The Normal Heart just premiered on HBO. It was a bestseller that has been adapted into an unflinching HBO Films presentation that explores the indifference that escalated the growing AIDS epidemic in New York City’s gay community in 1981. The film stars Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, and Alfred Molina. Julia Roberts is another member of the stellar ensemble in a small but vital role as Dr. Emma Brookner.
As befits her superstar status, Roberts was greeted by scores of jostling photographers when she showed up at the last Television Critics Association press tour for the HBO interview panel to promote the movie. She looked great but reveals she had to put on a few pounds for her role in The Normal Heart. With a big smile she said, “They made me put on weight so it would more fit the role.”
At the HBO press conference reporters wanted to know how she felt about “taking on an unglamorous role.” At age 46, the Oscar-winning actress (for Erin Brockovich) was amused by the thought and responded, “It’s funny, when a girl just looks like a person, she is unglamorous. Of course, I’m just saying.”
Despite a lot of interest in her personal life, it was more fascinating to hear why she signed on to do the HBO movie thanks to the persistence of producer and director Ryan Murphy (the executive producer of Glee and American Horror Story). She said, “My relationship with Ryan also provided me with such an incredible education, and this definitely is another stone on that path of knowledge that we share together, because I have been asked twice before to play this part, and both times I turned it down.”
Why did she turn it down before, only to accept the role now? Roberts reported there were conflicts of time, but also “my inability to fully understand who this character was. So when Ryan asked me to play this character, I said, ‘No.’ I don’t think he heard me, so I was like, ‘Well, maybe.’”
After that Roberts said, “Ryan called me back, and I thought, well, just let me ruminate about it a little bit. And I wound up watching a documentary on polio, which I’m too young to remember what the experience was like for the country and the world. And it unlocked the door to who this woman is to me, and where her ferocious, relentless pursuit of correctness comes from, which was the answer Ryan wanted.”
What came out of that was the satisfaction of taking on the role and doing justice to the dedicated doctor. Roberts said, “It was just a beautiful experience to get to play her, and to get to pay tribute to a person who never let anything stand between her and the right thing to do for someone else.”
The statement that The Normal Heart makes touches Roberts’ heart. She said, “It’s impossible physically to turn your back on somebody, so that’s the real point of storytelling, to nurture that idea. And this movie does it in such a profound way because it’s about how humanity failed each other in that time.”
Roberts said she tries to do roles that have some substance. “It’s important to me to participate in things that make me feel like I’m a better person and can participate in my daily life with slightly more conviction, or more joy, or more compassion. To be in a part like this, with more compassion, is a part I’m very safe and comfortable with,” she said referring to HBO’s The Normal Heart.