The Cure Chronicles: HIV with Joseph Kibler
Joseph was born with HIV and developed a physical impairment due to his prognosis. Doctors told him he would never live past the age of four, but Joseph defied all odds and, today, is a successful actor, producer, writer, and HIV activist. Joseph also wrote and starred in his own documentary titled “Walk On” where he trained for the 6.2 mile LA AIDS walk. His documentary went on to win the “Best Documentary” award from the Burbank International Film Festival and Timecode: NOLA film festival.
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Jeff Galvin: Joseph, thank you so much for being with us here on the HIV Cure Chronicles.
Joseph Kibler: Well, I'm happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
Jeff Galvin: You have a fascinating story. I gotta say and just a series of amazing accomplishments, and one thing I noted right away when I was looking at your background is this is the first time I've ever gotten the chance to talk to somebody with an IMDb bio and so many accomplishments in film and acting and stuff like that. If you don't mind, let me just start there. I know that one of your award-winning films was "Walk On," which is about this subject, but if you don't mind, can you tell us a little bit about how you got into that and how "Walk On" and how people are reacting to that?
Joseph Kibler: So, back in 2011, at the tail end of film school, I was studying filmmaking and producing, and everyone gets a thesis project that they have to work on. I was working on other people's projects as a producer, and I was trying to think about what I wanted to do for mine. As somebody who was born HIV positive and I've been around that world so often, every year there's the AIDS Walk, the AIDS walks across America, and I wanted to go.
Initially, what it was supposed to be was I wanted to go and talk to people. Why do they go to the walk? What do they do? Why do they come out? I wanted to interview different people.
I had a great filmmaking teacher at the time who was guiding us who I told this to, and he was kind of perplexed because he was like, why did this guy with cerebral palsy, which I also have as a disability, want to go interview people about HIV and about AIDS in the AIDS Walk? And he didn't know my background.
So, I was like, well, I was born HIV positive, and I was told I was never going to live past this point in my life at four years old, and I always wanted to do the walk. I gave all these different details of my life, and he just plainly looks at me and he goes, 'Joseph, that's the film. That's what you need to do. Don't go interviewing other people. That's your story.'
And what was supposed to be a thesis, like a five-minute thesis, turned into a trailer, and he actually came on board as the director, and we just took it beyond film school. We started filming for about a year and a half, two years, and we just focused it on HIV and disabilities and overcoming these obstacles, and it followed me doing the AIDS Walk, which was 6.2 miles, and it steamrolled.
If you're ever part of a documentary, you quickly learn that you're not allowed to have any privacy in your life. And if you're going to be an open person, you better be open. And we had to start out that venture together. He had to look at me and go, "Look, I'm going to have to take my friend hat off, I'm going to take my teacher hat off, and I'm going to have to be a director with you. And so that means there's going to be moments that are very tough, that are very personal, and I'm going to have to push past that what I would want for you as a person so that we can get these core elements into the film, these emotional moments."
We had many of them. And it was just one of those experiences where I really poured my heart out into it. We interviewed people like, you know, again, as somebody who was born HIV-positive. We had one interviewer who gave himself HIV because he purposefully wanted to end his life. And I had no idea ahead of time to talk about getting an interview.
Jeff Galvin: It's an unusual way to want to end one's life, you know, to die from HIV, you've got to go through AIDS.
Joseph Kibler: Yes. He wanted the punishment. And it was just this baffling moment, and I'm sitting there and I'm just trying to hold back all this emotion of somebody who had no choice in the matter. I was born into it, and here's this person across from me who is willing to just go through all of it. I mean, it was a life-changing process that film took me, and we took it all across America. We went to film festivals, and I got to really open up.
What I learned from that which was amazing is when you open up to other people, they open up back to you. And the stories that I learned during that film festival tour, the people I connected with, they told me things they hadn't told their family. They told me things that they couldn't open up to their closest friends because they felt that I was so vulnerable in that moment that I allowed that to happen. It was a good life lesson to be open to everyone.
Jeff Galvin: It's really interesting because even what you're saying has something to do with breaking the stigma of HIV. And that once more people are open, and I'm not trying to tell people to do that if they're not ready for it, but as the public gets more used to that, and some of the barriers come down, folks will actually connect to the tremendous amount of commonality between this challenge and every life challenge.
And you've got a whole stack of them, right? Your story is really engageable. You know, sure, the HIV angle, but you've had to overcome the fact that people didn't even think you'd live past four, that you would never walk. Now, here you are, a decorated film producer and star. Your old teacher was right that telling your truth is powerful. That's where we get connections from is we show our real selves, and sometimes it's the first time anybody's ever seen a real person, right?
It's amazing, but boy, I can absolutely empathize with your journey of having to be that open. I know how hard it is, to you know, sometimes in the things that aren't just your Facebook moments where you know all positive stuff that of course you want to tell everybody, no, just to tell everybody that like, yeah, you know, you have the ups and downs that everybody experiences.
Joseph Kibler: I think the openness, for me, was, you know, I spend so much of my life, my early years, teenage years, childhood, not allowed to be opened, not allowed to speak up, so that was a big thing for me going into my adulthood and coming into myself was to find truth and be honest and be blunt, frankly.
Jeff Galvin: Be fearless.
Joseph Kibler: Yeah.
Jeff Galvin: Because that's the thing, what prevents us from being ourselves? The fear of what other people's reactions will be, and sometimes until you go ahead and take that step, you don't know what you're really going to see in return, and it sounds like you saw a ton of goodwill that came back.
