As The Boys in the Band arrives on Netflix via Broadway, its star talks about acting as activism and his newfound pandemic pastimes
Words by STEPHANIE RAFANELLI
Portraits by JOANNA PENSINGER
With a close resemblance to Clark Kent and a sensitive talent for playing men with dual identities, it’s anyone’s guess why Matt Bomer doesn’t already have a superhero franchise under his utility belt. But with a humorous eye for both himself and the ironies of life, the accomplished theater actor seems a man more curious to explore his craft beyond the conventional aggrandizing masculine tropes. When he has dipped his toe into the comicbook realm, he has done so mainly in voiceover. Most recently, for DC Universe’s 2019 series Doom Patrol, he voiced Negative Man aka Larry Trainor (physically played by Bomer in flashbacks), a U.S. Army pilot whose closeted life as a gay man metaphorically burned his soul and he became radioactive.
Meanwhile, Bomer has intelligently mined the concept of the “Super Man” — more specifically, Nietzsche’s Übermensch — in this year’s acclaimed season three of The Sinner on Netflix. “Thank you so much for watching it,” he says in a laid-back tone from the Hancock Park home he shares with his husband, Simon Halls, and their three sons: Kit, 15, and twins, Walker and Henry, 12. “Because I know a Nietzschian nosedive was not the first thing people were looking for in the midst of a pandemic. ”
GIORGIO ARMANI jacket, CALVIN KLEIN tank and TODD SNYDER pants.
Instead, Bomer has created a body of work across theater, film and TV with a discernible thematic throughline, his dramatic roles often complementing his role in real life as an LGBTQ activist. In 2014, he won a Golden Globe for his soul-lascerating performance of a man dying of AIDS in the film version of Larry Kramer’s autobiographical play A Normal Heart, directed by Ryan Murphy and set in the 1980s, when the epidemic was still unacknowledged by the U.S. government.
Bomer lost 40 pounds for his Normal Heart role, reduced to nothing but blue eyes and bone. In 2011, he appeared in Dustin Lance Black’s 8 on Broadway, a dramatization of the 2008 trial that overturned Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages in California; the play subsequently ran in L.A. Also in 2011, Bomer married Halls, Tom Ford’s power publicist. The actor came out publicly in 2012, in an acceptance speech at the Desert AIDS Project’s Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards. (He came out to his parents at age 24, in a letter. Reportedly, they didn’t speak to him for six months afterward.)
In 2018, he starred in the Murphy-produced 50th anniversary Broadway revival of Mart Crowley’s seminal 1968 play, The Boys in the Band, an unapologetic, warts-and-all depiction of a group of gay men living in New York that helped spark Stonewall; the latest film adaptation (it was also made into a movie in 1970) landed last week on Netflix.
“I grew up in a very conservative home, so just being who I was created a kind of bifurcated sense of self”
Elsewhere, Bomer has shown the breadth of his range while inhabiting men with societally transgressive secret identities, from his big break as unblinking con artist Neal Caffrey in USA Network’s White Collar (2009-2014); to the buffed-up Ken in the Magic Mike films, Steven Soderbergh’s socially underpinned male stripper romps; to a transgendered sex worker in Anything (2017).
Born in Missouri, Bomer was raised from the age of 9 in rural Spring, Texas, in the “Bible Belt,” a million miles from gay liberationist New York. His father once played for the Dallas Cowboys. “I grew up in a very conservative home, so just being who I was created a kind of bifurcated sense of self.” He attended church, accompanied his father on hunting trips, and played for his high school ball team. His salvation, he says, came in the school drama department: It became the oxygen of his inner life. When he was cast at 17 in a professional production of A Streetcar Named Desire, theater was already his existence.
It is in a more progressive era of LGBTQ rights that Murphy’s company produced the film version of The Boys in the Band, with an all-gay male cast that includes Bomer. But in pockets of America today, the environment may feel a little different from ’90s Texas or pre-revolution New York. In the film, Michael (Jim Parsons), throws a birthday party for his best friend/worst enemy, Harold (a caustic Zachary Quinto) in 1968, and struggles to reconcile his sexuality with his religion, his authentic self with his shame. His boyfriend, quiet observer Donald (Bomer) is battling his own inner demons in psychoanalysis. When Michael’s homophobic college friend Alan (Brian Hutchison) unexpectedly turns up, the night of revelry for seven gay friends turns into a psychodrama of escalating vulnerability and emotional cruelty.
The Boys in the Band is as much a pertinent portrait of the internalization of bigotry into self-hatred and the curdling of guilt into hostility as a mainstream revival of a seminal work in the the gay canon.
We caught up with Bomer (a self-professed “introvert” and “triple Libra”) in his happy place — his home, where he’s been working on his garden and recipes for pici all’ aglione, to discuss the film and his other passions in life.
Can you sum up your 2020?
I mean, I’m just taking 2020 one day at a time. It’s going to take a lot to shock and upset me at this point. It feels like a special form of punishment in 2020 that all the best wifi is in places that we don’t want to spend time.
