The creator of the HIV-positive series Merce has more sides than you ever imagined.
Charles Sanchez is funny. Really funny. And loyal.
He’s also an HIV/AIDS advocate, by virtue of his highly successful short series, Merce, which is already in post production for Season 2. (Full disclosure: I am a financial supporter of Merce and receive a producer credit. This article was planned before I financially supported the series.)
In an exclusive phone interview, Sanchez reveals who he is, why he is funny, and can’t seem to stop making jokes—until it gets serious when I ask him who he really is.
Sanchez is highly underrated as a viral, content producing extraordinaire (no pun intended since he’s living with HIV), but it’s hard to talk with him without giving him hell about something. I mean, his nickname was “twinkle toes” and he just produced a song video called “Poopsie-Daisy” which is apart of bigger episode that will be released later to raise awareness for people living with HIV that experience diarrhea—a unique partnership with pharma.
I am impressed with Sanchez. Just read the interview and you will see why. (Warning: he jokes often, so take some of the things he says with a grain of salt. Aka: #UequalsU crowd!)
Josh: Let’s just start from the top. Who are you?
Charles Sanchez: Oh wow, I’ve been trying to figure that out for ages. Several therapists, there’s just been a lot happening. I’m Charles Sanchez. I am a grown man living in New York City. I have … I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. I’m the youngest of four and I’m a Mexican-American kid, fifth generation American. I am gay as a goose. I am HIV positive. I was diagnosed with full blown AIDS in 2003. I’ve been living healthily ever since then. I am a writer and a performer. I got this crazy web series called Merce, about an HIV positive guy living in New York who is not sad, sick, or dying.
Josh: And we are gonna get back to Merce.
Charles Sanchez: Okay. Alright.
Josh: Before we get there, I want to go back. You said that you’re the youngest of four?
Charles Sanchez: Mm-hmm (affirmative)- I have two brothers and a sister.
Josh: What’s your … what was your childhood like?
Charles Sanchez: Is that what you asked? Well, I have an amazing family and very loving. I always felt like I didn’t belong in my own family, like I felt like I was adopted. It would be kind of amazing, if you looked at a picture of my family we all look exactly like me. (Laughs) There is no doubts that I was born into that family. But, both my parents were mathematicians. My dad was an accountant, my mom was a math teacher. My older, both of my brothers are engineers. And so, I always felt like I didn’t belong. They were all really academically amazing and I was sort of, talented, but not so much in the academics. So, that’s how my childhood was. But I was in the Phoenix boys choir as a kid, which was kind of my first taste of the arts. And I had a big, like a lot of success as a child. I was touring Europe and singing for President Carter at the National Tree Lighting ceremony, touring the country. Then I’d go home and kind of get beat up on by the people at school for doing those things, for being what they called a twinkle toes. That was one of my nicknames in school.
Josh: Twinkle toes?
Charles Sanchez: Twinkle toes. And you know the regular faggot, faggot ass faggot. That’s one of my favorites.
Charles Sanchez: Homo, yeah. I like faggot ass faggot. I don’t know why. I think it tickles me. Because yes, it’s so descriptive and quite accurate.
Exclusive New Content from Merce Season Two
Josh: When you were diagnosed with HIV you … I guess it was also a diagnosis of AIDS. What was that like?
Charles Sanchez: Well, it was really dramatic. I really think that God did it on purpose, because he knew it’d get my attention and he knows that I have a flair for the dramatic. I had been … I was living in Little Rock, Arkansas and I was … I thought I had a really-
Josh: Wait, you lived in Little Rock AR?
Charles Sanchez: Uh huh. I lived there for 8 years.
Josh: Oh my gosh. (Laughs) That’s crazy.
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs) I know. Crazy. Do you want to take a pause and figure that out first?
Josh: No, not yet. Let’s keep going.
Charles Sanchez: Okay. So I thought I had, what I thought was a pretty stubborn case of bronchitis. I had several rounds of antibiotics and it wouldn’t go away. My room mate at the time came home from work to check on me at lunch and I was blue on the floor from lack of oxygen. She carried me to the car and drove me to the emergency room and they intubated me. About three weeks later, I woke up and my family was around me. That’s when they told me. I’d been put in a drug induced coma. I almost died. My viral load was through the roof. My T-cell count was four, and I had several opportunistic infections, including PCP, histoplasmosis, and thrush. I survived. I … But I went being from someone who was working three jobs, to someone who is on disability and getting out of … That was a real big life change.
