In Dallas Buyers Club, an emaciated Matthew McConaughey plays real-life AIDS victim, Ronald Woodroof. Woodroof, after he was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-1980s, started a venture called the Dallas Buyers Club, which distributed AIDS treatments not yet approved by the FDA to those who couldn’t afford (or suffered ill effect from) the new AIDS drug at the time, AZT.
Little is known about Woodroof’s life. In 1992, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News named Bill Minutaglio read about buyers clubs for AIDS patients in other cities, and tracked down Woodroof to interview him for a feature about the Dallas Buyers Club. Later that year — a month before Woodroof died — screenwriter Craig Borten interviewed him at length, hoping to make a movie about his life. The AIDS drug kingpin was very candid, perhaps because he knew he had little time left to live. It took more than 20 years to get the movie made, but finally it’s here.
Producer Rachel Winter told Slate, “Craig and Melisa [Wallack, his co-writer] found the right blend of accuracy…There was only so far we could go into ‘procedural’ mode; the movie had to be entertaining.”
So what’s fact and what’s fiction? TIME breaks it down. [Spoilers ahead.]
Woodroof rode in rodeos
Though Woodroof was a rodeo enthusiast, he never rode any bulls himself. The screenwriter has said in several interviews that the bull riding is meant to be a metaphor representing Woodroof struggling with his disease. It is fair to say though that Woodroof was a foul-mouthed cowboy: he swears incessantly in the Dallas Morning News article.
Woodroof was in denial about his condition for a time
In the film, Woodroof is diagnosed in 1985, but he jokes with friends that the diagnosis must be a mistake (because he is not a homosexual) and, for a long period, chooses to ignore his very real illness. He finally begins seeking treatment after he does research (in TIME Magazine, which provided extensive coverage of the AIDS epidemic) and learns that heterosexual males can contract the disease too. According to Borten, Woodroof told him that a doctor may have diagnosed him with HIV or AIDS well before 1985.
The Dallas Buyers Club lab-tested their drugs
According to Minutaglio’s original article, many clubs — including the one in Dallas — sent drugs to local labs to test them for purity after they were smuggled in from Mexico. The Dallas Buyers Club had a reputation for distributing wildly experimental drugs, but, as Woodroof said in the article, “Dammit … I don’t see how anything can be more toxic than HIV itself. I have taken chances that have almost killed me and I will keep on taking them. I have nothing to lose.” Woodroof founded the club in 1987 — at its peak it had as many as 4,000 regular customers.
Woodroof used elaborate disguises when smuggling drugs into the country
Woodroof said that he had dressed up as both a doctor and a priest — as he does in the movie — to get across the border. He even once filled a suitcase with dry ice when moving through customs in Japan to conceal drugs (after bribing a Japanese doctor for a shipment of drugs not-yet-approved in America).
Woodroof was a homophobe who, over time, changed his views
According to Borten, Woodroof said his illness and interactions with gay AIDS sufferers through the buyers club changed his views on gay people. He did lose all his friends after they found out about his disease, and that, in part, led to a rethinking of his homophobia.
Woodroof worked with a transgender partner — and recruited a doctor to help him run his buyers club
Both Rayon (played by Jared Leto) and Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) were fictional characters. The writers say that they interviewed transgender AIDS patients, activists and doctors for the film. They combined these stories to create Rayon and Dr. Saks, as representatives of their interviewees. Rayon, especially, helps underscore Woodroof’s growth in his understanding of the LGBTQ community and AIDS. The movie suggests flirtation between Woodroof and Dr. Saks; Woodroof, according to an interview with Minutaglio, did have a girlfriend, though he chose not disclose any further details. Borten also noted that Woodroof had a daughter and a sister who were left out of the script.
Woodroof lost a trial seeking to allow him to distribute peptide T
Woodroof and his buyers club were involved in multiple lawsuits. He did, in fact, sue the FDA over his right to distribute peptide T for dimensia associated with AIDS. Like in the film, the judge was sympathetic to Woodroof’s plight but ruled that legally he could not distribute the drug, though he was allowed to use it for his own purposes. Woodroof said of the drug in the Dallas Morning News, “I have no choice with peptide T. It is the only line I have to saying alive. When I stop it, I start dragging my leg. I urinate myself. I can’t speak. I slobber all over the damn place.”
Woodroof also sued the FDA for not allowing him in the initial trial of AZT, a drug he publicly campaigned against: “Look at AZT (one of the few government-approved AIDS treatments). I don’t know if I wouldn’t prefer giving a shot at eating Comet cleanser. I’m serious. That stuff will eat you up.”
Correction: A previous version of this article had Donald Woodroof’s name spelled “Woodruff” because sources conflicted about the spelling of the man’s name. The original article in the Dallas Morning News uses Woodroof, and that is the correct spelling for both the man profiled and the character in the film.