Joseph Kibler: Oh, yeah. I always say HIV and my disability are like these great filtration systems for people and engagement, and you may have less friends, you may have less people in your life, but you actually don't. You have a greater amount of fulfilling friendships and a greater amount of fulfilling people in your life because those who stick around to be there with you, those who support you are the ones you actually want in your life. So often people stick with friendships or love interests, and they don't actually connect, and they don't realize it because they're not opening up on a pure level, and…
Jeff Galvin: They don't get what they're missing…
Joseph Kibler: … they don't get what you're missing, and then when you're doing it…
Jeff Galvin: because it’s too easy. They're doing it because they want to share activities as opposed to because they want to share the essence of their souls with one another, which is really, like, when you get a chance to connect with somebody like that, you know, you realize everything else is just surface. It's life-changing.
It’s amazing, and I’ve heard this from other people on interviews about a natural filtration system. Through their openness, they naturally filtered their contacts to the really high quality contacts, and that openness created a new connection, and a limitation of not having those other people in their life was no limitation at all. It was actually a good thing.
I think your situation is really unusual, you know, to put your life in a film and to bear yourself in that way. That is really, you know, that's sort of the pan-ultimate version of what I'm thinking about. I don't imagine that I've ever had that experience myself, even though I've always tried to go out there and always tell my truth, despite what people think about it. It's really different when you've got something where there's a big stigma attached, and you're doing it on film with a director who is actually making a point of digging down to those soft spots and bringing out those emotions that you might feel very uncomfortable expressing.
Joseph Kibler: Oh, yeah, and I lived with it. We did, you know, we spent years, a year and a half editing it, and so sitting there every day in front of the camera, re-watching myself crying, or re-watching myself go through these emotions, you have to step back and you have to realize that, you know, just in general, in filmmaking, there's the film you write, there's the film you shoot, and the film you edit. And I think, you know, documentaries, with life, in general, there's the thing you set out to do, the thing you actually do, and the thing you reflect upon.
You know, you have to be able to separate and realize what you're doing and do it for the better. And, again, I've just always been somebody who every year I've tried to get closer and closer to my true self and as honest as I can get. And I think, you know, that's, and as an actor, that's the ultimate goal. I always found that being an actor, you can't start delving into other personalities and other characters in other worlds and other lives if you've not delved into yourself. If you haven't opened up who you are, you can't start to transform into anyone else because you're allowing room for that and you're not influencing yourself.
Jeff Galvin: Yeah, wow, I mean, I'm just my brain is full of thoughts. Like, so first of all, your little thing about what you set out to do, what you capture, and then what you reflect on, it means that every film, work of art, is actually three works of art in it, which is amazing to me. I love that. I never had thought about that before because film is my absolute favorite art form because I think that it has the ability to capture so much. I can go to a film and I can live somebody else's life.
But then the next thing that you said is also remarkable to me because, yes, until you have delved into the full range of human emotions that already exist in you, your ability to empathize and create the conditions in your own body to become another journey and to reflect that in a real way. Right. Like great actors become their subjects and you go, "how is that even possible?" And the only thing I can think is that, well, in reality, if you can explore oneself, you realize there's a universe within, and then you have all those emotions, all those foibles, all those ups, all those downs, all those experiences inside you to different degrees, and you can call on them.
Joseph Kibler: Whether you're writing something else or acting, you still have to find the truth, and it doesn't matter if it's science fiction, if it's drama, if it's comedy, everything starts from a sense of truth. Everything has to start from some place.
Jeff Galvin: Yes, oh my gosh, you’re blowing my mind here. I mean, because I always thought that that's what makes great art: truth. Truth is beauty and beauty is truth, right? The idea is that somebody will connect with your truth, and they will have an experience that is far beyond the message. It will cut right to the soul because only art can do that, and you just said it yourself. It's like your truth, right?
Joseph Kibler: And as you know, I always talk about this with the other actors and being in the community, and it's not a sense of competition. You know, a lot of actors want to think of it this way of like, "Oh, you know, am I better or am I worse?" It's not better or worse. It's different, and it's close to you. When you get a character breakdown, when you get, you know, this is the role you're getting, what people do, I personally think people do wrong, is they try to exactly match that breakdown and just be this other thing and not being like, "Okay, what can I do with this? How can I make it me?" And, therefore, how do I just show up, and this is my interpretation?
If this works for you, if this connects to the character in the project, wonderful. If it doesn't, and someone else had a better interpretation or a different interpretation that fits it, wonderful. When you're trying to all do the same thing, you're not being honest, and you're not doing it because you feel that this is the right thing. You're doing it to fit a mold that you can't possibly fit into.
Every human being is so unique, and so you just have to come at it from your perspective. I think the great actors out there, you remember them or you think about them because of who they are as people. That's, you know, you know who they are.
Jeff Galvin: I think also, you know, you can see that like, you know, you become the material on the canvas, which becomes something new, right?
Joseph Kibler: Yes.
Jeff Galvin: And uh, and I get it that yeah, your ability to pull something out real from your yourself and to push it through that character that you're playing, that's going to make that connection possible. And I think you're right. I guess there's a little piece of you in everything that you play. And then the question is, is how well do we get to know these people behind those roles, right? Because I always think, okay, yeah, Meryl Streep, you know, I think I know her, but no, I don't know her, right? But she somehow can, you know, mold herself into all these different things.
