Julia Roberts said she twice turned down her role on the upcoming HBO film “The Normal Heart,” but that Ryan Murphy refused to listen.
Murphy joked at a Television Critics Association panel Thursday that he took out a second mortgage to buy the rights to Larry Kramer’s autobiographical play about the earliest victims of AIDS. Roberts wasn’t clear exactly when she was offered the role of Dr. Emma Brookner, a survivor of childhood polio who treats them. But at least one of the invitations came from Murphy, who directed her in “Eat, Pray, Love.”
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“When Ryan asked me to play this character and I said no, I don’t think he heard me,” said Roberts.
She said she couldn’t get a handle on the character until she watched a documentary about polio.
“It unlocked the door to who this woman is to me, and where her ferocious, relentless pursuit of correctness comes from,” she said. “And that’s when Ryan got what he always gets, which is the answer he wants.”
The film, airing in May, is star-studded even by HBO standards. Roberts and Murphy were joined at the TCA winter press your Thursday by the film’s other stars, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons and Taylor Kitsch.
Bomer lost 40 pounds to play a man battling AIDS.
“We took a very small break and he came back half the person he was and twice the man he was,” Roberts said.
Murphy said the film, set from 1981 to 1983, feels relevant today because of the struggle to legalize same-sex marriage. He was asked if he was surprised to be at a point where two of his lead actors — Bomer and Parsons — could be openly gay.
“I do think that the world has changed so much even in the past five years since I’ve been working on the material with Larry,” he said. “It’s sort of thrilling.””I don’t think of actors as gay or straight. I think of great actors.”
Parsons said he was pleased to find when he came out that it was no bigger a deal to anyone else than it was to him. Bomer joked that he had first read “The Normal Heart” in a drama class closet.
“The irony of that is not lost on me,” he said.