It’s only recently that I’ve even had the opportunity to audition for gay roles to be honest with you.
Anthem first met Matt Bomer in 2016 at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc, the legendary retreat in Antibes on the French Riviera. First opened in 1870 under the name Villa Soleil by the founder of France’s Le Figaro newspaper, Hippolyte de Villemessant, as a refuge for writers seeking inspiration, it was restored and reimagined as a hotel in 1887 when Italian hotelier, Antoine Sella, purchased the property. It was also the choicest destination on the Côte d’Azur for artists, soon to be joined by the aristocracy and later by movie stars. Needless to say, its reputation for being the purveyor of utmost exclusivity preceded our visit, which involved a series of disconnected calls with a gatekeeping publicist, a dismayed Uber driver made to circle the compound for an hour, and golf cart-wheeling security personnel finally materializing from beyond its gates. And it was all worth it, once we feasted our eyes on all that was waiting on the other side.
Bomer, who has built a career on a firm bedrock of playing good guys, was at the Cannes Film Festival that year in support of Shane Black’s 1970s-set crime comedy caper—ironically titled The Nice Guys—which marked one of his first two antagonistic roles, playing a psycho killer named John Boy. By then, the actor had established himself as a TV mainstay, in his portrayal of crook-turned-crime-fighter Neal Caffrey on the long-running police procedural White Collar. He had also explored the world of male stripping in the Magic Mike films. Meanwhile, he was being sucked up in the unstoppable tornado that is Ryan Murphy’s universe, kickstarted by a guest spot on Glee and the HBO movie The Normal Heart, for which he received an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe for his soulful turn as a closeted writer for The New York Times succumbing to AIDS. That on-going Murphy collaboration is currently bookended by Bomer’s directorial debut on an episode of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story last year. Most recently, he suited up for the DC Universe series Doom Patrol to play Negative Man, a gay superhero.
The actor’s latest outing in John Butler’s Papi Chulo is, again, of a different register. The story opens as Los Angeles weather forecaster Sean (Bomer) suffers a televised meltdown. Understandably, the station’s higher-up urges him to take some leave—also worried that his outburst may have left viewers uncomfortable, and therefore, “hurting the brand.” After that incident and in the scenes that follow, a pattern emerges in Sean. He drinks during the day, in his well appointed home up in the hills where he lives alone. Until recently, he had shared the house with his partner Carlos. All that remains of his ex is a potted tree on the deck, and removing that last trace of him leaves a shabby paint job underneath—a perfect circle signifying the void that Sean is feeling. Endeavoring to retouch the paintwork and on a trip to a home improvement supplies store, he’s struck by the kindly countenance of a Mexican day laborer standing outside. On a whim, Sean pulls Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño) into his desperation, to pick up where Carlos left off in more ways than one. Ernesto’s stint as a painter lasts for but a day—Sean takes the mustachioed fiftysomething straight married man rowing and hiking. The language barrier for this sitcom duo means that communication between them is essentially one-sided to Sean’s benefit. The format prompts laughs, but ultimately, what comes through more defiantly is an understanding and commonality between the two men, towards a heartwarming and heartbreaking truthfulness.
Next up for Bomer is a Netflix movie, The Boys in the Band, based on Mart Crowley’s 1968 play about a group of gay male friends who convene in an Upper East Side apartment for a birthday party, which enjoyed a successful Broadway revival last year. Murphy—that same Murphy—announced recently that the entire cast of out gay actors from the aforementioned revival will reprise their roles, which includes Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, and Andrew Rannells.
Papi Chulo is now playing in select theaters.
Happy Pride Month, Matt.
Happy Pride Month to you!
What great timing to have Papi Chulo come along now, which I’m sure didn’t happen by chance. It was also great to hear that you’re so supportive of this project.
When you do indies like this, it’s always a labor of love. It’s a film and a character and a filmmaker that you believe in, and you want to support the story. In a day and age where people are encouraged to build up walls between each other, to have a story about two men at two very different places in their lives who come from totally different worlds connecting and becoming friends was something that interested me.
It’s timely for LGBTQ. It’s timely for race relations. It’s hopefully timely for a lot of people in this political landscape and age of social media, steeped in perpetual conflict and impersonality. What do you hope viewers will take away from this story?
Even if it’s just to acknowledge and say “hi” to someone who you might not normally say “hi” to, or to engage someone you might not normally engage with in that way. Also, the fact is that the only real cure for loneliness and isolation is authentic human interaction, preferably with someone who takes you out of your comfort zone.
What did you implicitly understand about Sean when he was presented to you?
With any character, if you can draw on something from your life, you do, and so I used that. I honestly just tried to start with the pathos that he was experiencing and the emotional space that he was in and let everything else try to be a cover-up for that. It’s all coming from that wound. All of his bizarre, manic behavior and nervous breakdowns—it’s all coming from a real emotional place.