But, I kind of feel like I had to make a choice how I wanted to live. You know, did I want be a victim? Did I want to be sad and depressed? Did I want to take my big mouth that God gave me and my sense of humor and kind of live, and show people that living with HIV in the modern world is not what it used to be like in the 80s and 90s? I kind of figured, I can be that friend, you know my buddy Charles has HIV and he’s fine. I thought I could be that guy. So that’s what that was like for me. But it was quite dramatic and scary.
Josh: Yeah, I mean I can only imagine that. How do you even be in a coma for three weeks and get out of that? That just blows my mind anyway, especially you, of all people, because I know how funny, well trying to be funny you are, sometimes.
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs)
Josh: Just how full of life you are and a lot of things that you are saying are actually … just choices that I’ve found in my journey, in the same way, that I had to make a decision how I was going to live from the moment that I received a diagnosis. How long did it take you … obviously, if your family was there, they all knew. Right?
Charles Sanchez: Yeah. They knew I had AIDS before I did, because I was out of commission and they had to make decisions for me and stuff. That first moment when they told me, my sister could see it in my face that I was concerned about what they were going to think. She grabbed my arm and she said, ‘Hunny, don’t worry about us. We’ve known for three weeks.”
Charles Sanchez: I know my story’s unusual when people talk about disclosing to their family and friends. All my family and friends knew before I did … that was in that circle in Little Rock and my immediate family and stuff.
Josh: How long did it take you to recover, get back going?
Charles Sanchez: Well, my parents … I grew up in Phoenix. My parents still lived there. After I was getting out of the hospital, my parents pretty much moved to Little Rock. I lived with them for the first month I was out of the hospital, in a little like, residential hotel. It was really strange. It was really … like my whole life was just turned upside down. Luckily, I had really good friends who didn’t treat me any differently. That was extremely helpful to me. Then I got my own apartment, and my parents moved back to Phoenix, and I kind of just eased back into life. One of my jobs in Arkansas was, I was musical director at the dinner theater there, at Murry’s Dinner Playhouse. I can’t say it without saying it in a Southern accent. Murry’s Dinner Playhouse.
Charles Sanchez: Working for them and doing shows for them also helped me feel like I was still Charles. Between that and my friends, and how they treated me, I think those were the major things that helped me feel like I was myself and that I was still me.
Josh: Are you saying that you’re still Charles? Like I’m still Josh?
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs) I am! I’m just like you!
Josh: Okay. I want to know-
Charles Sanchez: You’re my hero. You’re on the list.
Josh: Okay. I’ve trademarked that phrase. I don’t want to get legal, but I will. You know? (Laughs)
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs)
Josh: Don’t try to compete with me.
Charles Sanchez: It would be moot, so no worries, man.
Josh: Yeah. A couple things, when you’re talking about having a … you actually use the phrase … I remember The Stigma Project really came out against full blown AIDS several years ago, you used that phrase, I think.
Charles Sanchez: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Josh: Do you find it … I know that some people that get a diagnosis of HIV and they’re remains above 250 and they don’t get that AIDS diagnosis as well, that they are very adamant about telling people, ‘Hey. I don’t have AIDS. I just have HIV.’ Do you think that that distinction is necessary, helpful, harmful? How does it make you feel when that happens? Then the follow up to that is, AIDS.gov became HIV.gov. Do you feel like the part of that is being erased, or no?
