In his versatile career as an actor, Matt Bomer has portrayed a male stripper, a closeted journalist, a suave con artist and a brilliant film producer. What he hasn’t had a chance to play on screen—until now—is a role likely to come naturally to the 40-year-old actor: a father.
In the adventure drama Walking Out, which debuted at SXSW and the Sundance Film Festival this spring and premieres Oct. 6 in theaters, Bomer embodies the estranged father of a 14-year-old son, who he takes hunting in the harsh Montana wilderness. While David, played by Josh Wiggins, would rather stay inside his father’s cabin and play video games, Bomer’s character has other ideas when it comes to male bonding. “I related to the character in a really profound way,” says Bomer. “I grew up in Texas, in a family where outdoorsmanship was a big part of our lives. The men in my family [and I] bonded [by] being in [nature] and having silence and a shared space together. I had an innate understanding of why it was so important for Cal to try to perpetuate those values.” While the film is focused on a dramatic event that changes the trajectory of their hunting expedition, it was the greater themes of the movie that struck a chord in Bomer. “Relationships and roles get redefined,” he says. “We start to get to the center of some questions about parenting that I deal with every day, which is, ‘What are we supposed to instill in our children?’”
It’s a question Bomer grapples with as he and husband Simon Halls raise their three children, 9-year-old twins Henry and Walker and 12-year-old Kit, in Los Angeles. “What’s meaningful to us are manners, respect, a good work ethic,” he says, but, more importantly, “a belief in themselves, that they can follow their dreams, pursue whatever they want to pursue and to be their most authentic self. Whoever you are and whoever you want to be is accepted and surrounded with love.”
Growing up in St. Louis, and in Spring, Texas, Bomer credits his own parents for being understanding when they sensed their young child was a little different from other kids. “I’ve always had an active imagination,” says the actor. “I’m sure my parents were concerned about me. A lot of times I was off in my own little world, daydreaming about movies and stories and characters. I would dwell on storytelling for hours on end.”
Bomer’s talent was nurtured throughout middle school by a theater arts teacher who taught him to improvise and give life to the characters he had created in his mind. His senior year, Bomer received a scholarship for some of his monologue performances, which led to his acceptance at Carnegie Mellon University, the alma mater of such actors as Holly Hunter, Ted Danson, Joe Manganiello and Josh Gad. Bomer approached convincing his family this was the right career choice the way he seems to approach everything: meticulously. “I basically gave them the equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation of what it meant to get into a conservatory, how you get in, how at the end of the conservatory you have a presentation where you have the opportunity to get an agent and you’re exposed to casting directors,” he says. “I knew exactly what I wanted right out of the gate, so I think they—thankfully—respected that.”
If he had any doubts about his chosen path, working as a janitor to support himself through high school proved his dedication to acting. “I guess that’s how you really know if you want it,” he laughs. “If you can go to school all day and clean an office building all night and still want to work on monologues at the end of the day.”
After graduation, Bomer landed roles on All My Children and Guiding Light—stints he refers to as graduate school—and eventually he won the starring role in USA Network’s crime-solving series White Collar as sexy con artist Neal Caffrey, which launched him to Sexiest Man on TV status. While Bomer’s picture-perfect looks have no doubt aided his career, he hasn’t discovered a way to discuss this topic that doesn’t feel uncomfortable. “It’s always surprising to me anyone would perceive me that way.” he says. “Objectively, it’s worked for me and against me. It’s so out of my hands.”
What he can control, as he now so often does, is the metamorphosis his characters go through. Nowhere was that quite as evident as in Bomer’s Golden Globe-winning performance as Felix Turner in Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation of Larry Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart. Bomer lost 40 pounds to play the closeted The New York Times reporter whose health deteriorates after he contracts AIDS in the early 1980s. “It was such an educational play for me. ... [I was] living in suburban Texas, [and it helped] me understand what was in the world around me when no one else near me was talking about it,” explains Bomer. “I used to do scenes from it in high school, which was crazy and, I guess, bold that I was doing it in Texas.” Going into the film version, he approached Murphy, telling him he would be happy in the background as long as he got to be part of the experience. “The fact that I got to portray Felix—one of those characters who never leaves you because of their courage in humanity—was the best gift I’ve ever been given by anyone in this industry.”
By the time The Normal Heart was released, Bomer had already publicly acknowledged his relationship to Halls in an acceptance speech for the Steve Chase Humanitarian Award and was now living his life in the open. “That had no bearing on whether or not I’d want to play Felix,” says the actor while acknowledging how fortunate he is to live the life he does. “There’s no need for adjectives around anything anymore. It’s so ’90s to even put adjectives in front of titles now,” he says. “I’m a lucky human being who has a beautiful family.”
It seems all doors are open for Bomer, who is currently starring as the fictional version of producer Irving Thalberg in The Last Tycoon, the series adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final book. Next spring he makes his directorial debut in The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, a professional move 20 years in the making. “I’ve been asked before, but I always had a prominent role in a production. I wanted to come at it with fresh eyes, independent of being in the middle of a story being told, and be able to put my own fingerprint on the work,” he says, adding with a laugh: “I am terrified and excited and sometimes both in the same moment.” Bomer would also like to do more stage work and produce his own films. And he would, of course, never say no to another Magic Mike sequel. “I would do any movie with that group of guys. I really would,” he says, joking that the follow up to XXL may have to be called AARP.
But above all, Bomer now wants to be pickier about what he does professionally—not because of the legacy his work will leave behind, but in order to spend more time with his family. “Once you become a parent, your world becomes much more tightknit,” he says. “It becomes about the family, as it should be. That’s who lifts me up in a storm. We’re fortunate to have loving kids who haven’t been caught up in the wave of being too cool to give us hugs and kisses just yet. My family makes me smile at the end of a hard day.”
Photographed by Brian Bowen Smith | Styled by James Aguiar//Grooming by David Cox for Art Department using Kevin Murphy