As manic and irrational as he can be, Sean has an overriding, endearing quality to him in the way he’s so trusting of strangers, how starved he is to make that connection, and the simple fact that he can be so alarmingly open when he seizes the opportunity. Did he remind you of yourself at all?
Maybe an older version of myself in my 20s? [Laugh] I would love to compare and say that I was as open and trusting as Sean. But I think in some ways he has his guard down in ways I don’t, and in some ways, he has his guard up subconsciously in ways that I don’t think that I do. So we’re kind of a mixed bag.
There’s a raw moment in Papi Chulo where Sean talks about his past internalized homophobia, having pursued married straight men—pursuing the impossible as a sort of protective shield. In that self-awareness, Sean is pursuing Ernesto, who’s a married straight man. The contradiction makes him human, believable, and relatable. How did you read the psychology behind that?
A lot of it is implicit in his behavior and it’s sort of coming out in strange ways. It’s not even things that he’s necessarily consciously aware of at this time but because of trauma, specifically this break-up. It is something that we discussed, and it’s also really evident in the script so it was just part of my homework to have that understanding. I think it’s something that a lot of gay guys struggle with when they first come out. It’s about getting to a place of self-love where they can actually engage with people of their own gender conformity or sexual preference, so I’m glad that was put in there. It was a big hurdle that Sean had to get over in his life and it’s what made his relationship with Carlos so potent for him—that he fell in love with somebody who was a fellow gay man. He could love him the same way that he wasn’t able to do with straight men before.
The movie is very self-aware, like in the scene that references Driving Miss Daisy. At certain junctures, the movie checks the viewer’s potential prejudices and preconceptions as well. Maybe you think Carlos might be of a certain age and look a certain way, before the reveal of a picture of him on Sean’s phone. In those subverted expectations, we see ourselves. I’ve even noticed some critics say in their reviews that the pairing is unrealistic between Sean and Ernesto who are meant to be friends. Maybe that says more about the person thinking that.
I agree, actually!
How do you respond to something like that?
If you watch the film, which is about two men from different worlds connecting and forming a friendship in the divisive times we’re in, and if you take away from it that it’s unrealistic that these two people would become friends, there’s something inherently cynical about that point of view. I’d like to hope that we can become friends with immigrants. I have friends who are immigrants so I don’t agree with that point of view. I hope more people, especially the people who need to see this film, will become friends with immigrants because it’s in that kind of engagement that we’ll get out of this mindset that we have to be separated from everyone who’s “other” than ourselves.
I shared a conversation last month with Ryan Guzman, one of your co-stars in the film, and he said something that struck me: “I’m not here to be the hunky guy on TV or to be the guy that always takes his shirt off to get money or fame. I’m here just to grow.” What he said didn’t truly resonate with me until I saw him take his shirt off in this movie, but not in the gratuitous way you’d expect from a Grindr hook-up character. I bring this up because you’re both advocates for inclusivity and representation that is just. I wonder if a role like Sean was available to you at the start of your career.
No, not at all. It’s only recently that I’ve even had the opportunity to audition for gay roles to be honest with you, and it’s also not always easy. It can be a bit of a balancing act. You want to mix it up and, hopefully, help the people coming up behind you who want to try to do the same thing. But I’ve been fortunate enough to have really great mentors and really incredible people like Ryan Murphy who’ve come to support me over the years and given me the opportunity. That’s what it really boils down to: it’s opportunity at the end of the day.
How did fatherhood change you—in the actor sense?
[Laughs] Look—when you have kids, all of your paradigms shift because nothing new or never is first on the call sheet anymore. The kids come first. Their well-being and their education and the emotional support—all those things come first. So in terms of how it affects work, I’ve tried as an artist to stay as true as I can in myself, for better or worse, because it’s not like I was just suddenly only going to do kids movies or something like that. I had to learn how to really compress my time and it’s a lot about time management in getting in the work. I need to get done for any project in a specific time frame so I still have time to play catch when they get home from school, help them with their homework if I can, just spend time with them and talk about their day, and sit at the dinner table with them. A lot of it’s just about, honestly, choosing jobs where I’m going to make sure I get to see them as much as I can, but also manage my time in a way that I can see them as much as I can even when I’m working.
I bet kids appreciate that way more than they ever put into words. Considering your career trajectory, especially within the context of gay roles like in Papi Chulo, the Will & Grace revival, The Normal Heart, Doom Patrol and the upcoming The Boys in the Band, which, as you say, weren’t available to you when you first started out, it must be fascinating to reflect on how things unspooled in this way.
