Ryan Murphy Talks Autobiographical Elements in Projects, How 'The Normal Heart' Ended Up on HBO, Emmy Nominations (Q&A)

The Normal Heart AHS Coven Ryan Murphy Inset - H 2014
Jojo Whilden/HBO; Michele K. Short/FX; Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

The Normal Heart AHS Coven Ryan Murphy Inset - H 2014

If one had to identify television's "most valuable player" of 2013-2014, one would have good reason to pick Ryan Murphy, the man behind three noteworthy productions: The Normal Heart (HBO), a dramatic TV movie adapted from one of the most socially significant plays of our time; American Horror Story: Coven (FX), the fourth miniseries in a fright-based anthology; and Glee (Fox), a musical theater series.

To varying degrees, each one of these projects has found a large audience, each has been embraced by critics and each was feted, back in July, by the TV Academy. Indeed, Murphy's shows collectively received 34 Emmy nominations — 17 for AHSC, 16 for TNH and 1 for Glee — more than the total number of noms accorded to all of the shows on Netflix, Fox, AMC or Showtime. Take a minute to mull over that.

Murphy, 48, is widely regarded as an actors' director, which is why many top thesps — from AHSC's Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson to TNH's Julia Roberts and Matt Bomer — have signed up to work with him, enjoyed and been recognized for the experience and then signed up again. By this point he has something of a stock company. This year, no fewer than 11 of the 24 slots devoted to recognizing performances in TV movies or miniseries went to actors from Murphy's shows, including all four of the aforementioned.

Four of the 34 noms, however, are for Murphy himself: for producing and directing TNH and for producing and writing AHSC. Though he has now accumulated 13 noms, he has only one Emmy on his shelf for his direction of Glee back in 2010. That tally will almost certainly grow later this month at the Primetime Emmy Awards.

More impressive than any stat, though, is the fact that Murphy, like his TV hero Norman Lear, has not only gotten people to watch and like his shows but also to take to heart what his shows have to say. Many feel that it is not a coincidence that the rather sudden embrace of gay rights throughout much of America coincided with the rise to prominence of Murphy, a gay man who has highlighted gay characters and storylines in all of his major works. Glee was the trailblazer, but the various incarnations of American Horror Story have also focused on gay subject matter. Meanwhile, nothing painted a clearer picture of just how far the gay-rights movement has come than The Normal Heart, a deeply personal passion project for Murphy that offers a heartbreaking look at where the movement was 30 years ago when the AIDS epidemic exploded.

The Hollywood Reporter recently spoke with Murphy about all of the above — and more.

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The Hollywood Reporter: As a kid, were movies, television or theater big parts of your life? And if they were, were any specific productions or people particular favorites or influences?

Murphy: You know, I was a strange kid in that I was, sort of, raised by my grandmother. I basically saw everything when I was growing up. I really loved movies, and I loved television. It was funny; I loved everything. In terms of influences for what I do now, I guess for American Horror Story, my big influence was Dark Shadows. But I was always a big fan of everything, and when I went to college my film school was sort of watching stuff that I had missed or that was too mature for me when I was a kid. I really became influenced by Hal Ashby. And I really was obsessed with Network, which remains my favorite film.

And when did it first occur to you that you might be able to have a career in show business yourself? Was there a moment or event that made you decide it was what you were cut out for?

Well, I moved to L.A. I was a journalist, and I worked for the L.A. Times and Entertainment Weekly and Vogue doing freelance, mainly. And I was writing a script — I just thought, I'm gonna try this — so I wrote a couple of scripts, and the first thing I ever wrote sold, so I was able to then quit my day job and pursue that full time. That was, like, 1997. So I did that, and it took me a couple of years before I zeroed in on television, and that then became my big passion. I sold a teenage comedy to the WB back when those were in vogue — a show called Popular — and that was my first thing that got on the air, and I loved the pace and energy of it so much that I just decided, "Okay, this is what I really want to do."

I know that you have made theatrical films and other things, as well, but what is it about the medium of television that you think you respond to and have responded to for so long now?

