Ryan Murphy on HBO's 'The Normal Heart': 'It's a Love Story'

The prolific producer says he worked with Larry Kramer on the script and added a considerable amount to the Tony winner's play.
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Ryan Murphy at Thursday's "Normal Heart" panel.

A humble and reflective Ryan Murphy was joined by an all-star cast Thursday to preview HBO's upcoming TV movie The Normal Heart, an adaptation of Larry Kramer's play about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

Directed by Murphy and written by Oscar nominee Larry Kramer, who won a Tony for his 1985 play of the same name, the drama tells the story about the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City in the early 1980s. It explores the nation's sexual politics as gay activists and their allies in the medical community fight to expose the truth about the epidemic to a city in denial. Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and Taylor Kitch star.

For Murphy, The Normal Heart is a passion project. He met with Kramer and bought the rights to the project in 2010, recruiting Ruffalo to star and partner on the project. (Ruffalo is also credited as a co-executive producer.) The duo together brought in Julia Roberts and worked closely with Kramer on the HBO script, adding a considerable amount.

"[This] is similar to the play and very different," Murphy said. "I worked with Larry on the script for three years. We broke it out to 40- to 45 percent new material, and it's pretty broken out from the play."

While the drama takes place in the 1980s -- it ends in 1984, before an HIV test was developed -- Murphy says the TV movie still feels modern. "Larry wrote that play with the idea that silence does equal death. When people were writing about it, there were no solutions. It ends in '84, but what it's about feels modern to me with gay marriage in the news and people fighting to be loved and accepted for who they are. It's still very modern and very applicable to the way we're living today."

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The showrunner behind American Horror Story and Glee also noted that The Normal Heart will address how Kramer -- a tireless activist -- was treated at the time as well as the continuing fight against HIV/AIDS, which has claimed more than 40 million people with 7,000 diagnosed as HIV positive every day.

Ruffalo stars as Ned Weeks (inspired by Kramer), who witnesses the then-mysterious disease and works tirelessly to seek answers, both from the medical community and federally as he pushes the federal and local governments to open their eyes to the rapidly growing virus. Roberts plays Dr. Emma Brookner, a polio survivor who treats several of the early victims of HIV/AIDS. Parsons plays gay activist Tommy Boatwright, reprising his role from the 2011 Broadway revival, and Bomer plays Felix Turner, a reporter who becomes Ned's lover. Kitch portrays Bruce Niles, a closeted investment banker turned AIDS activist.

"We're looking at an epidemic as seen through a love story," Murphy noted, pointing to the relationships between Ned and Felix as well as between Ned and Emma, among others.

For his part, Ruffalo met Kramer early on and begged him to share stories about what he and his friends and colleagues went through at the time. "I spent quite a bit of time with him and came to really love him. I tried to go directly into him as much as I could and honor him and his complexity, his journey, his passion and his commitment to this movement, which is what I deem completely heroic," he said. "Ryan and I set out on this journey together. … We went a long distance to get to this place today."

Roberts, meanwhile, noted she'd been approached to play the part before but turned it down because she couldn't understand just who the character was at her core. But when Murphy called, the actress watched a documentary on polio and it all came together, prompting her to join the production. "It unlocked the door to who this woman is to me and where her ferocious, relentless pursuit of correctness comes from," Roberts said. "It was such a beautiful experience to get to play her and get to pay tribute to a person who never let anything stand between her and the right thing to do for someone else."

Asked if it was a priority to cast openly gay actors in the project -- both Bomer and Parsons are out -- Murphy noted he went after the best actor, gay or straight. "We never went after anyone based on sexuality," he said, noting that the world has changed a lot in the past five years.

Parsons and Bomer, for their part, noted that they don't think of themselves as gay actors but rather just actors. "I was only anxious about when the conversation would happen," the Big Bang Theory star said. "Then it happened and it was out there, and it was no big deal -- and that was a relief."

The Normal Heart debuts in May on HBO.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
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