Mr Matt Bomer
How the Magic Mike actor conquered Hollywood on his own terms
To become a star in Hollywood and realise the American Dream, you often have to adopt a persona and leave your true self behind. That’s the experience of Monroe Stahr, the central character in Amazon Prime’s lavish new period drama The Last Tycoon, a wunderkind studio executive who ditches his Jewish name (Milton Sternberg) and heritage in order to metamorphose into a power player in the golden age of cinema. But for Mr Matt Bomer, who plays Stahr in the 10-episode adaptation of Mr F Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel, the opposite is true.
After making his name on US TV, most notably as a suave conman in 81 episodes of White Collar and then in 13 episodes of American Horror Story, Mr Bomer found international recognition in 2012 playing a ripped male stripper who drives women crazy in Magic Mike and its equally wild 2015 sequel Magic Mike XXL. In a demonstration of his range, that same year he won a Golden Globe for his moving performance as HIV/AIDS sufferer Felix Turner in the HBO film The Normal Heart. But his “first real acting role” was to spend several years as a young man growing up in a loving, conservative Christian family in Bible Belt Texas pretending he was straight.
“I created a character in order to survive,” says the 39-year-old over drinks in a friend’s restaurant in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, following MR PORTER’s photoshoot. Out of self-preservation – and to cover his tracks, particularly with his gridiron-obsessed father who had been drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in his youth – Mr Bomer signed up for the school football team as well as the school play. He kept it going for years. “I used to work on a gas pipeline with my brother and I’m certain some of the people I worked with were ex-convicts,” he says. “I had to learn how to protect myself in those environments.”
He did such a convincing job that his brother thought he was joking when he came out to him at the age of 24. When he plucked up the courage to write to his parents two years later, they simply couldn’t believe it. “I was like, really? You’re surprised?” There was radio silence for six months until he eventually went home and had the blow-up he always feared. “You know who was coolest about it?” he says. “My grandparents. They gave zero fucks. My grandma blows my mind. To me, she exemplifies what a loving, accepting Christian is.”
Mr Bomer views his life in terms of the time before he came out to his parents, and the time after. “It’s night and day,” he says. Thirteen years on, is the relationship mended? “Yeah.” He pauses. “I’ll just say yes. When you’re a family, you just table [put to one side] certain things in order to get to the business of loving each other. I feel very, very thankful to have the family that I do.”
The actor came out publicly in 2012 during an acceptance speech at the Desert AIDS Project’s Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards for his work in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The previous year, he’d quietly married Mr Simon Halls, 53, a high-profile Hollywood publicist who used to represent him. (Mr Halls’ clients include Mr Tom Ford, Sir Ridley Scott and Mr Ang Lee.) The couple have been together for “over 10 years”. They have three boys, born via surrogate: Kit, 12, and nine-year-old fraternal twins, Walker and Henry.
Life in Hollywood is far more progressive now than it was in the 1930s when, as depicted in The Last Tycoon, the Nazis apparently wielded considerable influence over what could and could not be produced and the studios acquiesced. However, even in 2017, it is still remarkably rare for an actor to come out. “I have dear friends who are [still in the closet],” says Mr Bomer. But he makes no judgements. “It’s an entirely subjective decision. I have kids. I didn’t want them to think that I thought of them as something to be swept under the carpet.” Does he consider himself a trailblazer? “I do feel the pressure, an extra pressure to go above and beyond, so that I can hopefully set a good example and create a path for other people to come behind me, and I certainly give credence to those who came before me.”
He is, however, understandably keen not to be continually referred to as a “gay actor”, believing the label to be unnecessary and unhelpful, perpetuating the stigma. “I think labels are a dangerous thing,” he says. “As an artist, the last thing you want is one label to identify you. You want to be able to have complete freedom over your identity.” Does he believe he has missed out on roles since coming out? “I’ve had some rough experiences, but I’ve also been blessed with generosity of spirit and artistic openness that maybe some people won’t ever get to experience because of who I am, so I can’t complain. The artists that I want to work with don’t have stigmas anyway.”
It did not stop him landing the romantic leading man role in The Last Tycoon, playing opposite Ms Lily Collins, daughter of a certain Mr Phil Collins. (“Oh my gosh! I had my Phil Collins phase, believe me.”) It is a sumptuous production. Mr Bomer says “the pilot was the most expensive pilot Sony have ever made”, not least because of the flawless 1930s wardrobe, designed by Ms Janie Bryant, who famously created Don Draper and Roger Sterling’s razor-sharp looks. “What she did for menswear with Mad Men was pretty much a sea change in terms of men dressing up a bit more,” he says.
The double-breasted suits in this series were tailored to Mr Bomer’s ribcage in order to create the right silhouette. He says he could hardly breathe in some scenes and had to practise the Alexander Technique in order to maintain good posture and deliver his lines. And he had to “lose a lot of weight” to portray a character with a congenital heart defect who didn’t eat during the week.
This isn’t the first time Mr Bomer has had to dramatically change shape for a role. “There was a period there where I was losing 40lb for Normal Heart and then putting on 20lb for Magic Mike. It just got a little crazy and your body is going, ‘What’s going on?’”
The muscle gain was less of a problem. He built a simple home gym in his garage and prefers to work out there rather than with a trainer. As a busy dad, he likes the time efficiency of high-intensity interval training. “Twenty minutes and, if you do it right, you’re drenched at the end of it,” he says. “I still have that super-ego voice of all those Texas football coaches in my head any time I’m doing anything physical, so I can usually push myself solo pretty well.”
Does he worry about the long-term effects of extreme body transformations? “I was just discussing it with my doctor yesterday and he said, ‘You know, I wouldn’t do anything like that in the near future. I’m not saying you can never do it again, but just don’t do it any time soon.’”
In his next lead role, Walking Out, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim and will be released in October, he plays a father struggling to connect with his teenage son on a hunting trip in the wild. When Mr Bomer’s father watched the movie, he recognised himself. It has helped to reconnect them. “I did steal shamelessly from my father [for the character] because it’s what I knew,” he says. Mr Bomer had what he describes as a “Mark Twain childhood”, catching bullfrogs by the creek in St Louis and going fishing and hunting with his dad. “That was a lot of the way I was taught to have father-son camaraderie,” he says. “I didn’t like deer hunting. I would go with my dad, but I never really enjoyed it, and never killed a deer.”
Now that Mr Bomer is a father himself, how would he describe his parenting style? “I so desperately want to be friends with my kids,” he says. “We have a lot of fun together, but there are times when I need to set a boundary. They’re all different, their levels of affection are different, what they need is different. They come into the world as their own people and you’re just trying to give them the structure to be their best selves and to find their way in the world.”
When he is away filming, however, he can’t help but spoil them with gifts. “I do so much guilt-induced shopping for the kids when I’m gone on location, I’m firmly convinced that Amazon hired me because they know how much I’ve spent on their website.”
The Last Tycoon streams on Amazon Prime from 28 July