Anna Lisa Raya is Editor of AwardsLine.
Matt Bomer managed to not only hold his own opposite a stellar cast in The Normal Heart, he was a revelation in a performance that stood out from his previous work on such shows as White Collar and Chuck. Much has been written about the dramatic weight loss Bomer endured to portray Felix Turner, a New York Times reporter dying of AIDS in 1980s New York. What often is lost in the hubbub surrounding HBO’s widely acclaimed movie is any mention of what those who worked on the project felt was its heart: the memories of the men and women who fought against and ultimately fell to the disease. The relationship between Felix and activist Ned Weeks, portrayed by Mark Ruffalo—at turns raw and fragile—gives The Normal Heart its emotional weight, no small order in this movie version of Larry Kramer’s biting play that gave a voice to a dark moment in our country’s history.
AwardsLine: You’ve previously talked about filming your last scene with Mark Ruffalo, when your characters get married in the hospital room shortly before your character dies. Could you take us back to before you filmed that scene and what your expectations were going into it?
Matt Bomer: Well, at that point, we were nearing the end of filming, so Mark and I had been on quite a journey together in terms of Ned and Felix’s relationship. And I came to set, and it was one of those times where I got in the hospital bed and, you just trust that the physical and emotional preparation that you put into the material will be there. And you try to really get out of your own way and let this beautiful scene that Larry Kramer had written take over. I think I’d worked with all of the actors in the room already, and so we had a great deal of trust for each other, and we started on my close up, I believe.
It was one of those moments where they call “Action” and the scene just takes over. After we were done, Mark and I sat together and cried for a good deal of time, not in any self-congratulatory way. It was about experiencing through that scene what the reality was for so many people of that generation. Some of them obviously weren’t even lucky enough to say goodbye that way. I think the situation really hit home for us and took over. Mark and I were also realizing that we were coming to the end of an experience that we both committed to for a long time, and worked with every fiber of our being, to tell as truthfully as possible.
AwardsLine: The argument scene between your characters on Fire Island also was gut-wrenching, but honest. You had lost so much weight by the time you filmed it. How hard is it to approximate that level of realness?
Bomer: That scene has been iconic for me for over 20 years. I had signed on to this film before it was an HBO project, back in 2011, so I had the material for a good deal of time. At that point in the (filming) process, I was more or less living as Felix. I was separated from my family. I did not have a lot of energy. I wasn’t feeling great. I had complete trust in Mark as my scene partner, because he’s one of those actors who makes everyone around them better, and I knew that he was going to be present for that moment.
So much of this was in my prayer every day before I came to work. This project is so much bigger than me or any of the actors involved, and it deals with a very specific part of our history, and I felt a tremendous responsibility to those individuals. And so my part every day was to get out of my own way, and just channel whatever came through me—after putting all the work into it, obviously by being available for whatever happened that was beyond me when they called “Action.”
One of the things that I love about Ned and Felix, and that was so profound, and that I learned so much from as a person, is that (the disease) did follow them down a darker path of what this illness did to people’s relationships, and the strain that it put on them… And so I wanted to embrace them more—the sort of uglier moments in the relationship—because I knew that it would hopefully at some point have payoff. After that scene, Felix realizes that he has to do the most he can with the amount of time he has left.
AwardsLine: Is approaching a movie like this, and some of these scenes, scary or just something that you have to be fearless about?
Bomer: I remember Mark and I looking at each other on the first day of filming; it was that first scene in the New York Times office. And he said, “Are you scared?” I said, “Yeah. You?” And he said, “Yeah.” I think we both knew the challenge that lay before us. And for me, a lot of people like to talk about the weight loss or the scenes that took place at the end. Some of the more difficult scenes were in the beginning, when we were establishing that relationship and creating that foundation because we had to set that up properly for the end to have any type of resonance. We were both terrified on day one.
AwardsLine: It seems as if everyone who worked on this film, and everyone who has seen it—both on TV and as a play—has such a strong connection to the material. How do you forge ahead after an experience like this?
Bomer: As an actor, you’re lucky to be part of a project like this once in a career. That’s the reality of the situation. There was so much synchronicity; in fact, it was 20 years in the making for me. And I would’ve been happy to commit on the same level had I done it at a regional theater. It was just an extra blessing that I got to do it on HBO with Ryan Murphy. And it was very difficult to let go of and go back to another job. You certainly hope that getting to be a part of this affords you the opportunity to be a part of more films that are more close to your heart in this way, but they are few and far between.
AwardsLine: What does your Emmy nomination mean, personally and for your career?
Bomer: It was really overwhelming. Just in terms of the amount of gratitude I felt to be acknowledged by my peers. I’m not going to lie and say that’s not a big deal. It also meant a great deal to me that so many people—who I watched pour their hearts and souls into this film on a daily basis—were recognized. Everybody did this film for the right reasons and that was to pay tribute to this incredible generation of people and what they went through to give us a lot of the rights that we have today.
As amazing as it all is, the most profound moments I’ve had have really been when people have come up to me on the street and wanted to share a picture of a lover that they lost, or tell a story about somebody they knew and what it meant to get to see this film. Or when a young person approaches me and says, “I heard that this disease came and it was really bad, but I didn’t really understand what it was, or the affect it had, and how people were treated.” So to me the real honor to be a part of this is just getting to create this time capsule so that these people are remembered. I think all of us who were part of this story, for the most part, have lost people to the disease, people that we love. I’m just glad I got to be a part of it in this medium, where we’ll hopefully be around for a while.
AwardsLine: Now that The Normal Heart has received 11 nominations, what have your conversations been like with others from the project?
Bomer: I know that I was surprised the day the nominations came out. The first thing I did after talking to Simon (Halls, Bomer’s husband) was I reached out to the entire cast, mostly via email, because everyone’s kind of working all over the world. I think everyone was really grateful and excited, but I think all of us, for the most part, were really happy that it might mean more people will watch the movie, and create some type of buzz that would maybe get someone who might not typically watch a film like this sit down and watch it.
I think we were all very excited that (everyone from the film) will get to see each other again and get to share that (Emmy) night together, you know? I love these people dearly. I want us to all be together forever. I don’t want the experience to end.