There are, you know, a lot of actors out there that, and sometimes they're, you know, Meryl Streep obviously, you know, achieved amazing things, but you know, not all actors will necessarily, you know, sort of achieve that level of success. But at the same time, you can see these performances that just, literally just like I said, they just reach right past, right through your skin, you know, and engage you in a way. And you go like, every once in a while, oh, that's acting. I was there, you know. I was feeling him, I was feeling her. I felt like I was there with them. I was empathizing in a way where I couldn't have done it without this film.
Joseph Kibler: Yes.
Jeff Galvin: That's great stuff. In your film, "Walk On," obviously with all the awards that it got, you know, that is, uh, you know, it must be a must-see for people to understand your journey. But also, you know, that this is an important thing in terms of breaking down stigma around HIV for people to go ahead and have that experience and to cry with you and to laugh with you and, you know, go through the challenge there.
Joseph Kibler: Yeah. And part of why I started speaking out so much about it was because of what it did: breaking the stigma. Which also goes into another thing, but first, you know, people don't often know that you can be born with HIV. People don't often know that side of it, you know, they have a very specific stigma in their head, right? You know, for me, I was, as you know, I'm now pansexual, and I've come out since, um, but when I was doing the film and as a teenager and an early adulthood, I was heterosexual and I presented as heterosexual, and I wanted to so much tell people like, hey, I'm born HIV positive. I'm heterosexual. I am exactly the type of thing that you're not thinking about when it comes to HIV, and this is why it's important. And I felt like just existing in my body, existing out in the world, was an educational tool.
And, you know, when I was a kid, you know, I found out I was HIV positive at 11, and I found out by accident, because my doctor who was my primary wasn't there, and I had a new doctor, and my mom hadn't gotten to tell them that they didn't that I didn't know. And so the doctor let it slip, my mom had to explain to me on the car ride home what it meant, what HIV was, what does that mean for me, and that I can't tell anyone.
Jeff Galvin: Because I'm trying to do the math here. So you're born in like '85.
Joseph Kibler: I was born in '89.
Jeff Galvin: '89, okay.
Joseph Kibler: Yeah, I was diagnosed in '90.
Jeff Galvin: So in 2000, thank goodness, you know, everybody knew that it was treatable at that point, and could live a normal length life, so your mother would be able to reassure you of that.
But I mean, this is like finding out by accident you're adopted, right? Yeah, I mean, this is a life-changing perspective.
Joseph Kibler: And I was told that I couldn't talk about it and I was told I couldn't speak about it because we're getting protested against. Kids were getting kicked out of school.
Jeff Galvin: Because people were scared.
Joseph Kibler: Yeah, because they were afraid.
Jeff Galvin: They were afraid for no reason.
Joseph Kibler: Yeah, they didn't know. And so I held on to that for seven years from that point where I couldn't talk to anyone about it. I couldn't speak about it.
The reason I got into acting, the reason I got into this world is because when I was 18, I went to a theater camp, and if you've done theater, it's like therapy. You know, acting is like therapy. And one of the exercises they wanted you to do was to go on stage and to your peers tell them something you've never told anyone before. And I was like, "You know what? I'm tired. I'm tired of holding this in. This is most of who I am as a human being, and I can't express it." And I went up there and I said, "My name is Joseph Kibler and I'm HIV positive." And the support and the life it gave me - theater gave me life, and I gave my life to theater.
Jeff Galvin: Because you are in a group of people that has such open minds because they're playing, like, you know, they're painting a universe. And so, yeah, what a great opportunity to come out in a supportive environment like that.
Fortunately, a lot of the stories that I've heard with people coming out were quite positive, right? They, you know, sometimes you'd hear a negative one, and there's certainly I don't think that there's anybody who has been open about their status who's never encountered some level of stigma and prejudice, right?
Joseph Kibler: 100%.
Jeff Galvin: Yeah, so we got to be real about that. But the other side of that reality is that, yeah, you know, maybe the world is ready to understand that if somebody is dealing with an HIV diagnosis, that's their private thing. In a way, it doesn't affect the people around them. There's no danger to those folks. There's no reason for you to even presume, like you were saying, you know, the first thing people go is like, "Oh, okay, are you gay?" Right? You know, it's like, "Well, no, that’s not true either."
Joseph Kibler: It was wrapped in that, and it was so hard to, like, for me, it was personally hard to come out as pansexual because I wrapped my identity around this idea of breaking stigma. I'm so afraid that by being my true self, again, by opening up about being pansexual, suddenly the thing I had to tell people to change their mind would be like, "Oh, they would jump ahead," and they'd be like, "Okay, pansexual, HIV. I know your story before you've even gotten into it." And this idea of like, I wanted to be able to break it up and break that stigma.
Jeff Galvin: But when you were being that other person, right, that heterosexual with HIV, did you realize you were pansexual then or was that something you recognized later?
Joseph Kibler: I recognized it early in my teen years and I kind of fought against it because, again, I was, I mean, as many things as a lot of people who don't come out until later, you know, you kind of second guess it…
Jeff Galvin: Some people don't necessarily believe, you know, that what they're feeling is real, but you had a feeling at that point already, and then later you realized, okay, this is real, this is not something that's transitory…
Joseph Kibler: It's not, yeah.
Jeff Galvin: But then you had to re-spin your whole image, right? You've got a brand now, and you're like, yeah, I no longer match the brand.
