Matt Bomer on 'The Normal Heart' Sex Scenes, Larry Kramer, and the First HIV-Positive Superstar
Photos by Jojo Whilden/HBO
Actor Matt Bomer, star of the new HBO film The Normal Heart (which premiered on HBO May 25) is blessed with a lot of beauty — the chiseled jaw, the perfect hair, the rock-hard abs — but it is his eyes that capture you first. The ice-blue pools of warmth seem to bore deep into your soul whether you see them in person or on the cover of a magazine. So when he’s crying, crumpled on the floor in a semi-fetal position, too weak to make it to the bathroom alone, covered in shit and piss and Kaposi lesions — the effects of dying of AIDS at a time when the term AIDS wasn’t even coined yet — it’s devastating to watch.
The film, which premiered earlier this spring, packs plenty of star power, including Mark Ruffalo, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Groff, Denis O’Hare, and B.D. Wong (and many give impressive performances). But this movie, this role, this moment belongs to Matt Bomer, who serves as the heart of a film that is at turns infuriating, playful, painful, arousing, and mournful.
Directed by Ryan Murphy (the gay creator of hit series Glee and American Horror Story) and written by gay activist Larry Kramer (based on his groundbreaking Tony Award–winning play of the same name), The Normal Heart is an unflinching look at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in New York City in the early 1980s, the nascent gay movement, the disparate sexual politics of the day, and the hysterical fear of a disease nobody had yet named.
Hollywood hunk Ruffalo as Ned Weeks (the pseudonymous character that stands in for Kramer himself) inhabits the activist who helped launch the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and later ACT UP. Ned worries about this so-called gay cancer as friends and acquaintances begin to get sick in droves, many dying suddenly, others locked in isolation in hospitals where even the staff won’t enter their rooms for fear of contagion. Ned aligns himself with no-nonsense Dr. Emma Brookner, who is one of the first to deal with patients with this gay plague, doing so from her wheelchair after surviving childhood polio. Played by Roberts, the plain-talking and acerbic Brookner is modeled on Dr. Linda Laubenstein, an early HIV and AIDS researcher who in 1982 coauthored the first scientific article on the outbreak of Kaposi’s sarcoma among gay men, a sign of what would soon be known as AIDS.
Ned joins others to begin a group serving men with this disease (the real-life GMHC) and he urges gay, handsome, and closeted New York Times reporter Felix, played by Bomer, to expose the government’s inaction on the medical crisis. It is Felix who ignites Ned’s deepest passions.
A date that vacillates between political tirade and excitingly tense sexual interplay marks the beginning of the relationship at the movie’s core, a partnership that inspires Ned to push the government for action, even going so far as to out real-life New York City mayor Ed Koch, whom activists like Kramer argued had done too little to combat AIDS because of his own fear of being discovered as gay. (Koch did not come out in his lifetime but was outed posthumously by several sources.)
Rarely can a movie about AIDS be called sexy, but The Normal Heart is, and it is the initial date between Ned and Felix that sets a standard for a new normal — a film that recognizes how integral sex is to gay men’s lives and how fraught it had become with danger once HIV made its widespread appearance. It neither marginalizes nor glorifies (homo)sexuality but shows at least two points on a spectrum (monogamy in one scene, group sex in another) that is as broad as that of heterosexual expression.
The movie will change viewers, perhaps a bit like it changed Bomer. “I don’t know how you could be a part of this movie and not be changed on some level, unless you’re just really a slab of concrete,” the actor says, chuckling with an extremely slight but still perceptible Texas drawl. “It’s so rare that you get to portray a well-written character that’s fully developed and is also part of a story that you hope has some type of social significance, and also that changes you.”
Bomer says that bringing Kramer’s opus to the big screen gave him “a profound sense of gratitude for the people who struggled through this time period and who fought and persisted and rose up — and as difficult and painful as it was, joined together and found their voice and gave us a lot of the rights we have today.”
It is Kramer to whom Bomer also felt the most responsibility. Kramer, who has been too ill to travel, was rushed a print of the film and was said to have been overcome with emotion at the final result. It’s that, not the talk of Emmy nominations, that makes Bomer the most proud.
