‘When We Rise’ Is ‘Appallingly Timely,’ Says Gay Rights Activist Cleve Jones

“Every issue I care about is at stake right now,” Jones tells TheWrap

Last Updated: February 27, 2017 @ 5:27 PM

Cleve Jones has seen a lot. In the early 1970s he fought alongside gay-rights activist and politician Harvey Milk. In the 1980s, he turned to the AIDS crisis as the founder of both the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the iconic Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. And now, he says, it’s time for another fight, one against President Donald Trump.

That fight, Jones told TheWrap, has given a newfound urgency to ABC’s new mini-series, “When We Rise,” which premieres tonight and is largely based on Jones’ memoir of the same name. It chronicles five decades of the gay liberation movement.

“Every issue I care about is at stake right now,” Jones said. “It’s turning out to be appallingly timely.”

The Dustin Lance Black-created series — spread over four nights — follows Jones and two other real-life LGBT pioneers: Roma Guy (played by Emily Skeggs and Mary-Louise Parker), a prominent feminist activist; and Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors, Michael K. Williams), an African-American Vietnam vet-turned community organizer.

Jones was portrayed by actor Emile Hirsch in the 2008 Oscar-winning biopic, “Milk,” about the San Francisco politicians who was shot and killed in a homophobic attack.

TheWrap spoke with Jones and Austin P. McKenzie, who plays him in part of “When We Rise.” McKenzie, best know for the Deaf West Theatre’s 2015 Broadway revival of “Spring Awakening,” plays the young Jones, while Guy Pearce plays him later in life.

TheWrap: Fifty years ago, CBS aired a special called “The Homosexuals,” in which Mike Wallace warned viewers the subject might be “disturbing.” What is it like to see this project air on a broadcast network?

Cleve Jones: It’s certainly a milestone and it’s very exciting, and I think for all of us real characters who were a part of this, we see this as an opportunity to move things forward. There are parts of it that are not exactly accurate, but it remains truthful to the movement and that’s what counts.

Why did you decide to take this on?

McKenzie: I remember reading the script for the first time in my apartment in New York City, and there are just some scripts you get, and the second you read it you just know you have to play the role. I didn’t really know why. I think maybe there was something about the way Cleve’s vulnerability was written. I was really connected to it.

Cleve, what’s it like to have these actors portray you and figure out your mannerisms?

It’s an odd experience… I’ve been very fortunate to have three extremely talented actors portray me and could not be happier.

The Trump administration just rolled back protections for transgender students. The timing seems almost impeccable…

Jones: When we started working on the screenplay we certainly had no clue that any of this could have happened… If this series helps people figure out how to fight back, that’s good. But I’m not a single-issue person, and every issue I care about is at stake right now. So, it’s turning out to be appallingly timely.

Austin, do you consider yourself part of the LGBTQ community?

McKenzie: I consider myself a part of any movement that ‘s moving towards love and freedom and equality.

What did you learn from working on the series?

You don’t have to know the history of the movement or see the television show to want to fight for justice. I didn’t know any of this specific history. I didn’t know who Cleve Jones was or Roma Guy or Ken Jones, and I felt so privileged to have learned the history and to feel embraced by a community that is really rooting for this television show… Cleve was a big part of that learning process. When I first met him, he took me around the Castro. I call him the Jesus of the Castro Street… Cleve is so intimidating and then I met him, and he was like — I’m not sure I’m allowed to say it…

Jones: Watch it Austin!

McKenzie: He was rambunctious. I’ll say that much. I’m a big believer that you are as old as you act, and when when I met Cleve I felt like he was the youngest person I’d ever met. When I met him in San Francisco we walked around the Castro and he would point to the windows of an apartment he used to live in… He told me so many of  the windows of the Castro were splattered with blood from the riots, and he showed me the camera shop that Harvey [Milk] used to own… I think from then on, I really thought, I have to do this role the best that I can for Cleve. That was the end goal for me. I wanted to do justice by Cleve and that’s sort of what I woke up to on set every day.

Cleve, what was it like for you, knowing there’s a whole generation of gay people who have no real connection to this struggle, whether because they weren’t born yet or because there are so few people alive from that time?

I don’t blame younger generations for their lack of awareness. Americans in general are not interested in history. As I’m approaching 60, I was given so many death sentences over the years, that I realize I owe that to the movement and that’s not hyperbole, that’s not rhetoric. I would be dead if it weren’t for the movement.

Why a mini-series?

Jones: It’s all about the reach, of course. Even best-selling novels don’t have the reach of ABC. That’s just amazing. I think that it was smart for ABC to do this. They’re competing against very edgy boundary-pushing products out of Amazon and Netflix and Showtime and HBO and the rest. There’s an audience for it and I think the audience is huge.

Are you ready for what’s about to happen once this airs?

McKenzie: Am I ready for it? I’m too young to know anything about life. I’m trying to take it day by day.

Cleve: I don’t anticipate that my life is going to change much as a result of this. I’m not a celebrity. I work for a a labor union. I’m an organizer. I live in a rent-controlled apartment in the Castro, trying to hang on here.

What do you think of the explosion in social engagement we’re seeing across the country these days?

Jones: I think it’s unlike anything this country has ever experienced, at least since the Great Depression or World War II. I think that’s how deep the crisis is. I believe we are entering into a period of political chaos. Out of that chaos is the potential for great evil, but there is also the possibility of great good.

Do you feel like Trump’s win has forced you out of retirement? 
Jones: Oh, who wants to to retire? What will I do? I don’t golf. I imagine I will drop dead on some picket line.

Austin, how has this changed you?

McKenzie: It’s going to sound strange, but I’m not really someone who likes to be in the spotlight. I’m not looking for fame. There’s a comfort in playing a real person because in a way, it takes the attention off me and puts it on this real person’s life.

Jones: I think I have to add something here. I don’t know Austin well, but I’ve paid attention to him for a while and this was an extremely difficult thing for him… He was subjected to a lot of pressure and real intense challenges and he had to struggle and he’s grown a lot as a man and is a stronger person because of this experience. I think he was profoundly changed by this experience in a very positive way and I’m proud of him.

Austin, that’s a nice compliment. How does that make you feel?

McKenzie: Wow. I feel known. I feel more respect for him. I’m just happy to hear that.

Cleve, what was it about Austin that made you and Lance think he was the right guy for the role?

Jones: We viewed videos of people reading the script. It was a bit different than my experience with “Milk” where I actually was aware of Emile [Hirsch] before. With Austin, his reading was good but then also there was this YouTube video of him performing. What’s the name of the song, Austin?

McKenzie“Brother” by Matt Corby.

Jones: The quality of the video wasn’t great, but the performance gave me goosebumps.

Austin: I felt very happy that I could write that song for episode 3. I pitched a song called, “Thinking of You,” to Lance for the show and they took it. And when we first showed it to Cleve, that was a really good moment. I had written with the thought of some of the things Cleve went through, one of his lovers in particular, and they ended up using it and that was really satisfying for me.

You didn’t know each other before this project. How would you describe your relationship today?

McKenzie: The first day I met Cleve, and he’d spoken about “Milk” and Emile Hirsch, I remember him saying, “From this day forward we’re going to have a connection forever because you’re playing me and we’re going to have this connection regardless if we talk again or not.” I think that’s definitely true. I feel like I know him intimately now.

Jones: We’ve gotten to know each other and there will be a connection forever. It’s just how it is. The people that I met during “Milk,” those relationships are still evolving.

“When We Rise” premiers at 9/8c on ABC.