Ryan Murphy’s “The Normal Heart” is already drawing some polarizing reviews, with some calling it a missed opportunity while others labeling it an honest portrayal of a devastating time in history. Despite the varying takes on the HBO film, one thing that can be agreed upon is Matt Bomer’s heart-wrenching portrayal of Felix Turner, a closeted New York Times writer who begins a relationship with Mark Ruffalo’s character Ned Weeks. While most of the characters in “The Normal Heart” are based on actual people, the origins of Felix remain a mystery; possibly someone that the author of the original play, Larry Kramer, is keeping close to his heart. Indiewire sat down with Bomer to talk about how he discovered the play when he was 14 years old, how he decided on his first on-screen gay role and the modern generation’s job to maintain the legacy of the first fighters in the war against AIDS.
This is an incredibly powerful film. Tell me about how you got involved, and what drew you to it.
Well I read the play for the first time when I was 14. I had a very progressive drama teacher who would buy all the plays that were in New York and bring them to suburban Texas. So we were able to read things like this, and I was immediately struck by the iconic image, I still remember on the cover of the play, with Felix on the ground in a puddle of milk and Ned above him. And I thought, “What’s this about?” And reading Larry Kramer for the first time, as I’m sure it does with everyone who ever reads him, it just completely changed my worldview. I had no idea what was going on outside of Spring, Texas, and why no one was talking about it and no one was doing anything about it. So I immediately related to the material for a lot of reasons I guess. I started performing the pieces in my high school drama class, which was, I mean people probably cocked their head at it.
“Angels in America” was another one, but it wasn’t just the gay-themed plays that were influential, it was also Brecht, and Shaw, and Arthur Miller, and everyone who opened my mind and reaffirmed so many things I’d secretly thought for so long, and also completely educated me in things I had no clue about. So they were all important pieces for me to understand who I was and what world I was living in. I think growing up in the suburbs can be this safe haven where you’re sheltered from a lot of things, obviously there’s a shadow that comes with that, but, I wanted to know about my world, and I don’t think I would have, had I not been able to read those plays. It certainly wasn’t going to be from reading Jane Eyre in English class. I mean even though those works definitely influenced me too. I wanted to know about my world now, you know? “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin, I got feminism on too. But I wanted to know about my world now. My English teacher wasn’t gonna say, “Hey you know you should really check out ‘Faggots’ by Larry Kramer.” I had to kind of do that on my own. So the play had always been very close to my heart, and I saw the amazing 2011 production on Broadway. When I heard they were making it into a film, this is the only time I’ve ever really done this, I called my representation and begged, “Just get me a meeting for anything, I don’t care what the role is. I want to be a part of this story in any way I can.” And they got me a meeting, and I met Ryan in September of 2011, and at that time it was a film, and thankfully became an HBO film, and it became real.
You were pretty young during this era of history, but do you have any memory of the issue?
Well my entire sexual life, even when it was with women, has always been shrouded in this fear of death. But I didn’t really encounter it directly, obviously. Reading this at 14 probably saved my life on some level. I remember the first time I encountered it directly was when I started working in professional theater at 17 in Houston, and this would’ve been mid-90s, which was a particularly difficult time in the history of the disease, because new drugs, like AZT were just coming on to the market, but some people had been hanging on for a decade and their bodies were just giving up. That was the first time I lost someone I knew, and saw it directly and experienced it directly. So yeah, it influenced me greatly, in a lot of ways.
The men that this story focuses on, what kind of legacy or important messages does your generation take from their work?
Oh my gosh, everything. I mean, that’s why my sole hope in this film is that a younger generation of people will watch it, because we take so many things for granted. We weren’t just given the right to marry, we weren’t given the right to healthcare in this country that can treat this disease, manage it I should say. These people, and what this film captures so beautifully, thanks in large part to Larry and Ryan, is that activism is messy. There were, and still are, a lot of different points of view in the gay community. It’s not everybody holding hands and singing Kumbaya. People have very different perspectives. But this did unify us, and give us a voice in the formation of GMHC and Act Up and organizations like that, because we were saying, “We’re here, and we need your help, and we need to be treated as equals, and you cannot ignore us.” And I think we stand on all these people’s shoulders to have the rights we have today. So I hope young people will see that and appreciate that and remember these people.
I read that Murphy definitely wants his “Glee” audience to watch this film and get the younger generation of teens and kids now thinking about this issue.
Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I think that this movie will be incredibly powerful or influential for many generations. I think it’s gonna be therapeutic for one generation. I think it’s gonna be clarifying for my generation who came onto the scene going “What happened here?” This is like, we’re dealing with war widows but nobody knew there was a war going on. I think it will be clarifying for my generation and hopefully really educational for the younger generation. And I don’t fault the younger generation for not knowing, because we need stories like this to keep reminding us what happened.
Tell me a little bit about your first time meeting with Larry Kramer.