Charles Sanchez: I mean, I don’t know what the future holds, but I think that, certainly I understand when someone wants to make the distinction between saying, ‘I don’t have AIDS. I have HIV.’ That, I understand that, but for me, that was not my diagnosis. My diagnosis was AIDS. I own that. You can’t take that away from me. I understand that distinction. I think it’s important to remember that AIDS is not over. Some people are … not everybody is diagnosed with AIDS, and I think that that’s fine. I think sometimes when we erase the word, we forget that it still is happening. We try to make it a little less … you know, saying HIV is not as dramatic as saying AIDS, for sure, because AIDS has a lot of cultural scars about the word and about the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s, and how it all came about in our society. The fact that I was diagnosed with AIDS in 2003, at a time when medication … had I known, I was HIV positive before then, I never would have gotten that sick, but I’m not the only person that that happens to and that happens still now. People are diagnosed with AIDS, because they don’t know, they’re not tested, they’re not aware of their own health. I think, for that reason, it’s good for me to say, ‘Hey, it still happens,’ for me to say that’s my truth. I just don’t think there’s anything erasing the word AIDS, as much as we try to soften it. It’s not everybody’s experience, and I don’t claim for that to be. I don’t think that … I think that everybody’s experience is valid. For someone to say, ‘Don’t say that about me. I don’t have that.’ Okay. Cool, man. You don’t. Good for you, but I do. Something that I do still say about myself is, you know, once you’re diagnosed with AIDS, it doesn’t go backwards. You don’t become only HIV positive, even if the medications are working, as they are with me. Once you’re diagnosed with AIDS, you’re diagnosed with AIDS. I say full blown AIDS, because that was my diagnosis in 2003. That’s why I say that, because it’s dramatic and I like a little drama.
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs) Also, it’s what was said to me. That’s my truth. You know?
Josh: What exactly is Merce , is your character in Merce … Actually, just explain Merce the series. What is it?
Charles Sanchez: Merce the series is an HIV positive musical comedy about this New Yorker with HIV, and his crazy family, and his kind of MGM, candy-colored, fantasy life. He sees some of the more dramatic parts in his life through a musical comedy MGM kind of lens.
I just decided, my producing partner and I, my producing partner Tyne Firmin, we started… He and I have been friends for 30 years. About, six or seven years ago, a friend of mine had wanted to do some work with me and he said, ‘Write a couple things.’ So, I wrote a couple things and then he fell in love, and fell off the map, but I had these sketches that I’d written. Tyne, who has never done any kind of film work or anything, we just grabbed his flip cam and filmed these sketches, and they were called Manhattan Man Travels. They were just these silly, little, running around town monologues about this guy Merce.
We did two seasons of that and developed it into a little bit of a musical. We hired a composer. We were thinking about doing season three. We thought, let’s make it really something. Let’s raise some money and get a budget, and hire film makers who are professional and fill out the cast. I went back to the drawing board, and I decided to make HIV more of the forefront of the series. We hired professional film makers and we created the first season, which came out three years ago.
The point of the first season started to show that someone living with HIV doesn’t have to be sad, sick, or dying, and can actually have a dating life, and friends, and family. That’s why we decided to make it a musical comedy, because what’s more opposite of what you’d think of when you think of HIV? So, that’s what we did.
Now we’re trying to come out with season two. Right now we’re in post production for season two.
Josh: Yeah. Okay. So now, fast forward. So you finished season one?
Charles Sanchez: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Josh: Then you wanted to do season two. How successful have you been in finishing season two? When’s it come out? Where are we in the production cycle?
Charles Sanchez: Okay. We’re in post production. I wrote the scripts, we got two new composers for season two, and we cast it. We shot it in the fall and it was crazy. We shot the whole thing over ten days. Eight episodes and … actually, nine episodes, because we have a mini episode that we created especially for one of our donors. We did it all in ten days, which is insane. Now we’re in post production, and so, that’s editing and doing all the sound mixing, mixing all the music, putting it all together. Now we’re also in a time when we’re trying to raise money to pay for that post production. Everything else is paid for, but that.
Josh: Yeah. Did you anticipate that extra cost when you were raising money?
Charles Sanchez: No.
Josh: Why didn’t you cut some corners?
Charles Sanchez: Well, what happened was, we decided with season two … After season one, we were really happy with it, but we wanted to do … we wanted to build on it and make it more. The scripts are more involved, their more issue heavy, so we talk a lot more. We talk a lot about secondary issues to HIV and we talk about slut shaming, we talk about gay marriage, and so it’s much more issue heavy. There are more actors in it. With more actors and more crew and more everything, everything costs more money.
Plus, because we shot everything in ten days, there was things that we couldn’t have anticipated that we went over time. Things took longer than we thought they would take. We had to pay our crew and everybody overtime when we had to keep them over the standard amount of time, because we were crushed for those time, we didn’t have any extra days that we could add on or anything like that. That for the things that just incurred and things like our costume budget, we just didn’t … it was no realistic budget. That was the problem was, our original budget was not realistic when we look for the things that we were trying to do for season two. That’s why we’re now needing to raise more money.
