It’s still under wraps, but Matt Bomer is telling me about a top-secret reading of a play he’s doing that he’s hoping could mark his Broadway debut next year. He got his start in the theatre, but the White Collar and Magic Mike star, who won a Golden Globe for his performance in HBO’s The Normal Heart, has only previously performed on the Great White Way for a one-night only staging of 8, Dustin Lance Black’s play based on the transcript of the Proposition 8 gay marriage trials.
“I’ve been cast [in shows] a couple of times, but I’ve always gotten another job in the rehearsal process and had to leave the production,” he says. “And of course the show goes on to win the Tony, and I did, like, Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
That devastating smile, constantly in battle with Bomer’s legendary blue eyes for Most Dazzling Facial Feature (the chiseled jawline is a strong contender, too), flashes as he laughs. “It’s funny. That’s very central to the themes of this show, actually: art versus commerce.”
The show in question is The Last Tycoon, Amazon Studios’ latest original drama series—available for binging this Friday—based on the unfinished final novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The series is set in Hollywood at the crossroads of the decline of the Jazz Age and the rise of the Great Depression and Adolf Hitler, at a time when the industry tycoons are white-knuckling their gin fizzes, secretaries’ skirts, and last vestiges of the era’s glamour, wealth, and power.
The show’s beating, albeit breaking, heart is Bomer’s Monroe Stahr, a Hollywood mogul reeling from the death of his Irish wife. Like the Don Draper of the 1930s, Monroe is grappling with the sunset of his studio’s glory days, the dimming of the American dream—and what he gave up to get it—and the fruitless battle to produce films that matter against the will of studio heads (like the one played by Kelsey Grammer) who’d rather he find an adorable dog sidekick for its knock-off Shirley Temple, Sally Sweet.
Monroe’s is a detached disillusionment that, much in the Don Draper vein, is set off by a complicated, hidden past, and medicated by the ease with which he can seduce both coworkers and other women on a whim. There’s a reason Bomer, whose looks are so perfectly sculpted he literally played a stripping Ken Doll in Magic Mike, was cast in the role, after all.
Is there a trick to playing the whole suave thing?
“I don’t know that I’ve found it if there is,” Bomer says, his slight McConaughey-esque Texas-by-way-of-Missouri accent blushing through. “We’re dealing with F. Scott’s stylized language on top of it, and a double-breasted suit that’s so tight I can barely breathe as well. So it was a challenge, for sure.”
Bomer is breathing easier, though hardly less swoon-inducingly, in a stylish white V-neck T-shirt and black blazer, demurring as we talk through the roles in which he’s skillfully balanced his almost extra-terrestrial good looks and award-winning acting skills: the Magic Mike films, his six seasons as the lead on the USA drama White Collar, a scene-stealing supporting role in last year’s most underrated comedy, The Nice Guys, and, of course, having a blood-soaked orgy with Lady Gaga on the Hotel season of American Horror Story.
“Yep. That happened,” Bomer laughs, only looking slightly sheepish as he explains how signing on for a season of American Horror Story that was supposed to be a Civil War piece starring Jessica Lange evolved into being on set in a hotel in L.A. “and the next thing you know you’re having a blood orgy with Lady Gaga.”
Bomer’s rise through Hollywood that started with a role on Guiding Light in 2002 has only escalated in the last five or six years, which, almost improbably when you hear the ways sexuality and the glass closet are talked about in Hollywood, is almost exactly timed to when he publicly came out as gay for the first time during an acceptance speech for the Steve Chase Humanitarian Award in 2012 in which he thanked his husband, publicist Simon Halls, and their three children.
More, there's a depth and diversity to his work that industry convention might deem surprising, given the incessant debate about visibility, acceptance, and normalization when it comes to the LGBT community in Hollywood.
(The truth is, there is still no A-list Hollywood romantic lead of the George Clooney level of fame who is openly gay, and Bomer, at the time of The Last Tycoon’s release, will be the only out gay actor playing a straight lead in a television drama series.)
When Bomer spoke to The Daily Beast ahead of The Normal Heart’s premiere, we spoke a lot about his upbringing and what it meant to him to get to star in the HBO film, which was based on Larry Kramer’s galvanizing 1985 play about the gay community’s struggle to have the AIDS epidemic taken seriously as men—including Bomer’s character, Felix—die from the disease.
