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.”