Things are about to change in a big way for actor Matt Bomer.
While he’s been on our radar for years now due to his role as con artist Neal Caffrey on USA’s drama “White Collar” and films like “Magic Mike,” nothing will prepare even his most diehard fans for his deeply profound work as Felix Turner in the HBO film, “The Normal Heart,” which premieres Sunday on HBO.
In the film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s Tony-winning play, Turner is a journalist who meets activist Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) and the two begin a love affair that, given the times of AIDS tearing through the gay community in the early 1980s, goes through some heavily tragic moments. And, as I stated in my recent preview of the film, this is the best work of Bomer’s career and will take him to a new level of work…and, I predict, his first Emmy Award.
I talked to the actor last week about the challenges in the role, how his kids helped him shave his head as well as filming the final six episodes of “White Collar” and what his perception of marriage is now that he and his husband Simon Halls revealed they took the leap three years ago.
Watching you play Felix, I felt like this is a whole new level of work I’ve seen you do. Do you feel like that about your work in the film?
Matt Bomer: I felt so many things. This play has been sort of special to me for over twenty years, so I immediately felt an incredible sense of responsibility to the story and obviously telling Felix’s particular part of that story. So I was terrified, excited…you know, it’s weird but I became an actor by reading Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner and Brecht and Shaw and people like that and so these people changed my world view and educated me and challenged my point of view so when you grow up and you actually get to be a part of a story like that it’s a lot of pressure. But in many ways it’s profoundly liberating because you’re able to be part of something that’s much bigger than you and you’re able to just get out of your own way and try to tell the story.
Before you actually started shooting, were you scared or were you excited or…?
MB: One thing that was nice about this particular project was it wasn’t like ‘White Collar’ where sometimes I’d get my lines the morning of or right before we shoot the scene. I first met with Ryan on this project in 2011 so I’ve had some time with the material and I worked so hard on that and put everything that I had into it. I even rented out this grungy little theater space on Santa Monica Boulevard and practiced my scenes there every day on stage.
And so I was terrified but I felt that I could prepare and shoot to the best of my abilities and then once I met Mark and saw what an incredible human being he is…I knew he was an amazing actor but to also be such an open and heartfelt human being, I knew it was going to be a really comfortable process and so that alleviated a lot of my fears. And then seeing the incredible level of preparation that Ryan [Murphy] brought to the table as a director, it was like, ‘okay, I’m in a safe place to take risks here.’
In regards to watching you and Mark fall in love on screen, it was so sweet.
How did you two work on that because that chemistry has to be there or we’re not going to go on the journey with you but it was definitely there.
MB: So much of it is due to Mark. When you’re working with a celebrity of that stature the ball is always in their court to make you feel comfortable and make you feel like, ‘oh wow, I’m accepted here at the party.’ He was so gracious and kind to me from day one and I learned so much from working with him.
We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse so our main strategy, I guess both of our prep work – I don’t want to say technique – but what we both brought to the table in this film was to stay in character, to relate to each other in character in between takes as well as when the camera was rolling so that when they called action we were already coming from a place that we created before they called action. So if it was an awkward scene we’d be awkward together. If it was an intimate scene we would sit down in close proximity to each other and tell a personal story and it all related to the relationship that was happening in the movie.
I was watching the first scene you two have in bed together and it made me think about where we came from and, for example, that ‘thirtysomething’ episode ["Strangers" from 1989] when it was such a big deal to see two men in bed together. Did you think about that at all during the filming and how far we’ve come?
MB: I’m certainly aware of it in my life, I mean, look at the times going on around us. We have an openly gay player in the NFL draft, we have all kinds of walls being broken down every day. So, yeah, I’m aware of it in my life, but I think in my work…certainly when you’re working with somebody that intimately I try not to think about those things that aren’t immediately applicable to the scene. I just was trying to think in terms of this is somebody I’m falling in love with and how do I want to relate to him in this scene. When you start hearing too many voices in your head, ‘oh my God, what’s my Grandma going to think?’ and then you’re not really in the right place as an actor.
Well your Grandma is going to see your butt. That’s what she’s going to see.