I like the immediacy of it, you know? I like that you can write something on Tuesday and it's shooting a week from that. I like the camaraderie of a writers room — I really love that. I think that, specifically, I love being a showrunner — I've loved that. I like being able to, sort of, move around my different interests. I love interior design, photography, costume design; it's a job where you get to be a student of the world. The reason I love it is because it's like you're learning for a living — like, I learn so much every year in my life — particularly because the stuff that I do more and more tends to be, for whatever reason recently, period. I've just loved immersing myself in those periods of design and culture, and really coming out the other end feeling like, "Okay, I really learned a lot about that era and, thus, I guess the era we're in now." I loved that on The Normal Heart and the thing I'm doing right now [American Horror Story: Freak Show], which is set in 1952 Florida, so I really learned a lot about that, which I loved.

I'm certainly familiar with Popular and Nip/Tuck and the other stuff that you did before Glee, but it seems to me that, for you, there must be "life before Glee" and "life after Glee." Is that fair to say? Did the success of that show markedly change your life and your ability to do the things that you wanted to do?

The thing that really opened the door was Nip/Tuck. It was very unusual, in the sense that it became so popular. I think it was easier for me to get my foot in the door, for one, but also that convinced people, when I would take a pitch around or if I had an idea, to, for the most part, say, "Okay, well, let's try this." And I think that's why they rolled the dice with Glee. Because, you know, on paper, Nip/Tuck was such a weird combination of things. And it was the same people who greenlit Nip/Tuck who greenlit Glee. And Glee and American Horror Story were very unusual pitches: One was about a musical, which so out of favor and had never been done, and the other was an anthological horror series, which had never really been done. But people rolled the dice on them, I think, for me, and that was the lucky break that started my career off. Nothing that I've had any success on has ever made any sense on paper, which is not unique to me.

When Glee took off, how did you even find the time to think about doing an American Horror Story? I read a funny quote where you said, I think half-jokingly, "I can't write any more nice speeches for these Glee kids about love and tolerance and togetherness. I'll kill myself." But I suspect that the reason for why you took on American Horror Story, in the midst of all that, was more complex...

I just love so many different things and I have so many different influences, and I usually try to do the opposite of what I've already done, of what I've had success on, because I feel like it can energize me. You know, I went from doing Nip/Tuck, which was really sexual and incredibly dark, to doing something that was really youthful and optimistic and poppy, like Glee, and I did that, full time, for two years. And then I passed that off a little bit and went and did the opposite of that, which was American Horror Story, which was dark and gothic — a new form for me to try, the miniseries form. And then, in the middle of all that, I did a romantic drama, which I had never done before, Eat Pray Love. And then I recently did something that I had really never done, which is a really heavy, straightforward period drama [The Normal Heart]. I find it energizing to do that, and I also just make sure I have really good collaborators who can keep the home fires of those projects burning when I'm off doing other stuff.

You've worked with many of the same actors numerous times — Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Julia Roberts, Frances Conroy, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe, Denis O'Hare, Matt Bomer and others — and it's almost like you have a Ryan Murphy stock company. And I just wonder how that came to be and how it impacts your ability to get great performances out of actors, as reflected by the amazing number of Emmy nominations that actors have received for performances given under your direction...

My favorite thing to do is to work with actors. I love actors. I love their bravery and I love their ability to metamorphose, which, I guess, is something that I've always been interested in doing. You know, with the people I've worked with — particularly in the past three years, for the most part how it works is I just approach them — I call them up as a fan, a big fanboy of their work, and they come in, and usually by that point I've created something specifically for them, and usually it's not what people think of them as. I think they like the challenge, and they become part of the family, part of the world that I have created for myself, which I really love. I tend to be a very loyal person, and it's funny, even if they're not involved in the project that I'm working on, I will turn to another set of them and get notes and ideas and ask, "What do you think?" and "What should I change?" I ask questions a lot.