“For me, getting to meet Larry Kramer was akin to someone getting to meet one of the Beatles,” he says. “I had been reading his stuff since I was a kid. It was sort of my only understanding of what was going on in the world outside of suburban Texas.”
The actor was only 14 when he initially read The Normal Heart, after first reading Kramer’s follow-up play, The Destiny of Me (which is both a sequel and a prequel of sorts, introducing Ned’s childhood in flashbacks and his life as an AIDS crusader later on). Bomer was in awe of Kramer and his work.
“I used to perform scenes from The Destiny of Me in my high school drama class and things like that,” he recalls. “I’m sure people were kind of scratching their head as to why a 14-year-old kid was doing a scene from The Destiny of Me ,but it felt really important to me at the time, and there was a sense of injustice and of God, this neon SOS I got when I read it that I felt needed to be put out there.”
Though he read The Normal Heart in the early 1990s, it wasn’t until he started working in professional theater in 1995, when he was 17, that he had his first direct experience with HIV and AIDS. “Those were my first friendships with people who were struggling with the illness, and as you know, that was a particularly difficult time in the AIDS crisis because there was a lot of medication coming through but also a lot of people who had been holding on for a long time waiting for it to come through,” he recalls. “That was the first time I lost a friend.”
The actor-turned-activist wishes he had known more about HIV and AIDS at the time. “I knew my experience from reading Larry’s works and Angels in America and things like that, but I didn’t know enough,” he says. “They weren’t really teaching us about it in school on a level that I wanted to know and understand. I believe it was mentioned, but there weren’t a lot of specifics as to how it could be transmitted or how to be the most supportive friend you could be. It was perceived as something that would be outside our reality…but once it was in my reality, I thought, I wish I knew more.”
He lost more theater friends to AIDS over the years, and he met poz friends who were healthy on antiretrovirals, all the while trying to bring visibility to all of their lives.
“I guess it was the first thing I felt like an activist about,” Bomer says. “Maybe the reason I was doing The Destiny of Me at the theaters in Spring, Texas, was my own way of bringing awareness to it at that time. So it was just a cause that always stuck with me, and I only grew more passionate about it as I got older, because being in the theater, it was part of our community.”
He always felt like telling Kramer’s story was important, maybe more so now that the author-activist is almost 80, so he took Kramer a batch of cupcakes and sat and talked with him for hours in his apartment about Felix and Ned and their world. “He gave me some important pointers. And I shared some of the research, which I’d done with him, and he sort of just steered me in the right direction.”
Kramer was on set when Bomer filmed his first scene with Ruffalo, at The New York Times’ office, which dramatizes the first meeting between Kramer and his late boyfriend. Bomer had a flicker of doubt, of worry that he couldn’t pull it off. There were many moments like that, he says, before and during filming.
“I think it’s why I wanted to play the role,” he admits. “I feel like that’s always a good sign as an actor. That’s always a good place to start from. Because then you know you have to push yourself and stress your parameters as an actor and as an artist and dig deeper than maybe you had to before — especially in this medium. I think there were a lot of things that terrified me about it. But I think at my core I knew I cared enough about the material…and Larry and the characters and the world, and I knew that I would put in the work that I needed to, to do the best that I could. But yeah, there were a lot of scenes that scared the shit out of me.”
For Bomer, there were just as many of those scenes in the first half of the script, before Felix gets sick, as there are in the second half. “I remember being terrified about the New York Timesscene. It was the first scene up, and I thought, Oh, shit. Here we go.”
Kramer was also present a month later, Bomer notes, “when we shot the April shower scene, which was one of the brighter spots in the film, where the organization [GMHC] is finally getting some traction and building some momentum and their fundraising efforts are starting to actually bear fruit…and it was also the day that [the Defense of Marriage Act] was overturned and we were able to celebrate together and celebrate him and all the work he had done to make that day possible. It was just one of those moments where you felt like you were in the right place at the right time, which can be so rare. Getting to see Larry there that day was just one of those experiences I’ll never forget.”
For his part, Kramer has told the filmmakers he’s awed by the film as well. “Once I heard that Larry was happy with it, I felt that was everything to me; I think that was everything to all of us who worked on this,” Bomer says. “So I breathed a sigh of relief and just said a prayer of thanks. You don’t want to tell someone’s story and have them not be happy about it.”