The Normal Heart doesn’t air until May on HBO but the cast and director Ryan Murphy were present yesterday on the first day of the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour to discuss the much-anticipated production.
Along with Murphy on the panel were stars Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons and Taylor Kitsch as well as, in the heartbreaking role of Felix Turner, Matt Bomer, who talked about the challenges of the role in the film version of the revered Larry Kramer play of the same name.
Following the panel, TheBacklot had the chance to talk WITH him about whether the role and the project changed him. “Hugely,” he explained. “It made me profoundly grateful in a whole new way for a lot of the things I’m fortunate to have in my life but mostly it really gave me a new understanding of unconditional love.”
With Ruffalo playing Felix’s lover, Ned Weeks, Bomer, sporting very short hair due to the project, talked about how AIDS affects the couple’s relationship in the course of the story. “What [Felix and Ned] go through is unimaginable and I think, because of the love they have for each other, Felix is able to heal in some ways even though he is sick and I think Ned is [able to heal] as well and I think that’s one of the things that makes the story so heartbreaking and profound and loving at the same time.”
In fact, Bomer expressed his gratitude for having Ruffalo as his on-screen lover. “Absolutely. Mark was a dream and doing the scenes with a type of intimacy we had to do with a different actor could have been really challenging,” he said. “I learned so much from working with him. He’s was so patient and amazing and brilliant in the role. I just had to be present with him.”
During the panel, Bomer shared where he first read Kramer’s play as a teenager. “This play was actually the first exposure I really had, a real understanding of the illness…I read it in the closet of my drama room when I was 14 years old.” He added, fully aware of what he’d just said, “the irony of that is not lost on me.”
(From l to r) Ryan Murphy, Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Bomer, Jim Parsons and Taylor Kitsch
Bomer admitted that the play was initially frightening. “I grew up in the Bible Belt and there was no talk about it,” the Texas native said. “And I remember reading this play and seeing this neon blinking S.O.S. and being terrified but also glad that I had some kind of understanding of what was going on. And I did lose friends…I guess this story for me was always kind of the genesis of my understanding of what the disease was.”
Also, because the character of Felix does get sick with the disease in the course of the story, Bomer took it upon himself to drop forty pounds to show just how ravaged Felix became. How’d he do it? “We got to do this film for HBO…and they allowed us to shut down for a period of time in order to make some of those physical changes, but obviously it’s a huge piece of the character.” Roberts, sitting next to Bomer on the panel, joked, “we all put on weight so he would look smaller because we’re all so committed.” The actress then added, with more seriousness, “he came back half the person he was and twice the man he was. It was really amazing to be a witness to what Matt did. It was astounding.”
Also during the panel, Bomer was asked, along with Parsons, about being an out actor with big TV career, Bomer responded, “I guess I’m just thankful to get to work on roles and projects like this, period. I don’t think of myself as a gay or straight artist. I just think of myself as an actor.”
Post panel, asked about talking with Kramer about the project, Bomer said, “First of all, I love Larry and we spent a good deal of time together talking about the world and I didn’t want to go hashing up…he’s done revivals of this play for so long and The Destiny Of Me and many others and I didn’t want to keep rehashing tough territory for him.”
The actor added, “the most important thing [Kramer] told me was what I mentioned in [the panel], more about who this individual was before he was sick and after and the good and bad that came with both sides of the coin.”
Some fans who know Bomer best for his breakthrough role on USA’s White Collar may think the caliber of the The Normal Heart project is unchartered territory for the actor. They’d be wrong. “I’m fortunate enough to have hashed it out in theater for years and to have gone to Carnegie Melon and gotten to play a lot of really fun, amazing, rich, classic roles,” he said. “People don’t know that because they see what is put out there for them, but what was more important to me than thinking of it as an especially dramatic or humorous part was getting to be a part of the story and telling it as truthfully as possible and making sure those relationships were carved out in the right way.”
The Normal Heart is set to air on HBO in May.