Eye on Emmy: Ryan Murphy on Normal Heart's Unique Casting Process and Choreographing Those Sex Scenes

unnamed-1Whether or not small-screen bigwig Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s Tony-winning play, The Normal Heart, racks up the masses of Emmy nominations that it’s expected to, the HBO movie’s director will still feel victorious: He did what he set out to do and made the writer proud. Here, the Glee and American Horror Story co-creator opens up to TVLine about not only the importance of the piece – both to himself and to history – but also how he and his cast of all-stars handled the script’s racier material, what made the sets so unusual and even the actor for whom he fell so hard.

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TVLINE | Was there a sense during production that something important was happening?
Yes. This was a 30-year journey, and there was a huge responsibility to get it right. I never have been involved in any production where there was absolute silence on the set. These sets always felt like church in that we all felt we were there [with] a combined energy to get the thing right. We wanted to do it for Larry, and we wanted to do it for history. We wanted people to see this story and not forget.

TVLINE | How much pressure did you feel during the casting process to match the right actor to each role?
Larry was involved in every aspect of [casting], so we were in very good hands. He pretty much approved the entire cast. I would, for the most part, run every actor by him. And if he ever had questions [about someone], he would talk with them. He had his own ideas—make no mistake. He was very adamant about the Jim Parsons casting. I knew [Parsons] a little socially, but once I met with him, I fell in love. And then Larry worked on really enlarging [Parsons’] part from the stage play, and that [stemmed] from his excitement about that actor.

TVLINE | All the actors have a big moment in the movie. Did you approach directing those “moments” differently than, say, other scenes?
By the time we got to shoot them, we had done some rehearsal, and the actors were just so in love with the material. Everybody showed up on those days letter-perfect. And we basically had a rule that we would do the close-ups first, which is opposite from how I’ve ever worked. You usually start wide and punch in. But we started close, because the actors were so emotional. The tears were flowing from the very first take, because the pain of the material and the ghosts of all the people who had died were so intense. People were very reverential. Everybody cried every day of that movie.

TVLINE | Was it important for you to cast openly gay actors in some of the key roles?
I guess now that it’s done and I look back at it, I’m very proud that there are a lot of gay actors in the movie playing gay characters. We certainly didn’t shy away from the sexuality of the piece or the graphic nature of the piece, but when I was casting, I didn’t think about that. I thought about who’s the best actor for this role. Almost everybody had to audition, and I was really looking for dedication and people who loved [the project] as much as me. But I think it’s amazing that we have so many out-and-proud gay actors in the piece.

TVLINE | You talk about not shying away from graphic sexuality. How did you negotiate the nudity with the actors? There were some very strategically placed bed sheets….
I really wanted the actors to be comfortable. We hired this wonderful guy who basically has now made a career out of choreographing sex scenes. When he does this, he works with actors in a rehearsal space and makes those scenes feel more like a dance than a graphic sex scene. And we work with [the actors] so that, by the time we’re rolling the cameras, there’s no mistake or question about what it’s going to be. I thought that was incredibly helpful. But it was never [an issue]. I mean, [Mark] Ruffalo, [Matt] Bomer… For the most part, everybody said, “Whatever it takes.”

TVLINE | What did Larry Kramer think of the finished product?
[He was] very moved by it. And very relieved. I think that he watched it with his husband and some friends, and they were all very emotional and complimentary, which was amazing for me because I truly did just make it for him. I wanted him to be proud of it and to feel like his voice was heard, and I feel like I accomplished that.

TVLINE | Movies and miniseries are getting separate categories at this year’s Emmys, but the acting categories are still combined. Your reaction?
At the end of the day, you have to trust the ability of the Emmy committees to make the right decision. I personally believe that many people are talented and do good work (and) should be recognized, particularly with actors. I think it helps them get other work… Do I think the rules should be examined? Probably. But what they did this year was a step in the right direction.

This story first appeared in the pages of TVLine’s print sibling AwardsLine. The specialty Awards|Line editions canvass various facets of the Emmy and motion pictures awards season including deep coverage, analysis and interviews with the leading contenders and industry players.

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  1. Dale Sullivan says:

    The movie was exquisitely shot, and, yes, the love sceneextremely well done. Matt was totally delicious ♥ and I was so jeslous of Mark kissing all those places I’ve dresmed about :-D

    • Dale Sullivan says:

      Please ignore mispellings, lol. Everyone in the movie deserves an award for excellence-and heart!

