‘The Last Tycoon’ Star Matt Bomer: ‘The Best Acting’s Bound to Cost You Something’

When Matt Bomer decided to reread a piece of classic literature on a whim, he had no clue that he’d actually started doing research for his next role. But picking up The Day of the Locust turned out to be a lucky fluke, because shortly thereafter he met with one of the producers tasked with bringing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final work, The Last Tycoon, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year and deals with similar themes as the Nathanael West work, to the small screen.

Inspired by the life of legendary film mogul Irving Thalberg, the new Amazon series follows Monroe Stahr, a newly widowed Jewish movie executive with the golden touch, as he navigates the glamorous, conniving, and shady world of 1930s Hollywood at the tail end of the Great Depression — and just as Hitler’s Germany starts to exert its financial power on international pop culture. In his quest to preserve the memory of his starlet wife, leave a legacy, and help keep the studio run by his mentor/father figure Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer) afloat, he hatches a plan with Brady’s daughter (Lily Collins), who is determined to become a power player herself and bed Stahr in the process.

Bomer, who also happens to look the part thanks to his era-appropriate chiseled jaw and rakish good looks, spoke with Yahoo TV about the novel timing of his new gig, how the themes found in Fitzgerald’s swan song are just as germane and important today, and which prop he wishes he could take home. (Hint: It is not the giant Shiva head from the movie set within the TV set.)

Matt Bomer as Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon. (Photo: Amazon Studios)

How would you describe The Last Tycoon to people unfamiliar with the Fitzgerald work?
It’s a romantic, dramatic glimpse into the world of the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s, filled with themes that are still relevant today, maybe even more relevant than ever today. There are dynamic relationships. There are strong narratives and an incredible creative team offering incredible production design, costumes, and photography. It’s a very Fitzgerald-inspired look at Hollywood and the cost of the American dream in 1936-37 in the first season.

Coming off of a very successful season with American Horror Story and several film gigs (Magic Mike, The Nice Guys), you probably have a lot of offers on your desk. Why did this particular one catch your eye?
Well, serendipitously, I’d just been revisiting the Nathanael West piece The Day of the Locust, which deals with a lot of similar themes, and I was mulling over all these thoughts about Hollywood and how much it has and hasn’t changed. That time period seems so long ago, but all the roadblocks we face and how hard it is to maintain your artistry in the middle of a business are all still very similar. I was pondering all these things when Billy Ray [the Oscar-nominated writer-executive producer of Captain Phillips] called and said he wanted to sit down and talk about this project. I thought that was pretty fortuitous. Then we sat down together, talked about his ideas for the show, and it just seemed like the right project at the right time.

Sounds like casting destiny.
A little bit. That time period, that world, Hollywood history, and the themes were so interesting to me that I would have taken that meeting either way, but the fact that I was reflecting on that at the time in my life when the project came my way does seem like it was meant to be.

As I watched the pilot, I kept thinking, “Man, we really have not come that far.” Women are still routinely paid less than men and have less power. There is still racism and homophobia. Artists and studios are still trying to find the balance between craft and commerce. Drugs are still ending promising careers way too soon.
These are all themes dealt with in the show. One of the profound things about getting to work on this piece with such smart writers and Chris [Keyser, Tyrant and Party of Five] and Billy at the helm is that, sadly, as we were making the piece, everything we were talking about on the show became more and more relevant and more and more immediate. One of the things that I love most about being an artist is that in times of turmoil and strife, you have this great medium — all the mediums actually — to use to reflect what’s going on, and hopefully you get to try to help people not let history repeat itself. Hopefully in telling these stories, you and the viewers can learn from them and move forward instead of step back.

Monroe is presented as a Hollywood golden boy, a rising star on the movie studio side, a man devoted to the idea of telling his late wife’s rags-to-riches story, a friend to all, giver of advice, even a snappy dancer. But by the end of the first episode, the audience will see that maybe he isn’t as perfect as he seems on first glance. Is he the shiny, perfect savior?
No, not even remotely, and that’s one of the things I love about working on the show. Monroe does operate from a moral gray area in many instances. I think a lot of that’s due to the way he lost his wife and how much he misses her and the choices he makes at a very vulnerable time in his life. A lot of that he is trying to unwind in the first few episodes this season. But one of the great Fitzgeraldian conceits is this whole idea of self-invention and re-creating yourself in America and America being a place where you can do that. It’s a theme he explores in Gatsby a lot. And it’s a theme you can read in this piece because behind Monroe Stahr is Milton Sternberg from the Bronx. Some of my favorite scenes this season, which come a little bit later, in Episodes 4 and 5, are when you really start to get a peek behind that curtain to see what he’s hiding behind the Monroe Stahr image he has created. You’ll learn who he was before Pat [Brady] found him and tutored and fathered him into becoming Monroe.

