A screening of Anthony’s film “Thicker Than Blood” will be held in Chicago on Saturday, February 26th at 1PM. Get your tickets here.
[This interview happened in September of 2021. It has been lightly edited for readability and redundancy.]
Hey, Anthony. This is Nico.
Hey, how are you?
Good, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to me today.
Yeah, glad we could find the time.
So I’ve definitely been meaning to follow up with you since we had our shoot a few months ago.
Yeah, and you know what’s funny? I just saw somebody this morning who said, “I just saw your commercial on TV this morning as I was getting ready!”
Are you serious?
Yeah, she said, “I just saw you this morning on TV.”
Wait, they are airing our commercial finally?
They’re still airing it, yeah. I’ve had a couple people that have reached out and said that they’ve seen it. I haven’t seen it on TV like I had to go through and search for it on YouTube.
I’ll tell you what, I haven’t gotten any residuals either.
Not yet, me either. Still waiting. (laughs)
So, Anthony, part of why I wanted to talk to you is because you are a filmmaker. you had told me a little bit about your background, you told me about an experience you had I believe in North Carolina.
Yeah, yeah I lived there for ten years.
Could you just tell me a little bit about yourself?
So, I’m a director, writer, producer, I’m also an actor-which is how we met. I started primarily as an actor when I was maybe eleven or twelve, gained all of my acting skills in high school and college, and then did a brief stint in LA before moving to North Carolina. And it wasn’t until living in LA that I realized that I wanted to have more involvement behind the screen because at the time that I lived in LA, it was all very, the industry lacked creativity—a lot of money was going towards the big Hollywood reboots, and you know they’re getting all this money and it’s crashing at the box office and there’s no originality and it’s just—I felt like we needed something different. So when I moved to North Caroline I started my own production company and really just learned how things work behind the camera. Just by diving in and learning along the way and ten years later I’m here.
So, your training was mostly in acting and then you learned these other skills over time?
Yeah, yeah. And I had no intention of being a filmmaker and writing or producing things like I was strictly an actor and that’s all I wanted to do. But yeah, it’s funny how life works out that way when you think your path is taking you down one way—which it, you know, still is—but it has all of these different you know avenues that we can go down on this one path as well, it’s crazy.
So it must have been a really strong experience in LA that made you feel so passionate about changing your direction and forming your own company and making your own films. I’m just really interested in what some of those experiences were?
Yeah, well, at the time that I lived in LA it was in the middle of 2008. So it was the wrong time to be there—we were in the middle of the recession, the writer’s strike was happening in the industry, the job freeze was happening because of the recession and just like no shows were being put out. So I call that the time of the remakes and reboots. So all of these franchises were being rebooted, which we’ve seen before, some of which shouldn’t have been touched (laughs), and some of which went on to make some money but like there are so many more different and diverse and unique stories that we haven’t seen that could be told.
And so I think that was really kind of the catalyst and the fire that was lit inside of me, is just because I wasn’t seeing a lot of diversity in stories—yes by way of like stories for people of color and stories for all kinds of people- but in general it was lacking in creativity and originality. And so my friends really just got tired of hearing me talk about, “Oh well if I were to write a movie I would do this,” or, “I would tell a story like that,” and they were like, “well, go do it.” and so that really prompted me to go out and do it. and again, I really knew nothing about filmmaking but I feel like I’ve just gone off of a lot of instincts when it came to telling stories and directing and writing stories.
I know that a lot of that came from my background as an actor with how I write characters because I have to dive deep into character work as an actor. And then how a story should be told—just from an acting standpoint- full-fledged, well-rounded story…what that looks like, what that leaves you feeling like, and then approaching writing in that way. And then as a director, just really looking at what is the best way to pull out the best performances with actors. Speaking the language that actors speak in order to tap into what they need to tap into to bring to the screen. I think the most things that I had to learn were just the technicalities that came with all the different areas, the technicalities of directing, of writing. Just the feeling and the instinct were always there and that’s really guided me the majority of the way.
