Emmy Alert

Matt Bomer Tells the Personal Story Behind His Heartbreaking ‘Normal Heart’ Performance

He was a straight high schooler when he first read ‘The Normal Heart.’ Now, years after coming out, the actor delivers a powerful turn as a man dying of AIDS in HBO’s adaptation.

Jojo Whilden/HBO

You don’t know it yet, but you’re about to be blown away by Matt Bomer.

We’re used to staring in awe at the 36-year-old actor with the piercing blue eyes, so suave and debonair in White Collar and so astonishingly chiseled as a male stripper in Magic Mike. But we’re not used to simply being in awe of him, as we are—and you’ll soon be—after watching his devastating performance in The Normal Heart.

Bomer plays Felix Turner in HBO’s powerful adaptation of Larry Kramer’s galvanizing 1985 play, an enough-is-enough screed on the gay community’s struggle to have the AIDS epidemic taken seriously. Felix is a New York Times reporter who catches the eye—and then the heart—of Ned Weeks, the lead character played by Mark Ruffalo, a mad-as-hell megaphone determined to get his gay friends and the government to acknowledge the urgency of the plague.

The Normal Heart boasts a stacked cast, which makes it no small praise to say that Bomer’s is the performance that lingers with you. Julia Roberts plays Dr. Emma Brookner, a doctor literally flipping over tables in frustration as she attempts to get the word out about the disease that is killing her patients. Friday Night Lights alum Taylor Kitsch stars as a conflicted activist, and The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons is Tommy, a more fatalist crusader whose soft anger somehow manages to stave off his dejected resignation.

“They’re letting us die because they don’t like us,” Tommy says in one of the film’s relentless—though necessary—monologues. It’s a bleak and accurate statement that becomes all the more wrenching as Felix contracts the disease, flippantly referred to as “gay cancer,” and begins to die.

It’s shattering to watch Felix’s deterioration as his body succumbs to the effects of AIDS. (Bomer lost an astonishing 40 pounds in order to more convincingly play Felix’s last days.) But it’s not just painful to watch Felix’s slow death because of the tragic circumstances on face value—death is sad—but because of the emotional investment you have in his relationship with Ned.

As much as The Normal Heart is a searing call to arms—if you’ve ever read the play, you can practically see the words leaping off the page in the shape of an angry, shaking fist—it’s a love story. The play works because it’s not just a diatribe. It’s human, rooted in the real, once-in-a-lifetime love that Felix and Ned share. It falls on Bomer’s performance to convince you of that love and the tragedy of its eventual end, and the actor—who is himself married to publicist Simon Halls, with whom he has three sons—rises to the occasion in positively gutting fashion.

There’s a reason the logo for The Normal Heart is a heart, and there’s a reason that heart shattered into dozens of pieces. Bomer provides the film with that heart, and his performance is the one that breaks yours.

Ahead of the HBO film’s premiere this Sunday, we chatted with Bomer about his decades-long connection to The Normal Heart (he was a straight high school student in Texas when he first read it), how it shaped his coming out, how his marriage informed his experience shooting this love story, and why we shouldn’t be surprised that an actor who’s so pretty could pull out a performance that’s this good.

Are you ready for a heavy conversation?

Let’s do it!

Let’s start with the premiere. Larry Kramer was there. So many New York men who remember that time were there. I heard the sobbing was audible. What was it like to watch The Normal Heart on screen in a room full of those people?

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Most importantly, getting to watch the standing ovation for Larry Kramer and to see him taking in a moment that was 30 years in the making was something I’ll never forget. For me, that was just one of those really rarified experiences that you’re very lucky if you get maybe once in a career as an artist.

But also, this is such a distinct part of New York history, this play, and I’m so thankful to HBO that they gave it such a grand opening there in New York. And paid homage and respect to this generation of people. Afterwards at the after-party, so many people who approached me wanted to tell me stories of people they lost and their experiences during that dark time in our history. They just wanted to cry and share their feelings with me. It was unforgettable. I became an actor because I read playwrights like Larry and Tony Kushner, and wanted to be a part of telling stories that hopefully have significance or can educate people or challenge their points of view or change their worldview the way these playwrights did for me. So to actually be a part of something like that as a grown-up, it’s like, man, you just check your ego at the door and try to serve the story.

There’s a headline that keeps circulating from a quote that you gave, where you said, “Larry Kramer probably saved my life.”

Yeah. I’m sure he did. At the time I first read it, my first sexual relationships were with women. But even then he put the fear of God in me! (Laughs) He educated me in a lot of ways. It was a very useful fear. But it was also the education to be smart and be safe, and that carried over into my later relationships and also when I started to have relationships with men.

