Taylor Kitsch is sitting in a incredibly modern, picturesque conference room atop a high-rise building in New York City, clad in a crisp gray designer suit. That night, he’ll walk down the red carpet in front of Midtown’s legendary Ziegfeld Theater for the premiere of HBO’s The Normal Heart as paparazzi call his name and interviewers ask who he’s wearing.
And none of that is lost on 33-year-old Kitsch, who saw this same city through very different lenses just a decade earlier. “I was homeless in New York City during my early twenties,” he revealed to BuzzFeed with a frankness that doesn’t allow for an ounce of shame. “I spent a couple of weeks sleeping on the subway, then I’d slam at a friend’s house, wear that place out, and move on to the next. I’m Canadian, and didn’t have a visa, so I couldn’t work. In retrospect, it was stupid on a lot of levels and I don’t know how I did it. I just wasn’t ready to quit trying to be an actor.”
But thanks largely to the kindness of one woman, Kitsch didn’t have to. “I met Sheila Grey and she really pulled me out of a lot of stuff,” Kitsch said of his longtime acting coach, for whom his gratitude has not waned over the subsequent decade. “For years, she let me take her classes for free, and after a lot of work on myself, in 2006, I got an incredible film called The Covenant.”
He laughed looking back on the supernatural drama that revolved around a coven of chiseled male witches, also starring Chase Crawford, Sebastian Stan, and Steven Strait. “It’s so good,” Kitsch joked. “I don’t know how it didn’t sweep the Oscars.” Though the film ended up being a punch line on the résumés of everyone involved, it did allow Kitsch to do something he’d wanted to do for a long time: “Because of the money I made on that movie, I paid Sheila back for everything.”
Eight years later, Kitsch is still working with Grey, and said she deserves equal acclaim for his latest performance in HBO’s The Normal Heart, based on Larry Kramer’s Tony-winning play of the same name. The HBO film spans 1981 to 1984 and examines the frustrating early days of America’s AIDS crisis through the eyes of five characters, inspired by real people: Ned Weeks (played by Mark Ruffalo and based on Kramer), Felix Turner (played by Matt Bomer and rumored to be based on John Duka), Tommy Boatwright (played by Jim Parsons and based on Rodger McFarlane), Dr. Emma Brookner (played by Julia Roberts and based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein), and Bruce Niles (played by Kitsch and based on Paul Popham).
While Ruffalo, Bomer, and Parsons have said they were familiar with Kramer’s play prior to enlisting with director Ryan Murphy for the HBO incarnation, it was all new to Kitsch, and the casting forced him to undergo an immersive education — one of his favorite parts of this business.
“Getting to envelop ourselves in these moments in time is one of the greatest joys of being an actor,” said Kitsch, who added that he read every book and watched every documentary he could get his hands on to truly understand the mind-set of Bruce Niles, an incredibly popular and outgoing gay man who refused to come out of the closet to the heterosexual community. “The movie starts at The White Party [an annual gathering of gay men on New York’s Fire Island], and that was Bruce’s pinnacle of happiness,” Kitsch continued. “It was a rare week when he could be himself and be comfortable in his skin and answer only to his true self; it’s such a tragedy that he couldn’t be honest for so much of his life… The duality of Bruce’s life was intriguing to me, and it’s still, unfortunately, pretty prevalent in our society. You see all these actors starting to come out, which is awesome.”
While Kitsch admitted to having initial concerns about playing Bruce, he intentionally stressed that none of them stemmed from playing a gay man. “I’m small-town Canada, like apple orchard in a one-light town,” he said of his hometown of Kelowna in British Columbia. “But I always knew that sexuality had nothing to do with being a man.”
Instead, his main worry stemmed from inevitable comparisons to earlier performances of The Normal Heart, like the acclaimed 2011 Broadway production that starred Joe Mantello, Parsons, Lee Pace, John Benjamin Hickey, and Ellen Barkin and earned Hickey and Barkin Tonys, as well as another for the play itself. But “Murph,” as Kitsch calls director Ryan Murphy, assuaged those fears with a screenplay — also written by Kramer — that didn’t follow the play beat for beat, and dug deeper into several of the characters’ lives, Bruce in particular.
Still, Kitsch did have one concern about playing gay, and that was only because he didn’t want Bruce to come off as a cliché. “I’ve watched other straight actors play gay men, and it annoys me so much when they play into stereotypes,” he said, bending his wrist to prove the point. “That’s something I was always conscious of, but we were playing so much more of what Bruce was trying to balance and fight for that I realized I basically would have played Bruce the same way if he were a straight man.”
The end result is an emotionally complex, painful, and powerful performance — easily a career-best for Kitsch, and a much-needed reminder that his stint as fan favorite Tim Riggins on Friday Night Lights wasn’t a fluke.
After that beloved series came to an end in 2011, Kitsch was cast in two big-budget movies, which soon became equally big box office bombs: 2012’s John Carter and Battleship. “I wasn’t smiling,” Kitsch said, now with a chuckle of the critical drubbing he faced during the three-month period when both films were released.
After that, Kitsch decided he would no longer read anything written about him, a goal he’s still maintaining two years later. “My whole career has just been one opportunity after another that I felt I would be a fool to say no to,” he said, in defense of John Carter and Battleship, the latter of which also starred Alexander Skarsgård and Rihanna. “Of course you want your work to be received on a great level and have people enjoy your performance and your effort and your energy, but the only reason I would have a problem with those movies is if I felt I could have given more. That’s something I couldn’t live with. But, with all of those films, I know I couldn’t have given more. I couldn’t have prepped harder. And that allows me to let go of everything that happens once my part of the equation is done.”
Even if Kitsch’s recent choices (which, besides The Normal Heart, also includes 2013’s acclaimed true war story Lone Survivor) seem to indicate that what he’s looking for in projects has changed, the actor insists it’s just a shift back toward the kind of roles that made him dream of being a part of this business in the first place.
“I don’t think I’m being more cautious at all. The stuff I’ve been doing lately is just what I started out wanting to do,” he said, citing early roles in Gospel Hill, a 2008 drama about southern inequality; The Bang Bang Club, a 2010 true story about photojournalists in war-torn South Africa; and, of course, the critically adored FNL.
“I wish it was as easy as saying, ‘I’m going to do this incredible war film and then I’m going to play a gay man with Julia Roberts.’ It all just speaks to opportunity, and I’m just lucky enough to have been offered all these roles. Like, I’ve been offered five big green screen–heavy movies in the last year, and it’s hard to say no when Hugh Jackman calls you and says, ‘Come to Australia and play this awesome character,’” Kitsch said. “But, I know that right now, all my problems are great problems to have.”
The Normal Heart premieres May 25 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Happy for him!