Joseph Kibler: And that's, you know, and we do that as human beings, we create our own brand, every day we walk around creating our own brand, our own identity, who we are as people, and the idea of being willing to change is so hard for so many. Like, to accept that there's a new future, to accept that there's a new possibility. We get so caught up on a path, and we think that we're failing by deviating from that path when we're actually just becoming more honest and more of ourselves by exploring other areas of our life.
Jeff Galvin: And also, that your brand can survive it. I mean, I keep thinking about when you're talking about that, Madonna, right? Somebody who reinvented herself over and over and over again, you know? And maybe she was finding new things in herself, and maybe she just recognized what connected with the culture as the culture evolved, right? But it doesn't matter, the point is, is that you don't, you know, maybe being stuck in one thing isn't even the best thing.
Joseph Kibler: No.
Jeff Galvin: Your brand may eventually get left behind, but that is kind of remarkable that you had a second time where you had to then bring out your truth again
Joseph Kibler: Yeah.
Jeff Galvin: Right, and that's, you know, a remarkable opportunity for you, but it goes back to just being authentic, right? That authenticity is part of our brand, you know? It makes a brand engageable.
Joseph Kibler: And people notice, people can sense it. We all can sense when something's authentic and when something's honest.
Jeff Galvin: If you don't mind, I'm just thinking back to when you were saying it was, you know, during the editing, you were watching yourself and it was really tough and reliving all those things, and I just remember when they asked Tina Turner about her movie, remember the movie "Ike," I think it was, or "Tina," I forget, and they were like, "So, what did you think of it?" She said, "I didn't see it," and they were like, "Why?" She said, "I lived it. I really did not need to see it again."
Joseph Kibler: Oh, yeah.
Jeff Galvin: It was a film about her. It wasn't her film about her. It was just, it could have been absolutely true, but she was just like, "Yeah, I don't, I don't need to relive that stuff", right? It is really, really hard, but if it's gonna be your story, you had to have that third phase of that art form where you could really show your truth.
Joseph Kibler: Absolutely. Yeah, you have to be able to show up there. It's different when you're acting into something or when you're just stepping away or someone else's project, but it's all you. You have to follow it through the whole process.
Jeff Galvin: I'm just so fascinated with film that I'm getting dragged right off in that direction. I forgot that you also have HIV, so tell us what it's been like dealing with it.
Joseph Kibler: You know, it's such an interesting thing, I think. There's a lot of misconceptions about it, where we are now. It's such a psychological battle more than it is a physical battle. If you're privileged enough to be on medication, if you're privileged enough to have access, to be healthy, to be undetectable equals untransmittable, suddenly the battle of HIV becomes the stigma becomes the psychology of it becomes not making it run your life.
I've been on drug trials since I was a child. I've been on every medication you can possibly be on. I was born a twin, and so my twin brother and I were put on the first HIV infant study under Dr. Fauci in the National Institute of Health. We've been in there from the beginning. Unfortunately, my twin brother passed away at 16 months. He got very sick and developed pneumonia. Because they tried different medications on us, the medications that he had gotten, as opposed to the ones I got, were not as strong. They wanted to test the same DNA and see what the effects were in the blood.
I made it through that process and through other HIV meds and going through life and worrying about whether I was going to be here or not. Eventually, at some point, you realize you are here, and you have to do something with that. That's when the battle changes. That's when it's no longer a physical battle. It's no longer worrying about being sick. It's worrying about having a family. It's worrying about creating a sense of a career. It's worrying about all these things that you get so used to as someone with a chronic illness or a long-term illness not having, because you're like, "Well, that is a nice future, that's a nice idea. Probably won't be something that's in my future. Probably won't be something I can grasp." So, you have this passenger mentality in your own life, because you're like, "Oh, I'm not really here. I'm not really here."
And one day, I had to just sit there and be like, "No, I'm not going anywhere. So, I better figure out what I want to do and what I want from my life now." And that can be such a struggle. Then developing your own sense of self, when I talk about honesty so much, and then how you affect relationships, and what it affects in your life and your love. When I started finally opening up to people and being with other people, I had to deal with the fact that I knew personally I couldn't affect them. I was untransmittable, I was undetectable, it doesn't matter, scientifically, those things; when it's up here, and you know that you're a product of it, you know that you're a child of HIV, and you know that because your parents maybe weren't as cautious, that you could potentially affect someone else, creating a level of intimacy can be really hard, even with the right stuff, and with the right meds, with the right protection. You just have to open yourself up, and it can take time.
I had to really battle that throughout my 20s to get to a point where I'm like, "I'm here, I'm safe, I'm not a weapon, I'm not gonna harm somebody," and that that person who's accepting me is accepting everything that comes with me. And that means that they want to be open with me, they want to be honest with me, and we can have a full, fulfilling relationship.
Jeff Galvin: It's so good that the latest scientific information supports that so well. You know, U equals U, detectable equals uninfectable. This is a really important thing for the whole world to understand at this point, that actually your chances of getting HIV from somebody that is well-controlled is lower than a random person that you bump into who might be infected and not know it or may not be treated, right. You know, which is amazing to think that, okay, if you're sexually active, maybe people that are dealing with this in a very direct way are your safest bets, not your riskiest bets.
But that’s a real like, flipping it in your head, I don't think that's the way that people think all the time, but I think that’s a very important observation and it's really interesting to hear that journey that you went through, because you're in your early 30s now, is that about right, I’m doing the math right?
Joseph Kibler: Yeah, 33.
