The Normal Heart - Joe Mantello and Jim Parsons
The Normal Heart - Mickey Marcus (Joe Mantello) and Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons) ©2014 HBO, photo: Jojo Whilden

Directed by Ryan Murphy (Glee, Eat Pray Love) and adapted by Larry Kramer, from his groundbreaking Tony Award winning play of the same name, The Normal Heart premieres on HBO on May 25th. The drama tells the story of the onset of the HIV-AIDS crisis in New York in the early 1980s.

Mark Ruffalo (The Avengers, Now You See Me) stars as Ned Weeks, who begins to seek answers when he sees this devastating illness ravage his gay community. Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) plays gay activist Tommy Boatwright, and Julia Roberts portrays physician Dr Emma Bookner, (Eat Pray Love, August: Osage County) a survivor of early childhood polio, who treats several of the earliest victims of HIV-AIDS.

All three came to the TV Critics tour to talk about their emotional and heartfelt movie.

Mr Parsons, you did this play on Broadway. Is it a very emotional project to work on?

The Normal Heart - Jim Parsons and Taylor Kitsch
Gay activist Tommy Boatwright (Jim Parsons) and Bruce Niles (Taylor Kitsch) ©2014 HBO, photo: Jojo Whilden

Jim: It’s very interesting. I’m old enough to have been young enough to see the first reports of [AIDS].

So doing the play especially, because it was the first time I was introduced to the material, was a real education for me. But what’s funny is the more you delve into this, the AIDS crisis, the humanity that overreaches all of it is what really hurts your heart at the end of it.

It feels like something horrible that happened that has happened before in different ways. And it feels like humans being humans it may happen again, and maybe that’s why a story like this is so important to tell in the hope that maybe that can be course corrected and that it not happen again.

Julia, how did this project come to you?

Julia: Interestingly enough my relationship with Ryan has provided me with such an incredible education, and this definitely is another stone on that path of knowledge that we share together.

The Normal Heart - Julia Roberts
Dr Emma Bookner (Julia Roberts) ©2014 HBO

I have been asked twice before to play this part and both times turned it down, not only because of conflicts of time, but my inability to fully understand who this character was. When Ryan asked me to play this character and I said, ‘No,’ I didn’t think he heard me, so I was like, ‘Well, maybe. I don’t think I can.’ And he just said, ‘Well, call me back.’

I ended up watching a documentary on polio, which I’m too young to remember what that experience was like for the country, for the world, and it unlocked the door to who this woman is to me and where her ferocious, relentless pursuit of correctness comes from. That’s when Ryan received what he always gets, which is the answer he wants.

It was just such a beautiful experience to get to play her and to get to pay tribute to a person who never let anything stand between her and the right things to do for someone else.

Mark, did you ever meet with Larry Kramer, as this is such an autobiographical role? Did you want to portray him accurately, or distance yourself and create a character?

The Normal Heart - Joe Mantello and Jim Parsons
Mickey Marcus (Joe Mantello) and Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) ©2014 HBO, photo: Jojo Whilden

Mark: I met him years before we shot the movie, in hopes that we were going to shoot it.  I had already been aware of him through his work at Act Up when I was a young actor and in the Drama Department and started seeing kids with Act Up buttons on.

So I got an education as a straight young man early on. I did spend quite a bit of time with him and came to really love him. I’ve spent hours and hours with him begging him to tell me stories about what they went through about this time.

Did I use him or distance myself? I actually tried to go directly into him as much as I possibly could and honor him, and honor his complexity and his journey, his passion and his commitment to this movement which is what I deem completely heroic.

How important is it to you to do a role that really makes an impact?

Julia: It’s important to me to participate in things  that make me feel like I’m a better person, and can participate in my daily life with slighting more conviction, more joy or more compassion. And to be in a piece like this with someone that I’m very safe and comfortable with (Ryan Murphy), and then all these new friends as an actor, it was really great.

Jim: I guess it was sort of [like], ‘Am I surprised to be able to be successful and on TV, a public medium, and be gay at the same time?’

No, it’s not that I didn’t think about it going into my career, but if I’m thinking about it in those terms, I guess I was really only ever anxious about the moment that the conversation would happen and is this still the deal? It was a deal like anything else, but it was no big deal for me.

I don’t bring gay qualities or straight qualities to a role. Whatever is going on I deal with it in whatever situation it is as an actor.

Julia: I’m just shocked that you’re gay.

Jim: Shut up.

Julia: I’m the last to know that Jim Parsons is gay.

Jim: I’ve ruined our relationship. (they both laugh)


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.