It really is. You never really know if the next job is coming or where my next job is coming from or what it’s gonna be. I’m so grateful for where I am and I’m so grateful to reunite with those guys [for The Boys in the Band], and honestly, just to have gotten to play a plethora of people. What I’m getting to play are so much better drawn than the types of gay characters that I was initially reading when I got into this—certainly the ones that I had access to. So I’m really happy that there are people like Jeremy Carver, the creator of Doom Patrol, and Mart Crowley [the playwright behind The Boys in the Band], who I love and adore and who I’m so happy for. I’m just really grateful to get to play human beings where the first thing you might say about them is not that they’re gay but that they’re fractured or flawed or neurotic or complex or contradictory—qualities and different adjectives I could say about any of the characters before I have to mention their sexual preference.
I noticed that you still field a lot of Superman questions. While I don’t have anything new to add to that conversation, I do find it interesting that the idea of playing a superhero has been a recurring theme in your timeline. Brett Ratner had wanted you to play Superman in his shelved version. You also donned that suit for a Japanese car commercial years ago.
For the Prius.
You’re Negative Man now—perhaps a more meaningful destination. A gay superhero. Maybe Superman is still in your future. Do you believe that everything happens for a reason?
I do believe that. I do believe that everything happens for a reason. And sometimes it’s a reason for you personally, sometimes it’s a reason sociologically, sometimes it’s a reason for the zeitgeist. It can be for reasons that are out of your control or reasons that you never even thought of. I’ve certainly come to trust that over the years with the whole Superman theme. [Laughs] I don’t know where I’d be if I had ended up doing that movie back in 2003. I don’t know what would be going on in my career. I don’t know if I would’ve been ready for that opportunity at that time. But I’m certainly happy to be part of the DC family and really feel very lucky that I got to land on a character who’s one-part Montgomery Clift and one-part “The Elephant Man.” His struggle and journey towards self-acceptance has been such an amazing thing to get to play. Although there are allegorical aspects of it, I don’t know if the journey of Clark Kent would’ve been quite as creative and fulfilling for me. But who’s to say? I guess it depends on the script that was written.
When we were at Cannes in 2016–
Oh my gosh… Can we go back there, please?
You were there with The Nice Guys. Was that your first time playing a villain?
More or less. I played a character on Chuck that was a villain, but also a well-meaning villain.
The Nice Guys was good. Do you normally get offered similar roles when that happens?
No, not at all! Not at all. As a matter of fact, as amazing as it was being a part of that film—as much as I love Shane Black and Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, and both working with them and watching them work—I wouldn’t say there was any hit that I got off of my career in terms of a real boost in the industry from that. That’s one of those movies that I think will be more and more appreciated as times goes on so it’s more like a long game. And I’ve been really fortunate that opportunities come my way, whether it be directing Versace or acting or producing or whatever it may be. I’m trying to write and produce a little bit more on my own now and kind of take the reins myself. It’s not like I’m getting at the moment a plethora of roles to choose from. I guess it’s pretty specific if you want me so it’s usually just one, maybe two, at a time if I’m lucky.
Did that episode of Versace amp up your desire to continue directing?
Oh my gosh, it was everything! I basically put myself through grad school in six months, between the books I read, the courses I took, the people I shadowed, the people I studied with. I was very lucky to have the creatives around me that I did, as you do in the world of Ryan Murphy. I had the best tutelage anyone could ever hope for and I would love to do it again. I would love to do a lot more of it as I go, and maybe once I get a little bit older, I’d like to do that pretty regularly. For now, I can make a better living for myself as an actor, especially with kids. I think once they’re in college and all of that’s handled, I might be able to take a six-month directing job for less money or direct an indie that might take up a year of my life for no money. But right now, that’s not really an option for me.
To bring this back to Papi Chulo, and also in celebration of Pride Month, would you mind sharing a personal story to inspire LGBTQ youths out there? Do you maybe have a positive experience of coming out to a friend when you were scared about the possible outcome?
I was very selective about who I spoke to early on because I was terrified. I think my fears were largely unfounded. I would argue that a lot of my more conservative Christian friends who I played football with in high school and who I’d known from a very early age, some of them from pre-adolescence, cared the least. Some of my friends who are—we don’t really talk about politics, but—probably Republicans were still able to be really good friends. I guess that surprised me. They had some of the most supportive reactions. Then I had a friend in college who was upset with me that I didn’t come to tell him face to face because he really wanted to have that moment with me—that moment of connection, to be there to support me directly in-person. That kind of compassion, empathy, and understanding just completely blew me away and took me by surprise, and I think that’s a big reason why we’re still such good friends today.
Thank you for sharing that, Matt. I knew you were gonna say something warm and heartfelt.
Aw. I hope we get to talk again, and I hope it’s at Cannes next year. Give me another Russell Crowe movie!