But I think he saved me on a more profound than practical level. Even at 14 when I still didn’t know who I was when I read this piece—I was still figuring out who my most authentic self was—to have this voice that was such a firebrand and so honest and so authentic, to know that that reality was out there, even though it was nowhere near my immediate experience in suburban Texas, to know that somewhere it was out there gave me a sense of hope. And I think I knew on some level that a part of me that hadn’t been acknowledged yet was going to be OK.

I read that you even used to do monologue from Larry Kramer’s plays when you were in high school and in acting classes, before you even came out.

Yes! I started with The Destiny of Me. And then I would do monologues from his other works, like The Normal Heart. The scenes I remember the most, because sometimes it would be a final that you’d have to do for a class, were playing the Larry role in The Destiny of Me. Which, really, at my high school we had a very progressive drama teacher—obviously, if I had access to these plays. So we were 14- and 15-years-old doing scenes from The Destiny of Me and Angels in America, and would go to forensics competitions with other high schools and they’d be like, “Whoa! What is going on with these kids?” (Laughs)

Is this the first time you’ve gotten to play a gay character on screen?

I did a one-off episode of The New Normal for Ryan Murphy, and that was the first time I played a gay role. But this is really my first real role in a film where I got to play gay that was not elective. It’s just nothing that’s ever really come my way in a real way. It was so unique and interesting. It was strange to me that it was so unique that I was getting to play a gay character.

The other cool part, though, is that it’s not just the first time you’ve gotten to play a gay character. You got to play a gay character will a real, rich love story, whereas so many of TV’s gay character’s barely have love lives.

Well not only that, but they’re typically written in such broad stereotypes. I think we are such a diverse community, and that’s one of the great things you see in this film. The activism, even amongst the community, was difficult and flinty. There were so many points of views within the gay community itself. You see that between Bruce and Ned and Mickey and Tommy. So to get to play a gay role that’s also a fully fleshed-out human being with hopes and dreams and fears and light and darkness was such a rare gift.

This story almost takes on a different, or new, importance now, as it’s played for a new, younger generation, whose eyes might not have been opened yet to the realities of the AIDS epidemic and how tragic is actually was.

That’s one of the reason that I’m so happy that HBO made this film and they’re marketing it so heavily. They do reach a younger demographic. One thing I learned from this film that I hope the younger generation will take away—or maybe it just reminded me, after delving into it so deeply—is that as difficult as the activism was, ultimately, it did unite us and gave us our voice. It really catalyzed the gay rights movement. So the younger generation today who is fortunate to be born into a time to go, “Oh, there’s a NFL player who was drafted who is openly gay and I can get married.” Well, we all owe it to this generation of people, who worked so hard to give us the rights that we have today. And also, these people need to be remembered. And acknowledged. And thanked.

Jim Parsons gets that wrenching monologue, about all the plays that won’t be written and dances that won’t be choreographed and danced because so many members of that community died during the epidemic. Was that something you ever thought about while filming this?

I mean I didn’t forget about it working on this. “I said a prayer to those people every day before I came to work. Just let me get out of my own way. This story is bigger than me. This is your story, just let me tell it in the most truthful way possible.” That’s how I started every day on this movie.

What it was like the first time you saw yourself with the sores, and the makeup to make you look sick. That must’ve been hard to see on yourself.

Well, I lived on my own for months at the time when I had done a lot of the weight loss, just to get into Felix’s mindset. What might be perceived as strange about it, though, is that the more frail that I became and the more my health was compromised, the more I wanted to live. The more I had the desire to live and get the most out of life as I possibly could. And that’s what I tried to bring to Felix. Not a sense of “woe is me,” but a sense of “I’m trying to get everything out of life that I can.”

I heard Ryan Murphy cried when he saw you on set for the first time after the weight loss.

I think a lot of people didn’t know how to act around me. I had ridden the subway and walked on the streets and seen the way people looked at me differently and tried to use whatever that response was to get a better understanding of Felix and what he was going through.

How did your family react to seeing you so skinny and sickly looking?

We had prepped the kids really well. And after a certain point—I think I had lost like 30 pounds or something—I left the house. When it started to become more than that and my cheeks started to sink in and stuff like that, I thought it would be best to go. But the kids were amazing about it. Kids are incredibly resilient, and if you communicate with them and let them know that everything’s OK and you prepare them properly. The boys have such active imaginations, too. I think they thought that I was going to be as flat as a piece of paper, or something. So when it was just me skinnier, and I could still play LEGOs with them, they were OK with it. They were really happy when I was able to come back and be more a part of the routine, because the mealtime with the kids was the hardest thing for me. I think the only really note of concern I ever got from them was, “Are you ever going to be able to eat pizza with us again?” I was like, yes, I am. I promise I am. We’ll eat lots of pizza together again, it just won’t be for a while.

And for someone who’s typically in great physical shape, what was it like to see your body transform in that way? I mean we’ve all seen those shirtless scenes in White Collar. We’ve seen Magic Mike.