I do look at them as a family, and, for the most part, we keep working together, which is great. It's been really fun. And I feel it really builds a certain trust, because the stuff that I do, for the most part, is not straightforward — it's idiosyncratic, it's theatrical, it's bizarre, and some of the roles are strange — and I think that without that familiarity and trust they would be like, "No, I don't want to go there." But I think that they know that I would kill myself for them and I would bleed for them and we have that sort of relationship. It's fun, and most of them — I would say all of them, to my knowledge — have really enjoyed that process of being a part of a repertory. Because, you know, in show business, something happens and then you're on to the next thing, and anything that you can do where you have a sense of community — the thing that I love about it is the people, for the most part, who work with me, are all cheering for other people — like, we have dinners, and we have parties, and we sometimes vacation together, and I think it's a way for everybody to get to know each other in a really cool way. I love doing that. It's something that I've always wanted to do, so I'm glad that I've been able to do it. It's a real luxury to have that, I think.

You've obviously covered a lot of different genres, but do you see a common thread that unites all or most of your work? It seems to me that many of them have autobiographical elements...

Well, I think all of them really have an underdog quality to them, which I think is quite by accident; I never realize that that's what it's about until it's over. And I feel like they're also about, I guess, in many ways, people looking for a sense of community in the world. And I think both of those are things that I have. You know, I look at my childhood: I grew up a gay, sort of tortured kid — tortured by myself, not by others — but, you know, I grew up in a really conservative town, I grew up in the Midwest, I was an altar boy, I was raised in a very religious household. So I guess there are childhood elements that I longed for that I'm sure I resolve in my work. But also I feel that there's another theme that runs through it, which is the theme of self-reinvention. And I've always really believed that about life, you know, about taking chances and taking risks, and sometimes you will fail. But — and I always tell this to younger people — the great rewards in my life have always come out of something that's failed, because then it pushes me toward the next thing. You know, I never would have had Glee or American Horror Story if I had done this pilot that I had called Pretty Handsome that I was sure was gonna go, and it didn't go and I was devastated at the time — but out of that came those two projects. So I find that very fascinating. That's another weird thing about show business.

Being a gay man, have you felt a sense of responsibility to tell stories about gay people because you can? It does seem to be an element of virtually all of your projects...

I do. I do. I do feel like the more that you know of people, the more accepting of them you will be. I think that is true about life. And in my career, consciously, I have made an attempt to present characters and situations that can hopefully enlighten people a little bit or push the envelope a little bit. In the case of The Normal Heart, that really was the thrust of it. I had had some success and I thought, "Why has this story not been made? Why?" And it's such an important story, what Larry Kramer wrote, and it was something that I put my life, for many years, into making that come to the screen, because it was important to me as a young kid. It really meant a lot to me when I was 18 and I read that play. The themes of it — I related to the themes of acceptance, the themes of tolerance, to pain and discrimination, all of which I had felt. So I thought that if I could have any of my clout pushing something like that forward into the world, that's what I wanted to do. And I feel that way now more than ever; I really try to do that. And I feel that way only because of the response that I get, which is so overwhelming and so incredible and very moving — it moves me to tears sometimes. I feel like I'm the luckiest person in the world to get to do what I do. If you can ever make even one person in the world stop and feel like, "Okay, maybe I'm not so alone," that's a good thing and that's an amazing thing. And that's one thing that Larry Kramer and I had in common. When I was a little boy and when he was in college, we felt like we were the only people like us in the whole world, and we really felt invisible and there was such a pain to that. So I think things are easier now, in many ways, and I just have a real hunger to keep doing those sort of stories. I don't want everything I do to be that, but I certainly feel like it's a part of my DNA. That is the truth.

I know that people have been talking about adapting The Normal Heart into a film for years, but I understand that it's not been easy. So, logistically, how did you end up making it happen? My sense, from reading other things that you've said, is that it was the most emotionally demanding thing that you've taken on...

Yeah, that is really true. I don't know why it took so long. I think the world is a different place than when they started off, in 1987, trying to make that movie. I think that if you look at big studio movies from '87 to today, I can name very, very few that had one gay protagonist, let alone seven or eight. And I think that a lot of it is just about economics. Those sorts of movies have not historically made a lot of money, and that's, of course, the main consideration for most studios, not all. But, for me, it was just something that I wanted to see, and it's something that I wanted to put out into the world, and it had moved me so much as a kid, and I felt that the message, more than ever, was relevant, and I didn't think that I would have the life that I have — the ability to be married and have the civil rights I have now — without people like Larry Kramer, and specifically Larry Kramer, 'cause I do feel he's a civil rights leader. So that was all in the water.