The most important relationship in this series is the one between Monroe and his mentor/father figure/boss Pat Brady. It is an intense, meaty, and complicated relationship. It is only fitting that a TV icon like Kelsey Grammer is playing him. What was it like to work with him? Did it help to have someone who certainly has an easily admired TV career to play off of?
Kelsey is wonderful. Kelsey could read the phone book and win an Emmy. He’s just an incredibly gifted artist. He has a big, commanding presence with that unbelievable voice. And I love him deeply. He’s just a very open soul. He doesn’t bring a sense of ego to the set. He really was collaborative from day one. And it is a very twisted, beautiful relationship that they create because he is like a father to Monroe Stahr. There is a sense of onus that Monroe feels to him. But at the same time, there are boundaries. But they’re a little bit lax because there is an incestuous aspect going on. Monroe’s having an affair with his wife and a flirtation with his daughter. He needs Monroe to excel, but not so much that he eclipses him, and he needs to be able to control Monroe in light of the Depression and the dark days ahead. So it adds up to this big, incestuous, internecine, complex, sick relationship between them. A lot of the story that that relationship is responsible for telling is the commerce element, but it does go a great deal deeper than that over the course of the season.

When I spoke with the producers, they talked a lot about what the cost of fame and success is. Monroe makes sacrifices. He certainly manipulates people to get things to go his way, and there are other characters who sacrifice to be successful and who turn to temptation and drugs to cope. As an actor yourself, could you relate to this?
Well, honestly, of course I can on some level relate to many of those things. But I think with Monroe, it’s much more of an immediate concern. He isn’t terribly interested in being in front of a camera. He wants to be more of a puppet master behind the camera. His whole M.O. is about legacy. There’s been a ticking clock on his life from the time he was born [because of] his congenital heart defect. He knows that he has to put his stamp on this industry in a limited amount of time, which provides great stakes and immediacy to scenes. That was more my focus, more than trying to relate it to myself. It was more about every choice he made in trying to bring art into the confines of the studio system, more about legacy and how to achieve that. He is trying to figure out how to leave his mark in the limited time that he knows he has.

There is a suicide in the first episode, and certainly, in real life, there are still too many artists lost to mental illness, addiction, and suicide. It makes me think, even from my end of the business, is art worth the sacrifices?
Oh my God, yes. If you look back at Hollywood, even before the talkies, it’s rife with details of people who basically came out and sacrificed their lives for fame. People who died in the process, who fell into drugs and alcohol, who suffered from deep depressions. Many were people who came out to Hollywood scrappy but got beat down. Go and listen to the podcast You Must Remember This. It has all those sad stories of Americans who wanted to achieve immortality. I think the stories you hear typically are more about people who are trying to get in front of the camera. Monroe’s behind the camera trying to achieve that same legacy. So he comes from a different place of power in that space, whereas an actor is coming from a pretty vulnerable place.

You are all such damaged folks, you actors.
[Laughs] We certainly like to think so, don’t we?

I’m mostly kidding, although I do think that to tap into these dark and sad topics realistically, you are going to have to confront your own skeletons and feelings, and that probably causes a bit of wound opening.
Sure, of course. The best acting’s bound to cost you something. But the theme of the brutality of the industry is definitely explored throughout the piece. And no matter what your position is in the Hollywood dynamic, whether you’re an actor, producer, writer, studio head, and on down the line, it costs a chunk of their humanity, their soul, their hopes, their dreams. They want to fit into the studio system, however they can.

It also is one giant piece of eye candy between the costumes, props, sets, and the gorgeous people. It is a beautiful series.
Yeah, absolutely. One of the great benefits of getting to work with the bucket list group of professionals and creatives that we have on this show is that it creates such an immersive environment. I come from the theater where sometimes you’re on an empty stage having to pretend you’re in an elaborate mansion, and here you can open any drawer on the set and pull out a period detail. It allows you to inhabit the world more effortlessly, more fully. Patrizia von Brandenstein’s production design is incredible. Janie Bryant’s costumes change your posture, change the way you hold yourself. Those are transporting. The way that Danny Moder shoots it, it looks like Klute. It’s so rich. I feel like I’m doing a Snickers commercial — he has these chocolaty tones at times. It’s just very detailed. And so yeah, all of those things conspire to really help you as an artist and allow you to just be in that world and not have to endow things that just are not there. If you go through the list of Oscars and Emmys and Golden Globes that this incredible group of professionals both in front of and behind the camera has, it’s astounding. It’s all really a testament to Billy Ray, because he is a brilliant writer and a force of nature. He is the real Monroe Stahr. And he comes from a place of inherent decency, so people want to work with him and do their best for him.

While watching, I was making a wish list in my head of all of the jewelry and props and Lily Collins costumes I wish I had. If you could take home one item from filming, what would it be? The giant Shiva head perhaps?
Oh my God, that thing was cool but huge. Where on Earth would I put that? No, like a year and a half ago, I told Patrizia I have to have the chair from Monroe’s office. It’s the most incredible chair I’ve ever seen and had the luxury of sitting in. In fact, whenever we have a scene in the office, I always start the rehearsal by trying to figure out how I’m going to be able to sit in my chair. They have to pry me away from it. I know there’s no way I am getting that chair, but a boy can dream. Isn’t that what the show’s all about?

But I have to say that the experience is enough of a takeaway for me. I’ve been working in this medium for almost 17 years. It’s one of the few times where every episode has been stronger and more detailed and more engaging than the episode before it, to where it finally builds to this incredible peak and cliffhanger in the finale.

The Last Tycoon is now streaming on Amazon Video.