Buyers Club" is not a polemic about tolerance either.
"You don’t have to be a homophobic cowboy in the 1980s to feel like you can identify with Ron and his plight and what he went through," Brenner said. "It deals with a lot of human relatable issues that we experience, whether it’s people growing up in a certain way and being either uneducated or not being accustomed to a certain type of person or taking on something that’s bigger than ourselves, looking in the mirror and finding strength. Whatever it is, there are so many incredible messages in this movie. I think it’s entertaining and I’m really proud of it."
"Dallas Buyers Club" opens in limited release on Nov. 1, 2013.