So what I ended up doing was I bought it myself — I dipped into my IRA account and I bought that play — and I spent three years with him working on the script until he felt it was ready. And then I was lucky enough to get Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts pretty quickly attached to it — it's something I'd been talking to Julia about for years and years and years, so finally when she got to read the draft that we shot she was like, "Okay, I get it. I want to do it." She also thought it was a great thing to put out into the world. And, to be honest, it was, historically, a really difficult thing to get made, but it wasn't that in my life. As soon as I finished the script I was ready to go out on the town with it. And I was, by chance or by luck, having a meeting with HBO about something else, and at the end of the meeting, as often occurs, they said, "Well, what else are you doing? What else do you have coming up?" And I said, "Well, I think I'm gonna go out with this script in two weeks." And Michael Lombardo [HBO's president of programming] said, without even reading it, "I want it. I want it here. I know the play. Richard Plepler [HBO's chairman and CEO] and I loved the play, we saw the play and we want to do it."

So things happen for a reason. Things take their own time, you know? And I think that now is the perfect time for The Normal Heart, I do, because I feel like we're living in an era where the message of The Normal Heart can be a metaphor for many different fights that are going on in our world currently. So it all worked out great. And, more than anything, I'm just so thrilled that Larry Kramer got to see, that he lived to see his masterwork be made, because that was important to me, too, and it was moving for him. And it's also just so great to see somebody who got to see the world change and shift in so many ways in his lifetime, arguably because of the work that he had done, that one play. So it was also sort of magical. And, for me, you know, I've said it before, but it's true: I really cried every day, I was really emotional; I got an ulcer. I was sort of consumed with it, because I felt that it's one of those things that is a sacred text, and there's not many of them. I felt — and the actors felt the same way — an obligation to do it right. And I don't think that I had done anything like it before — you know, the scenes were brutal, there were many death scenes, there were many really horrific scenes of discrimination and horror. And it wasn't just me; it was very hard on the other actors, and it was very hard even on the crew, and it became a real catharsis for, I think, many people who worked on it — and, in hindsight, I think that's why so many people wanted to work on it. Every day of that movie, different crew members would quietly come up to me and say, "I just wanted you to know that I lost my brother and I'm doing this piece in honor of him" or "I lost my dad, who was gay" or — it went on and on and on. I heard it over and over and over. And it was a wonderful, really healing, ultimately, thing to be a part of. It was certainly was for me.

Can you discuss the considerations — pros and cons — that a director might have about getting a film like The Normal Heart out to the world via small screen versus via the big screen?

I think it's really, really about the filmmaker, and I really feel it's about where you heart and passion lies. I think my interest in HBO was that it made a lot of sense to me because I'm a television guy; that's where my passion and interest lie, and it's the medium that I love. I also wanted to make something that had a higher budget than I think I would have gotten if I had taken it around. In fact, I know that to be true. And then the audience, for me, was important, too; I think close to seven-and-a-half million households have now seen The Normal Heart, I don't know how many millions of people. But then there are people who do it brilliantly, you know? Dallas Buyers Club was an example of [a film released via the big screen] that was amazing. It's just luck, you know? I'm working on another story, another project that has a gay protagonist, and I really do want it to be a [theatrically released] movie, just because I want to try that.

It just depends. I don't think there's any tried-and-true formula. I do think that the industry has changed from when I started. I think that a lot more quote-unquote "film people" are interested in working in television now, and I think that's really cool and interesting. And this isn't a decision I made by myself, either. Like, when HBO made the offer, I talked to Larry, I talked to Mark Ruffalo and I talked to Julia Roberts, and the first thing that they all said was, "Yes! Let's do it!" I also spoke to Mike Nichols, who had had a great experience at HBO and had such a wide audience for the two things that he had done with them, Wit and Angels in America. So it was also that — it was just like, "Okay, what's gonna be the best experience?" It was sort of complicated, our project, too, because the budget was larger than you would think because we had a four-month shutdown so Matt Bomer could lose all of the weight. That cost millions of dollars, and HBO didn't blink about that. Just every step of the way it was, "Yes, yes, yes," and I just made a decision to take the yeses, and I'm glad I did, and I think it was the right call.