So you mentioned that there was diversity in the storytelling that was missing, and I’m kind of interested because it sounded like you were saying, “there *were* stories that were representing people of color, it wasn’t about that—is that what you were saying?
No, I’m saying that in addition to a lack of originality there was also just a lack of diversity in the types of stories that were being told.
So what do you mean specifically?
At that time there were very few black stories that were out there.
There was very little representation of the LBGT community or people of color, it wasn’t a full well-rounded picture of what we live in on a daily basis or what represents the face of America. Now I think that we’ve come a very, very long way in that time because that was 13 years ago now? I think that we’ve progressed quite a bit, we still have a long way to go, but we’ve made some progress.
Well, I mean it sounds like you wanted to be a part of a change and there were other creators who were also thinking the same thing and you all have kind of started a kind of renaissance in terms of black film-making and black stories being told, would you agree with that?
I mean I kind of like to think of it that way. but most of all I like to tell stories, how can I put this, I think that the type of storyteller and filmmaker that I am is just to talk about my lived experience, and my lived experience just happens to be from the Black perspective. But I think a lot of the stuff that I go through is a universal thing, that a lot of people go through, just having it told through the lens of a Black person gives it a different perspective.
I think that’s kind of what filmmaking and storytelling and any kind of visual art do. I mean we all have these collective lived experiences, but it’s just the lens with which we tell it. And I think that’s what keeps a lot of people very closed-minded because they can only see things through their lens and if they can see things through the lens of other people, they can realize that they connect more to other people than they might think.
How do you identify in terms of race, in terms of anything you feel comfortable sharing?
I’m a Black filmmaker, I place myself in the LGBT community, I’m also a man of faith. So those are the main three intersections with which I identify the most. Then of course there are all these subcategories of intersection based on the experiences I’ve lived.
What faith are you?
I was raised in the Christian faith and so I walk in the Christian faith and I live by that today and I think that a lot of people when they hear that they get the kind of “religious” sense that comes with it, but I think that there’s a difference between religion and spirituality. Spirituality is the relationship that you have with your higher power, and then religion is the constructs that we as people place on those relationships in spirituality, and so I feel like I’m more of a spiritual person because I believe in my relationship with Jesus as opposed to this-is-what-you’re-supposed-to-do-to-be-liked-by-Jesus, which is the religious aspect of it.
So I’m all about my relationship, I go to this church here in Chicago in the West Loop called Soul City, and I’ve been going for about two years. And one of the things that I really really love about them is that their entire mission is leading people into a transforming relationship with Jesus. It’s all about the relationship you have and the faith that you have and coming as you are and it’s really welcoming and it’s all about bringing your true and whole self and just knowing that it’s all about the relationship and not at all about religion.
What has your relationship with Jesus done for you?
That’s probably a whole different episode. It’s done so much. I mean I was raised by a single mom who worked three jobs to support two kids. And just seeing the different ways that we were sustained in life, it’s just miraculous. And then on a personal level, just like the experiences that I’ve been through? I’ve been in some positions where I should not even be alive right now, but it literally is by the grace of God that I am still breathing and able to talk to you today.
(A few minutes later Anthony elaborates more.)
It was a week after high school graduation where I fell asleep behind the wheel and hit a telephone pole. And right before it happened I remember waking up before I hit the pole and I remember seeing this white figure that spread out what looked like angel wings right at the point of impact where my car hit the pole. I remember being in and out of consciousness and waking up and I remember waking up on the ground on a stretcher getting ready to be loaded into an ambulance and the EMT was like, “welcome back, I’m glad we got you back.” So I don’t know if I died or what happened but I specifically remember seeing there was this figure on the right side of my car where the point of impact was and I just knew that I was spared and the crazy thing about it is, probably a week or so later, my half-brother passed away. Almost a week after my accident happened. I wasn’t really close to him, didn’t really know him very well but I just find it strange that that happened because I was the firstborn and then he was the second son.
I remember in my recovery process hearing that my life mattered and that my life had purpose because at that time in my life I felt like it didn’t. So it just, I’m very grateful to have survived that and to still be alive to be able to tell people the story.
