It began with what Michael Kearns calls "a little sexual dalliance."
The result is "Rock" (opening Friday at Highways), a new solo show about homophobia, artistic identity, show biz . . . and his own 1983 encounter with Rock Hudson. "Rock was a classic victim," said Kearns, who, long tagged as "the only openly gay actor in Hollywood," was sought by the media for comment upon Hudson's death. "He was a victim of this town, of alcohol, of his looks, of the system, of his own publicity. In many ways he was the opposite of me."
Unfortunately, there is now a common ground. Last fall, in the wake of Brad Davis' AIDS death, Kearns, 42, announced his own HIV-positive status to NBC's Faith Daniels. "I felt a deep kinship with Brad," he said of his disclosure. "Then the media comes to me, and I'm saying the same things I said six years ago with Rock. Nothing's changed. There's been fund-raising and consciousness-raising by heterosexual female stars, but the more subtle, insidious fear has increased."
For his part, Kearns has spent the better part of the last decade writing, acting and directing gay and AIDS-themed theater, including "Dream Man," "Night Sweat," "Jerker," the autobiographical "The Truth Is Bad Enough" and his solo galleries of characters battling AIDS, "intimacies" and "more intimacies." He also created AIDS/US and AIDS/US II, a documentary telling of real-life AIDS stories by the real-life subjects.
Kearns' artistic activism has not gone unnoticed; he concedes that the word mission has long been attached to his work. "To me, being an actor has always had to do with social change," he said. "Being an actor and being on a mission are very linked." Even so, he said that he kept his HIV status mum since 1989 for practical reasons: "I worried about my income--canceled bookings, and my teaching."
The reality of his disclosure? "Frankly, I have more work than ever," Kearns said cheerfully. "I suppose in some people's minds these are farewell tours; not to me. What bugs me is when I see these I-know-he's-gonna-die looks in people's eyes. I know they're well-intentioned, but it separates me from them--and I don't want to be separated from them. Now, when someone says, 'How are you?' it's so loaded with heavy meaning."
And of course, there's his new celebrity status. "There I was, suddenly doing 'Entertainment Tonight,' radio shows, photo sessions," he said. "On one hand, it was exciting, fun, all those things you imagine. On the other hand, it was painful, frightening. (Writer) Bruce Vilanch said, 'You finally got sick enough to be famous.' And it's true! I didn't delude myself into thinking this was anything more than just what the media does."
Ultimately, Kearns--who could never be accused of being a Pollyanna--refuses to label his HIV a tragedy. "It makes me prioritize things," he said. "And I've never been low on the passion scale. Has it made me more passionate to know that my days may be numbered, that there may not be many more opening nights? Of course! So, yes, part of it is good. It's no different than anyone who has an incredible obstacle and makes something beautiful out of it."
Now, with "Rock," Kearns has not only taken the opportunity to peek under the covers of a Hollywood legend, but to take a little creative license with that myth, and with himself. "When I tested (HIV) positive in 1989--well, everyone goes through a checklist and thinks of everyone it could've been (who infected them)," he said. "And while it's highly, highly unlikely, it could've been Rock."
Kearns finds that notion--as far out as it sounds--oddly comforting.
"It brought me closer to him, humanized him," he said. "When you read books on Rock, he's just this shell; there's nothing to play. What was the truth about his life? I love the freedom that I gave myself as a writer--not to be restrained by fact, to go anywhere I wanted, to use my experience, my imagination."
In the show, he portrays four characters: Kearns himself, Marilyn Monroe (speaking from the grave), an Arkansas teen-ager named Rocky, and Reggie--a composite of real-life figures who were hired by the studios in the late '40s to teach Hudson to speak with a deeper voice and to affect a more masculine persona.
The absence of Rock himself is deliberate. "This is about how people are affected by him--positively and negatively," Kearns explained. "It's like 'Rashomon' in that Rock Hudson is created from other people's perspectives."
San Francisco-based director Kelly Hill, who's collaborated with Kearns on five past projects, admits the show's opening "terrifies" him. "It's challenging stuff," he said, "challenging basic assumptions. Like Hollywood as this open, welcoming business. Like the idea that the gay community is going to take care of you. It's a pessimistic view of the business and its response to AIDS. It's in their face--and still, no one wants to speak of it."