“The Normal Heart” is a stunning play-turned-stunning TV movie that’s about the early days of the AIDS crisis — and yet it’s so much more.
“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,” said Jim Parsons (“Big Bang Theory”), who reprises his role as activist Tommy Boatwright, which he played in the 2011 Broadway revival of the play.
Directed and produced by Ryan Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”), “The Normal Heart” is Larry Kramer’s adaptation of his autobiographical, Tony-winning play. Murphy said the movie is both “similar to the play and very different.”
“I would say that there’s probably 40 to 45 percent new material in the movie, and that’s something that [Kramer] worked really hard on, sort of making a really epic story.”
The HBO film opens in typical Murphy fashion — gay men partying on Fire Island in 1981. But as the film progresses, that’s a clear contrast to what’s about to happen. This is almost a moment-in-time story, albeit a moment that lasts from 1981-84. It’s not about the search for a cure, it’s about the days when no one knew what AIDS was and how it was transmitted.
Mark Ruffalo stars as Ned Weeks, a gay man at the center of the narrative. He becomes increasingly confrontational as it becomes clear something terrible is happening and it’s being ignored.
Ruffalo, also the co-executive producer, spent “quite a bit of time” with Kramer, upon whom his character is based. Ruffalo said he “came to really love him, and I’ve spent hours and hours and hours with him begging him to tell me stories about what they went through and about this time.”
Julia Roberts plays Emma Brookner, a polio survivor who is among the first doctors to treat those with AIDS. Taylor Kitsch plays Bruce Niles, a closeted gay man who becomes the head of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Jonathan Groff plays Craig, Alfred Molina plays Ned’s older brother.
And Matt Bomer (“White Collar”) plays Felix Turner, a New York Times reporter who becomes Ned’s lover and one of the victims of what was then called the gay plague.
“This play was actually the first real understanding of the illness that I had,” Bomer said. “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.”
During a break in production of “The Normal Heart,” the gay actor lost 40 pounds to portray Felix when he was sick.
“Obviously, it’s a huge piece of the character,” he said. “I remember talking to Larry [and] 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, and I’m just thankful that we were able to have the luxury of closing up shop for a while and doing it right.”
“He came back half the person he was and twice the man he was,” Roberts said. “It was really amazing to be a witness to what Matt did. It was astounding.”
Kramer’s narrative spares no one. “The Normal Heart” is set in New York City, and the administration of Mayor Ed Koch takes some heavy hits. So do President Ronald Reagan and his administration — the movie’s postscript slams Reagan hard just by reciting the facts.
But the gay movement is also skewered. Gay activists scoff at the idea they should curb their sex lives (albeit before there was proof HIV was sexually transmitted), and the gay establishment prefers to work quietly (and ineffectively), ostracizing Ned for his outspoken ways.
It’s a history that is already being forgotten in the gay and straight communities.
“My interest in it is sort of raising awareness, but I just think it’s just such a great story,” Murphy said. “It’s almost Shakespearean in its highs and lows.”
It’s also very personal to Murphy, who was in his late teens from 1981-84.
“I really came of age in this period, and I lost a lot of friends to AIDS,” he said. “And I can remember one of my best friends at the time died in the mid-’90s. He was fired. His parents ostracized him, and he was so stigmatized by it that even on his deathbed he would not admit that that’s what he was dying of. So it was a very painful thing for me growing up.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Kitsch, a straight man who was born in 1981 — the year the film begins. He didn’t really know much about the period until he read the play.
“It’s a love story,” he said, “and it’s how people deal with fear of the unknown. And that’s really what I focused on more than anything.”
And that’s the power of the HBO film. Whether it’s a dying, semi-lucid man covered in lesions worrying about the fate of his dog or a man losing the love of his life to a disease that no one at the time understands, “The Normal Heart” will tear at your heart.
“It’s dealing with a moment that’s so desperate and mysterious, and we as a humanity failed each other in that time,” Roberts said. “And that’s always a great reminder to do better and to stay together.”
“The Normal Heart” premieres Sunday at 7 and 9:15 p.m. on HBO.
It’s not rated, but would be an R for nudity, strong sexual content and adult language.