How Hearthrob Matt Bomer Gave an HIV-Positive Performance Unparalleled in Cinema History

He’s one of cable TV’s biggest stars, but when Matt Bomer traded in his White Collar to star in The Normal Heart, his stunning performance of an HIV-positive man was unparalleled in cinema history.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

December 13 2014 3:33 PM ET

Photos by Jojo Whilden/HBO

Actor Matt Bomer, star of the new HBO film The Normal Heart (which premiers Sunday May 25) is blessed with a lot of beauty—the chiseled jaw, the perfect hair, the rock-hard abs — but it is his eyes that capture you first. The ice-blue pools of warmth seem to bore deep into your soul whether you see them in person or on the cover of a magazine. So when he’s crying, crumpled on the floor in a semi-fetal position, too weak to make it to the bathroom alone, covered in shit and piss and Kaposi lesions — the effects of dying of AIDS at a time when the term AIDS wasn’t even coined yet — it’s devastating to watch.

The film, which premiered earlier this summer, packs plenty of star power, including Mark Ruffalo, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, Jonathan Groff, Denis O’Hare, and B.D. Wong (and many give impressive performances). But this movie, this role, this moment belongs to Matt Bomer, who serves as the heart of a film that is at turns infuriating, playful, painful, arousing, and mournful.

Directed by Ryan Murphy (the gay creator of hit series Glee and American Horror Story) and written by gay activist Larry Kramer (based on his groundbreaking Tony Award–winning play of the same name), The Normal Heart is an unflinching look at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in New York City in the early 1980s, the nascent gay movement, the disparate sexual politics of the day, and the hysterical fear of a disease nobody had yet named.

Hollywood hunk Ruffalo as Ned Weeks (the pseudonymous character that stands in for Kramer himself) inhabits the activist who helped launch the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and later ACT UP. Ned worries about this so-called gay cancer as friends and acquaintances begin to get sick in droves, many dying suddenly, others locked in isolation in hospitals where even the staff won’t enter their rooms for fear of contagion. Ned aligns himself with no-nonsense Dr. Emma Brookner, who is one of the first to deal with patients with this gay plague, doing so from her wheelchair after surviving childhood polio. Played by Roberts, the plain-talking and acerbic Brookner is modeled on Dr. Linda Laubenstein, an early HIV and AIDS researcher who in 1982 coauthored the first scientific article on the outbreak of Kaposi’s sarcoma among gay men, a sign of what would soon be known as AIDS.

Ned joins others to begin a group serving men with this disease (the real-life GMHC) and he urges gay, handsome, and closeted New York Times reporter Felix, played by Bomer, to expose the government’s inaction on the medical crisis. It is Felix who ignites Ned’s deepest passions.

A date that vacillates between political tirade and excitingly tense sexual interplay marks the beginning of the relationship at the movie’s core, a partnership that inspires Ned to push the government for action, even going so far as to out real-life New York City mayor Ed Koch, whom activists like Kramer argued had done too little to combat AIDS because of his own fear of being discovered as gay. (Koch did not come out in his lifetime but was outed posthumously by several sources.)

Rarely can a movie about AIDS be called sexy, but The Normal Heart is, and it is the initial date between Ned and Felix that sets a standard for a new normal — a film that recognizes how integral sex is to gay men’s lives and how fraught it had become with danger once HIV made its widespread appearance. It neither marginalizes nor glorifies (homo)sexuality but shows at least two points on a spectrum (monogamy in one scene, group sex in another) that is as broad as that of heterosexual expression.

The movie will change viewers, perhaps a bit like it changed Bomer. “I don’t know how you could be a part of this movie and not be changed on some level, unless you’re just really a slab of concrete,” the actor says, chuckling with an extremely slight but still perceptible Texas drawl. “It’s so rare that you get to portray a well-written character that’s fully developed and is also part of a story that you hope has some type of social significance, and also that changes you.”

Bomer says that bringing Kramer’s opus to the big screen gave him “a profound sense of gratitude for the people who struggled through this time period and who fought and persisted and rose up — and as difficult and painful as it was, joined together and found their voice and gave us a lot of the rights we have today.”

It is Kramer to whom Bomer also felt the most responsibility. Kramer, who has been too ill to travel, was rushed a print of the film and was said to have been overcome with emotion at the final result. It’s that, not the talk of Emmy nominations, that makes Bomer the most proud.

“For me, getting to meet Larry Kramer was akin to someone getting to meet one of the Beatles,” he says. “I had been reading his stuff since I was a kid. It was sort of my only understanding of what was going on in the world outside of suburban Texas.”

The actor was only 14 when he initially read The Normal Heart, after first reading Kramer’s follow-up play, The Destiny of Me (which is both a sequel and a prequel of sorts, introducing Ned’s childhood in flashbacks and his life as an AIDS crusader later on). Bomer was in awe of Kramer and his work.