Jeff Galvin: Yeah, so for men that's when life gets serious, I'll tell you from my own experience, and I love the idea, you know, of what you were saying is that you were you were thinking that you know your life was limited and so you were a passenger. I think that's a great description and then, uh, you decided, you know, look, the statistics are now showing that I keep being here the next day and this could be longer than I think.
And I've always felt that that's very important in terms of living a full life, is you do have to recognize that your life could end anytime, but you still need to plan for if it doesn't, yeah, right? You need to decide, well, what am I going to do with it if it turns out to be a full life? And most people don't have to think about it in such a stark way as you did, right, or even can recognize the transition that when their head shifted from, you know, unlearning the idea of the fragility of your life. You have to unlearn that, right?
Joseph Kibler: Usually reverse, everyone usually goes in the other way. They're like, "Oh", they have a moment and they're like later in life, where they're like, "Wow, I'm not a Superman, I'm not infallible, I'm not indestructible." For me, it was the exact opposite. It was like, "Oh, I keep having these challenges…"
Jeff Galvin: "and I'm less destructible than I thought."
Joseph Kibler: Exactly.
Jeff Galvin: I might be here till age 80. What do I want to do with that? If I'm here for another six decades, where do I want to be? And what a great start, you know, of going into film, and you know, and that might even have been a tool to sort out everything in your head as well, right?
Joseph Kibler: Honestly, it was like, for me, it was like, "Okay, if I am going to be here and I'm running on borrowed time or time that I wasn't even supposed to have, why would I do anything but do the most with it? Why wouldn't I not try to go into the career that is the hardest to get, like do the things that I want to do and I enjoy doing, as opposed to just kind of being here and not living it, not living up the moments and I'm given that I wasn't supposed to have."
Jeff Galvin: The thing that comes out, and tell me if I'm stretching this point, but I find this a lot with the people that I talk to on the Cure Chronicles, because we are being really open about life, but you know what I hear the theme I hear is gratitude. You even use the word "privileged" - if you have the privilege of being treated, if you have the privilege of being this, you're privileged.
Your rhetoric is full of gratitude. You're living life with purpose in a way because you don't take life for granted. You're not looking at everything that came to you as like, "Well, that's the minimum." No, you're thinking, "My minimum could have been way worse," which is a great perspective to have on life. No matter how good your life is, you start to recognize that your problems aren't really anything. I always think of somebody that has it worse.
Joseph Kibler: I always looked at my cane and my disability. I always used to call it the great leveler, you know, like no matter how ego I want to get in here, I can never have too much of an ego because one day I'm still gonna fall. I fall four times a day, I fall five times a day. You're still gonna have those moments that are reality, and you're going to be brought back to Earth. And for me, like every day is like, "Oh yeah, I'm like yeah, but I get to do this thing, that I get to be here, that I get to be an actor, I get to do anything like this is I'm never going to take it for granted because it could very well not be here." And, you know, I don't know, I'm definitely grateful. I think that is a good point to put it.
Jeff Galvin: Such an important perspective. I mean, that's just remarkable, and I'm sitting here talking to you, right? And if I had just met you, I wouldn't have any idea that you had any physical disability. And what you're doing is you're taking your talents which you developed up here, right, and you're, you know, and this is, you know, potentially the most important muscle in your whole body anyway, really.
I mean, think about Stephen Hawking's, right? You know, this is a guy who really had a broken body, and yet, you know, he was able to do, you know, really important and fulfilling things. And we should, yeah, we should kind of deal with our challenges and figure out, like, what do we have, and what can we do with that, and then enjoy the ride as much as possible.
There will be sad days, right? I don't know whether you ever have a down day. I mean, you just seem like a guy where I wish you were around here all the time, right, you know, with the positive attitude and that great smile, and I'd be like, "Oh, this guy is, you know, he just lifts up the whole room when he comes into it." But it can't always be just wonderful.
Joseph Kibler: It's a balance, and of course, I have down days. I think it's one of those things where life is just too short, and for me, it's like, there is a lot of negativity in the world, there's a lot of anger in the world, I don't need to personally add to it. We all know it exists, we all know that stuff is there. I have my moments of reflection, but for me, I want to do the most but I can with my perspective. I want to do the most I can with what I've dealt with, in a way that's going to be productive, in the way that's going to be helpful for myself, because you know you can't live in that, especially with a physical illness or a chronic illness.
It's a mental game as much as it is anything else, and anyone who's dealing with chronic illness in any form, you have to be able to show up. It's so hard, and it's not something you can tell anyone else but yourself. And so you can fight through it, that you can be positive about it, and you can go through life, and you don't have to be bitter.
For myself, I never want to present that way, and I never want to be that way. There's always something. You could always find something to be grateful for that day.
Jeff Galvin: Yeah, I see what you're talking about also with all of the sort of emotions that are just on the surface in the world, sometimes just completely in a non-productive way. It's not, you know, the emotion you show in your film where it helps people to understand another perspective. It's just anger, it's just finger-pointing, it's just putting up walls. Not physical walls like the wall on the south border, right? You know the idea of that. I mean, but the idea of walls became really, really popular over time, and yeah, that's a really sad situation.
I always try to have empathy for those folks, even the ones that are angry, because what I believe, and maybe through your art, you see this as well, you're coming the other direction through it, but I go, whatever I see in anybody else, I have the capacity for it, just hasn't been triggered in me. No, it's maybe another way of saying, you know, there but for the grace of God go I. I'd be that angry, I'd be that big a jerk, I'd be that, you know, I'd be the one honking on the horn today if I'd had that person's day, right?
