Welcome to this week’s “Just for Variety.” Although the column usually includes several items about different celebs and industry insiders, this week’s Pride edition is solely about casting director Jeffrey Drew’s participation in an experimental treatment study for an HIV cure and the documentary short that chronicles his journey. It’s been 40 years since the CDC reported the first cases of what would later become known as AIDS. Here is one man’s story to help find a long overdue cure.
Jeffrey Drew was diagnosed with HIV about 34 years ago when he was just 23. Since then he’s taken various antiviral drugs that have kept him alive. “You name it and I’ve been on it,” Drew says. But in October 2019, the longtime Los Angeles-based casting director stopped taking his latest regimen — two pills daily — as part of an experimental trial for an HIV cure. Over the next several months, researchers wiped out his immune system with chemotherapy before injecting him with the experimental treatment.
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Drew’s viral load — the amount of HIV in one’s blood — has been undetectable for about six months, meaning it’s so low that tests can’t detect the virus, nor can it be transmitted through sex.
Drew can’t say he’s cured … yet.
“They’re still taking blood once a month and sending it to the CDC and the NIH,” says Drew, whose most recent credits include “Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square,” “Marvel’s Runaways” and the upcoming TV-movie reboot of “The Walton.” “I’m supposed to go to Washington, D.C., to do more intensive tests because besides being in your bloodstream, HIV also hides in your brain, in your bone marrow and other parts of your body,” he says. “But it’s wild not to be taking meds and not have a viral load.”
Drew’s journey is told in the documentary short “Right to Try.”
Directed by “The Late Late Show With James Corden” producer Zeberiah Newman and edited by Leah Turner (“A Worm in the Heart”), the 26-minute film is being shopped around by CAA’s Travis Tammero. Newman was a one-man band on the film after several production companies turned him down. “They were fascinated by Jeffrey’s story, but they didn’t really understand it,” Newman says. “They didn’t think that HIV was a thing anymore. So I bought a camera and a microphone.” He kept the equipment by his side at all times.
“I’m in my office right now and have the camera right here,” Newman says. “There were days where I would brief James [Corden] on our next guest and then run across town to catch Jeffrey coming out of an elevator.” He also shot Drew at home when the casting director was too sick to work — he went on disability for a month — while undergoing the chemo and vaccine injections. “It was rough. The fevers would come, the shits would come, the vomit, or whatever. It was so unpredictable every day what would happen,” Drew says. “So it was a lot. But I was willing to show up for this because I believe in the cause.”
In addition to participating in the trial for no compensation, Drew is active in L.A.’s recovery community and instrumental in producing Best in Drag, a yearly drag queen pageant that has raised $5 million over the past 25 years for Aid for AIDS. “As a gay man, I feel motivated to get Jeffrey’s story out there,” Newman says. “He is an undiscovered hero who people in our community really need to know about.”
In the first few minutes of “Right to Try,” Drew recalls the early days of the AIDS epidemic. “My friends and I were just sitting around to see who was going to die first,” he says. “And we watched them — we watched our friends go, one by one by one.” While things may have changed and an HIV diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it once was, Drew says, “There are people who are still getting infected and sick and dying. I would love to see a generation that doesn’t have to think or worry about this anymore.”
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