I’m not always like that! To be honest with you, my physical state is usually dictated by the project I’m working on at a given time. As hard as it was to be so weak, I knew I had gotten where I needed to be, where it was a debate in my head whether I had the energy to get up and go to the bathroom. There was also something liberating about not having to go to the gym, that doing two laps around my block in New York was exercise. There was something kind of freeing about that. Just getting the chance to access a character in a completely different way physically was really great and interesting, too.

You had to fight hard for this role. One of the anecdotes is that when Larry Kramer initially heard that Ryan Murphy was entertaining the idea of you as Felix that he said you were far “too beautiful” to play him.

That’s entirely too flattering to be true. (Laughs)

But it is! I bring it up because I remember Rob Lowe recently said something along the lines of how his extremely good looks have been an obstacle in his career, when he goes out for meatier roles he’s not taken seriously. And you did literally play a Ken Doll in a male-stripper movie. Do you think your looks have played a part in your career trajectory?

First of all, it’s a testament to both Larry and Ryan that they gave me this opportunity, because there really wasn’t anything I had done that would say to them that I could play this role. But I think what they did understand in our meetings together was how much this play has meant to me for over 20 years. How I would literally be willing to risk my life to be a part of it.

But the looks thing…

In terms of aesthetics, though, yeah, I think there can be a perception that your sense of depth or personal history is light or incredibly easy. But I can safely say that I had an incredibly difficult and trying past growing up and trying to be an artist and standing up as who I am in this world. A lot more than probably a lot of artists out there today. So while I feel that I have a great reservoir to draw from as an actor for lots of different roles, it is difficult because it can be an industry where it’s people’s jobs to thin-slice you really quickly and try to fit you into a niche in the market. But thank God for roles like this that give you the chance to broaden your horizons and show people that you want to be at the party. You have more to bring the table than how you’re perceived aesthetically.

As a viewer, the hardest scene to watch—because it was so beautifully sad and touching—was when Ned and Felix are married by Julia Roberts (who plays Emma). As someone who’s married yourself, what was it like shooting that scene?

How profound, right? I think the significance is that Larry Kramer wrote a gay marriage 30 years ago, way before it was culturally acceptable or even in the lexicon. He had that kind of authenticity 30 years ago. I think that’s amazing. But getting to be a part of it, and I think the fact that I am married helped me understand things that I may not have been able to otherwise. After we were done with that scene, Mark and I literally just held onto each other and cried for 15 minutes. The whole set just cleared out and left us alone for 15 minutes. It wasn’t because of anything we’d done. We weren’t like patting ourselves on the back. It was a) because it was the last thing we filmed together, and b) the recognition that this was an entire generation’s reality of how they had to say goodbye. It was so painful to take in the reality of this generation of artists and poets and lovers that we lost. It was really gutting.

What do you hope that people who watch this who might be younger and might not have a full knowledge of the breadth and reality of what was going on at the time get from this?

What we owe this generation. To remember them, but also to have an appreciation for this generation that stood up at a time when it was unpopular to do so. To understand that this group of people, as difficult as it was, banded together and catalyzed the gay rights movement and gave us the rights that we have today. And I hope that the younger generation will be educated. I hope for my generation there will be some clarity. And I hope for the generation that experienced that it’s maybe therapeutic for them.

Also, on a more positive note: It’s really, ultimately, about the power of love. How people under the most horrific circumstances could still love each other unconditionally and triumph over a society that universally ignored and mistreated them. That’s a really profound message, and hopefully it will remind us to treat each other a little bit better.

Speaking of the power of love, I remember when you gave that speech a few years back that was billed as your “coming out speech,” and it ended up showing up on the news ticker on CNN. You were just thanking your husband in a speech, and suddenly it became headline news. Was that something you ever expected?

Hell no! (Laughs) I mean, our lives are so full that of course if I receive something I’m going to acknowledge my family. It’s what anybody would do. So I did it. But I certainly didn’t think that it was going to create any kind of stir. I didn’t know if anybody cared. I thought everybody knew, to be honest.

So it wasn’t the big coming out speech that the media played it up to be?

No! I wanted to do things on my own terms, because at the time a lot of the press I’d done would be a two-page fashion spread with one paragraph about the TV series I worked on at the end. And I didn’t want it to be some salacious or sensational detail. I wanted to do it the way that I wanted to do it, which was to say that not only are we here but I get to acknowledge my family as equally as anybody else does. And it doesn’t have to be some headlines-grabbing thing. But people do what they will!

Since that moment, when such a hullabaloo was made of your coming out, have you seen a change in your career at all, or how you’re perceived in the industry?

I think if you start to think too much about things that are completely out of control, it will just drive you crazy as an actor. I think I’ve been profoundly blessed, so I try not to really think about it. I try to just live my life and do my work and the rest will just fall into place, as it may. As it will.