And it makes you realize like okay, um, where you can let it roll off your back, you know, decide where what are the ones that are going to impact you. Sometimes we have to turn it back. You know, you can't we can't give up democracy because a bunch of people are angry about the fact that we all get a vote, right? That wouldn't be a good reason to go, okay, well, let's just compromise on that and give up democracy, right? But you know, the rhetoric, let's not take opinions too seriously, let's not face down people that are angry with more anger necessarily.
Joseph Kibler: No, I mean, you don't know where people are coming from, you don't know what you said, you don't know what they're going for in the day.
I always say, people sometimes are like a bad parking spot, and this is what I mean. You show up, you ever show up in a grocery store or something like that, and you're showing up to a parking spot, and you see someone, and they're over the line, and they're slanted, and you're like, how could you have even done that? How, how did that happen to you? And there's only one spot left, and so you have to park next to them, but now you're over the line, and you're slanted because of what they did. Then you go into the grocery store, and when you come out, that person's gone, and all that's left is your car slanted and off to the side, and in a bad spot, and someone else clearly came in behind you and was like, what is this guy doing? Why is he like this?
And we affect each other every day no matter what we do, and we're only looking at the bad parking job. We're not looking at what had happened before or after that moment. I think a lot of people exist in this way, where we're chain reactions, and so we just have to be able to step back for a second and say, "I'm sure maybe there's a reason for it. Maybe I don't know it, but accept that there's a reason for it."
Jeff Galvin: It's a different kind of faith when you think about it, right? It's a faith in humankind that insulates you a little bit from just taking it too personally.
Joseph Kibler: Yeah, it's a step before the anger, it's a step before. It's a breath, take a breath. Okay, we don't know. You don’t know where people are coming from, right?
Jeff Galvin: That's wisdom, yeah, for sure. I always thought the more connections that we can make, humans have this incredible ability to communicate and collaborate and to connect on two levels, an intellectual one and an emotional one. And when they build coalitions in that way, they can move mountains.
And you know, the problem is charismatic leaders can move mountains or destroy cities, right? You never know what you're going to get when you get a leader, and they have that ability to connect. It's sort of like a, you know, it is, it's charisma, right? But you know, if we use that in the right way, we can actually turn back global warming. We can sustain the human race for another million years. There is not a reason why the planet needs to run out, that we need to destroy each other. No, not at all.
You know, part of it is recognizing the bad parking job as just being one of those things where, you know, this could be a series of consequences. That person parked next to a bad one too, yeah, and there was a shopping cart that somebody left in my life.
Joseph Kibler: That's, you know, the mistakes we make are just as much as the moments when we're not making mistakes. I think about this, you know, my father who was the reason I became HIV positive, my father who had infidelity, my father was a man who had mistakes and he had addictions and he had struggles. And the biggest challenge for me in my life, I used to say, is my father was kind of the roadmap of where to not go for me. And I took that from him almost as much as… that was the most father-figure thing he could do for me, was be like, okay, I'm going to follow the opposite direction of where you went in your life and that's going to help with me.
And then realizing as I got older and seeing him for being, I'm 30 now and I think about like when he passed when he was in his mid-40s and early 50s, and I think about when he, when I was born he was in his 30s like I am now. And it was just this thing of like he's a human being, he had many mistakes, but sometimes in life when you're faced with a big obstacle, you have one of two options, you either go up or you go down. My mom went up, my father went down.
And it's so much harder to pull yourself out when you've done that. And to accept him for who he was and realize that he was just a man who has had faults, and to give him that forgiveness was a big part of my growth. And you know, we're not perfect humans. No one is perfect, and you have to be able to take your mistakes and learn from them and accept them. I think we're all learning more from our mistakes than we do from moments of, you know, where we show up and we've done the great thing, because you don't recognize those moments as much. They don't stay with you, the mistakes stay with you.
Jeff Galvin: It’s hard examining your life too. There is that quote “a life not examined is a life not worth living.” I forget if it was Socrates or something like that, but the reality is that if we're on a journey, and if there's anything that is bigger than life, then life should have some meaning to it.
You're not going to take your car with you when you die or your money or your jewelry or, you know, whatever. What you're going to take is your experiences and your emotions and all those things - that you can understand would exist in a spiritual world. Yeah, and so where do we create value? It is in that learning. It is worth thinking about all these things.
Now, you did something that I also see when people have a suboptimal parent. They will generally look at them and they'll either be Stockholm Syndrome or they'll reject it entirely. You said, "Okay, I just learned from my dad what not to do." So you rejected entirely.
Jeff Galvin: Were you ever open with him about that? When you were getting together with him, Dad, did you ever say, "Yeah, when I thought about that situation, I was like, 'I'm going to do the opposite of what my dad would do.'" Was he supportive of that?
Joseph Kibler: Unfortunately, he was very rarely in my life. We'd go years without speaking and then come back and a few more years. In fact, I always said it was this thing where he had like this timer when we would have conversations on the phone. It felt like there was a timer, like at 60 seconds that he could end the conversation, then he had to get off. And I used to be angry at that. When I was a teenager and when I was a child, I was like, "Why won't he talk to me?"
And it took me into my 20s after he passed to realize that conversation with me, hearing me, seeing me was a reminder of the things he was doing that he did wrong, and it was just too hard for him. And being in that moment was just too hard for him. That he wasn't willing to accept full responsibility. And the thing that I can do for him is give him that grace, give him that freedom to be like, "I release you of this."
