Nearly 30 years ago, Larry Kramer's fierce and passionate play ''The Normal Heart'' put the AIDS crisis at center stage; now it's finally headed to the screen, armed with an A-list cast and one very dedicated director

May 09, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

Partners Ned (Mark Ruffalo) and Felix (Matt Bomer), who have been together for three years, are facing the final moments of their romance. Take after take, White Collar star Bomer, nearly unrecognizable after losing 40 pounds to portray the AIDS-stricken Felix, lies on the couch and coughs violently until Ned rushes to his side. It’s a cold November evening on the Long Island soundstage of HBO’s The Normal Heart, an adaptation of Larry Kramer’s seminal semiautobiographical play about the rise of AIDS in New York in the early 1980s. Today happens to be Ruffalo’s birthday, and while there was cake and singing moments earlier, this emotional scene now marks a jarring shift in tone on set.

And yet Heart‘s production is a celebration of sorts. It’s taken 30 years for Kramer’s incendiary tale, which had a 2011 Tony-winning revival on Broadway, to make it to the screen. The play, which premiered in 1985, is one of the first literary works to tackle the AIDS crisis and boldly criticize the lack of government support to fight the disease. Despite involvement from names like Barbra Streisand, who owned the rights for 10 years, Heart appeared to be destined for only theater until Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy acquired the rights in 2009 with his own money. “I really believed in it,” explains Murphy, who first read the play in college and directed the film version. “Larry set a very high price. I gulped and said, ‘Okay’ and bought it. I think he wanted to see, ‘Is this kid serious?’ And I was.” Kramer, who’s HIV-positive and currently recovering from unrelated medical complications, was unable to speak to EW but emailed that Heart made it to the screen “because of Ryan Murphy caring passionately about getting it made, abetted by [exec producer] Dante Di Loreto.”

Murphy and Kramer’s passion project will finally reach a mass audience when The Normal Heart makes its debut on May 25. It tells the heartbreaking story of writer Ned Weeks, the onscreen version of Kramer, who finds his boyfriend Felix and his community hit by a then-unknown disease that’s later known as AIDS. Assisted by Emma (Julia Roberts), a doctor disabled by polio, and a makeshift group of activists including Taylor Kitsch’s Bruce and Jim Parsons’ Tommy, Ned launches an anger-fueled crusade to alert the world to the growing epidemic. “It’s such a rich, important, cool part of American culture,” says Ruffalo. “It’s as cool as the hippies; it’s as cool as the civil rights movement. It has its heroes. It has its f—ing drama.”

It’s also the most mature and emotionally resonant project from Murphy, best known for his more audacious TV series, like American Horror Story. It’s representative of a more mature personal chapter for him as well: He and husband David Miller welcomed son Logan a few months before shooting on Heart began. “My stuff before has been controversial because it is baroque,” Murphy admits. “My stuff is heightened. This was never heightened. I think it’s the first real straightforward drama I’ve done.”

EW spoke with the cast and crew about the challenges of bringing Heart to the screen, the transformative production, and their hopes for the film’s legacy

In 2009, Ryan Murphy, in the midst of producing and writing the first season of Glee, began working on the screenplay with Larry Kramer and talking to actors — including Julia Roberts, whom he had directed in 2010’s Eat Pray Love, and Mark Ruffalo.
Ryan Murphy I had been pitched a lot of people [for Ned] — Mark was the only person I met with.

Mark Ruffalo I got a call from my agent at the time saying, “Listen, Ryan Murphy just got the rights to The Normal Heart and he wants to talk to you about it.” I had a dual reaction of fear and excitement. I’d heard a lot of stories about him, and I was a little afraid of him, honestly. [But] it couldn’t have been more pleasant and supportive and collaborative.

Murphy Mark is an activist in his real life. We spoke about it in our first meeting: In every movement there’s that one person who people look at as the pain in the ass, the fighter who won’t shut up. But history always proves that that person was the reason the cause was won. So the fact that Mark, in our first meeting, got that about Larry, I thought was very compassionate.

Julia Roberts I had been aware of it as a screenplay, and approached about it in that form, and then was approached when they recently remounted it [on Broadway]. So when it came a third time to my doorstep, I thought, “What is it with this part?” because I don’t even think I particularly understood her.

Murphy I’m really friendly with Julia. I know that she’s in a certain phase in her life where she turns everything down. The thing that she wants to do is to challenge herself, and I thought, “If you really want to challenge yourself, play a woman with polio who’s in a wheelchair who’s probably a virgin.”

Roberts I read it and I thought, “Well, let me dismantle it a little bit,” and that’s when I did something so unbelievably smart and helpful: I found a documentary on polio. To me, suddenly the alignment between this devastating, terrifying, utterly mysterious plague made perfect sense to the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and why she’s so relentless and furious. I became so hugely empathetic to her as a person. So then I had to call Ryan and say, “Okay, lady, I got it. I figured it out. Cracked the case.”

Murphy When she can get into a character that feels wronged or that the world is somehow treating wrong, she has such a fire and passion. Her heart connects with her mind.

Murphy and Kramer continued to work on the script with input from the actors. But occasionally there were dustups between the director and the notoriously strident playwright.
Ruffalo It was great because they pushed each other where they needed to be pushed. Larry pushed Ryan deep into his emotional life and his humanity. And Ryan pushed Larry deeper into the culture, piercing the gay culture and moving into his humanity. Man, it was wild. The feeling was that it could go bad, it could go off the track.

