Anger = Action :: Ryan Murphy and ’Normal Heart’ Cast Talk About HBO Film
It took nearly 30 years for a film version of "The Normal Heart" to make it to screens. In this case, it will be TV screens, as the film premieres on HBO this Sunday, May 25 at 9pm.
TV mogul Ryan Murphy directs the film, based on Larry Kramer’s Tony Award-winning play about the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York in the 1980s. Kramer wrote the screenplay as well, and Mark Ruffalo stars as Ned Weeks, an activist who fights for medical research on the epidemic in New York.
Why it took 30 years to be filmed has as much to do with its subject -- the early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City -- as with Kramer’s irascible nature. From the first days that gay men began dying from mysterious illnesses in New York and San Francisco, Kramer was an outspoken critic and activist who took on not only the medical establishment and all levels of government, but others in the gay community as well, who saw his views as antithetical to the progress of the movement. In 1982 he cofounded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GHMC); five years later he was instrumental in the forming of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a political action group instrumental in bringing AIDS into the national spotlight at a time when it was largely ignored by the media and government.
Writing the play
On being ousted from GMHC in 1983, Kramer wrote "The Normal Heart" as a cry for the more strident action he thought necessary in lieu of the enormity of the epidemic and public inaction towards it. "He accuses the governmental, medical and press establishments of foot-dragging in combating the disease -- especially in the early days of its outbreak, when much of the play is set -- and he is even tougher on homosexual leaders who, in his view, were either too cowardly or too mesmerized by the ideology of sexual liberation to get the story out," wrote Frank Rich when he reviewed the play when it opened at the Public Theater in April 1985, where it became one of the longest-running plays in the Public’s history.
Still, getting the play onstage was never a done deal: "It was a fight for Larry from the very beginning," the play’s original director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, recently told the Hollywood Reporter. "At first, nobody wanted to produce it. People were frightened, worried that it would hurt their careers."
Over the ensuing decades, many A-list names were associated with the film version, most prominently Barbra Streisand, who held the option for the property for 10 years and finally gave up on it in 2012, after a very public and contentious rift with Kramer. Enter the out, super successful Murphy ("Glee," "American Horror Story"), who picked up the film rights and convinced HBO to produce it.
"The Normal Heart" is not HBO’s first foray into the subject. In 1993, HBO produced and aired "And the Band Played On," a drama about the discovery of AIDS from the medical perspective. "Band" was influential on Murphy as well.
"I love that movie," Murphy said in a press conference for the Television Critics Association in January. "In fact, we have BD Wong in our movie. He was also in that, so I got to spend a lot of time talking to him about the making of that. That was a very important movie back then. That was a time when a lot of people would not lend their name or their talent or any activity to the cause, and I remember people like Richard Gere and Lily Tomlin stepping up, and I think that was groundbreaking at the time. As I remember, that was much more of a scientific film. That was much more of an ensemble, almost like a thriller, and this is much more of a love story. And it’s a love story between four people."
Murphy went on to diagram the play’s emotional map involving Kramer stand-in Ned Weeks. First, there’s a love story between Weeks and Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts); second, between Weeks and mainstream gay activist Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch); third, between volunteer Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons) and Weeks; and another between Weeks and his lawyer brother, Ben (Alfred Molina). "I feel we’re looking at an epidemic as seen through a love story," Murphy said. "I think that’s the big difference."
Opening up the play on film gave Murphy an opportunity to further explore gay culture of the ’80s in ways the stage wouldn’t allow. "For example, I think the first 10 minutes of the movie is all shot on location at Fire Island, at the places where the guys really went, the parties they really went to," Murphy said. "So I do think it’s pretty broken out from the play."
If Kramer was considered an abrasive advocate, he openly embraced that reputation in his conception of the character Weeks. Certainly authority resists Weeks’ approach, and if you know the play, it creates rifts in his own organization as well. Ruffalo spent time with Kramer while preparing for the role; he also remembered meeting Kramer years before, just hoping he’d get to be part of the movie then in endless development.
"As far as his abrasiveness, I didn’t really experience that with him," Ruffalo said. "He’s sick now, and he’s older, and he was opening the door to me as an actor to share his life with me, so I wasn’t in political opposition with him. So that was taken out of the conversation, thank God. (In creating the role) I actually tried to go directly into him as much as I possibly could and honor him and honor his complexity and his journey and his passion and his commitment to this movement, which is what I deem completely heroic."
There’s a fifth love story in "A Normal Heart" that Murphy could have mentioned: between Weeks and Felix Turner, a closeted New York Times writer Weeks meets early on in the story. Matt Bomer plays Turner in the film, which gave him an opportunity theater performers never got. Bomer lost 40 pounds to portray the symptoms of AIDS from which Turner suffers.