Jeff Galvin: And you were releasing yourself too of all that pain.
Joseph Kibler: A big thing for me was, I was going to confront him about all this stuff. I was 21. I was going to confront him. And it was like, "I'm going to go this Christmas. I'm going to talk to him. I'm going to have this moment. We're going to have this closure."
Jeff Galvin: "And I'm going to tell him how I really feel." Like, that's the way. And so you had the speech ready? You had the Powerpoint slides when you walked in?
Joseph Kibler: I had the speech ready, and then he had passed a month before I got back home to visit him.
Jeff Galvin: Oh man. Oh my gosh. Again, you're blowing my mind here. I mean, wow. Have you had a set of experiences. Yeah. Well, I think, you know, so in your family, you chose the road less traveled. The road less traveled turned out to be really good. He was kind of doing you a favor by not being around, right? Because he didn't become your model or he didn't have enough time where it sunk in, maybe in a negative way.
Joseph Kibler: He let what could have happened to me, happen. He let the negative, he let the things that were, he let the mistake eat at him as opposed to learn from it. So that was a big thing for me, was just like okay, realizing he's just, he was a fragile human being as we all can be.
Jeff Galvin: As we, yes, as we all can be right. Wow, what amazing empathy. I think empathy also is one of the best human qualities, right? Again, it always comes out through acting and I think that it can come out in daily life as we go ahead and engage with other people and start to get a chance to sort of feel their experiences and make that connection.
Yeah, I was also thinking, like, you were starting to talk about that you're 30 now and this was the age when your dad had you and you were starting to kind of talk about empathizing with his arc. And I thought you were gonna say something about the challenge of what it would have been like to have kids for you today.
Joseph Kibler: Yeah.
Jeff Galvin: And it is interesting to me, like, I think kids are a tremendous amount of work and responsibility, and parenting is not just something that is trivial, like good parenting. You know, I always think about it even here at work. I don't have kids myself, so I can throw myself 100% into it, but I try to recognize that we have to strike a balance between an incredibly demanding mission, like what we're on here at AGT, and you know that you've got a personal life too. You've got to take care of your kids, you've got to be a good father or mother. I don't need to be that, I'm married, so I got another person that I need to consider in my life, but not like kids, and not like cats.
Like the cats, you can't leave. The dog, you can't leave at all, right? Somebody has to walk your dog every day.
Joseph Kibler: Every day. I mean, I go for work. I was just dealing with this recently. My fiance is in San Diego shooting in a film right now. We're both actors, and she's shooting a film right now, and I was up for a role in Los Angeles, so I was gonna have to leave New York. And we're sitting here trying to tackle like we have four animals, trying to find cat sitters and babies, and like when we want to have kids, which we do, you know, we have to think about that, and it's like it's such a hard balance. And you know…
Jeff Galvin: Wait till your cats need piano lessons and ballet.
Joseph Kibler: Exactly.
Jeff Galvin: Now you've got a kid. I always thought a dog is so much work that if you're going to go ahead and have a dog, it's certainly good prep for having a kid because there are things that you just cannot skip for a day. Like, the water bowl runs out for your cat, you forget to feed them one time, that's not the end of it. It's not even the end of your relationship with the cat. The cat will get over it, right? And anybody can stop in once a day and make sure the cats are all right. Dogs are, you know, between that and having a garden or shrubbery or something like that, okay, great training, yeah.
Jeff Galvin: Well, once again, you know, this interview - it's fascinating to meet you, and again, HIV has been really a minor topic. Now, that doesn't mean, you know, I don't want to underplay it. You know that you really are out there and you are pushing for a very important thing, which is to break down the stigma surrounding HIV and to help to create a connection between all people, right?
And this is a value for our consideration of every other human being, right? It's the thing that makes us realize that immigrants are not a threat to us, people that are not our same religion are not a threat, people that are not our same color are not a threat - all these things. It's a really important thing but, for HIV, it's a special challenge because when you think about the 80s, it being a death sentence, that you know, it wasn't until Hollywood made movies like "Philadelphia" where the general public got introduced to the whole concept, and you know, they started to try to chip away at the wall between the HIV-diagnosed population and everybody else to try to - but no, Hollywood's not making those movies anymore besides yours.
Joseph Kibler: And I think what's fascinating is that we've gotten to an interesting spot with HIV and AIDS in general where we went from it being the AIDS epidemic, we went from it being the things like "Philadelphia" and seeing these movies to getting it to be "undetectable equals untransmittable," and we have all these resources and we have medications, and it slowly kind of faded back. Now where we’re at - and the issue, I find it every day, I'm on TikTok, I'm doing social media, I'm doing stuff where I talk about HIV, and I find like, you know, Gen Z or like youth is almost not getting these conversations because we've gotten it to a point where it's so manageable that we're not having the historical significance…
Jeff Galvin: They might not even remember to have safe sex, right? They may not even realize that HIV would be something that's worth avoiding.
Joseph Kibler: Right because now it's no longer this invisible, the hot-button thing, it's like, right, it's not the topic anymore, and I think we're in this weird space with it where we have to bring it back, we have to have these conversations, and it's just so it's fascinating.
I'm still seeing a lot of people who are not educated on this from all ages, you know.
