Matt Bomer has been waiting a long time for something like The Normal Heart to come along. The 36-year-old actor first found himself galvanized by Larry Kramer’s landmark play as a still-closeted Texas teenager; later, when Ryan Murphy bought the rights and asked Bomer to lose 40 pounds for his role, the actor barely blinked. The HBO movie is a departure for Bomer, a handsome charmer best known for White Collar and Magic Mike who here plays Felix Turner, a closeted New York Times reporter who falls in love with out-and-proud activist Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) but must struggle with his health after contracting AIDS in the early eighties. Bomer recently sat down with Vulture to discuss what the play means to him, the great lengths he went to in order to nail his role, and what his family thought about his massive physical transformation.
There’s a line in The Normal Heart that Felix delivers, “Men learn not to love.” It’s true that many gay men, in particular, are taught that they shouldn’t love another man. Is that something you learned while growing up? And when did you unlearn it?
Yeah, in my childhood, was I taught that who I was was innately wrong? Absolutely, but I was also raised in a very loving environment, so I knew how important love was at the end of the day. I think I related to Felix a lot when he said that, and I think that’s what he brings to the table with Ned: Here’s someone who’s not living 100 percent in his own authenticity, and Ned comes in, who’s this firebrand and is completely authentic and open about his sexuality and his neuroses and everything else, but is terrified of intimacy. Felix is somebody who is living a very compartmentalized life when we see him, but he’s also very open to intimacy.
You know that as an actor, especially one who’s done a lot of TV, you don’t always get the script until the very last minute — and that makes it hard to prepare. What’s the difference with something like The Normal Heart, where this is material you discovered as a teenager and have lived with for a long time?
The play has been a part of me for over 20 years, so there’s a sense of comfortability that comes with that, but also a sense of real pressure that comes with that, I think. But it was a real luxury. I think I first met with Ryan in 2011, back when it was a film. When I first heard that they were making it, I didn’t care what role I played, I just wanted to be a part of the story. And I was just incredibly fortunate that Ryan saw something in me for this role and believed in me, because there was nothing, really, in my body of work that would have indicated that I could play this role. So that’s a testament to him.
Was that the first time you met Ryan?
It was the first time we sat down and had a conversation. I had met him at the Golden Globes once, and I think maybe bumped into him another time. But I felt such a profound responsibility to be a part of this story that I literally rented out a theater. I found this cheap theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, in L.A., and they would rent out the entire theater to me for twenty bucks an hour and I would go there every day and kind of do the stage production on my own.
Like a one-man show?
No, I was just kind of exploring the words, and the character, and the material. So I guess on some level I felt innately drawn to be a part of this story, but at the same time I felt an incredible sense of responsibility, that I was going to have to put in more work for this than I’ve ever had to put in for anything in my life.
I can tell that doing all that work was satisfying for you, though.
Yeah, well, the thing about working on this piece — and I wish I had gotten to do it eight times a week, I think that would’ve been a really amazing experience — is that as difficult and as painful as some of the material was to do, there was never a day where I wasn’t just chomping at the bit to get to work. I was really looking forward to getting to explore the scenes and play them and work with Mark and Julia, and everyone else. As an actor, it’s kind of hard to talk about gratification because it’s sort of fleeting; it’s all moment to moment, but even when there was a situation where I was thin as a rail and was like, “Hmmm, I could just pee in my pants right now instead of getting up and having to use the energy to go the bathroom,” I still was dying to get to work.
Is there a sort of focus and serenity that comes when you’ve whittled yourself down like that?
Oh yeah. I mean, the whole point of the weight loss was obviously to create a certain aesthetic that Ryan was happy with, but also to create that physical reality for me. When the cameras were rolling, I wasn’t having to affect anything; so much of it was already there. I had separated myself from my family, I was living on my own for like a month, and I think that helped me sort of get into Felix’s head in a way that I haven’t had an opportunity to do with other characters before.
How do you weigh something like the weight loss and the separation against the toll it might take on your family?
Well, we definitely prepared our kids really early on, before I even started losing weight. I spoke with a professional who told me how to relay it to them in language they could really understand, and they were great about it. Maybe it’s a luxury of having all boys, who are like “Yeah! Go!” You know, it’s like they were my cheering squad. And I remember, at one point I had lost 25 or 30 pounds and I came home, and it’s such a testament to childhood imagination, because they were like, “Oh, I thought you were going to be skinnier than that.” And I was like, “Hey, I’m working here!” But they were really great about it, and understanding. I think that our oldest son, who tends to be a caretaker, said at one point, “When are you going to get to eat pancakes with me again?” But that was about as difficult as it seemed to get for them.
You’ve got some great chemistry with Mark Ruffalo in this film.
I mean, Mark is just a dream to work with, and I’m sure if you search through the annals of all the actors who have been interviewed about what it’s like to work with Mark Ruffalo, they all say the same thing. When you get to be a part of something like this, it’s so much bigger than who you are that you just try to put your ego behind you and serve the story — and Mark got that from day one. He was so collaborative and open. You know, when you’re working with a celebrity of that stature, the ball’s always in their court to extend the olive branch and make you feel comfortable and welcome in the world. And from day one, he really related to me. We just related to each other in character the whole time … I mean, we weren’t holding hands in between takes, but we would snuggle on the couch or hang out or tell stories.
He’s a very physical guy. Whenever I interview him, he’ll put a hand on my knee or give me a hug.
He is the sweetest man on the planet. He is a golden soul.
What does this moment in your career feel like, with The Normal Heart coming out, White Collar about to end, and Magic Mike XXL starting soon?
It’s so hard for me to let go of The Normal Heart. It’s really hard for me to think about anything else, as exciting as all of those possibilities are — maybe after the premiere, I’ll be able to look into the future a little bit, but just getting to be a part of this was really a 20-year dream come true, so it’s hard to think about what’s next, really.
Do your roles always stick to you to this degree?
It just depends, really. Certain characters are sticky, especially if they help you grow up as a person, I think. And a project that helps you become a better person, they just don’t come along every day, so I kind of want to get all the juice I can from this and then worry about strapping on whatever I’m going to be wearing for Magic Mike.