HBO's Normal Heart: Why Julia Roberts Finally Said Yes, and Why Matt Bomer Dropped 40 Lbs.

HBO The Normal Heart CastOne has to be pretty diligent in getting the Pretty Woman to star in your movie.

Appearing at the Television Critics Association winter press tour on behalf of HBO’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s Tony-winning play The Normal Heart, Julia Roberts shared that twice before she had been asked to take on the role of Dr. Emma Brookner, a physician who treats some of the earliest HIV-AIDS patients. And even when Ryan Murphy approached her to be a part of HBO’s take, which he directed, Roberts again declined.

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Explaining her hesitation, the actress cited an “inability to fully understand who this character was.” But as Murphy persisted, Roberts found herself watching a documentary on polio, from which Brookner suffered as a child. And a switched flipped.

“It unlocked the door to who this woman is to me and where her relentless, furious pursuit of correctness comes from,” Roberts explained. And in retrospect, “It was just such a beautiful experience to get to play her.”

“Interestingly enough, my relationship with Ryan has provided me with such an incredible education,” the star of myriad films also said. “This is another stone on that path.”

Also starring in HBO Films’ The Normal Heart — which details the spread of HIV/AIDS among a group of gay men in New York City circa the early 1980s — are Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right) as writer/activist Ned Weeks, Matt Bomer (White Collar) as Ned’s reporter lover Felix Turner, Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) as closeted investment banker Bruce Niles and The Big Bang Theory‘s Jim Parsons, reprising his role from the 2011 Broadway revival, as gay activist Tommy Boatwright.

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Appearing at the TCA panel with a nearly shaved head, Bomer needed to undergo quite the physical transformation for his role as Felix, shedding some 40 lbs. Said Roberts, “We all took a very small break [during production], and he came back half the person he was and twice the man!”