Press Tour: ‘Normal Heart’ is an ‘epidemic as seen through a love story’

It’s taken decades, but Ryan Murphy has finally persevered in bring the Tony award-winning  play “The Normal Heart” to the small screen. The movie will air on HBO this May, and during press tour Murphy assured the audience that he’s only changed the source material so much. “I think it’s similar to the play, and I actively pursued [the rights to] the play. It was a play I loved, even when I was in college.” 

Adding that he nailed down the rights in 2010, he talked about the process of working with the notoriously prickly Larry Kramer. “I worked with Larry on the script for three years. I think we broke it out 40, 45 percent from the play into the movie. It takes place from ’81 to ’84, and the first ten minutes are really shot on Fire Island.”

Though Jim Parsons, who plays Tommy Boatwright, is too young to remember the early years of the AIDS crisis covered in “The Normal Heart,” he does have a connection to the time period.” I remember frightening ’20/20’s when I was 10 and 11. [When] I did the play, it was a real education for me. What’s funny is the more you delve into this, as much as it’s really specific to the AIDS crisis, the humanity that overreaches all of it hurts your heart at the end. It feels like something horrible that happened… and may happen again. 

Murphy said that, though the movie is a period piece, he still feels the story has a very “modern” sensibility. “The story ends in 1984, right before there actually was even an HIV test. [Larry Kramer] wrote that play with the idea of silence does equal death. He was writing about his community’s experience, and it feels very modern to me with gay marriage in the news, people fighting to be who they are. It’s very applicable to the way we’re living today.  History has proven Larry Kramer to be right. He was seen as a heretic, but he’s now proven right because AIDS is a global epidemic. Forty million people have died, and all that material is presented in the movie. 

Matt Bomer, who plays Felix Turner, found “The Normal Heart” as a teen. “I read this in the closet of my drama room when I was 14 years old, and the irony of that is not lost on me. I remember reading this play and seeing this neon blinking SOS from this firebrand, and being terrified. I started working at the theater in our town in the ’90s and that was my first direct contact, losing friends and all that.”

Murphy added, “I really grew up in this period, and I lost a lot of friends to AIDS, I remember one of my best friends died in the 90s. He was fired from his job, his parents ostracized him, and even on his death bed he wouldn’t admit this is what he was dying of. I just really try to be true to those boys who lost so much that I owe so much to, and what those seven guys did and Emma did that paved the way for what I have today. I think of it as a civil rights movie. At the end we talk about President Reagan and his legacy and Ed Koch and his legacy, and no one was doing anything, and something that could have been much less tragic ballooned into a worldwide epidemic…the more things change the more they stay the same. That’s why the movie is so sad ultimately but hopeful at the end, because there are people fighting to change the world… we’re looking at an epidemic as seen through a love story.” 

When asked about taking on such an unglamorous role, Julia Roberts (who plays Emma Brookner) said, “It’s funny; wWhen a girl just looks like a person, you’re unglamorous. I’m just saying.” She then addressed coming on to the project, a job she had repeatedly rejected before Ryan Murphy. “My relationship with Ryan has definitely been such an education. I’ve been asked twice before to play this part and both times turned it down due to conflict of time and my inability to understand who this character was. When Ryan asked me, I said no, and I didn’t think he heard me. I [said I] I don’t think I can, and he said, call me back. And I ruminated about it. I watched a documentary on polio, and I’m too young to remember that, but it unlocked the door to this character for me and where her relentless pursuit to correct this came from. And Ryan always gets the answer he wants.”

Mark Ruffalo, who plays Ned Weeks and is a co-executive producer on the project, talked about his lengthy involvement with it. “I met [Kramer] years before we shot the movie, and I’d been aware of him since I was a young actor… I came to really love him. I spent hours begging him to tell me stories. As far as his abrasiveness, I didn’t really experience that with him. He’s sick now and he’s older, and he was opening the door with me as an actor, so I wasn’t in political opposition with him, thank God. I tried to go directly into him as much as I could and honor him and his complexity and his journey and compassion and commitment, which is what I deem completely heroic. 

As far as whether or not the movie will resonate with audiences too young to remember the AIDS crisis in America, Murphy said, “I can only judge that in that I’ve shown the film to people in their early 20s and who have no knowledge they stand on the shoulders of a generation before them. It’s a great story, almost Shakespearean in its highs and lows. It’s a period piece, but still so modern. [The play] ended with Dr. Emma doing a wedding, which was very radical at the time.”

As far as how Bomer transformed himself into a sickly man, Roberts joked, “We put on weight, to help out,” then added, “It was really amazing to be a witness to what Matt did. It was astounding.”

Roberts, who had serious comments about how she wanted to be involved in a project that showed the “connected thread” and how the project dealt “with a moment that’s so desperate and mysterious, we as a humanity failed each other in that time, and that’s always a great reminder to do better and stay together,” also had more light moments.

When discussing coming to the set, she said, “The first day was tough, because they hadn’t seen a girl in months.” As the audience laughed, she continued, “But my husband was there.”

Though Murphy did say he didn’t actively try to cast out gay actors, Bomer and Parsons both talked about being out in Hollywood. “Am I surprised to be successful and be gay at the same time?” Parsons said. “If I’m thinking about it in those terms, I was only ever anxious about it when the conversation would happen, is this a deal? Still a deal? It’s a deal like anything else, but it was no big deal. It was no big deal to me. Not to be glib, I don’t bring gay or straight qualities to a role, I deal with it. Why can’t I finish a sentence?” 

Bomer said, “I guess I’m just thankful to work on roles like this, period. I don’t think of myself as a gay or straight artist, I just think of myself as an actor. I guess I’m not going to finish this sentence, either.