The Bomer Method
By Shana Naomi Krochmal
Left: tank top and pants by Hermès. Shoes by Tom Ford. Right: T-shirt by Marc by Marc Jacobs. Jeans by Louis Vuitton.
When Felix is diagnosed with AIDS and begins to get sick, Bomer says, “Ned gives Felix courage that he wasn’t able to have when he was just a reporter at the Times. That motivational anger that Ned has — it bleeds into Felix’s life as well.” For Ned, Felix’s illness “puts a ticking clock on things,” Bomer says. “For someone who is fighting for principle, it becomes even more personal.”
Because Bomer knew the part would require a production break during which he would have to lose a substantial amount of weight — 40 pounds — part of his original lobbying effort for the role was extensive, specific research into how, in 1984, a man dying of AIDS would see his body change. His transformation — especially in contrast to Ned and Felix’s vigorous sex scenes earlier in the movie — is a painfully, hauntingly accurate time capsule.
“I think Matt felt the ghosts,” Murphy says. “I think he felt all the shame and humiliation and degradation of all those brothers who have died of AIDS. It was a very beautiful, spiritual thing to witness.”
Filming such demanding material over the course of five months employed Bomer’s years of classical training, and it took him back to that wide-eyed 14-year-old who first read The Normal Heart. “You’re really lucky as an artist if you get a role that changes you as a person,” Bomer, now 36, says earnestly, on the brink of tears. “It taught me how to access myself on a completely different level as an artist. And it blew my mind in terms of the level of unconditional love between Ned and Felix — my goodness, if these people could incorporate this into their lives, under their circumstances, why can’t I?”
Bomer’s coming of age in the mid-1990s, a decade after The Normal Heart ends, was shadowed by the epidemic’s own growing pains. “It was a particularly difficult time during the struggle, because a lot of people were just hanging on.” In 1995, a newly approved class of drug, protease inhibitors, began to drastically reduce how many people died of AIDS — but on the cusp of that breakthrough, ACT UP’s vibrant activism was fading and, for those who had already survived some 15 years of fighting, community-wide fatigue and hopelessness were setting in. “That’s a pretty intense entry into anyone’s understanding of their sexuality,” Bomer says.
At 17, he quit the football team and joined the Alley Theatre, commuting to Houston after school, doing his homework between workshops and rehearsals. His closing-night performance of A Streetcar Named Desire conflicted with prom.
“My date had been kind enough to come to the show. The last thing I wanted to do was go to After-Prom Extravaganza, or whatever it was called. I was hanging out with folks who smoked cigarettes and talked about Ibsen. These people were obviously my kin.”
It was at that theater that he also lost his first friend to AIDS. “I needed some space in my environment in Spring to process things,” he says. “I don’t think that ever would have been a possibility if I had stayed there. My game plan was to get out.”
His dad flew him to New York to audition for colleges, and he was accepted at Carnegie Mellon’s prestigious theater program in Pittsburgh. During a summer gig at the Utah Shakespeare Festival he had a transgender colleague who had been raised Mormon, survived shock therapy, and still welcomed her visiting parents while fully presenting as a woman. “I thought, If this person can have the courage to live her life so openly, maybe it’s time I look a little deeper into what’s going on with me.”
He came back for his junior year a little withdrawn and quietly contemplative, and then began coming out to his classmates. “I think it was the safest haven you could hope for, in terms of an environment, at a drama conservatory. But what was so profound to me was that a lot of my friends from Spring who had very specific religious beliefs were — and still are — some of my staunchest supporters.”
For his parents — who “started out Baptist, were briefly Presbyterian, and then settled into nondenominational,” as Bomer puts it — the road was longer. “I’m not going to lie and say it was a bed of roses. But with the gift of time and grace, my parents chose love. And I think it’s important for people to know that. We always hear, ‘Oh, it gets better, it gets better,’ and [then] so many people go, ‘No it doesn’t.’ I feel lucky to say that, yes, sometimes it does.”
After graduation, he spent a summer immersed in queer theater at the Sundance Institute. “I was there with [playwrights] Craig Lucas and Moisés Kaufman and all these people I’d idolized for so long,” he says. Moving to New York City was a reality check. Though he says Lucas and other mentors helped keep him involved in theater, he was struggling with the typical actor grind, working as a bellhop during the day and a waiter at night. A casting agent offered to get him on a soap opera and he wound up on Guiding Light.
From there, Bomer began a slow but steady climb via TV series guest roles (Tru Calling, Chuck) and short-lived pilots (Traveler), and then in 2009 landed the lead in White Collar, USA’s sleek drama about a debonair art forger and con artist (Bomer) whose parole requires him to help the FBI solve highend crimes. In the show’s first script, Bomer’s character is twice compared to Cary Grant, and the series’ six seasons of To Catch a Thief-meets-Ocean’s Eleven hijinks often hinge on his ability to distract a woman with his dazzling smile and/or dashing wardrobe. (Bomer and costar Tim DeKay are also routinely named to “Best Bromance” lists.)
The show helped cement the network’s brand as a destination for stylish, light-action series, and Bomer was their leading man. And people started to ask about his personal life. By then, he had a partner, celebrity publicist Simon Halls, and three young kids.
“It wasn’t anything I really endeavored to hide,” he says. “But a lot of stuff I would do would be these fashion spreads where there’s one paragraph about you at the end.” In January of 2010, Details asked how he felt about gay rumors and Bomer said, “I don’t care about that at all. I’m completely happy and fulfilled in my personal life.” (At the time, he was flying every weekend from New York, where White Collar shoots, home to Los Angeles to spend some 30 hours with the family before heading back.)
He was becoming increasingly vocal about marriage equality and AIDS activism, speaking at the New York AIDS Walk in 2011 and participating in a staged reading of Dustin Lance Black’s play 8, based on the trial to overturn California’s antimarriage proposition. He was also cast in The Normal Heart.
Left: T-shirt by Marc by Marc Jacobs. Right: Sweater by Fendi.