I remember standing up in the middle of what seemed like cubicle-land as far as the eye could see. and I thought, “This is not my life.”
Did that change your life?
That absolutely changed my life. I wanna say a year and some change later, I remember, I’ll never forget this, I was working in 2008—this is what led to me moving to LA—I was working for a mortgage company in the foreclosure department in the middle of this recession. And so I was having to speak with people every day about either making a payment or we’re gonna have to take their house, and then processing the paperwork for people to not have their homes anymore. And it was in the really dark, gloomy warehouse-type office and I remember standing up in the middle of what seemed like cubicle-land as far as the eye could see. and I thought, “This is not my life,” like I can’t look up and this be three years later and I’m still working here, I just can’t. And I heard something say, “then change it.” So I sat back down, I got on Craigslist and I was like I wonder how much a room or apartment might cost in LA. I came across this ad from this guy who had just gotten out of the military and bought a house an hour north of LA, and he was wanting to start a production company, and he said, “everybody that works on this company, I would love to live in the same house because we can all live in the same house for super cheap, we can work together and really try out some work.”
So I called and talked to him on the phone and he laid out what his idea was and I said, “well this seems really extreme so give me some time to think about it.” I hung up with him and I stood up and just looked over cubicle-land and said, “I can’t do this.” So I sat back down, called him back, and said, “count me in, I’d love to do it.” And so before I left work that day I put in my two-week notice. I went home, I started selling off everything that I had and I ended up two or three weeks later flying to LA with nothing but money in my pocket and my clothes. I had realized that my life was not supposed to be trapped in this. I realized that I was meant for so much more than where I was in my life and that if I didn’t step out and take a leap of faith and do something, that was where I was going to be stranded for the rest of my life. And I know that I wasn’t spared to just sit here in cubicle land. So that really sent my career off into the journey that I’m on today.
Have you ever been targeted because of your queer identity?
Absolutely. I grew up in the South—I grew up in Arkansas (laughs). And so being a Black man, a part of the LGBT community in the South? That’s almost like three strikes against me right there. So there have been instances where I’ve been called the f-word, which I hate saying. The n-word, which is thrown around. There have been times where I’ve been bullied in school. Thank god I was never like physically bullied, but emotional and mental—I mean it all takes a toll on you.
But yeah I’ve been a target of quite a bit and there have been many many times I’ve gone through the challenging times of trying to just process all of that, and I think that’s where my faith really helped me to be able to pull through a lot of that because you go through a lot of that as a kid and it sticks with you, and then later as an adult, you’re questioning life, you’re questioning your purpose, you’re questioning a lot about yourself. But if you don’t have a foundation of some type of faith to stand on, it’s gonna be really hard to get through situations like that. But I’ve been a big target of quite a bit as a queer person.
Tell me about your work?
The first short film that I did after starting my production company was a short film called Potty Mouth, you might be able to find it on YouTube. I just had a funny stupid idea I ran with about a guy who was unable to pee in public restrooms because he was pee-shy. So it was this short film about this guy who was having trouble going to the bathroom. And I knew nothing about filmmaking but I knew how to tell a story. And so I really had to come to terms with recognizing what I was comfortable with and trusting people around me with what I had no knowledge about.
And so my theater teacher-who taught me all four years of high school and taught me everything I knew about acting, I called her and I was like, “this is what I’m doing, I’m hoping that it will turn out really well but I’m so nervous.” And that was the advice she gave me, she’s like, “sweetheart surround yourself with really good people that you trust because it’s not only your project, everybody that works with you, this is their project too.” So you have to be able to release some of that and trust the people that you’ve placed around you. So that’s what I took into that first experience and I still carry it with me to this day. I’m the first person that will say, “I don’t know everything when it comes to anything.” (laughs) and so I will always solicit everybody’s opinion, I will always be open and collaborative. And even though it is my project and the final say lies with me, I don’t claim to have all the answers to anything. So I’m a really collaborative type creative that way.
