“MERCE” is a web series that follows a character who is HIV-positive. Starring actor Charles Sanchez as the lovable title character, what makes the show unique is that it is a musical comedy that boldly confronts the epidemic in a way that is not depressing or alarmist, but rather sweet and hilarious.
Charles recently discussed his role in this series, now in its second season, via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for acting and how did you develop your skills?
Charles Sanchez (CS): I’ve been a hammy performer my whole life, practically. I was in the Phoenix Boys Choir as a kid, so that got me up in front of people at an early age. I started acting in high school. My first lead was the title role in a holiday confection called, “The Littlest Fir.” I was adorable. From there I did other high school productions and started doing community theatre. I had my first professional acting job at 18, then moved to NYC the year after that. I attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. After that, I did a little regional theatre, performed at Lincoln Center, sang in a band that did gigs in clubs in New York. I even did a very dignified commercial for a grocery store where they dumped pounds of raw meat on me. What I wouldn’t give to have that footage for comedy! But, my sordid career was mostly waiting tables. I discovered I could write out of necessity. And although I have yet to hit the big time, I can’t stop creating. As the great Elaine Stritch once observed to me (as I was pouring her coffee), “Oh, you’re an actor, honey. It never leaves you.”
MM: Why did you decide to create an HIV+ character and how similar is he to you personality-wise?
CS: Well, I am a person living with HIV. I was diagnosed in 2003. I noticed that every time I saw a movie or television show or play with an HIV story line, it was always tragic. It was either a history lesson about the AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s, or it was, like, a “very special episode” where when the character with HIV comes on, there’s a sad violin playing. Well, that’s not my life! And I don’t know anyone living with HIV in the modern world who’s all boo-hoo about it. So, I wrote the opposite! I wrote a silly, bawdy, outrageously gay character, and the approach to the whole show is opposite of the traumatic themes usually associated with HIV. As far as a character, Merce is unapologetically gay, and I love that! I wish, in that way, that I were more like him. He wears his sparkly fabulousness on his sleeve, right in your face with twinkles and glitter. He has no filter about that, and I aspire to be that fearless.
MM: What inspired you to make the show a musical comedy?
CS: I wanted to turn the conventional thoughts about HIV upside down, and celebrate the life that someone with HIV can have, with love, family, friends, hot sex, joy, laughter, and craziness. What better way to do that than through song?
MM: What was it like to film this and promote it and why did you decide to make it a web series?
CS: Filming the show was nuts! We filmed the entire second season of 8 episodes in 10 days! That’s like filming a 90-minute movie in that time, it’s insane. But we had so much fun! The cast and crew were top notch and willing to do anything for a laugh, and made the entire creative process a joy. Director Tyne Firmin kept me from losing my mind with his calm, steady energy.
Promoting Merce has been challenging, only because people don’t quite know where we fit. Although the main character has HIV and has some issues because of it, the show is really a flat-out comedy. It’s not a safe sex show, it’s not filled with science or medical facts, nor is it a cautionary tale. It just shows a gay guy and his outrageous friends and family and how they sing and dance through their lives, and oh, he happens to be thriving with HIV. I’m not sure we (my producing partner Tyne) ever really chose to do a web series; it just happened. The best way to tell this story of Merce, his Mama, his hubba hubba boyfriend Remington, and the way he sees some of his life through an MGM musical lens, was in a comedy series. Since Comedy Central or Netflix hasn’t discovered us yet, we have to do it on our own!
MM: What can viewers expect from the show and what are the plots of some of your favorite episodes?
CS: People can expect a lotta laughs, some funny and great tunes, unexpected heartwarming moments, and a little bit of my ass. My favorite story lines? Well, that’s a hard one, since I came up with all the story lines. They’re all freaking fabulous! I love Mama, played by Tyne Firmin, and her sassy point of view. I love Merce’s roommate Corvette and the certifiably coo coo relationship with her girlfriend Jo. Sam Given plays Cousin Todd, and he’s the funniest thing in the show. Brilliant, whether he’s channeling Shirley Temple in Episode 1 or Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias in Episode 6. And his fiancee Lisa (with-an-S) Minelli, played by the hilarious Amanda Bruton in Episode 7 is freaking priceless! But I think the serodiscordant relationship between Merce and his boyfriend Remington and their loving connection is really beautiful. In Episode 4, there’s a wonderful moment where Remington says how he wishes that there was a cure for HIV, then sings a song written by Adam J. Rineer that says that until there’s a cure, love will be the cure. It’s a really special episode of Season 2, and always makes me a little verklempt.
MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
CS: Well, we received a small grant from the HealtheVoices Impact Fund to create some HIV educational videos in Merce’s world. They’re going to be really shareable, funny and fun “The More You Know”-kinds of videos about everything from HIV testing, stigma, U equals U, and PrEP. We’re in production for those now, and we’re hoping to get those out into the world by the end of the summer.
To check out some episodes, see here: https://www.mercetheseries.com/new-episodes