Josh: How much money did you raise and how much do you need?
Charles Sanchez: We raised $32,000, initially for pre-season, for pre-production. Now we’re in need of about $16,000 to pay our editors, to pay our sound mixers, to pay the composer, and to do some publicity, to enter some film festivals and things like that to get the word out about the season and to get the show seen.
Josh: Yeah. That’s awesome. Are you doing crowdfunding? Are you wanting sponsors? Do you want people to just give? What’s the … how do we do it?
Charles Sanchez: Right now, they can just go to our website or they can … we’re a nonprofit, so any donation that anyone makes is tax deductible, which is amazing. Fractured Atlas is our umbrella group and they are a nonprofit arts service organization. That’s kind of amazing that we’re a part of them. They can just go onto our website mercetheseries.com and click on ‘Donate Now’ and go to that, or they can send us a check, if they so desire. We’ll take anything. We’re not doing a crowdfunding campaign right now. We’ve done a couple of those in the past and quite frankly, our donor base is a little bit exhausted by us. We’re hoping to expand the reach of using people like, I’m Still Josh, you know, to help us get the word out that we need some help to get the series done.
Josh: Well, good. We’ll provide a link for that to happen. Speaking of I’m Still Josh, why do you think my blog is so popular? (Laughs)
Charles Sanchez: I think it’s because you have a hot ass and that you’re a little bit of a slut. I think that and your winning smile.
Josh: Why do you think I scoop all the other publications on big stories?
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs) ‘Cause you’ve got your hand on the pulse of a nation and a universe. And you don’t really have anything else to do, but comb the internet. I mean, that’s part of it, is that you’re just sitting around, beating off, and looking for HIV stories to …
Josh: Yeah. Are there other publications not doing that?
Charles Sanchez: I don’t know. I don’t know.
Josh: You write for one, don’t you?
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs) Okay. Fair enough.
Josh: I’m just saying. (Laughs)
Charles Sanchez: I am not simply someone who writes about public policy, or advances in HIV medications, or anything like that. I am fluff. I write mostly about arts and culture and literature.
Josh: You’re filler content.
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs) I’m filler content, but I’m also like … I write about Greg Louganis. I write about.. I write about, you know, there’s Johnny Versace mini series that was just out.
Charles Sanchez: People want to know. I don’t know, but see you’re just now writing about me, so I think it’s the same thing. We’re just so used to each other.
Josh: Yeah. Well, I’m just glad that you’re paying me.
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs) Do you really need my publicity? Do you really think that my little whateverness will…
Josh: I did want to know if you ever received and reviewed my auditions for Merce? ‘Cause I never got called.
Charles Sanchez: Well, the casting agent didn’t think you were right for it.
Josh: Do you agree with him?
Charles Sanchez: Well, I’m the casting agent.
Josh: (Laughs) Oh.
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs)
Josh: I can not wait to post this story about you.
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs) The reality is, we couldn’t afford you. You’re too expensive.
Charles Sanchez: You’re too much of a big star.
Josh: Yeah. It’s tough. You know?
Charles Sanchez: Yeah. We would have to double our budget.
Josh: Well, my manager might have said no and I’m my manager.
Charles Sanchez: Right? (Laughs)
Josh: I’m just joshing you. What’s the most important thing today in HIV activism?
Charles Sanchez: The most important thing?
Charles Sanchez: It’s amazing to me, and I guess because I’m in HIV activism, that I get tired of seeing the same messages. I get … I’m really tired of You Equals You. Oh my God, I’m tired of it. Yet, so many people don’t know about it.
Josh: You’re tired of it?
Charles Sanchez: I’m so tired of hearing about it. I’m tired of Bruce Richman. I’m tired of seeing his face.
Charles Sanchez: I’m tired of it, but that’s because it’s on all my social media stuff. Every time I open up Facebook there’s like ten #UequalsU things and Twitter’s all about that, but it’s necessary. Hearing those messages about HIV and telling people that AIDS isn’t over and HIV isn’t over, and telling people about crap … Yeah, I’m tired of it, but other people have never heard of it. There are young people who still have never heard of it and have no idea that there’s a pill they can take to keep them from getting HIV. That there are choices when it comes to safer sex. That HIV isn’t a death sentence, and all those things that I’m tired of hearing, need to be sex over and over again. I think that’s what’s the most important thing about HIV activism, is keeping going and having a big mouth, and not getting tired of your own voice.