After that, I did a bigger short film called Absolutely Positive about four individuals who decide to get tested for HIV and we see why they decide to get tested, the thoughts that go through their minds while they’re waiting to get their results, and then how they decide to live their lives after finding out what the results are. It was a 30-minute short and it actually was kind of born out of my own anxiety. I would get tested regularly but it felt like the longest ten minutes of time to sit there and wait to get the results back, and so I was like, “I”m pretty sure I’m not the only person that feels this fear or anxiety while I’m sitting and waiting.” Because you know I’m sitting thinking, “Oh my God, how many times did I have sex? Who did I have sex with? Did I do this?” So it was all the questions that were spiraling until they gave me the result back. And so that’s where the film was born. And it was four individuals from all different walks of life and that way I wanted to be able to portray as much as I could.
Now the film wasn’t as diverse as I wanted it to be—having shot it in North Carolina—it was really wanting a diverse cast. But with this type of subject matter, talking about HIV, talking about LGBT issues, we had a lot of reluctance bringing on the right cast that I had in mind as well as crew members. Because it was racy for its time, I think it was like 2012, and a lot of people were like, “You’re going to do everything that’s in this script?” and I was like, “Yeah,” and they’re like, “Well, what if you tone back on talking about X, Y, and Z,” and I said, “No, you can’t talk about HIV without talking about sex.” And so I got a lot of pushback, a lot of people that dropped the project at the last minute, and then I was very blessed with the cast that I ended up working with because we had a challenging time trying to find the right cast as well.
So some of the people that you tried to cast for this movie would not accept the role because they felt like they didn’t want to have a sex scene?
That or they didn’t want to be viewed in the light of being—if they were a straight actor, at that time—like no straight actors wanted to come in and audition for a gay role. Especially if it was going to be kissing another guy, or like any type of intimacy or closeness with a same-sex character on scene? I had people that were like, “I’m sorry, I’m calling out of this audition, I can’t come in to do it.” So yeah, we had a lot of pushback.
So you’re saying you were trying to cast a Black man into one of these roles and you couldn’t find one?
Was that surprising to you at this time?
Absolutely not. That’s why I wrote the part like I wrote the part because I knew it was going, to be honest, and I knew that it was going to be challenging to get the message across on the screen but that’s what I wanted to see on the screen because at the time we weren’t seeing it at all. So I was like, “If I don’t write it, it’s never gonna get on, because it’s not on now.”
So when I held the auditions, very few people of color came out for any of the roles, which wasn’t surprising but it was a little disheartening. But like I said, the cast that I ended up working with I feel like they were the perfect fit for those roles and that project at the time. And I feel like everything happens for a reason. I’m actually developing that short film into a series. And I’m writing the roles exactly how I see it because where we are now is different than it was 10 years ago so I know that I’d be able to find the cast that I want. So I’m working on that, which I’m really happy about because that film touched a lot of people. It was on the film festival circuit for quite some time, it got a couple of awards, and it actually got me an invite to the White House in 2013.
Did you meet Obama? Either of them?
I wish that I had. It was like a whole different part of the White House. I was like, “Y’all gonna bring me here and I can’t even meet the man in charge?”
What was that like?
It was awesome. So someone at the White House had seen the film, and they invited me to the National HIV/AIDS Strategy Convention, which was pretty much the meeting that talked about the funding that was coming in to distribute nation-wide for education, prevention, non-profits, and cities across the country so it was a major deal to be in the room with those people and to hear how that side of things work, getting resources to people and treatment and education and things like that. So it was an honor to be there and to be in the same room hearing those people speak was amazing.
Wow, did they feed you?
Did they? I can’t remember, it’s been so long. I remember we went in, we were able to talk with people and ask questions, no they didn’t feed us. I think I got my own lunch afterward (laughs). Yup.
This is what people need to know about the Obama White House.
Inside scoop. I had to get there on my own, and I had to find my own lunch, come on Obama!
What did that feel like to receive that invitation? To reach that point of your career that somebody had been affected by a film that you’d written, so much so that you were in the White House?
