With the end of his hit show, White Collar, in sight, the 36-year-old actor was looking to take risks, challenge himself, and change how he’s seen. He succeeded on all counts playing an AIDS-afflicted writer in HBO’s adaptation of The Normal Heart. The grueling role took a huge emotional and physical toll, but Bomer wouldn’t have it any other way.
The psychic has to be able to tell us,” jokes Matt Bomer, cupping his hands around his eyes, pressing his nose to the glass of Maddam Grace’s Los Angeles storefront. In black shorts and a well-worn gray T-shirt bearing the tiger mascot of his dad’s alma mater, the University of Memphis, Bomer yanks at a locked door. “Nobody’s here,” he says, undeterred, a weathered sign promising glimpses into the past, present, and future hanging above his head.
“Don’t worry,” Bomer says, turning back toward his car, a black Mercedes station wagon. “We’ll figure it out. We’ll find our way.”
At 36, Bomer has sharpened his Hollywood-navigation skills. For the moment, he’s using them to find an elusive taco truck. “It’s supposed to be here,” he says. “In this lot. With this psychic.” But in a broader sense, Bomer has used what amounts to a finely tuned inner compass to strengthen his profile while driving toward commercial, and now critical, success.
For the past five years, Bomer has played Neal Caffrey, an ex-con turned FBI ringer, on USA Network’s White Collar, a tentpole drama for basic cable’s highest-rated channel, now about to shoot its sixth and final season. Bomer describes Caffrey as “part Cary Grant, part Ferris Bueller, with a little Axel Foley thrown in.” And while the character doesn’t exactly punch at the premium-cable weight of a Walter White or a Don Draper, Caffrey has earned Bomer a large, loyal, and, rarest of all, inter-gender fan base that has suits swooning over his long-term potential. “There are guys men gravitate to and guys women gravitate to. Rarely do we get both sides of the audience gravitating equally,” says Bonnie Hammer, the chairwoman of NBCUniversal’s Cable Entertainment operation and the executive who green-lit White Collar for USA. “With Matt you get both. Everybody sees him as the perfect leading man. That’s rare.”
This month, Bomer takes a supporting turn, but one that drops the code-cracking breeziness of Caffrey for a character certain to earn him a whole new level of acclaim. “Felix Turner?” says Bomer, merging into traffic, having already come up with an alternative destination. “Felix Turner is a whole different ball game.”
• • •
Turner’s death plays out over the course of HBO’s The Normal Heart—the movie adaptation of the human-rights activist and writer Larry Kramer’s landmark 1985 play about the dawn of the AIDS crisis. Having contracted the disease, Turner, a gay New York Times reporter, wastes away painfully and vividly, a victim of the virus that has inhabited his body and of the ignorance and indifference of the body politic. Part of an ensemble cast, Bomer delivers the kind of heartbreaking performance, jarring in its verisimilitude, magnetic in its intimacy, that can forever alter the course of an actor’s career.
It’s the kind of strategic bid for gravitas we’ve seen before, wherein a perceived lightweight tackles heavier themes. And, while it’s not exclusive to retroviral roles, there is a precedent whereby powerfully portraying the AIDS-afflicted can catapult an actor into the ranks of the elite. A few years before Philadelphia, Tom Hanks starred in a canine-cop buddy pic called Turner & Hooch. And after seeing him portray Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, it’s hard to picture Matthew McConaughey being all right, all right, all right about returning toGhosts of Girlfriends Past. Bomer’s Normal Heart costar Alfred Molina predicts such a leap here. “What Matt’s done will redefine him,” Molina says. “All Matt’s professional life, he’s clearly been a very good actor, but I think this performance puts him there among the greats.”
Born outside St. Louis in Webster Groves, Missouri, Bomer grew up in Spring, Texas, a suburb of Houston. His dad, who had been an offensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys, worked as a shipping executive. The family attended church multiple times a week, and PG-13 movies were taboo. Bomer first read The Normal Heart in 1992, as a high-school freshman following in his father’s footsteps by playing football. “At the time, I was clueless and obviously in a different place in relation to my sexuality,” he says. “I was in romantic relationships with girls—whatever that means at 14. But I read it. And it completely rocked my world.” Bomer credits the play with helping him embrace his sexual orientation while still a teen and also with fostering a sense of social justice. “It’s just such an amazing call to arms,” he says.
