The Bomer Method
By Shana Naomi Krochmal
T-shirt by Marc by Marc Jacobs. Photography by Kai Z Feng. Styling by Grant Woolhead.
Before Matt Bomer even knew he was gay, he found Larry Kramer — or maybe Larry Kramer found him. In the closet of his high school theater in Spring, Texas, Bomer’s teacher had built a small library of scripts acquired on trips to New York.
Bomer pulled Kramer’s The Normal Heart off the shelf. He was 14. He loved acting, but he was the son of a former Dallas Cowboys player, so he also played football. He had girlfriends. His family went to church multiple times a week. It was the early 1990s, and for a Texas teenager, the AIDS epidemic was happening somewhere else, to someone else.
“I was relatively sheltered,” he says. The Normal Heart was his wake-up call. “It wasn’t until I read Larry’s work that I had any kind of understanding as to what was really going on in the world around me. It just lit this fire in my belly.” He was outraged at the injustice portrayed in the play, at the story of gay men whose unexplained, horrifying deaths seemed inconsequential — at best — to the many doctors and lawmakers and media who looked the other way.
So he started performing monologues at school from The Normal Heart and its companion piece, The Destiny of Me, and from another closet library find, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. “I felt the need to let people know that this was going on,” he says — even if his audience was largely other theater kids in Houston’s suburbs. “I probably stuck out like a sore thumb.”
But as much as Kramer’s outrage spoke to a young Bomer, the underlying gay love story in The Normal Heart — between the activist Ned Weeks (based on Kramer) and Felix Turner, a New York Times style reporter — also worked its way deep into his teenage consciousness. “I knew on some level, even if it was way on the periphery, that it was part of my story, too.”
Twenty years later — after Bomer left Texas, graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s famed theater conservatory, and slowly built a solid, steady career on TV — Ryan Murphy became the latest, and ultimately last, in a long line of people in Hollywood determined to bring The Normal Heart to the screen.
Based on the true story of Kramer and his friends who founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the play’s action takes place from 1981 to 1984. It was originally staged off-Broadway in 1985. “It was a period piece, but it felt so modern,” says Murphy, who created Glee, American Horror Story, and Nip/Tuck. “I think there are a lot of young people, particularly young gay people, who don’t know this story.”
Like Bomer, Murphy had long been awed by Kramer’s work. “I asked to meet him, and I sat on his couch, and I wouldn’t leave that room until he gave me the rights,” Murphy says. “I told him that I wouldn’t give up until it was made.” The two worked together over three years to revise Kramer’s screenplay, which Murphy would direct for HBO, and, finally, begin casting together. Mark Ruffalo “passed muster” with Kramer, as Murphy puts it, to play his alter ego, Ned. (Kramer, now 78, declined interviews because he was in the hospital.)
Bomer, whom Murphy had cast in guest roles on Glee (he played Darren Criss’s older brother) and The New Normal (as Andrew Rannells’s ostentatious ex-boyfriend), campaigned aggressively to play Felix. “Matt, out of everybody, fought the hardest for it,” Murphy says. “It was that same passion that I had used to persuade Larry Kramer to give me the rights to the play.”
He told Kramer they’d found their Felix. “I said, ‘I really believe in Matt Bomer.’ And Larry said, ‘But he’s so beautiful! Is he too beautiful?’"
Murphy arranged a meeting between the two men. “I was pretty starstruck,” Bomer says. “It was like meeting one of the Beatles. He was so central to my understanding and development. We talked for a really long time.”
Kramer emailed Murphy immediately after: “He’s the one.”
For The Normal Heart to hit its emotional bullseye — to educate and inspire an audience about how homophobia-fueled inaction allowed AIDS to blossom into a worldwide catastrophe — it must also humanize its cantankerous protagonist, Ned. Kramer (and his fictional stand-in) has a reputation for irascible, unending rage at everyone who gets in his way, including himself. “People think of Larry as this person screaming into the wind,” Murphy says. “I wanted to capture his lovable, kind, intimate side.”
The movie’s most persuasive arguments for Ned’s humanity — and its most tender, heartbreaking moments — are found in his relationship with Felix, which begins just as Ned’s friends start dying.
Felix is deeply closeted at work, despite having perhaps the newspaper’s gayest job. “I just write about gay designers and gay discos and gay chefs and gay models and gay everything,” he tells Ned when they first meet. “I just don’t call them gay.” Ned snaps, “Isn’t it time you start?”
But Felix is also adamant that two men can love each other and be better for it, which, even after years of therapy, Ned still struggles to fully internalize. “Men do not naturally not love,” Felix tells him. “They learn not to.”
As Bomer says, “Felix softens Ned in a way and enables him to get a little bit more in touch with his intimacy.” Amidst the board meetings and fundraising events needed to launch GMHC — and the inevitable power struggles and arguments of a desperate, nascent movement — they cultivate a quiet domesticity, curling up on the couch with the dog, feeding each other spoonfuls of ice cream.