It was the most liberating and joyous and humbling feeling. I think Absolutely Positive was only my second or third project that I’d ever done as a director. And for it to be an extended project like that, that not only went to film festivals but also reached local health departments across the country, it reached a lot of HIV/AIDs and health organizations across the country, and it reached the White House, so to see how it impacted was just phenomenal.
I think another thing that sits with me, was that was the first time that I’d really trusted and stuck with my instincts on a film. A lot of people told me to change a lot of stuff in that story, and I really put my foot down and said, “We can’t talk about this issue unless we dive deeper into what the root cause of the issue is or if we don’t talk about the things that continue to get swept under the rug or if we don’t put light on this as it should or if people just continue to brush it aside.” That’s why the HIV rates are going up amongst people of color as well as younger groups, the longer it’s out of the media, the higher the rates go. So I was so so very proud of myself for sticking to my creative guns and instincts. I feel like I have very strong convicting instincts that are rooted in my faith.
Are you currently writing the series?
Yes. The pilot is written, it needs to go through another re-write phase. And I’m so happy with the direction that it’s come after like fourteen or fifteen drafts and like ten years later. There are some things that I know deep down in my knower that this is how the story should go and this is what we should talk about.
Can you tell me a little about how you identify socio-economically?
I’m not rich (laughs). By no means. I feel like I’m just now getting to the point of my career where I can live comfortably. It’s funny that you ask that because growing up without money will show you what you really need to be able to live.
A lot of people in this industry will make decisions solely based on money, one of my mottos is to never make a decision based on money.
Did you grow up without money?
Yeah, my mom was a single mom—she worked two or three jobs at the same time to raise me and my sister so we didn’t have very much money, we weren’t fortunate, we didn’t live a lavish life. We lived paycheck to paycheck most times and that’s another part of where my faith comes in because I know that there were times where we could have gone hungry and then out of the blue got just provided, out of nowhere. In ways that we wouldn’t have been able to write, imagine, or think of.
Like I remember my mom at one point, we didn’t have a car, and we lived maybe about 20 minutes away from the church and we attended church every day. Since we didn’t have a car, my pastor was letting her borrow the church van as her vehicle, to be able to get around and so every day I remember we would have to stop at the gas station because she would only be able to put in enough money that she had to get us back and forth for one day. And so there was one day where she had maybe five or six dollars, and it was the choice between putting gas in the van to get where we needed to go or to get something to eat for that night because that’s all she had on her. And so we got food and she was like, “I’ll try and see if I can get gas money from someone.” And so we stopped off somewhere, I think we stopped off at a grocery store and she was walking across the parking lot and just found money on the ground in this really random spot where like nobody would go. So we were able to get food to get through that week and put a little more gas in the tank than we needed to and we got around for the week. And it was stuff like that that would just happen out of nowhere where we would say it’s only God that could have done that.
So today I’m able to recognize the difference between what a need is and what a want is. And if I don’t need it, then I don’t go out and get it. I mean there are times when I will get some things that I want, but I’m not out splurging just because I have a little more money than usual because I realize what that money could be used for. And having grown up without money, money doesn’t drive me. It doesn’t drive my decisions, so I can live with or without money because I’ve done it as a kid. A lot of people in this industry will make decisions solely based on money, one of my mottos is to never make a decision based on money. Because that’s when your integrity and your morals and everything become compromised and you lose the vision and the purpose of what you’re supposed to be doing because it’s rooted in money.
Has your queer identity been accepted by your family?
When I first came out I was 19 and I wanted to make sure I was at least old enough to get my own apartment in case things went south. But yeah at first it wasn’t, it really wasn’t, and my mom and I are super close, we always have been, and then when I came out we just didn’t speak for like the longest time. And it wasn’t until maybe I moved to LA that we started to talk again or become a little closer and maybe talked here and there. But our relationship started to get a little stronger when I moved away from home. Now it’s a little more accepted and a little more comfortable I guess? I don’t know if comfortable is the right word. At this point now my mom just wants me to find somebody and be happy and not just be lonely and by myself for the rest of my life (laughs). She’s like, “just be happy.”
How do you feel about that anti-queerness in our community?
