still beating

25 fascinating facts about the landmark AIDS drama ‘The Normal Heart’

Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo in ‘The Normal Heart’ | Image Credit: HBO

HBO’s 2014 film adaptation of The Normal Heart—written by activist Larry Kramer based off his play of the same name and directed by mega-producer Ryan Murphy—is a blistering attack on the lack of action by the government in the early days of the AIDS crisis. In it, Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo) fights to stop the rapidly escalating HIV/AIDS epidemic from killing every gay man in its wake in the early 1980s.

Click through for 25 facts you may not know about the award-winning HBO film.

1. The Normal Heart is highly autobiographical.

Theatre Marquee at the Broadway Opening Night Performance for ‘The Normal Heart’ in New York City | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Don’t f— with Larry Kramer, you guys. The late, great, outspoken playwright wrote The Normal Heart as an angry rallying cry as he saw the world around him, and most of the characters in the story are based on real people he knew. Main character Ned Weeks is a fictionalized version of Kramer himself, and Dr. Emma Brookner is based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein.

2. Kramer wrote it after getting booted from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

Larry Kramer | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Kramer’s outspoken nature and volatility got him forced out of GMHC, which inspired him to write the play. Many of the conflicts Ned has in the narrative are based on actual arguments and discussions Kramer had.

3. Mark Ruffalo almost turned down the role of Ned.

Mark Ruffalo in ‘The Normal Heart’ | Image Credit: HBO

In an act of allyship, Ruffalo initially felt the role of Ned Weeks should go to a gay actor. In an interview with The Wrap, Ruffalo said: “I was a little perplexed by it. I said to Ryan, ‘Isn’t it time that a gay actor plays this part?’ And he said, ‘No, you’re missing the point of the movie. It doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay—I want the person I think is right for the part, and that’s you.’”

4. Studios didn’t want to touch the movie.

Image Credit: HBO

It’s not TV! It’s HBO! And thank goodness for that, since Murphy and co-producer Ruffalo struggled to find a studio willing to take on the film. The premium cable network had found great success in another politically charged play adaptation, Angels in America, and greenlit the project. 

6. Kramer worked with Ruffalo on his portrayal of Ned.

Larry Kramer and Mark Ruffalo | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Ruffalo told The Wrap, “I got to just pummel and harangue him with hours of questioning, and long emails back and forth.” Kramer’s advice to Ruffalo? To calm down and stop thinking so much. 

7. Julia Roberts almost turned down the role of Emma!

Julia Roberts in ‘The Normal Heart’ | Image Credit: HBO

What were these people thinking? Roberts—who stops the damn show with her monologue late in the film when Emma is turned down funding for more research—didn’t really understand the part until she researched her character’s polio virus and began to recognize Emma’s inner turmoil. “It unlocked the door to who this woman is to me and where her ferocious pursuit of correctness comes from,” said Roberts during a TCA panel. It obviously worked out well, since Roberts got an Emmy nomination for the role.

8. The Fire Island scenes were filmed on location in the Pines.

Joe Mantello and Mark Ruffalo in ‘The Normal Heart’ | Image Credit: HBO

Imagine being an extra and getting to party on Fire Island? The film opens on the historic, gay vacation destination, where Jonathan Groff’s Craig starts to get sick, ominously setting the scene for what’s to come. Despite not appearing in the Fire Island scenes, Roberts accompanied the cast and crew and enjoyed a few days on the island with her family.

9. Ryan Murphy basically did a horror version of The Normal Heart on American Horror Story.

American Horror Story: NYC | Image Credit: FX

Director/producer Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: NYC was a paranoid serial killer yarn that also told a heavy story about the rise of AIDS in the 1980s. The bleak series starred Joe Mantello, who appeared in The Normal Heart. In NYC, a leather-clad Angel of Death literally watches over gay men as they succumb to the disease.

10. Mantello also starred in the broadway production of The Normal Heart.

Joe Mantello and Larry Kramer | Photo Credit: Getty Images

In addition to playing Mickey Marcus in the film, Mantello played Ned in the 2010 Broadway revival. Mantello received a Tony nomination for the performance.

12. Murphy intentionally softened the tone of the story.

Ryan Murphy | Photo Credit: Getty Images

While The Normal Heart was originally written as a call to action for gay men to stand up to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Murphy substantially toned down the “anger” for the movie. “It’s no longer as angry,” he told Vogue. “It’s not agitprop. It’s stories about different kinds of love.” 

13. The role of Felix was Bomer’s first on-screen gay character.

Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo in ‘The Normal Heart’ | Image Credit: HBO

Even though we’ve always loved Bomer (especially this Queerty reporter, who watched him on Guiding Light), he didn’t play gay on-screen until the Normal Heart as the doomed reporter, Felix Turner, who rapidly deteriorates from the virus. Since The Normal Heart, Bomer has played many gay roles.

14. Bomer lost a whopping 40 pounds to portray Felix’s illness.

Matt Bomer in ‘The Normal Heart’ | Image Credit: HBO

Bomer’s Felix goes through it in the film, and Bomer lost 40 pounds to show the character’s illness properly. 

15. Bomer first read the play when he was 14.

Matt Bomer accepting his Critics’ Choice Award for ‘The Normal Heart’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Bomer first read the play as a teen in drama class and told IndieWire: “My entire sexual life, even when it was with women, has always been shrouded in this fear of death… Reading this at 14 probably saved my life on some level.”

