The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s Tony Award-winning semi-autobiographical play, chronicled the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in 1980s New York. After a Broadway revival in 2011—which featured Joe Mantello and Jim Parsons—small-screen visionary Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) took on the huge task of adapting a movie version for HBO. Whether his Heart racks up Emmy noms doesn’t matter. Murphy did what he set out to do and made Kramer proud. Here, he opens up about the importance of the film—both to himself and to history—and also of how he and his cast of all-stars (Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo and Parsons, reprising his Broadway role) handled the script’s racier material.
AWARDSLINE: Was there a sense during production that something important was happening?
RYAN MURPHY: Yes. This was a 30-year journey, and there was a huge responsibility to get it right. I never have been involved in any production where there was absolute silence on the set. These sets always felt like church in that we all felt we were there (with) a combined energy to get the thing right. We wanted to do it for Larry (Kramer), and we wanted to do it for history. We wanted people to see this story and not forget.
AWARSDLINE: How much pressure did you feel during the casting process to match the right actor to each role?
MURPHY: Larry was involved in every aspect of (casting), so we were in very good hands. He pretty much approved the entire cast. I would, for the most part, run every actor by him. And if he ever had questions (about someone), he would talk with them. He had his own ideas—make no mistake. He was very adamant about the Jim Parsons casting. I knew (Parsons) a little socially, but once I met with him, I fell in love. And then Larry worked on really enlarging (Parsons’) part from the stage play, and that (stemmed) from his excitement about that actor.
AWARDSLINE: All the actors have a big moment in the movie. Did you approach directing those “moments” differently than, say, other scenes?
MURPHY: By the time we got to shoot them, we had done some rehearsal, and the actors were just so in love with the material. Everybody showed up on those days letter-perfect. And we basically had a rule that we would do the close-ups first, which is opposite from how I’ve ever worked. You usually start wide and punch in. But we started close, because the actors were so emotional. The tears were flowing from the very first take, because the pain of the material and the ghosts of all the people who had died were so intense. People were very reverential. Everybody cried every day of that movie.
AWARDSLINE: Was it important for you to cast openly gay actors in some of the key roles?
MURPHY: I guess now that it’s done and I look back at it, I’m very proud that there are a lot of gay actors in the movie playing gay characters. We certainly didn’t shy away from the sexuality of the piece or the graphic nature of the piece, but when I was casting, I didn’t think about that. I thought about who’s the best actor for this role. Almost everybody had to audition, and I was really looking for dedication and people who loved (the project) as much as me. But I think it’s amazing that we have so many out-and-proud gay actors in the piece.
AWARDSLINE: You talk about not shying away from graphic sexuality. How did you negotiate the nudity with the actors? There were some very strategically placed bed sheets….
MURPHY: I really wanted the actors to be comfortable. We hired this wonderful guy who basically has now made a career out of choreographing sex scenes. When he does this, he works with actors in a rehearsal space and makes those scenes feel more like a dance than a graphic sex scene. And we work with (the actors) so that, by the time we’re rolling the cameras, there’s no mistake or question about what it’s going to be. I thought that was incredibly helpful. But it was never (an issue). I mean, (Mark) Ruffalo, (Matt) Bomer… For the most part, everybody said, “Whatever it takes.”
AWARDSLINE: What did Larry Kramer think of the finished product?
MURPHY: (He was) very moved by it. And very relieved. I think that he watched it with his husband and some friends, and they were all very emotional and complimentary, which was amazing for me because I truly did just make it for him. I wanted him to be proud of it and to feel like his voice was heard, and I feel like I accomplished that.
AWARDSLINE: Movies and miniseries are getting separate categories at this year’s Emmys, but the acting categories are still combined. Your reaction?
MURPHY: At the end of the day, you have to trust the ability of the Emmy committees to make the right decision. I personally believe that many people are talented and do good work (and) should be recognized, particularly with actors. I think it helps them get other work… Do I think the rules should be examined? Probably. But what they did this year was a step in the right direction.
Original photo of Ryan Murphy by J.R. Mankoff