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Matt Bomer talks his 40-pound weight loss for 'The Normal Heart'

Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo star in "The Normal Heart."
Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo star in "The Normal Heart."
HBO/Jojo Whilden, with permission

The groundbreaking, Tony Award-winning play "The Normal Heart," which tells the story of the onset of the HIV-AIDS crisis in New York City in the early 1980s, comes to HBO Sunday night with an unflinching look at the nation's sexual politics as gay activists and their allies in the medical community fight to expose the truth about the burgeoning epidemic to a city and nation in denial.

The critically acclaimed film stars Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina and Julia Roberts. spoke to Bomer, who discusses the weight loss and haircut he had to make to play Felix Turner's battle with the disease; the conversations he had with Larry Kramer, who wrote the Broadway play and is loosely portrayed in the film by Ruffalo; and more.

Did they track you down for this role, or did you push for it?

I think it was probably both. Probably more so on my side. I just felt that it was a story I had been familiar with for so long that I couldn't pass up the opportunity to at least try to be a part of it.

You were very young during the '80s, and you were a long ways away from the center of this story in New York. Were you aware of the story in the '80s? Did you see it on TV? And now as you see it from your perspective, now when you play this character, what does it feel like?

This play was actually the first exposure I really had, a real understanding of the illness. I read it in the closet of my drama room when I was 14 years old, and the irony of that is not lost on me.

So, you know, I grew up in the Bible Belt, and there was no talk about [HIV]. 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, and I did lose friends. I started working at the theater in Art Town in the mid-'90s, which was in some ways an especially difficult time in the epidemic, and that was my first direct contact in losing friends and things like that. So I guess this story, for me, was always the genesis of my understanding of what the disease was.

How many conversations did you have with Larry about playing Felix?

First of all, I love Larry. We spent a good deal of time together talking about the world. He has done revivals of this play for so long, I didn't want to keep rehashing tough territory for him. So much of this story really is in the text. The most important thing that he told me was it is more about who this individual was before he got sick and after. And the good and the bad with both of those sides of the coin.

How do you lose 40 pounds when a whole production is waiting for you?

I think the pressure helps. [Director] Ryan [Murphy] was unbelievably supportive of the process and we tried to do it in the healthiest way possible. I had a great team of health-care practitioners and a great network supporting me to do it in the healthiest way possible.

How long did it take?

I think I started at the end of August and we came back to work the second week in November.

How long did it take to get back to your fighting weight?

Carbohydrates and I made friends again. I can only speak for my half of the relationship, but it went really well. It took about a month and a half.

Did it change the way you feel about that kind of stuff?

For me, it was never really about achieving [a certain] weight. I just stopped weighing myself when we got to around 40 pounds. It was more about attaining a certain level of physical degeneration that was going to help tell the story. Also, it was helpful in terms of the physical reality the character was going through, where he was mentally and physically.

Your day job -- "White Collar" -- even when it's dark, the character is light, what was it like to go into this, which is just the opposite?

I am fortunate enough to have hashed it out in theater for years, and to have gone to Carnegie Mellon and gotten to play a lot of fun, amazing, rich, classic roles. People don't know that because they see what is put out there for them. More important to me than thinking of it as an especially dramatic or humorous part was being able to be a part of the story, telling it as truthfully as possible, and making sure those relationships were carved out in the right way.

Felix does have his Tom Ford aspect and his charm. He could maneuver socially as well, so I guess, it was fun -- I won't say fun -- it was nice to get to do both.

Did "White Collar" and "The Normal Heart" ever overlap?

Yes, the first half, I was doing the movie and the series at the same time.

So this new short haircut? Was that also for the role?

This was not elective. Felix has to undergo several rounds of chemotherapy, so I had bald patches. I had the option of growing it out and walking around with bald patches when we wrapped or shaving it all one length, so I chose Option B and let my kids shave it off.

The audience experiences a lot of the physical effects of the virus through Felix, and on stage you don't really get the opportunity as an actor to lose weight between Acts 1 and 2 necessarily. Did you have the opportunity here to physically do that or were you interested in showing the ravaging of the virus on him?

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, but, 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," and so that was an important part of the story for us to get to tell. I'm just thankful that we were able to have the luxury of closing up shop for a while and doing it right.

"The Normal Heart" premieres Sunday, May 25 at 9 pm. ET/PT on HBO.

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