Bomer first read The Normal Heart when he was in high school and living in Texas, the son of a Dallas Cowboys draft pick who, at the time, was having his first sexual relationships with women.
“I think [Kramer] saved me on a more profound than practical level,” he said. “Even at 14 when I still didn’t know who I was when I read this piece—I was still figuring out who my most authentic self was—to have this voice that was such a firebrand and so honest and so authentic, to know that that reality was out there, even though it was nowhere near my immediate experience in suburban Texas, to know that somewhere it was out there gave me a sense of hope. And I think I knew on some level that a part of me that hadn’t been acknowledged yet was going to be OK.”
The experience working on the film was understandably profound and culturally vital in the moment. Alongside Mark Ruffalo, Bomer acted out a gay relationship with a rich, sexual love story, whereas so many TV’s gay characters barely have love lives. “To get to play a gay role that’s also a fully fleshed-out human being with hopes and dreams and fears and light and darkness was such a rare gift,” Bomer said at the time.
But it’s also the rare acting experience to bring back into context his own life and journey, and rethink what he wants to get out of his career and the industry.
“In terms of experiences like The Normal Heart, I certainly haven’t had one like that since then,” he says, when we talk this week in a midtown New York hotel room. “That was pretty profound, and it may be the only time I have it in my career.”
“I will say that in the past couple of months I’ve really realized that it’s OK to not say yes to everything,” he continues. “It’s OK to take your time as an artist and pull in the purse strings and wait for something that really hits you with a thump in the heart. I spent a lot of time after that trying to do favors to friends and trying to do what I thought I should or what people told me I should. I think the artist’s path, especially in this day and age, it’s so easy to stray from your intuition.”
He laughs again. “So hopefully now I’ll have the luxury of doing that. Then again, you may see me on Law & Order: SVU next year, I don’t know.”
One rather personal project that has been kicking around for several years is a biopic of old Hollywood icon—and Matt Bomer doppelganger—Montgomery Clift, with writing partners Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias (Little Men, Love Is Strange) having done a pass on the script.
“It’s interesting that you should bring that up, It was kind of stillborn for a while,” Bomer says about the film, which would chronicle Clift’s Hollywood rise with films like A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity, his descent into drug and alcohol abuse following a tragic car accident, and struggle with his sexuality in an age when he had to repress it.
“We were so lucky to have Ira put his stamp on it and then it quieted down for a while,” he says, “but then something interesting just kicked up this past week.”
In the more immediate horizon is Bomer’s first directing opportunity, with an episode of the upcoming The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story series for Ryan Murphy. Then, in October, he turns 40, something he barely blinks about when asked if he’s having any anxiety over the milestone.
“I feel like, god, my friends in their 40s and 50s are so young and vibrant to me,” he says. “Maybe it’s part of aging. Everybody seems younger once you’re older amongst them.”
He takes a beat and adds, “I feel like so much of your 30s are about being out there and powering through and trying to prove yourself and do it all, and hopefully in your 40s you can just, not kick back too much, but relax amongst it all, because you’ve seen some shit go down.”
Before we part ways, we talk more specifically about the fact that, at least in our rough research, he will be the only out gay actor playing an explicitly straight male lead in a drama series when The Last Tycoon premieres. (Bomer’s friends Jim Parsons and Neil Patrick Harris, for example, both star in comedy series; if Bomer’s not the only one, he’s certainly among the few.)
His eyes bulge when we tell him that, and he takes a beat to think about he wants to respond.
“Look, my job is just to go to work and do the best I can try to commit to whatever the director, creator’s vision is,” he says. “Of course I feel a responsibility. Of course I’m trying to look after the people who are going to come next and make sure I don’t mess things up for them. But at the end of the day I have to take it one scene at a time. I certainly hope I’m not the only one a month from now, or a year from now. I hope it’s not even a topic of conversation then. That’d be nice, wouldn’t it?”
“I have no intentions of ever being ghettoized as an actor,” he continues. “I don’t think anybody wants to be. I’m glad we live in a day where there are people like [The Last Tycoon creator] Billy Ray gives me a role like this.”
A day in which a gay actor can, say, have an orgy with Lady Gaga one day and be on the set of a 1930s F. Scott Fitzgerald series the next?
“Yes,” he laughs. “Whatever that equals out to.”