16. Barbra Streisand tried to make a movie version long before Murphy.

Larry Kramer and Barbra Streisand | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The gay icon tried to make a film version of The Normal Heart years before Murphy got the job done, but Kramer reportedly felt she didn’t have the “burning passion” for it. Streisand told The Hollywood Reporter, “It was hard for me to be attacked like that by Larry. I worked for so many years on it without ever taking a penny. I will always believe in Larry’s play and its powerful theme of everyone’s right to love.” One wonders if Streisand would have played Dr. Emma Brookner!

17. The movie got major award noms.

The producers of ‘The Normal Heart’ celebrate at the Emmys | Photo Credit: Getty Images

It was nominated for six Primetime Emmys and won for Outstanding Television Movie, received seven Creative Arts Emmys nominations and won for Outstanding Makeup for a Miniseries, and many more.

18. Many Murphy regulars appear.

Jonathan Groff in ‘The Normal Heart’ | Image Credit: HBO

Murphy likes to use the same actors in his projects, and The Normal Heart was no different. Jonathan Groff also appeared in Glee, Denis O’Hare, Joe Mantello and Finn Wittrock in American Horror Story, and Matt Bomer in various guest appearances including The New Normal and Glee.

19. Parsons also played Tommy in the Broadway revival.

Jim Parsons in ‘The Normal Heart’ on Broadway | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The Big Bang Theory and Spoiler Alert actor was the only performer to reprise his role from the Broadway production.

20. A choreographer directed the many sex scenes.

Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo in ‘The Normal Heart’ | Image Credit: HBO

Broadway dancer Michael Arnold was tapped to direct the sex-fueled party scenes on Fire Island after Murphy saw his work on similar sex scenes in The Wolf of Wall Street. He took inspiration from the book Fire Island Pines, Polaroids 1975-83, according to Deadline.

21. Julia Roberts is married to the film’s Director of Photography.

Julia Roberts and husband Daniel Moder | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Daniel Moder was the DP for the film. He and Roberts have three children.

22. DOMA was struck down during production.

Celebrating DOMA being struck down in California | Photo Credit: Getty Images

BOOM! The Defense of Marriage Act was struck down on June 26, 2013, while the film was in production. Kramer made an announcement to the cast and crew as soon as he heard.

23. The title is based on a poem.

Taylor Kitsch and Mark Ruffalo in ‘The Normal Heart’ | Image Credit: HBO

The name The Normal Heart is based on a line from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939.”

24. It’s not confirmed if Felix is based on anyone.

Taylor Kitsch and Mark Ruffalo in ‘The Normal Heart’ | Image Credit: HBO

While many of the characters in the film are based on real-life figures, it’s unknown if Felix (Bomer’s role) was based on anyone. Rumor has it he was inspired by New York Times writer John Duka, but Kramer never confirmed.

25. There’s a sequel! Sort of.

Larry Kramer‘s The Destiny Of Me

Kramer wrote a play in 1992, The Destiny of Me, that follows lead character Ned Weeks’ later years. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. 

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  • Stan H

    Larry Kramer is an icon. We have so many things that Larry Kramer fought for. Before Elton John there was Larry. Before “Ellen” we had Larry. You don’t have to know someone in order to love them. I loved him. I also love Harvey Fierstein. Icons of not just art but men who lived their life their way. Because of men like them I can be “Out and Proud”.

  • inbama

    Founder of Gay Mens Health Crisis and Act Up, he was a true hero who was also unafraid to say tell our own community that we could help to stop AIDS by cleaning up our act.

  • PoetDaddy

    Knowing Larry Kramer was one of the highlights of my life.

  • SparkyMICH

    It’s a great film, but the landmark AND groundbreaking film about AIDS was Longtime Companion (1989).

  • Man About Town

    During the time Barbra was involved, she was definitely going to play Emma, and I can easily see her in that climactic scene where she screams at the board “You want data? Here’s your f___ing data!” while throwing reams of paper at them.

  • KissBananaPeels

    White gay men have NEVER told the story and/or included the lives of Black and Hispanic gay men who were dying of AIDS…it is VERY telling and it is just one example of the racism in the LGBT community…

    • MidCenturyQueen

      So true. Most of the early AIDS films, Philadelphia, Longtime Companion, Early Frost – left us out in the margins. Most of LGBTQ history is told through that same lens. It is up to us to tell those stories now.

    • KissBananaPeels

      Also it was always a certain affluent white gay man in these stories…

      Many people do not know that part of the story that Philadelphia the movie was based on a Black gay man…Clarence Cain…

      Two similar discrimination cases also inspired the film: Geoffrey Bowers, whose New York law firmed fired him when they found out he had AIDS, and Clarence B. Cain, whose Philadelphia law firm fired him when they discovered his illness. In both cases the men won, but Bowers died in 1987—six years before he’d be awarded $500,000 in damages. Because Demme and Nyswaner loosely based the film on Bowers’s life without compensating him, Bowers’s family sued the filmmakers. In 1996 the case settled in Bowers’s favor.

  • DBMC

    Barbra Streisand is notoriously slow to start projects. She held the rights for a long time saying she intended to make the movie, but because of that it kept anyone else from making it as well. She has had several announced projects that never made it before the cameras. I can understand why Larry Kramer was frustrated.

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