“If it’s the right thing, you are headed toward it at a speed you can’t even understand, that’s too slow or too fast,” Matt Bomer says, punctuating the thought with a knowing laugh.
The actor and activist sat down for a chat during a recent screening and reception at the Motion Pictures Association in D.C. for Showtime’s epic gay romantic drama series Fellow Travelers, in which Bomer and Jonathan Bailey star as secret lovers who meet in McCarthy-era Washington.
While a rapt audience inside the screening room enjoyed the series’ racy, ’70s-era Fire Island episode, Bomer, prompted by our discussion of whether actors are destined for certain roles, mused on his uncertain path to his SAG Award-nominated role as closeted WWII vet turned State Department official Hawkins Fuller.
“It’s so interesting, because this came to me early on and I was so pessimistic about it,” he says. “I started out in this industry — I’ve been doing this almost 30 years — at a time when something like this just wouldn’t get made, period.”
Still, throughout his career, the erstwhile White Collar lead has represented the LGBTQ community admirably offscreen, and in stage and screen revivals of The Boys in the Band, and his Golden Globe-winning portrayal of a writer with AIDS in HBO’s The Normal Heart.
“We have seen this slow ebb of progress happening in Hollywood in our storytelling,” he says, citing Fellow Travelers creator Ron Nyswaner’s “beautiful scripts,” and the support of Showtime and Paramount for the show as prime examples of that progress. Yet, he couldn’t shake his apprehension.
“Up until like a month before we started, I was still, ‘This isn’t gonna happen, there’s no way,'” he says. “I was doing all the work, but I think I was protecting my heart.
“But this is one of those stories that felt like, not to sound too esoteric, but it felt like voices wanted to come through. And every time there was an obstacle — and there were a few…” Also a producer on the series, Bomer doesn’t go on record saying what those obstacles were. “But there were multiple times when it looked like it was going to come to a halt, and something just cleared in the path.
“And then, I can’t explain how it happened or why it happened, I thought all of a sudden, once we started getting close, ‘Matt, this is so much bigger than you. This is so much bigger than any of the one parts. You’ve been chosen to do this. You better dig in and do it, because they’re coming through. You’re going to be on this train, or are you not?'”
For Bomer, truly buckling down for the ride meant digging into himself, as well as into the complicated history, depicted on the show, of how certain U.S. government leaders terrorized the LGBTQ community during the ’50s Lavender Scare, and fatally ignored us during the AIDS Crisis. Working on Fellow Travelers naturally provided insight into our nation’s checkered past.
“It’s sad how little I knew about several aspects of the story that we told in this,” Bomer admits. “I mean, I knew, obviously, about the Lavender Scare, but I didn’t have a lived understanding of it, really. I didn’t know a lot pre-Stonewall, other than some of the research I had done for Boys in the Band. I learned so much from this.”
In fact, the world could learn much from this show about the striking resemblances between corrupt conservatives who led the campaign to purge and persecute gays and lesbians in government back then, and the anti-gay policy makers of today. Between those who would ignore the sick and dying then, and those who turn their backs now.
“It’s important to look back,” says Bomer. “Not just solely for righteous indignation, but to realize when our emotions got the better of us, when certain aspects of our pride or identity got the better of us, where we lost a sense of our humanity.
“So my hope is that if folks are able to see a show like this, or a lot of the other content that’s out there right now, they can realize that…it could happen again.”
Fellow Travelers episodes are available for streaming on Paramount+ with Showtime. Visit www.paramountplus.com.
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