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Three decades later, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s is once again permeating our collective social consciousness, thanks to Dallas Buyers Club and its winning stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.
On the heels of the Oscar-nominated film comes the HBO movie adaptation, debuting May 25, of the incendiary play The Normal Heart, written by Larry Kramer during the height of the AIDS epidemic that took the lives of many gay men.
[Related: HBO Mulling Sequel to 'The Normal Heart']
Glee and American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy directs a star-studded cast, featuring Mark Ruffalo as Ned Weeks, a fiery activist based on Kramer himself; and Julia Roberts as a no-nonsense doctor trying to figure out this disease. Matt Bomer (White Collar, Magic Mike) plays Ned's lover, a New York Times reporter named Felix. Big Bang Theory Emmy winner Jim Parsons is Tommy, a Southern gentleman with a big heart.
Yahoo TV sat down with Bomer and Parsonsto talk about their roles and the personal meaning that The Normal Heart has for both of them.
Tell us how you got involved with this project.
Bomer: Reading plays like this and The Destiny of Me and Angels in America and Brecht and Shaw are really why I became an actor in the first place, because they completely changed my worldview and educated me and scared me. I remember reading this at 14 and just thinking, "How can this be going on and no one I know is talking about it? No one I know is doing anything about it." It didn't affect the community I was living in at the time. I felt this great sense of injustice, and it opened up a world to me that I was completely unaware of. Even though, at the time, I was dating women, I felt like I related to the sense of injustice and I knew on some level, it was my story, too. On some level, Larry Kramer saved my life, just like he did for hundreds of thousands of people.
Parsons: Several summers ago, we were coming off a season — I think Season 4 or maybe 3 — of Big Bang. I didn't have anything lined up for the summer, and I found myself dying to get back to New York. I really wanted to do some theater. ... [My agents] called and said, "What would you think about being in a production of The Normal Heart?" … They told me to read it. I knew of it, of course — you couldn't be in the theater and not have heard of it. So I read it and I loved it. And, long story short, that was it. I was very fortunate that apparently [director] George Wolfe had seen episodes of Big Bang, and for whatever reason, he thought that what he saw me do on Big Bang was enough to cast me as Tommy!
Matt, you actively pursued your role, right?
Bomer: When I heard when they were doing it — I'd seen the 2011 revival on Broadway, which was fantastic — I just begged. It's the only time I've ever called my representation and said, "Please, I'll do whatever. Please just get me in a door for a meeting." And thankfully, Ryan [Murphy] saw something in me and gave me a chance, because White Collar is a pretty light show. There wasn't a great deal in my repertoire that indicated I could portray Felix throughout this film. But I think he knew when we met how important the story was to me, and I would risk my life to be a part of telling it.
Jim, you played Tommy in the play. How did you land the role for the movie, as well?
Parsons: In all honesty, it never crossed my mind to be a part of it — not out of a lack of desire, but… I don't know if my head was so in the play, or maybe subconsciously I had the feeling that Ryan would want to do his own thing completely. I got home, back to L.A., and was working on the next season of Big Bang, and my manager called and said Ryan would like to meet, and talk about perhaps playing Tommy in the movie. I was thrilled. I had never met with Ryan before that. ... I came to find out later that [the reason] the ball got rolling was completely because of Larry Kramer. Larry was the one who told Ryan [to cast me].
Felix starts out in a very different place than Mark Ruffalo's character, Ned. But over the course of the movie, Felix softens Ned, while Ned brings out the passionate side in Felix.
Bomer: That's one of the beautiful things about their relationship, is how symbiotic it is. When we meet Felix, he's living such a compartmentalized life, which — given the climate at the New York Times at that time — was what you had to do. But at the same time, he's someone who's really open and available to intimacy. And then you've got Ned, who's living a completely authentic life, who's this firebrand, who is completely open about his sexuality and his neuroses, but at the same time is terrified of intimacy. So I think Ned helps Felix become a more authentic person, and more in touch with his sexuality and who he is and why it's important to love himself for who he is. And Felix helps to soften Ned's edges and let him know that intimacy is OK and safe.
Jim, the author himself seems to feel you're perfect for Tommy. Why do you think that is?
Parsons: The easiest part is that he's a Southern transplant in New York. And even though I came by way of graduate school to New York from San Diego, I was 20-something before I ever left Houston. In all respects, I was also a Southern transplant to New York. [And] the obvious sexuality issue — a young, gay man in the city. [But] the things I like about playing him [are things that] I don't know that I have common with him. He has such a charming way of embracing others around him, and the way he succeeds at bridging the gaps between [people]. Like all the problems that Ned and Bruce [played by Taylor Kitsch] have in this movie, going head to head within the same organization. He is, time and again, the one trying to bridge that gap, whether he's yelling at them or cajoling them or trying to make a humorous comment that will take pressure off the situation. Yeah, maybe there's something there I identify with. ... He dives in that way. He doesn't back up a step. As soon as he hears the hurt, he begins walking toward it. And [in a scene where he comforts a grieving woman], what he says there is not an answer... and the last thing he says on the way out is, "We'll figure this out." In order to help you, I'm going to stand by you and move forward with you.