Well, you don’t have that problem. You never get tired of your own voice. (Laughs)
Josh: (Laughs) Me and my momma. We watch all my videos. Several times.
Charles Sanchez: Right.
Josh: In talking about Bruce Richman, I mean … it could be an ugly person that we have see all over social media.
Charles Sanchez: That’s true. He is very pretty.
Josh: I’m giving you an opportunity to redeem yourself for saying that you’re tired of him.
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs) Well, I don’t see him If I was like, me hanging out with Bruce, I don’t get to hang out, because he’s also always traveling to spread the word about U=U. He’s like, ‘I’m in Australia’ or whatever. ‘Good day, mate.’
Josh: I know you love Bruce Richman. I just want to get that on the record. Here’s the last thing.
Charles Sanchez: Okay.
Josh: What’s the one thing that you wish I understood, or people understood about you? Charles Sanchez is what?
Charles Sanchez: Oh wow and see, I don’t know. I mean … wow. That’s heavy, man. You really are catching me. I’m not sure. I think that …
Josh: Now you know why we’re so confused. (Laughs)
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs) This is the other thing, I can think of jokes to say, but I’m trying to answer you in a serious manner. I think that I would want people to know about me … oh, gosh. I’ll just say this, this is probably the best way. I often say that I have to beg for every crumb of respect and that I’m funny and that’s my thing, but I think my biggest talent, and the thing that I am proudest of, is that I’m good at loyalty. I believe in loyalty. I think that’s probably something that people wouldn’t necessarily say or think about me first. Loyalty’s really important to me and family’s really important to me and my friends, who are my family, are really important to me. That’s probably my best answer.
Josh: Okay, Twinkle Toes. I just woke up.
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs)
Charles Sanchez: Wow. And that I have a hot ass. I have a hot ass and not everybody knows that, not everybody … so yeah … I have a hot ass.
Josh: Yeah. Why are you single?
Charles Sanchez: I don’t know.
Charles Sanchez: I really don’t know. I think I picked … I’m not good at picking them.
Charles Sanchez: There’s that. I have a history of picking some [crosstalk 00:31:56] not smart people. Some winners, yes.
Charles Sanchez: But I’m working on it. I don’t … I’ve kind of been a little jaded in my later years. I’m trying to get over that now. I’m trying to still believe in love and not be a Lifetime Movie of the Week, in my love life. So, I’m not sure, but hey fellas! Here I am!
Josh: (Laughs) Live in Merce, season two.
Charles Sanchez: Right.
Josh: That you didn’t invite any of me in, but that’s fine. The last question I have, is that you did a really cool production integration or a unique, innovative way of working with a pharmaceutical company for this second season. Tell me about that and then wrap it up, because you’re time is almost up.
Charles Sanchez: Jeez. Story of my life. Well yeah, one pharmaceutical company asked us to create a special episode with them, well actually, they said they just wanted an episode that dealt with the issue of HIV related diarrhea. They gave us a generous donation, which we were very happy about. I wrote a little mini episode for them about Merce going to his doctor and being in good health, but being afraid to tell his doctor that he has this problem, of daily diarrhea. He tries to figure out a way to say it, in a way that doesn’t make him grossed out. Then I had one of our composers, Adam J. Rineer write a delightful little ditty to go along with the episode.
Josh: I know you love me and I love you, too.
Charles Sanchez: Absolutely.
Josh: How good did I do in this interview?
Charles Sanchez: 9.5
Charles Sanchez: 9.5. It’s not quite a Tonya Harding quadruple … what was her thing, it was like a quadruple lutz jumpy thingy, that she did, before she ruined Nancy Kerrigan’s career … but it’s up there.
Josh: The shade.
Charles Sanchez: (Laughs) Oh well, you know. If only I could have been an ice skater, my whole life would’ve been different.
Help Merce Finish Season 2 Post Production
Charles Sanchez needs help to finish the post production of Merce Season 2. Will you join me in offering financial support?
Seriously. Click here (and if it matters, it’s tax deductible .)
updated: a previous version included an unapproved video and information not quite ready for prime time. Apologies for these errors, previously. We fired the writer. Ok, we didn’t. But Josh apologizes.