“This Dream Is Real” – actress Gloria Reuben speaks to RIC

Gloria Reuben, actress and activist, had a special message for Rhode Island College students – follow your dreams and live with dignity and grace.

Gloria Reuben addresses an audience at RIC on March 3. (Photo: David Okun)

Reuben’s speech, held March 3 in RIC’s Student Union Ballroom, drew heavily on her experiences as an entertainer and as an advocate for social issues, such as HIV/AIDS and climate change. She encouraged students to be active and pursue dreams as she had done – discussing personal triumphs and tragedies along the way.

Reuben is best known for her role on the NBC drama “ER,” in which she played Jeanie Boulet, a character who battled HIV/AIDS over four-and-a-half years' worth of episodes.

When it was scripted that her character would contract HIV, Reuben said she wasn’t sure she could play the part. “It was too close to home,” she said, “I was dealing with it with a friend as well.”

After playing the role on "ER" and strongly identifying with her character, Reuben used her fame to bring awareness to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. She also starred alongside Queen Latifah in the critically acclaimed HBO movie “Life Support,” which has helped promote dialogue on the social issues surrounding the disease. To date, Rueben’s role is the only recurrent character on any prime-time network to have contracted HIV.

Gloria Reuben (Photo: David Okun)
When Reuben decided to leave the "ER" show, producers originally scripted her character to die from AIDS. Reuben fought against that decision despite strong pressure.

“Jeanie was so brave and she had such integrity,” said Reuben. She insisted that a more positive ending would be appropriate to those who saw her character as a role model.

Eventually the producers changed their mind and Reuben’s character instead got married, adopted a baby and left the ER to spend more time with her family.

Reuben also talked about her upbringing, describing her formative years as tough – her parents separated when she was five, her father died when she was 12 and her younger brother passed away when she was in her early 20s.

Reuben grew up “as a woman of color in a predominantly white neighborhood,” leaving her with the question, “Where do I fit in? Where is my place?”

Having finished high school a year early, Reuben left home at the age of 17, supporting herself working as a part-time model. She pursued a career in acting after she got some advice from an encouraging casting director.

Reuben stressed the importance of deferred gratification and hard work. “I was constantly working to hone my craft. I was diligent,” said Reuben.

Since her rise to fame, Reuben has starred in films opposite stars such as Jean Claude Van Damme, in "Time Cop," and Johnny Depp in "Nick Of Time." She also starred in a critically acclaimed off-Broadway production of "The Vagina Monologues" by Eve Ensler.

However, Reuben said, “Music has always been my first love. I remember being under the piano when I was five years old, it was my safe place.” Reuben’s mother is a classically trained singer and Reuben herself studied ballet and jazz at the Canadian Royal Conservatory before she began her acting career.

After her role in "ER," Reuben sang backup for four months on the North American leg of Tina Turner's "24/7"concert tour. “It was one of the most exciting, exhausting and exhilarating experiences of my life,” said Reuben.

She later decided to finance her own record, enlisting Grammy-winning songwriter and producer Barry Eastmond to be her producer. Reuben collaborated with Eastmond on two original songs - “This Dream is Real,” and "Walk Away." Reuben’s record also includes some covers of her personal favorites, such as Chaka Khan's, "Sweet Thing" and Ella Fitzgerald's "Angel Eyes."

Gloria Reuben concluded her evening at RIC with an informal dinner with some of the students who attended her speech and the winners of a student activities email contest.

Christine Dennen, RIC student and dinner guest, said “the evening was an interesting opportunity to learn about someone in the public eye, their life and legacy.”