It’s your 43rd birthday on Oct. 11. What’s the plan?
A friend of mine has created a bar in the back of his house, called Shirley’s, so I’ll probably do some sort of socially distanced drinks. And then something with Simon and the kids. Then I’ll probably call it a day. By the way, Oct. 11 happens to be National Coming Out of the Closet Day. [Laughs.] I just assume some things for me were predestined.
How is lockdown life? Have your work plans been entirely derailed?
I was supposed to be in rehearsals for a play on Broadway right now. I know I have jobs lined up. I just don’t know when or if any of them are going to actually happen. I’m like Sisyphus, just rolling all these balls up the hill and just hoping one of them reached the top at some point. I think we all have a very Sisyphean existence right now.
CHE’ STUDIOS shirt, TODD SNYDER pants and COMMON PROJECTS shoes.
What have you been doing with all the extra hours at home?
I’ve been meditating. Extensively. Cooking, gardening. I’ve also been taking piano lessons, which is very humbling. [Laughs.] In short, I’m shit. But I think everybody is shit at piano comparatively to somebody. I’ve been learning everything from Scott Joplin to really beginner’s Debussy. And now I’m learning carols, because I think when you are at my skill level, if you’re going to have that Christmas concert, you had better start practicing in October.
That’s forward thinking! So let’s talk about The Boys in the Band. It’s obviously a seminal piece of gay literature, but it also feels searingly contemporary.
I was shocked by how many millennials really responded to the play when we were on Broadway. Young people said [backstage to me afterward]: “Oh I’ve been to parties like that where people read each other.” Or: “I know someone like Harold.” Or: “I know someone like Michael.” I think one of things that makes this piece really relevant today is that it’s about the cost of oppression and what that does to groups of people. It’s a snapshot of this particular group of men with that boiling, combustible energy that happens right before a revolution. I feel like we’re at that Stonewall moment now [in America]. We’re seeing the explosion on the streets, and rightfully and needfully so, so we can see equality in our country.
Michael’s struggle to reconcile religion and his sexuality fans the flames of his shame and self-hatred. Have you suffered from those emotions in the past?
Anyone who has had a religious upbringing has experienced guilt on some level. I can only speak to my own personal levels of guilt, and certainly I have had them over the years. But I’ve tried to absolve myself as best as possible in my adult life. … What was interesting to me about my character, Donald’s, relationship to Michael [whose increasing hostility crosses the line] is that I had a relationship with someone early on in my life. We were roommates, and it was a kind of “will they, won’t they?” He was a firecracker, so I was just happy to be there and fan the flames. I admired how bold he was, but also he liked to flirt with danger in ways that made me quite concerned. And I think Jim [Parsons] was also in a similar relationship.
Some of the derogatory language used in the film is quite tough to hear.
I don’t think we would have had the comfort level that we had on film had we not done the stage run. I now only want to do films where we do an entire stage run of the piece before we start shooting. Is that too much to ask?
You came of age in the ’90s, but being gay in rural Texas was probably very different from, say, ’90s New York.
I grew up in a sort of Friday Night Lights type of town. Football was really the only viable social option on a Friday night. The world I was in was fairly church-centric. So I wouldn’t say anything really screamed liberation for me. I found my liberation in theater. In many ways, the theater department at my public high school was very progressive for Texas. I was doing monologues from [Tony Kushner’s] Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. So, much of my sense of liberation came from reading the works of activist Larry Kramer, Tony Kushner and Terrence McNally.
The cast of The Boys in the Band includes TUC WATKINS, MICHAEL BENJAMIN WASHINGTON, ROBIN DE JESÚS, BRIAN HUTCHISON, ANDREW RANNELLS, JIM PARSONS, ZACHARY QUINTO, CHARLIE CARVER and MATT BOMER. Photo by Scott Everett White/Netflix.
Do you feel that growing up with your parents gave you some understanding of the ultraconservative mentality?
I guess I understand it by proxy. Growing up around it humanizes it in a way. And so it’s easier to understand where that point of view could come from. But it doesn’t mean it’s one that I agree with. I’ve had to — and I would say it’s become more and more difficult — to be able to hold my ground and separate [my political views] from my relationships with people so that I can still love them, which is very hard in 2020. That’s the real work.
Does religion have to be the enemy of personal choice?
Not at all. Honestly, many of my best friends still to this day are Christians. To me they exemplify what I always imagined Jesus to be: I mean, he was hanging out with sex workers at the time, wasn’t he? It’s not like he was someone to cast aspersions. Interestingly, some of the people who were the coolest, the most accepting and embracing of me, when I came out were my high school football teammates. They really couldn’t care less.
“I feel fortunate to have worked on pieces that have allowed me to pay tribute to previous generations. We stand on the shoulders of so many of these men and women”
Where are you currently on the optimism/pessimism scale with the possibility of an ultraconservative like Amy Coney Barrett replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the United States Supreme Court and the potential threats to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights?
