Interview

05.23.14

Taylor Kitsch on ‘The Normal Heart,’ Homophobic Right-Wingers, and Gays in the Military

Taylor Kitsch's haunted by Tim Riggins, Friday Night Lights' brooding and long-haired hunk. That is, until he was cast as a closeted Wall Street banker in HBO's The Normal Heart.

Say the name “Taylor Kitsch.” Nine times out of ten, it will conjure up an image of a brooding, sweaty, long-haired hunk. The ghost of Tim Riggins, the football-playing dreamboat of Friday Night Lights, still haunts the Canadian actor who, in the years since, has played a string of macho, tortured men in films like John Carter and Lone Survivor.

So the 33-year-old Canadian wouldn’t be the first fella that came to mind when casting the role of Bruce Niles, a closeted Wall Street investor and gay rights activist in Ryan Murphy’s The Normal Heart.

“It scared me to do it,” Kitsch told The Daily Beast. “It was a big challenge.”

The Normal Heart is written by Larry Kramer and based on his acclaimed 1985 play of the same name, centering on a coterie of gay rights activists in New York City who struggle to gain the attention of politicians and the public and warn them of the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the early ’80s—even though the city’s mayor was gay. It centers on Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), a passionate, openly gay activist whose chutzpah gradually overwhelms those around him, including his dying lover, Felix, played by the brilliant Matt Bomer, and the president of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Bruce Niles (Kitsch).

The Daily Beast spoke with Kitsch about his exciting new role, the idiocy of gay-bashing, and much more.  

This is a pretty big departure from your previous roles. How did you land Bruce Niles?

My manager sent it to me and I was in my apartment in Austin, Texas, in my living room, and she just said, “You’ve got to sit down and read this. They’re in a time-crunch because they’d cast the majority of the roles, but it’s also that kind of script.” I got halfway through and emailed my team and said, “I’m willing to fight for this.” So, I flew out to L.A. to meet with [Ryan] Murphy for a long, two-hour meeting, and we kept exchanging emails about where we wanted to take the character. I really envisioned the character in my head—the duality of Bruce, and the inner torment he felt over not being able to be himself, as well as letting himself love. It’s a fucking tragedy that there’s a guy like that—and a lot of people like him—who feel they can’t be themselves.

How did you occupy the headspace of Bruce?

I watched a ton of documentaries, read a bunch of articles and books, and I know some actors don’t believe in it, but I’m a big fan of how the wardrobe helps shape the character—all the Wall Street three-piece suits. I lost about 20 pounds. The hair, of course, I loved. All that combined takes you to that period where you’re not even questioning it anymore.

Was that the first time you’d gone blond?

Yes. And hopefully the last. [Laughs]

“Who are these people who think they can fucking say who other people can love and shit?”

Your character in the film suffers the loss of a loved one, which really leaves him traumatized. Have you ever lost someone close to you?

No, thank God, man. I have my parents and my brothers and sisters, and I haven’t lost a dear, dear friend. I grew up in a trailer park on the outskirts of Vancouver and was friends with a kid, and I heard about eight years ago that he died in a car crash. That hit me hard, but it wasn’t someone in my immediate circle.

It’s great to see an honest, raw portrait of the gay community. It’s pretty crazy that, in 2014, there are still a lot of people—particularly on the right—who are anti-gay.

To me, The Normal Heart is a human rights story. The gay community depicted in the film was fighting for equality and the right to be heard, but the AIDS crisis is a global issue; it’s not just gay people getting the disease. It really points to the naiveté of the people on the right because this is a human story. I don’t understand where this comes from. Who are these people who think they can fucking say who other people can love and shit? There’s a conditioning that must start at an early age where they start to believe this, but if you expose people to something real, they’ll end up liking [gays]. It’s so ridiculous, to me, that I can’t even wrap my head around it.

People fear what they don’t understand.

That’s part of it. People are just so afraid of things that they don’t know, so they just shoot it down.