Jeff Galvin: Look at the misunderstandings over COVID. You know, HIV is like, you know, orders of magnitude more complex, and you try to get the same population to understand the realities of this, it's tough.
Joseph Kibler: I feel like I'm - I joked about it a lot, but I feel like it's a full-circle thing, like especially with Dr. Fauci. I'm like, I was a child of under Fauci for the HIV and the AIDS crisis, and the same rhetoric came up about what was moving then to now, and then with COVID, and it's just fascinating to be like no matter how far we come, we always go back around, no matter how ahead we get, we always end up repeating things. History really does repeat.
Jeff Galvin: Yeah, I heard somebody say that history doesn't necessarily repeat, but it echoes, right? And it's true, like yes, if you don't learn from the past, you are doomed to repeat it.
I think that is something we didn't learn from the HIV epidemic, and then in COVID, we relived a lot of the political and psychological trauma. It was a wider audience. Welcome to the world of people that are vulnerable. You didn't realize you were vulnerable, and some people reacted to it. It's like, "I will not be vulnerable. I will not kneel down to the virus." People who know HIV or any other virus are like, "Yeah, the virus doesn't really make any difference to the virus whether you're kneeling down, believing it, don't believe in it, it's there. It's real. It's nature."
Joseph Kibler: I mean knock on wood, I mean, and I think, and I kind of thank HIV for prepping me in this way, not to, you know, no pun intended, but I managed to get through so far. I have not gotten COVID once.
Jeff Galvin: But you can get the same vaccines that anybody else can get, right? Your immune system is solid enough that you can do that?
People that have HIV really are basically, you know, abnormal relatively normal immune systems. Maybe completely normal immune systems. But still, at the same time, you're right, you know, it sort of puts an idea of, oh, what's the word that I'm looking for? Like viral hygiene. Yeah, and it doesn't have to be OCD, but the idea of like okay, yeah, it's worth wearing a mask temporarily. Yeah, maybe I'm not going to go out to the club tonight or go to the same number of parties, or whatever. Or maybe I'm gonna focus more on my dogs and cats for just a little bit, let this thing boil.
Joseph Kibler: People with disabilities, people with chronic fatigue, chronic pain, have all understood, I mean, have had to deal with this in life in terms of choosing when we do things. And we talk about the disability community as one of the few minority groups you can join at any time in life. And people often don't acknowledge it until they are a part of it, and they don't show up to support the disabled community until they are in it. And they don't realize how easy it is. And I think a lot of people who've gone through the pandemic, who have gotten long COVID, who've now become part of the disability community, really understand that now. You have to be involved in this beforehand and realizing just how much of the world had to think about this stuff and had to think about their health every day and the things we were doing and how we were managing buildings.
I think about the audition stuff with film. You talk about being really interested in film, and it's hard for me to even imagine. Yeah, there were time periods where I was going for commercial auditions where 400 people are using the same pen every day, signing in, and there's no hand sanitizer on the table. Yeah, of course, like these spaces were made to have health problems occur.
Jeff Galvin: Well, but it didn't stop you though. That's amazing that you've been able to continue your love of all this stuff. Maybe in a slightly dialed down way, but it's persistent, and you haven't gotten COVID.
Joseph Kibler: And actually, honestly, for a lot of people in the disabled actor community, it's opened up more opportunities for them. For some, because it's like everything is now Zoom, everything is now self-taped, everything is accessible. There are often times I'd show up to auditions places that weren't accessible, that weren't made to have me get in there.
And so now, over the pandemic, I did three national commercials, and I auditioned from my living room and I booked them from my living room.
Jeff Galvin: Yeah, oh interesting!
Joseph Kibler: Yeah, I was doing LA and I was traveling and you know, I would go to a commercial audition that would be about four minutes in the room, but I would drive an hour and a half to get to Santa Monica to find parking. I'd get in the room, we'd do the thing for four minutes and they'd be like "Okay, thank you so much" and I'd be like great and now I'm on my way home for an hour to try to get back.
Jeff Galvin: How are you going to be at your best after driving an hour and a half, right?
Joseph Kibler: Exactly.
Jeff Galvin: Yeah, in a way, like here in your space, you can set it up and be ready for that thing and then when it's four minutes, it's showtime, you know? You've already centered yourself and you're good to go.
Well, look, I could talk to you forever. Let's do this again sometime. I mean, I'm just finding like the range of the subjects that we're going over and the ability to talk about philosophy and psychology and all this stuff. You know, this is really fun for me, and I gotta also sum up by saying like you're an inspiration for people that are dealing with an HIV diagnosis and also dealing with a disability. That you really are showing, sort of by just your life, that their lives can be great. These are not show stoppers. Plan for that long life, decide what you're going to do with it. Everybody has limitations, you have some too, okay?
Within that realm of stuff that you can do, there's a tremendous amount of meaning and joy, and it's not going to always be happiness and joy.
Joseph Kibler: No.
Jeff Galvin: But at the same time, it's not going to be all, like you're like your dad, right? That you said just he went down from the experience and could never get back up again, and your mother went up. So you had two examples, and now your example of that up direction as well.
Joseph Kibler: They shape us. These things shape us. That's all it comes down to is every experience, every obstacle shapes us and creates the person who we are, and the more experiences we have, that just means we just shaped more, you know? Just if we have more edges to us.
Jeff Galvin: We’re nuanced. Yeah, well, that's great. I hope everybody enjoyed this interview as much as I did. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate you sharing this with us.
Joseph Kibler: Of course. Thank you.