MB: [laughs] That’s true.
There it is!
I remember talking to you after the TCA panel in January and I could tell how moved you were. I think you all had just watched the show the night so it was still very much with you. How does it feel now watching it?
MB: Again, it’s such a privilege to be a part of this that hopefully a project like this culturally has such a repercussion and has the ability to really…like all of those great plays did for me and this play when I first read it, to challenge people’s point of view and to educate them, to remind them, to remember that horrible time in our history so that it doesn’t happen again or that we can at least be more humane to each other when it does happen again.
So when you’re lucky enough to be involved with something like that you really do kind of remove your own ego from the equation. When I watched the film I was so invested in the story already that by the time I came on I was more interested in the story than I was any type of personal ego-gratification. It was more just I was very proud to be a part of this story.
Felix’s final scene. Was that your last scene that you shot?
MB: I was in the very first scene in the movie that we shot and the very last, and the very last scene that we shot was Felix on the subway train, he gets a glimpse into his future and that was the very last one.
Tell me about shooting the death scene. What were the different challenges or were you already there because you’d been working on the movie for awhile?
MB: We had lived with each off these characters for quite some time and so a lot of it was just letting the moment happen and having the courage when the camera was in your face to be there with your fellow actors. After it was done Mark and I just sobbed for like ten minutes holding onto each other because I think to really comprehend the way a generation of people had to say goodbye to each other – this was people’s reality – was so painful and we also had been on a pretty intense journey together and we knew that it was coming to a close. I think it was our last scene together. So it was tough but beautiful to get to be a part of and it’s one of those things. I just feel really lucky that I got to do it with him.
And I remember you said your kids helped shave your head, right?
MB: Yes, they did. I had several bald spots shaved on my head in the film because of the chemo treatments, and when I went home I had the option of either completely shaving my head down or letting my hair grow back with the bald spots in it and then maybe shaving it shorter later. It was very liberating to do after something like this so I figured since my kids had been through months of me being ‘hangry’ and they should be a part of helping me shed my skin a little bit.
Were your kids concerned at all just because they might not have understood what you were doing. I’m sure you looked different to them.
MB: I did but I prepared them really well. I sat and I spoke to a professional on how to talk to them about this so it’s a real testament to kids’ imaginations because if you’ve read these Flat Stanley books where he’s as flat as a piece of paper, I think that’s what they expected. So when I came back and I’d already lost like, thirty pounds, they’re like, “Oh, I thought you were going to be skinnier than that!” [laughs] I was like ‘What do you want from me?’ They’re all boys so they were really great about it. They never seemed to have a concern.
Your marriage news came out a couple weeks ago and created a big stir but my question to you is once you got married did it change your opinion of marriage?
MB: Yeah. There’s a reason why the incredible fight to make it a reality for us is so profound. Beyond just the civil rights of it all and equality, it’s different. It’s different. It’s different for us. It’s different for our kids. One of our kids was so sweet and will sometimes [say] to one of us, ‘I think you need to take your husband on a date night.’ [laughs] It really hit home to them that we were a family and that this was real and it’s like what their other friends’ parents have. It also meant something to us to stand in front of the people who love and support you and be able to make your vows and legitimize something and create a community that supports you and to promise each other to support each other in good times and bad, in sickness and health. It’s profound. It’s real. When you get the certificate it gets real.
In the best way!
You’ll start your last six episodes of ‘White Collar’ soon. Is it going to be a relief, in a way, to get back to Neal after what you’ve gone through with this project? Neil must be a comfortable old shoe to step back into.
MB: I guess so. Felix has been a really sticky character for me because he changed me as a person, hopefully for the better. So, yeah, I’m excited to get back to ‘White Collar’ but I’m trying to be in the moment now and help bring ‘The Normal Heart’ into the world to the best of my abilities so that I can give it a good send off before I move on and shift gears. Right now I’m still not ready to let go. But I’m very excited about the last season and we’re going to get some real closure on the show.
“The Normal Heart” airs Sunday, May 25th at 9pm on HBO.
HBO is getting all the Emmys, tbh.