I go from blind optimism to existential crisis over the course of a meal. [Laughs.] It’s really upsetting to me that ultraconservatives, some of whom I love, were so hasty to move to find somebody new. But I choose to remain optimistic about the November [presidential] election, even though some days are harder than others.
Does anger ever get the better of you? In A Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s characters’ blind rage and pugilism at the government’s refusal to acknowledge HIV/AIDS is seen as counterproductive, but it also powered the fight.
Injustice makes me furious. I would say it’s a key trigger for me. I would like to say I would have been on the front line alongside Larry, and I would be doing the die-ins and been willing to face the tear gas to have our needs met and addressed and have ourselves acknowledged, but I was a little young at that time. And I can’t say for certain. … I was so starstruck when I met Larry, because I feel like I owe my life to him. I wouldn’t have known anything about the AIDS epidemic and what was going on if it weren’t for reading his plays. We owe our lives to ACT UP [the grassroots organization AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power] and the people pushing things forward during the AIDS epidemic. They are a huge reason why we have the rights we have today. I feel fortunate to have worked on pieces that have allowed me to pay tribute to previous generations. It’s very easy to say “I’m proud” today, but we stand on the shoulders of so many of these men and women.
GIORGIO ARMANI jacket, CALVIN KLEIN tank, TODD SNYDER pants and COMMON PROJECTS shoes.
From the sublime to the superficial and ridiculous, you look like a dead ringer for a conventional superhero.
That’s very nice of you to say. Well, I am technically available, should any studios be reading this. [Laughs.] No, but there was a time when I was auditioning for those kinds of roles, and even though it didn’t work out, even though I’d be much wealthier than I am now, it ended up working out for the best, because I feel like I’ve been able to have a wide [range] of roles.
And now you play a gay superhero, Larry Trainor in Doom Patrol, alongside Matthew Zuk as his alter ego, Negative Man.
I must say, I’d just finished up working on The Boys in the Band, so a superhero job was not the first thing on my mind. But when he described the character as one part Montgomery Clift, one part the Elephant Man, I thought the duality of that makes an interesting role.
Could Larry Trainor/Negative Man, a gay superhero, be in a major, big studio picture?
I don’t know, it’s so hard to say. But I feel like studios will always listen to the people, ultimately. Because they are the ones playing for the tickets. So if people support and demand marginalized characters, I feel like the studios will rise to the occasion. And I do feel like we’re on the precipice of that, don’t you? I feel we are getting there.
How much do you think Ryan Murphy and his Netflix deal has moved things forward?
I don’t think it would be going too far to say that Ryan Murphy has changed the cultural landscape in our country. Because of the representation of the LGBTQ+ spectrum that he’s put on screens in people’s living rooms, conversations have been had and progress has been made. It cannot be overstated how much we owe to Ryan. A case in point is a show like Pose, but also pieces like The Boys in the Band and A Normal Heart. He has ensured pieces that are important to LGBTQ+ history are preserved and reimagined.
JIM PARSONS as Michael and MATT BOMER as Donald in The Boys in the Band. Photo by Scott Everett White/Netflix.
In The Sinner you play an existentially tortured teacher obsessed with death and rebelling against conventional morality. How do you leave roles like that behind after filming wraps?
I wish I’d had time to decompress … but we finished filming a few days before Christmas, so I had to get home and get the holidays up and running. I did do something ritualistic with a prop belonging to the character, saying that I was thankful and also letting [him ] go, so I could move on with my life and, you know, make pancakes for the boys when they first come down in the morning.
How has homeschooling your boys been? Are you a good teacher?
I mean at a certain point, no, I’m terrible. I can help with anything more on the creative side of things. But once they get to algebra 2, I’m useless.
MATT BOMER wears SANDRO shirt, CALVIN KLEIN tank, SUIT SUPPLY pants and COMMON PROJECTS shoes.
Are you the good cop or the bad cop at home?
Well, I’m a Libra, a people-pleaser, so I’m a good cop. I do also have to travel quite extensively for my job, so the last thing you want to do is come home and always have to be the bad guy all the time. So my husband has very generously taken on that mantle. And once I’m settled in again, he’s like: “OK, tag out.” The silver lining [of lockdown] for me has been the chance to have this much uninterrupted time with my family. Especially with the boys — not that they are withholding, they just have little moments where they decide to share everything that’s going on with them with you. And it’s so nice to have been there [to catch] those.
How have the boys coped with quarantine?
Well, thankfully, our twins have each other. They’ve done incredibly well, as has Kit. I can’t imagine being 15 and stuck at home at 24/7. I would have been bouncing off the walls. But we try and let him have freedoms when we can. … The other day, he said, could he dye his hair? How could I say no? He wanted magenta, and I was not going to deny him that. … We are going to rent an RV around the holiday and go on a drive to a snowy destination so that we can all have a white Christmas. So I’m very excited about that.
Styling by WARREN ALFIE BAKER
Grooming by JOANNA PENSINGER
Feature image: MATT BOMER wears MADCAP ENGLAND shirt. The actor appears in the film The Boys in the Band, now available to watch on Netflix.
Oct. 6, 2020
Discover more CULTURE news.