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In front of a very enthusiastic audience of more than 600 fans, students and SAG-AFTRA members, actor Matt Bomer shared an unvarnished take on the heartache, hurdles and proudest moments he’s experienced in his 20-year film and television career.
Bomer appeared at the annual TV festival in Atlanta to accept The Hollywood Reporter’s Trailblazer Award – presented to him by current SCAD acting student Eric Ackerman – for his contributions to storytelling. Bomer was specifically honored for his amplification of LGTBQ+ stories and characters in projects such as HBO’s The Normal Heart, Netflix’s 2024 Oscar contender Maestro and Showtime’s Fellow Travelers, to name just a few.
The award was created in 2023 to acknowledge artists whose work, often without fanfare, reflects a commitment to telling stories previously marginalized by Hollywood. Recent honorees have included David Oyelowo, Niecy Nash and Eva Longoria.
Following his heartfelt acceptance of the award, Bomer sat down with The Hollywood Reporter for a reflective and expansive chat about his acting career, the seeds of which he says were planted while growing up gay in a small, conservative, Christian town near Houston.
“I didn’t have a ton of shadow creeping out,” said Bomer about concealing his sexuality. “I played by the rules. It was a different time. Growing up in a kind of Friday Night Lights town … the stakes of being out were very real.”
Bomer revealed that he didn’t come out to his family until his mid-twenties, following his education at Carnegie Mellon university, where he studied theater. He said he “didn’t feel safe” telling his parents in person, and instead shared his truth with them via a letter.
Since then, he said, relating to his family been a “beautiful, delicate and precarious balance.”
“Finding grace in that relationship has taught me so much about the human experience and how to hold love on both sides of the aisle, which I feel like a lot of us in America aren’t able to do today,” he said.
In lighter moments, Bomer reflected on humbling milestones he experienced as an aspiring actor, from his first role as a background artist at age 12 in the 1992 Chuck Norris movie Sidekicks (“If that’s not an origin story, then what is?” he wondered, laughing) to a three-year run as a regular on both All My Children and Guiding Light in New York in the early 2000s.
His appraisal of those gigs was tinged with equal parts appreciation (“It felt like going to grad school”) and unbridled amusement.
“My Guiding Light character was a trust-fund baby who bet his fraternity brothers he’d be the first to deflower the town virgin … then he lost his trust fund and turned to the only life that someone can when they lose their trust fund: sex work. Then he went crazy and killed five people,” Bomer said, laughing along with the crowd inside the newly minted SCADShow theater. “Some days I’d have 30 pages of dialogue, ya’ll!”
The last 15 years have been precipitously more high-brow for Bomer since he landed the lead role in USA’s White Collar in 2009. The cable network’s hit so-called “blue sky” drama launched Bomer into a slew of other high-profile gigs, including Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike in 2012 (and its 2015 sequel) and USA’s anthology series The Sinner, the third season of which featured Bomer in a darker-than-dark turn as a murderous, death-obsessed new father.
But it’s been his collaborations with writer-director-producer Ryan Murphy where Bomer seems to have flourished the most artistically, most notably in his heartbreaking Emmy-nominated role as the AIDS-stricken Felix Turner in Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart.
“Ryan sees things in people they don’t see in themselves,” Bomer said. “He’s also wickedly funny. He respects ambition and people who have a passion for what they do. If he sees you have a strong work ethic, he will include you in his troupe of actors. Sometimes it’s a life-changing role, like Felix Turner, or just one scene in American Horror Story. He’s able to tap into people and say, ‘This is their moment.’”
Bomer said collaborating with Murphy on numerous gay-themed projects certainly helped to lay the groundwork for his committing to Fellow Travelers as both an actor and producer.
Based on the book by Thomas Mallon and written by Ron Nyswaner, Travelers centers on two 1950s-era Washington D.C., government employees — Hawkins Fuller (Bomer) and Timothy Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey) — who begin a forbidden romance that spans the Vietnam War, the drug-fueled 1970s and the 1980s AIDS crisis.
Bomer said there was little about Travelers, which is currently streaming on Paramount+, that didn’t leave him “terrified.”
“It was everything — the multiple decades, playing different ages, intimacy scenes. I think this was the most afraid I’d been,” he admitted of playing Hawk, a role that has since has earned him Golden Globe, Critics Choice, SAG and People’s Choice award nominations. “I think it was the greatest blessing that I got to do Maestro right before Travelers because I was able to see Carey [Mulligan] and Bradley [Cooper] travel through the decades and tell that love story.”
Of making Netflix’s Maestro, in which he appears as composer Leonard Bernstein’s real-life lover David Oppenheim, Bomer said he took away something unexpected: the potency of being quiet.
“Bradley is a brilliant director and co-wrote the script, but he wasn’t overly precious with the words,” Bomer said. “There was a long-dialogue scene we did, and after a couple of takes, he said, ‘I wanna try it without us saying anything.’ I’d been sweating it out the night before like, ‘This is my big walk-and-talk scene in Central Park with Bradley Cooper!’ But I said, ‘OK.’ And that’s what’s in the movie. And it ended up being the best version of the scene.”
Bomer is just one of dozens of artists to appear at this year’s SCAD TVfest, the signature event of Savannah College of Art and Design celebrating television. Now its 12th year, the 2024 installment of the fest is also showcasing talent from Apple TV+’s Loot, NBC’s Extended Family and Lopez vs. Lopez, HBO’s The Gilded Age, Max’s Tokyo Vice and numerous others from hit series and upcoming titles.