"Thankfully we got to do this film for HBO with Ryan, and they allowed us to shut down for a period of time in order to make some of those physical changes," Bomer said. "Obviously it’s a huge piece of the character. I remember talking to Larry early on, and I didn’t want to dig up a lot of old wounds or anything, but the main thing he said to me was, ’There was the Felix before he got sick and the Felix after he got sick.’ So that was an important part of the story for us to get to tell, and I’m just thankful that we were able to have the luxury of closing up shop for a while and doing it right, I guess."
"The Normal Heart" can also be seen as a teaching tool for a new generation that knows about AIDS but doesn’t have the firsthand experience of the epidemic. As it turned out, this included some of the younger cast members as well.
"I have shown the film to a number of young people in their early 20s who are gay and had no knowledge that they stand on the shoulders of a generation before them," Murphy said. "The movie ends in 1984, right before there was even an HIV test, so I think the thing that Larry writes about is the idea that silence does equal death. It was a time when people weren’t writing about it and there were no solutions. He was writing about his community’s experience. It ends in 1984, but what it’s about feels very sort of modern to me right now with gay marriage in the news, and people fighting to be loved for whom they are and to be accepted for whom they are.
"I feel it’s still very modern, very applicable to the way we’re living today. I also think that history has proven Larry Kramer to be right. I think that at the time, he was seen as sort of a heretic, and I think with the passage of time people look at him as one of the few people who was actually saying and doing the right thing. ’We need to pay attention to this. This is going to become a global epidemic’ -- and indeed it has. Over 40 million people are dead from HIV/AIDS, and every day 7,000 people continue to contract HIV. So I feel like all that material is presented in the movie."
Reading in the closet
For Bomer, reading the play for the first time was his first contact with the epidemic and its human consequences.
"I read it in the closet of my drama room when I was 14 years old," Bomer recalled, "and the irony of that is not lost on me. I grew up in the Bible Belt, and there was no talk about it. I remember reading this play and seeing this neon-blinking SOS and being terrified, but also glad that I had some kind of understanding of what was going on. Later I did lose friends. I started working at the theater in the mid-’90s which was in some ways an especially difficult time in the epidemic, and that was my first sort of direct contact in losing friends and things like that. So I guess this story for me was always kind of the genesis of my understanding of what the disease was."
For Parsons, he recalled his young perspective on the initial reports of the developing crisis. But it wasn’t until he costarred in the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival in 2011 that he came to understand its full impact. "I’m old enough to have seen some very early reports," Parsons said.
"Like I remember frightening 20/20s when I was like 10 and 11; but doing the play was the first time I was introduced to the material. I found it was a real education for me. But what’s funny is the more you delve into this, as much as it’s very specific to the topic, the AIDS crisis, the humanity that overreaches all of it is what really kind of hurts your heart at the end of it. You know, it feels like something horrible that has happened before in different ways; and it feels like humans being humans, it may happen again. Maybe that’s why a story like this is so important to tell in the hope that maybe that can be of course corrected, and that it not happen again."
A connective thread
At 33, Kitsch could be considered part of the second generation Murphy mentioned. "I was born in ’81, so I actually would go as far as saying I wasn’t truly exposed to it until, really, the script was in front of me," he said. "Really understanding what was going on and in meeting with Murphy and pitching myself for the gig, that’s when you really delve into it and be honest with it and see what it’s all about. And not just AIDS or the epidemic, but I think for me personally, and Matt hit on it in the movie so well too. It’s a love story, and it’s how people deal with fear of the unknown, and that’s really what I focused on more than anything."
The role of Dr. Brookner is Weeks’s first ally in the medical community, a polio survivor confined to a wheelchair herself. Roberts learned about polio from documentaries. She was drawn to "The Normal Heart’s" ability to unite different people in conversation about common issues.
"I think one of the great elements of any good conversation is to find a commonality with people that you don’t know and to find a oneness that really does travel from each of us to the next of us, no matter what you believe is your higher purpose or calling," Roberts said.
"The thread really does connect us all, and if we are connected by a true thread, it’s impossible physically to turn your back on somebody. So that’s the real point of storytelling: is to nurture that idea. And this movie does it in such a profound way because it’s dealing with a moment that’s so desperate and mysterious, and we as a humanity failed each other in that time. That’s always a great reminder to do better and to stay together. It’s important to me to participate in things that make me feel like I’m a better person and can participate in my daily life with slightly more conviction or more joy or more compassion. To be in a part like this in a piece like this with someone that I’m very safe and comfortable with, and then all of these new now friends as an actor, it was really great."