After high school, Bomer enrolled in the drama program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He then moved to New York City, where he applied for government-subsidized housing and eventually found acting work playing a murderous and suicidal trust-fund sociopath on the soap opera Guiding Light.
That yearlong exercise ended in 2003 and Bomer moved to Los Angeles, where he nearly landed the role of Superman, but the project switched directors and the cape eventually went to Brandon Routh. Bomer also cowrote and sold a doomed television pilot for a show called Nashville that somehow had exactly the same plot as ABC’s current country-diva drama of the same name, though it preceded it by several years. “Brad Paisley was a coproducer,” Bomer says somewhat wistfully.
Bad luck and near misses are staples of every actor’s story, until there’s a breakthrough. Bomer’s came after a run of bit parts—a little Chuck here, some Tru Calling there—when he landed White Collar in 2009.
In 2011, before he played a set of dancing (thrusting, gyrating) abs in Magic Mike—a role he’ll reprise for the sequel—Bomer heard that the director Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee and American Horror Story, was casting a film version of The Normal Heart, with a script by Kramer, and immediately lobbied for a meeting. “I wouldn’t have a lot of the rights I have today if it wasn’t for people like Larry,” Bomer says. Marriage, for one, comes to mind. Bomer married his longtime partner, the Hollywood publicity executive Simon Halls, in 2011. The couple have three sons: 6-year-old twins and an 8-year-old. For Bomer, a role in The Normal Heart would be an act of reciprocal advocacy. “I just wanted to be involved with the project in some capacity,” he says. “I didn’t care what my part was.”
Before speaking to Murphy, Bomer had doubts about the merits of his résumé. Murphy had no such reservations. “Matt was the first person I felt would do whatever it took to be true to the history of the part and to the millions of people who have died because of this disease,” he says. “I needed somebody who was a protector of that. That meant going on a really dangerous, incredibly severe diet and going to a dark place emotionally.” According to Murphy, Bomer seized on these difficult tasks, treating them as opportunities. “I’ve known Matt for many years,” he says. “This was a Matt I had not seen before. He was relentless in his pursuit of the truth. He was incredibly hard on himself, always wanting another take. He fought for excellence. It’s the first part that shows the world what Matt can truly do as a dramatic actor.”
Bomer speaks about the experience with great reverence and sincerity, his typically convivial and humorous tone giving way to a serious, humble register. “It’s rare that you get to play a great role that has an arc,” he says. “It’s rare that you get to be a part of something that, hopefully, has some significance socially or historically. And then to have a role that changes you? I think that’s the best you could hope for in this profession, and that was certainly the case here. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same as I was when I started the job.”
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Halfway through our hike up Bronson Canyon’s winding trail, Bomer pauses. “I’m still on the rebound,” he says. It’s mid-afternoon, before our hunt for tacos, and his stubble catches the sun. He comes up here a couple of times a week for the peace of it all but hasn’t yet regained his stamina after his grueling role, so he suggests we sit to discuss his transformation. Resting on a gravelly bluff overlooking all of Los Angeles, the smog and buildings blending seamlessly to create a kind of ghostly beauty, Bomer draws his knees to his chest and takes his phone from his pocket. “It probably seems really narcissistic that I took these,” he says, flicking through his photos. “But I thought if I did all this work, I might as well have some record of it.” Before showing me the images, he takes care to lighten the moment with a joke. “This is my Wednesday selfie, y’all. Enjoy.”
On the screen is a collection of discomfiting pictures, each more painful to view than the last: the sallow, sunken eyes; the concave abdomen; the bones, all too prominent. “I stopped weighing myself after losing 35 pounds,” Bomer says. “I thought the number wasn’t the important thing to focus on. This wasn’t Biggest Loser.” He consulted with doctors, participated in a 14-day alkalized-water, juice, tea, and enzyme cleanse at the We Care Spa in Desert Hot Springs, which he continued at home for another week, and sought advice from his Magic Mike costar McConaughey, based on his experience with Dallas Buyers Club. “He called me and walked me through what he did,” Bomer recalls. “It was very generous, but I took a slightly different path.” It took Bomer three months to attain a sufficiently skeletal figure, a period of time Murphy built into the shooting schedule. “When I first saw Matt from across the room after the hiatus,” Molina says, “he was walking with a cane. I didn’t recognize him. He looked like a fragile old man.”
