by Jim Longworth
Matt Bomer happens to be one of America's most popular and talented actors. He has played everything from a Texas Chainsaw victim, to a male stripper ("Magic Mike"), to a lovable con man ("White Collar"). The drop-dead gorgeous, Texas born, athlete turned thespian, also happens to be gay, and is a recipient of the Steve Chase Humanitarian Award for his work in the fight against HIV/Aids. I got to know Matt when I moderated a Television Academy salute to TV Crime Fighters back in 2010, and we've remained friends ever since. I spoke with him recently about director Ryan Murphy's upcoming HBO film, "The Normal Heart" in which he stars.
MB: There was nothing I had done on White Collar that would have ever told Ryan I could play this role, but when I brought my research to the role, he understood that I was passionate about being a part of the piece.
HBO's "The Normal Heart" is based on Larry Kramer's 1985 play by the same name, which recounts the early years when HIV/Aids first reared its ugly head in America, and was referred to as "gay cancer". In large part it is the story of how gay men from all walks of life dealt with this new epidemic, and how some of them came together through the Gay Men's Health Crisis organization to raise awareness, and seek government funding for finding a cure.
In the film, Bomer plays Felix Turner, a reporter with the New York Times who becomes involved with GMHC founder Ned Weeks, played by Mark Ruffalo. Matt's research for the role included shadowing Jacob Bernstein, a real life reporter for the Times, but his commitment went much further than that. Since Felix contracts Aids midway through the film, Matt decided to lose 40 pounds to give his portrayal a sense of realism.
MB: I think it was something I brought to Ryan, and he responded to it as my take on the arc of the character. Something that I thought was important to the reality of the piece. When I brought this aspect to him, in addition to my research, that might have been part of the reason I got the job.
But Bomer's commitment to the role meant having to take a break in filming in order to transform his body into that of an Aids patient.
MB: We filmed the first part of the movie in June and July, and then we came back at the beginning of November.
JL: But weren't you concerned about the risks to your health as a result of the fasting?
MB: What I gained from this role, and getting to work in the film, is so much more valuable than what it cost my body.
Bomer definitely knows about taking risks. While still the star of his own prime time drama series, he came out at the 2012 Chase awards ceremony. The year before he had quietly married Simon Halls and they now have three beautiful children. Of course, Matt was just a child himself when Kramer's play takes place, so I wondered if he could identify with the characters in the film.
MB: Absolutely. I think anybody who's ever come out can identify with that in some regard. Because YOU don't change, but the perspective of the way the world sees you, and the way other people see you, can change.
Kramer's teleplay and Murphy's interpretation allows us to see those changes in public perception, as well as the divisiveness and denial among gay men, in the face of a deadly new epidemic.
MB: You have to understand that at the time, everyone else was having a sexual revolution. Gay men and women felt they were having their own sexual revolution, and so, right as they're starting to feel a sense of freedom in the post Harvey Milk years, all of a sudden, doctors are telling them they can't have sex anymore. One of the things I found so interesting in Ryan's take and Larry's script is that not everybody in the film was on the same team. There were lots of different points of view in the gay community. There were guys who thought it wasn't safe to be "out" at work, and guys who thought everyone should be "out". So there were a lot of different points of view. I think that lends much more authenticity to the film, and it wouldn't have if everyone was just marching together in a parade.
Speaking of divisive, the film has come under fire from some in the gay community because two of the leading roles are played by straight actors, Mark Ruffalo and Taylor Kitsch ("Friday Night Lights"). I asked Matt if he had a problem with that.
MB: I think it's about whoever is the most passionate about telling the story, and whoever is going to help serve the story. Mark and Taylor's dedication and commitment to their roles, and to "The Normal Heart" were unparalleled, so I had absolutely no problem with them playing those roles.
"The Normal Heart" takes place in the early 1980's when we were just starting to understand Aids, and yet, after all these years, and after all of the research, education, and break-through treatments, there are still 6,000 cases of HIV diagnosed every year. I wondered if Matt thought "The Normal Heart" is still a cautionary tale, and what he wanted audiences to take away from the film.
MB: I think for one generation it's going to be therapeutic. For another generation, my generation, it's going to offer some clarity. And, hopefully, for the younger generation it will teach them to be responsible with their lives, and it will give them an appreciation for the circumstances these people went through. I also hope it opens up people's sense of compassion, so that the next time something like this comes up, we will know how to treat each other in a more humane, respectful, compassionate way.
"The Normal Heart" premieres Sunday, May 25th at 9pm on HBO.
Jim Longworth is a columnist for YESWeekly and, author of TV Creators, and host of Triad Today
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Matt Bomer : The Normal Heart