Murphy Nobody who’s ever worked with Larry has said, “Oh, yeah, it’s a cakewalk.” It’s never a cakewalk because Larry fights, and he doesn’t take no for an answer. From that came a lot of wonderful things. But I have great affection for him. I can say without question that any of the failings in the relationship early on were mine just because I didn’t know what to do.

Dede Gardner, executive producer This is the vehicle through which most of the world will understand who Larry is, so I’m not surprised it was hard to hand over. But he did trust Ryan implicitly.

Murphy I think there are two periods in American medicine — before Larry Kramer and after. If nothing else, I want Larry to know that he is remembered and his work mattered.

In 2012, while Murphy was meeting with HBO programming president Michael Lombardo and HBO Films president Len Amato about a different project, he mentioned his script for The Normal Heart. The execs were intrigued.
Michael Lombardo I said, “So what else are you doing?” And he said, “Well, I’ve been busy writing Normal Heart.” And I was like, “What? That’s the project I want to do with you.”

Murphy I spoke to some [movie] studios about it. But it was that thing where the $10-20 million movie that was a staple of the movie business 10 years ago is gone. So if you were gonna do The Normal Heart at a studio, it was sort of like, “Here’s $5 million,” and I couldn’t do it with that. [Heart reportedly cost $15-18 million.]

Lombardo We have tried to tell the stories that aren’t being told, whether the networks or movie studios can’t or won’t tell them, and I think many of those have been in the area of LGBT, of the disenfranchised.

Roberts This is heartbreaking, challenging material, and I don’t know if I would want to go out and pay $20 and sit in a theater with a bunch of strangers and start opening that time box. To be able to sit in the comfort of your home, I think people will have a more honest experience with it.

Ruffalo Ryan was nervous to ask me about HBO because we’d talked about it as a [feature] film. I was like, “Yes! F—ing great, Ryan.”

With HBO on board and the rest of the cast fleshed out, including Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch as the closeted Bruce Niles, and Jim Parsons as Southern charmer Tommy Boatwright, filming began in the summer of 2013 in and around New York. Kramer was able to visit the set multiple times. Meanwhile, production shut down from July until November so Bomer could lose the weight necessary to show Felix’s deterioration.
Matt Bomer The most profound moment of having Larry on set was a day we got to shoot the celebratory scene where Mark and Taylor’s characters’ organization has finally gained some traction. It also happened to be the day that DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] was overturned, and I get chills just saying that. Larry was there that day, who in so many ways is responsible.

Murphy The thing I remember most about that day was people asked me to address the crowd and I was like, “Well, f—, who am I? What am I going to say?” And without missing a beat, Larry Kramer grabbed the microphone and all he said was “We did it.” I think I cried every day on the making of that movie.

Taylor Kitsch Every day you’re breaking down, basically. It was a true test and it was exhausting, to be blunt, just f—ing exhausting, really. But that’s what you want as an actor, to be tested and pushed and uncomfortable in the right way.

Bomer Basically I did a fast, and then I had spoken with Matthew McConaughey [who costarred with Bomer in Magic Mike]. He had just finished Dallas Buyers Club and I called him. It was so worth it because of the physical reality it created for me.

Roberts It was like the smaller he got, the quieter all of his energy became. That was heartbreaking, to see someone allowing this dimness to take over. I hideously ate full lunches right in front of him, and I would say, “Does this bother you?” “No.” And he’d pull out his little lunch of a lettuce leaf and four almonds and be sweet as can be while I was having my BLT with a side of BLT.

While the Heart team will likely find themselves earning Emmy nominations come July, all involved say they have one goal: to keep the conversation — and activism — surrounding the AIDS crisis and equality issues going.
Roberts I don’t know what happened to the world where everybody became all right with being so mean. The nice thing about a piece like this is it reminds you how casualness turns into an epidemic so quickly that you kind of say, “That’s not my problem.” And the next thing you know, you are turning a blind eye to it and actively participating in a cruelty.

Jim Parsons It’s about gay life, but in its own way it’s overtaken me as a tale of humanity. It transcends being about one group of people, and I think that’s the whole point.

Murphy For the first time in my life, I can honestly tell you I don’t care what I do next. I’ve always been an ambitious, restless person. I feel like, “Okay, let’s let the next chunk of your life be about this movie.” Normal Hearts don’t fall off trees. I spent a lot of time and energy and money trying to do it. I feel like I’m good for now.

What’s Next for Ryan Murphy, Inc.
Glee, Fox
The series will begin its final season this year, sticking with the core McKinley graduates as they venture into the big bad world. “You feel like you’re following your friends as they become young adults,” says Murphy. “It’s a very different feeling, but I think it’s very optimistic.”

Open, HBO
The network hasn’t yet officially greenlit this pilot about several couples (including Michelle Monaghan and Scott Speedman) in open relationships in modern-day Los Angeles. “It’s about the freedom to express yourself and live your life as you see fit.”

Funny Girl
Murphy owns the rights to the iconic Broadway musical. Would his Glee star Lea Michele play Fanny Brice in a revival? “It’s something that we’re talking about,” admits Murphy. “Sure, if it could come together at a time that she’d be willing to make that commitment to go back to Broadway, which I don’t know that she is right now.”

American Horror Story: Freak Show, FX
The anthology thrill ride will be set at a 1950s Florida freak show run by Jessica Lange and featuring Kathy Bates. “I thought it was going to be light, but it’s turning out to be quite terrifyingly dark. But look, if you have a character named the Clown Killer, it’s going to be dark.”

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