You both have very intense scenes in the movie. Matt, for you, it's Felix in the hospital; and Jim, where you give a eulogy. How challenging were those scenes?
Bomer: What was profound about it for me — even when my own personal health was at risk and I was incredibly thin and didn't know if I had the energy to get up and go to the bathroom — was that a) I felt like I was in the place I should be, and b) I never felt a sense of "Oh, I'm dying." I only felt the sense of "Oh, I have to survive." I think that's what I wanted to imbue in the character. So even though it was scary, the sense was never to live in that fear — the sense was to overcome it.
Parsons: In some ways, it was the easiest scene, for two reasons. One, the way it was written — I just thought it was beautifully written. The way the words were strung together was just a stroke of genius. The other way it was easy was that it seemed so clear. That eulogy, for Tommy, drives to a point and ends with such a clear statement. Not happy — "They just don't like us," I think is the exact phrase — but there's a certain peace in finding even an unpleasant truth for a minute. What was hard was to put voice to some of those sentiments that are also very true, but really hard to deal with — like the thing about all the artists that were lost. Part of a generation has been wiped out, and in little and in big ways, we've been robbed. And now we'll just never know. That was hard.
With this movie, and with last year's Dallas Buyers Club, it seems like the '80s AIDS crisis is bubbling back up to the surface, as far as cultural conversation. Why do you think that is?
Bomer: Well, let's start with the fact that AIDS has not been eradicated and it is a plague; there are still 6,000 cases diagnosed on a daily basis. The fear for me is that because there are treatment options available, in this country particularly, people think, "Oh, I'll take medication if I get sick." What's important about this story is that this generation of artists, poets, parents, and lovers who we lost need to be remembered. This time needs to be remembered, so that we have a greater sense of appreciation for what we have — not just in terms of medical care, but also in terms of rights.
Parsons: The time is right. The distance from the ground zero of the beginning of the AIDS crisis is right. Obviously, it was a traumatic and very deep event that reverberated at many levels. And that kind of trauma takes distance to start wrapping your head around. I think one of the things Normal Heart illustrates is the panic and speed and desperation with which those early days happened. That's the other reason: Who has time to reflect? I think some people would argue that this is not a good thing, but people aren't running quite as fast. I don't think every gay youth coming into their sexuality has a view that so many of us did of "sex is death." And I don't think this movie, or any movie, should serve as a reminder to make people live in fear. But I do think to live informed is a very different thing.
You've both been more open about your own sexuality in recent years. Does that have something to do with being part of Normal Heart?
Bomer: I tend to be a stubborn person and want to do things on my own terms. Certainly, when I acknowledge my family and all of that, that was right before I was doing a major studio summer film geared towards women [Magic Mike], so that was my own choice. This movie, for me, is a real blessing as an actor, because it's rare that you get to play a character that makes you a more authentic and better person. I don't know how you could work on this movie and not want to be more open about yourself and more accepting about yourself. I don't know how you get to meet Larry and [not] sense that fire and that yearning for equality and justice.
[Related: The Evolution of Gay TV Characters]
Parsons: By the time I was on [The Big Bang Theory] — I was 30-something when the show started — I had been doing my own thing for so long. … There was no throwing it in reverse, you know? I had a partner I'd been with for five years at that point. My family knew I was gay. … What really happened to me was that the show got to the point where we were fortunate enough to be invited to awards shows, and with that comes an extra ticket. There was no question I'd bring Todd [Spiewak, my partner]. So I'd bring Todd to these events, and absolutely nothing happened. I did The Normal Heart on Broadway, and nobody brought it up. The big thing was when I did Harvey on Broadway, and I did an interview with the New York Times, with Patrick Healy. This is one of the most fortunate things that happened to me. He didn't ask "Are you gay?" or anything like that. He said some wording of, "As a gay man, was it very meaningful to be part of The Normal Heart," which allowed me to just answer the question. I was so happy to see that level of progress: Yes, you're gay, we know you're gay, it's appropriate to talk about in this context. Before that, no one ever asked, "Is it hard to play Sheldon because you're gay?" And thank God! I don't know that 15 years ago, that would've been true.
The Normal Heart premieres Sunday, May 25 at 9 p.m. on HBO.