Bomer puts his phone back in his pocket and runs his finger through the dirt. “That’s what I signed up for,” he says. “That’s my job. And it’s the least I could do for Larry Kramer.” Bomer also prepared exhaustively, renting out a Los Angeles theater where he’d run through lines every day, often alone. “On some level,” Bomer continues, “Larry probably saved my life. He happened to be on set the day DOMA was overturned. In many ways, he’s responsible for DOMA being overturned in the first place. He’s an Abraham Lincoln figure—he has affected the cultural landscape of this country, and not always popularly.”
Throughout filming, the set of The Normal Heart resonated with a sense of duty. But Mark Ruffalo, who plays Ned Weeks—Felix Turner’s loving partner and Kramer’s fierce, fictional proxy—recognized that Bomer’s performance came from a uniquely primal place. “Matt goes the farthest distance, as far as the turn he makes in the movie, and it’s significant,” Ruffalo says. “We all understand what this movie means and where it fits culturally—the significance of it. And Matt understands it at an even deeper level, being one of the most celebrated actors to be openly gay. There’s an urgency he had in relation to the material. It was like life or death.”
Standing up and brushing himself off, Bomer shakes his head as if in disbelief, having come to terms only recently with the magnitude of what he’s accomplished. This success had been a long time in the making for Bomer, more than 20 years since he’d first picked up the book after school in the drama room of his suburban Texas high school, and despite the toll the work has taken on him, he is determined not to let up. “Getting up here takes you out of the close-up and into the wider shot,” he says. “We’ll go as high as you like.”
• • •
“We’ll go there,” Bomer says, “and then we’ll go there.” We’ve arrived at an intersection with two equally appetizing taco trucks, and Bomer, physically starved but artistically satiated, has decided to sample both. We sit down in a squat freestanding garage beside the Tacos El Gallito truck. Bomer slides into a tattered vinyl booth, squeezes lime over his carne asada, and takes an eager bite while considering future prospects. He’s been up into the hills today. He’s seen the view, the distance, the possibilities. Many in Hollywood believe they are boundless. “The true reveal of Matt is still to come, in terms of just how big he can be,” Bonnie Hammer says. “But we have a movie star on our hands. A true movie star.”
And yet Bomer sounds increasingly grounded. “I don’t care about the size of the roles,” he says, “or how they’re marketed or billed or anything like that. I would love to be a part of stories that tell us about where we’ve come from, where we are, where we’re going—with great directors.” Polite in a way that could also be read as politic, Bomer, who once nearly dropped acting to pursue a career in psychology, refuses to name those directors. “It’s such a long list,” he says. “I mean, I hate to even identify certain people, because I don’t want anyone to feel alienated. I want to work with anyone who’s passionate about telling a story. I obviously have a list of people I really love, but it’s a really long list. So I can’t single anybody out. You know, you don’t want to forget to say ‘Darren Aronofsky’ and then have him happen to see something here and be like, ‘Why didn’t that asshole sayme?’”
Aside from The Normal Heart, which is already generating awards-season buzz for both Bomer and Ruffalo, and the final season of White Collar, Bomer has filmed an upcoming movie, Space Station 76, which he calls “a darkly comedic John Cheever story set in space.” He was also cast as the lead in a biopic about the talented but tragic actor Montgomery Clift. “I could see it as a cable movie,” Bomer says. “But they’re still exploring the idea of doing it for theaters.”
Having earned some time now to think and assess, Bomer’s talking like he’s found his way, no clairvoyants required. An unwavering hunger and adaptability have given him faith in his direction, and he’s preparing to enjoy the rewards. “Listen,” Bomer says as we stand to make our way to the second taco truck. “We’ve gone with the flow. We’ve ridden the wave, the crest, and the trough, and here we are. Que Rico, like it says on the truck over there: How rich it is.”