It’s heartbreaking because I experience it every day. I think every way we treat somebody is rooted in a prior experience. It doesn’t just happen, something has to happen to you, someone said something to you, someone treated you a certain way and that imprinted on you and you developed into this current opinion that you have. In complete honesty, it is rooted in the way Black men view masculinity, their definition of what masculinity is supposed to look like.
And I think that goes back generations, generations, and generations. Because we’ve had to fight for a lot of Black men, and so Black men, when they see a Black gay man, in their mind they’re thinking, “this is what a black heterosexual man is supposed to look like, you’re giving us a bad name. We’ve come this far, we’ve fought this hard, we’ve come through this journey and over these hills, and this is the perception that should have that we stand up, we’re proud, we fight, this is what we’re supposed to look like,” and a gay person is the complete opposite of what their vision for what a black man is supposed to be.
We touched a little about talking about toxic masculinity and masculinity in general in the last feature I did, Thicker Than Blood. It’s dealing with two or three generations of Black men, one who’s straight, one of who’s gay, and then one of who is the father of the two, in his sixties from a whole different generation. So just talking about what HIV looks like, what HIV looks like in the Black community, and then what it looks like to be Black and gay. So I think that it’s really deeply rooted in the misconception of what masculinity is supposed to look like and then what masculinity in a Black man is supposed to look like.
Honestly, I just think that there’s a lot of trauma period in the Black community. A lot of trauma that we don’t talk about, that’s often swept under the rug and that doesn’t get dealt with. And that sits and festers, and festers and grows between generations. You get it in one person and then you know those people are having children and then they teach it to their kids or don’t teach it to their kids and it’s just passed down from one to the other to the other, and there’s no dealing with it. And so when you try to figure out what the root cause is you can’t within that one person because it didn’t start in that person, it started generations before and it was just inherited. So for us to be able to pass on the toxicity that started generations ago, the cycle has to be broken and has to stop somewhere. We don’t have tools because the people before us didn’t have tools.
Where does that start for you?
You can’t just bring up the fact that trauma exists because that helps nobody. You have to be able to bring up the resources to help people deal with that. So I can’t just go out there and have a movie that’s talking about HIV and then afterward not provide people with resources of where to go get tested or not provide them resources about how to stay safe when they’re having sex. If you don’t do that you’re just saying, “Okay, HIV is out there and you can get it.” and leaving it at that. It’s the same thing with any sort of trauma, you can’t just continue to talk about trauma and not offer effective ways to help people deal with it. And I say effective ways, I think there are ways people have tried that they know are not helpful but they don’t wanna think outside the box of different ways that could be effective to help people.
So, for instance, in the HIV world a lot of people thought, “Oh, all we need to do is pass out condoms and flyers.” Um…Okay…Where are you gonna do that? If it’s only in one part of the neighborhood and you’re not reaching the actual affected population, then you’re not implementing the right tools and resources of changes that are needed to help that population. So you have to be able to provide not only the awareness in an honest way, not sugar-coating, not scratching the surface- but talking about things in an honest way, and then providing them the resources to be able to move forward, to be able to remedy the things they’ve been through.
To me, it implies a different approach to work.
I think it’s a community effort, and I learned this from the film Thicker Than Blood when we toured across the country, we did screenings at local health departments, at LGBT organizations, HIV organizations, all of that. After we would have a screening of the film, we would have a panel together from all different aspects of the HIV community. So somebody who was living with HIV, somebody who was knowledgeable in the statistics and science of HIV, somebody who worked in the local community whether it be a community-based organization, hospital, LGBT organization that had the resources in that local community to be able to help them. And then anyone else that we thought would be great for the panel. So that’s how we held our Q and A’s, so that way you can talk about the issue at hand, you not only get the resources and knowledge but you can do it in real-time in your community.
We all occupy this space. We all live on this earth. This is a shared space for all humans, so why can we not share it? We don’t all have to be the same, we don’t have to think the same, but deep down we are humans. So I think that if we lead in love and treat each other with love on every single level, that’s the way to make the world a better place. It sounds cheesy but I really do believe it.