  2. kd83954 says:

    I can’t say enough wonderful things about this movie. The casting and acting was just…phenomenal. Every single person blew me away and I connected to each person in a way that I usually don’t. I felt the pain they were feeling in my own heart. The film was shot beautifully and you really got a sense of what the period was like (the bathhouse scene, for example) and the fear (Felix on the subway). Is there a SAG category for acting in a mini-series/television movie? Because this cast deserves it. I wish every main star could get a nomination (Ruffalo, Bomer, Roberts, Kitsch, Parsons, Mantello) but I know that won’t happen. Everyone was just…wow. Say what you will about Ryan Murphy but he did a remarkable job bringing this movie to the screen. And I’m so glad Larry is alive to witness it and the reactions to it.

  3. Till says:

    This movie is so emotional he made me cry a lot, it’s a real gem and deserve all the praises. My only complain is Jim Parsons who played his part as stiff as Sheldon (but without the fun obviously).

    • Andy says:

      I may have to disagree, u know. I found Tommy to be a very subtle character. He wasn’t thrashing and yelling al the time, also he didn’t have particularly a situation like Ned or Bruce of personal lost. Tommy was like the common person whose watching what’s going on and is too scared to do something. He’s only way to help was through his activism group. I didn’t see Parsons as “stiff”, i think he was portraying a character who knew couldn’t be a force like Ned, but was trying to do something even if he felt like “wth is this s**t” sometimes… well that’s what i saw, but objectively, it would be wrong to say he’s acting was bad, because it was far from that. I guess that when ppl say they saw “sheldon” they were seeing face expressions and body movements, that are the actor’s natural way to act. frankly he was nothing like his character from Big Bang. IMO.

      • Kim says:

        I agree. I think Parsons played the roll of a hospital admin the way you would see other hospital admins. You see so much death and scary that you become detached and you need to not be an emotional mess because it overwhelms you. I really liked his portrayal. When he said he was Tommy Boatman and he was a southern… I laughed. I was like “this isn’t Big Bang Theory.”

        • Andy says:

          This, is true. If we’re gonna analize Tommy, well, i think that what you say, of him being a bit detached from what’s going on… i think it’s true, we never see him suffering or something similar when he is with the group, and a good example of that is *SPOILER* when Felix die, he takes his rolodex card, and cries alone in silence, like, there you realize that he was also suffering from what was going on w/ Felix… i mean Tommy as a character is very different from the others, he is the “normal heart” (well i loved the movie and read the interviews about this, so i may have become i little obsessive. Is a very interesting, as well as difficult topic for a movie)

  4. K says:

    Does anyone know if Murphy’s HBO pilot “Open” with Anna Torv is still alive? I haven’t heard anything in a long time.

    • Nairdan says:

      Same here, I´ve been wondering the same for a while. They shot the pilot back in February, and I don´t know if it is a straigh-to-series order or HBO are just taking its time to decide to greenlight it.

  5. Angela says:

    The fact that the actors were just as moved by the story they were doing makes the emotion of the movie all the stronger. Their commitment and dedication to the material showed loud and clear. And I’m glad Kramer was pleased with the final product, too-it’s tough to translate this stuff sometimes from play to screen, so I’m glad he was able to be so involved in the process and that it turned out well (and the idea of him watching with his husband. Aw).
    I hope they do get some nominations and wins for this film. They’d be well-deserved.

  6. paul says:

    As someone who lived through the AIDS crisis in the 80’s, I found the show very moving and all too true. It brought back many terrible memories and also fond memories of those many friends lost to AIDS. This version by Ryan Murphy was worth the 30 year wait.

  7. Paula says:

    I thought that I was progressive enough to watch this. However, I felt ashamed about being uneasy with the sex scenes. They were expertly carried out. I only wish that man on man sex were more prevalent in movies so that people like me could get used to seeing it. Of course, that’s not the whole movie. The plot was well executed. I’ve watched documentaries about the early AIDS epidemic, and I’m glad to see a movie that shows gay men as what they truly are–normal people with relationships just like all us heterosexual folks. On another note, now you guys can get married and divorce like the rest of us.

  8. I saw this movie and taped it.
    Great Movie!