Homophobia also seems to come from, perhaps, a deep insecurity on the part of “straight” people—that it will somehow challenge their sexuality in some way and force them to confront it.

That’s a great point. That’s something that I learned, too. Yes, Bruce is gay, but his sexuality has nothing to do with the man that he is, or his identity. Someone’s sexuality doesn’t make the person. It definitely comes from a place of insecurity. No doubt. If I have a fucking opinion on something, hopefully it’s grounded and I’ve done some sort of reconnaissance on it and listened to both sides. I just don’t get who the fuck you think you are to even think you have a say in who somebody loves. What a fucking waste of energy. Why not work towards a greater good?

AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease, and I’ve always wondered why the government doesn’t dedicate a bundle of money to creating the perfect condom. Because people would be OK with using condoms if they felt fine.

I think it’s more the education level. When I was growing up in a small town, I wasn’t exposed to what AIDS was until my mid-20s, and that came about by me going to Africa and working at one of the first AIDS clinics in Uganda. They try and scare you straight, in my experience growing up. “Can I get it from a cigarette?” “Can I get it from touching someone?” They try to scare you straight, and more money needs to be allotted to educate people about HIV/AIDS. But we should be more open about AIDS and not so fucking afraid to talk about it—let it be a real issue. Parents and everyone get so fucking worked up about it. The first time I went to Uganda, I went to an AIDS clinic and they give you this nine- or 11-minute test where they tell you whether you’re HIV-positive or not. It’s a dilapidated building with a long hallway and there’s a line all the way down, and you go to the left if you’re positive and there’s counseling. It was so bizarre, and that really affected me.

Another issue the film deals with is being gay in the military, since Bruce is an ex-Green Beret in the film, but was forced to stay in the closet. Now, gays can openly serve in the military.

Let’s put it quite simply: Are you going to be questioning the sexuality of the guy next to you in the trenches if he’s giving you CPR, going to save your life with a tourniquet, or is pulling you to safety? I think that answers its own question. It’s a no-brainer to me.

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Have you ever had a fun night out at a gay club?

You know, I haven’t, but I definitely party pretty hard. I was just in New York, and it really has become more about the people. You won’t see me in a club, but we had a great group of guys in New York for the premiere—all my close friends and people who helped to get me where I am all flew in. There are two pro athletes, another works the stock market, and a musician. We were out ’til 7 a.m. My buddy owns a bar in New York and a couple restaurants so we always end up going there because it’s a safe place and we don’t have to worry about people tweeting and shit. We just let loose.

What’s the Kitsch drink of choice?

I can’t drink gin. I’ll be “that guy” at the bar if I drink gin.

Funny you mention that. Me and my friends, during the summer, love “Foghorns”—a double gin and ginger ale in a water cup.

Oh god! When I’m in Austin I’ll go for a strong margarita, because when in Rome, and in New York I got the night started with a little tequila, and then I moved over to vodka. The headaches have become so ridiculous in the morning because I don’t drink that often—they’re unbearable—so I’m way more conscious of it. I’m 33—I’m not 75, or anything—but when I was younger I could go four nights in a row. But now, two weeks before New York I lived monk-like working out hard and clean livin’ just because I knew I was going to light it up in New York.

What do you have coming up next?

I might do this gangster movie in January about the Westies—the Irish-American gang in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. We’re developing that, and it’s a true story about Mickey Featherstone. I’m trying to keep the bar as high as I can. 

Right. Early on in people’s careers they just have to work to build their resume, but you’re at a place now where you can be a little picky.

Snakes on a Plane? Yes. The Covenant? I don’t know how we didn’t fuckin’ sweep the Oscars on that movie, but maybe we can do The Covenant 2 or something. Everyone has to start somewhere, and I’m not embarrassed by it, but I’m in a fortunate place right now where I can say, “No, I’m not doing that because my heart won’t be in it.”