That was amazing, it was like getting to meet Abraham Lincoln. People always talk about who are the five people you’d want to have dinner with, and he’s probably one of those people for me. It was pretty surreal, I brought him cupcakes and we hung out in his apartment. He was wonderful and lovely and he really helped. The world of this play is so broad, and it is semi-autobiographical, so my research at the time was all over the place, and he really helped to clarify things for me and kinda helped to concentrate my resources as an actor. I remember him saying, “It’s all there in the text. You don’t have to go reaching all around, it’s all in the text.” So I took copious notes and just tried to stay true to the conversations we had.
What kind of research had you been doing?
I started at the New York Times, Jacob Bernstein was kind enough to let me trail him in the style section. Obviously the role there is drastically different that it was in the late ’70s, early ’80s. But he gave me a sense of what Felix’s day to day life would be like, and even more importantly, allowed me to speak with the some of old guard who’d been there since the late 70s, so I was able to get a sense of what the climate of the times was. For me that was such an important entry into where Felix is at the beginning of the movie when we first see him. So I started there. I’d done some research into the semi-autobiographical aspect of things, and I just brought all that to Larry, and he helped to consolidate my resources. And obviously I’d done an incredible amount of research with a doctor name Gary Cohan, who was one of the first AIDS doctors in L.A., we would meet together and go on hikes and stuff, and talk about the history of the disease, and watched a lot of documentaries, most importantly “How to Survive a Plague,” and “We Were Here” was another one that came out the year before. Because it was important to me, that over the progression of the illness, we had very specific ideas of how the illness could rest in Felix.
Most of the characters in the play are based on real people, but is Felix based on one specific person?
You’d have to talk to Larry Kramer about that. I’ve had lots of conversations with Larry and I’ve tried to stay true to all of them.
You go through quite a transformation in the film, both emotionally and physically, can you tell me about the process?
Well, what’s beautiful about Ned and Felix’s relationship is that Felix is someone who’s living a very compartmentalized life when we meet him, which given the career trajectory he wanted at The New York Times, was what you had to do during that time period. It was not a safe environment to be your authentic self. But at the same time, he has this yearning for intimacy and a real relationship, and Ned is completely authentic, and he’s completely open about his sexuality and his firebrand and open about his neurosis, but at the same time, he’s terrified of intimacy. So they both open each other up in this beautiful way, and Felix becomes more invested in the cause, and who he is, and learns to love and accept himself for who he is, and I think Felix softens some of Ned’s rougher edges in some ways, and allows him to feel safe in an intimate relationship. They both just lift each other up, and that was amazing to get to experience. As for the physical transformation, I felt like it was the least I could do for this story. It was never something I felt like, “Oh gosh, I can’t believe I’m gonna,” no, it was like, of course I do! I wanted to go farther, Ryan’s the one who stopped me. But what was so interesting to me was even when I got to the place where I was so weak, I was like, “It would just be so much easier to pee my pants than to go to the bathroom right now,” to me, that was the place I needed to be. I never felt that I was dying, I only felt a stronger will to live. And that was important for me in portraying Felix as well.
Did having those physical limitations get you into that place you needed to be to portray the character emotionally?
Yeah, that was the idea. Not only to achieve an aesthetic that Ryan was happy with, but also, you don’t want to have to manufacture that on the day, you don’t want to be covered in pancake makeup, trying to affect low energy, you want to be living in that place so that when the cameras role, you’re operating from there. You’re trying to become it as opposed to trying to affect it. Larry’s plays and a lot of the plays I read in our little high school drama library were the reason I became an actor in the first place. This story is so much bigger than me, or anybody else involved in it. So you put your ego aside, and do whatever it takes to do justice to the story.
This is the prominent gay role that you’ve played since your own “coming out,” right?
Yeah, and not by my own volition really. It just happened really, it did. I don’t know how you can be a part of something like this and not be changed as a person, and not want to be your most authentic self after working on something like this, so I think it definitely changed me as a person that way. But this is something that just happened. It was a gift to get to play a gay role that was written in a three dimensional human way. You read so many things that are these stereo types, that personally I find offensive. So to get to play a flesh and blood fully realized human being with dreams and struggles and demons and hopes and fears, it was like of course. And I guess it just came, you know, maybe it was a moment that was just 20 years in the making for me, but it came at the right time I guess.
HBO has a very good track record for their films when it comes to things like Emmys and Golden Globes. Is that something that’s on your mind come Emmy season?
No. I’m trying to be in the moment and just enjoy – I didn’t sleep last night because I was just so excited to be a part of this night in New York that has such a distinct piece of New York history, to get to show it at the Ziegfeld, so many dreams come true at once I can’t even handle it. And like I said, this is one of those pieces that is so much bigger than an individual ego, so much bigger than any of us that you hope that you serve the story and all the other cards will fall where they may.
“The Normal Heart” airs on HBO on May 25.