It seems to me that there has been a tremendous amount of progress toward gay rights since the period that's chronicled in The Normal Heart, and particularly in the time since Glee went on the air. A lot of people don't think that's coincidental and feel that Glee really helped to change people's attitudes by humanizing gay people for those who maybe hadn't had much exposure to them previously. How does that make you feel?

Well, first of all, I always feel tremendously full of gratitude when I hear that, but my first response is, "That's great, but it wasn't just me. It was a bunch of people, I think, at the same time." I really think that. You can't really talk about Glee without talking about Modern Family. I don't think that it's just me, though I do think that my work did it regularly. It was never risky for me to do because that's just who I am: I'm gay, I write about gay people. The people I always have tremendous pride and respect for are the TV executives — that's the great shift — because when I first started out in 1998, '99, it was incredibly hard getting through that process; nobody could do it. It was a much more advertiser-controlled situation then. You would scream, and beg and plead, and they would still say, "No." Either "no" to the gay character specifically or "no" to the dialogue or "no" to the situation. But there's a whole group of people, I feel like, in my generation, who just sort of got fed up with the double standard and the intolerance and decided, "Okay, we're going to allow this," and then it went on the air and, lo and behold, the world didn't stop turning, you know? You can keep doing it and keep doing it. And that's been an amazing shift. I feel like those are the people who really should be commended, because those are the people who could have lost their jobs directly if it didn't work. And that's a tremendous thing to see, to have, you know, executives not only say, "Can you have gay characters?" but to say, "Can this gay character be a little bit more daring in his choices?" I never thought I'd see that in my lifetime, let alone in the 10 to 12 years since I started writing this stuff, so that's been great.

The person in the industry that I really look up to the most, whom I've spoken to and call and ask questions of, is Norman Lear. I aspire to that. I look at the blueprint of what Norman did with his work, and in no way do I feel that I've done as much, but I feel like he was a person of his time and he wrote about the shift of his time very successfully, and he fought to get that shift portrayed somewhat realistically, and that's all I've ever tried to do. And I will keep doing that because that, to me, is important.

Logistically, how do you manage to juggle so many different big projects at any given time? And, because of the amount of work that that must involve, it must have felt pretty gratifying to wake up on Emmy nominations morning a few weeks ago and see — beyond the four nominations that you personally received — the sheer number of other people who are being celebrated for the work that they did on your various projects...

Well, it really was amazing. It was astounding. And the thing that I was most proud of — I was so excited — was just to see all of my friends, who are my collaborators, get recognized by their peers for their work, because I literally saw how much all of them die for those projects and work so hard, and most of them — I would say 80 percent of them — I've worked with before. Again, we go back to how you and I first started talking about that family collective. So that was amazing, and that is always the most exciting thing for me — I just remember how all of those relationships started over a germ of an idea and then it grew into a project, so that was thrilling. And I think, for me, I sort of feel like everything in my life exploded in one period of time: I had two TV shows on the air, I was doing a movie for HBO, I had a baby — I sort of felt like everything happened at once! [Laughs] I felt very overwhelmed in that year — I don't think I would ever do that much work again, because it was hard — but I think it only happened because, you know, in the case of The Normal Heart, I was working on that script for three years, three-and-a-half years before it even reached the preproduction period, so I was then able to say, "Okay, well, how do I make this?" And everybody on all of my projects sat together in a room and figured out a schedule. And, more than that, I just had great collaborators, with [writers/executive producers] Tim Minear and Brad Falchuk on Horror Story and Brad on Glee, and a really super-supportive boss in Dana Walden [who served as co-CEO, with Gary Newman, of 20th Century Fox TV for the past 15 years, until being promoted in July 2014 to serve as co-chairmen and CEOs of the new Fox Television Group], who was really cool about letting me move forward with The Normal Heart and knew how important it was to me. In many ways, I guess, everything I had been working toward and for so long in my career just sort of all happened at once. So it was interesting, it was really cool and hard, but I did love it.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg