New York — When he landed the lead in Amazon Prime's The Last Tycoon, Matt Bomer had never read the timeless F. Scott Fitzgerald novella on which the series is based. But by chance, he had just finished another celebrated novel set in 1930s Hollywood, Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust.
"I was contemplating the themes both books deal with: How do you maintain your artistry in such a commercial industry as the movies — and can you? And I was thinking about how much Hollywood has changed since that time period. And how little has really changed."
Before long, Bomer would be poring over Fitzgerald's prose to prepare for his Last Tycoon portrayal.
To be released Friday, The Last Tycoon tells of Monroe Stahr (Bomer), a whiz-kid film producer with a sure eye but a broken heart — a congenital heart defect that means he is living on borrowed time while he mourns the recent death of his wife (and the studio's biggest star).
Consumed with making a perfect motion picture that can stand as his legacy, he clashes with his studio boss and father figure, Pat Brady, played by Kelsey Grammer.
Watch the trailer here:
The role fits Bomer as comfortably as the rakish double-breasted suits in which Stahr presides as the studio's golden boy. (Or maybe even more comfortably: "Those suits were so snugly tailored that sometimes I had a hard time breathing," Bomer says with a laugh.)
It's only the latest ambitious turn by the 39-year-old actor, who's best known from his six seasons as transformed con artist Neal Caffrey on White Collar, but who has also starred in Magic Mike and its sequel, the TV film The Normal Heart alongside Julia Roberts and Jim Parsons, and on American Horror Story: Hotel.
A lavish production
This Last Tycoon follows in the footsteps of the 1976 feature film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Robert De Niro and Robert Mitchum.
"Kazan and De Niro? We're not trying to replicate the movie!" exclaims Bomer. "But with our series we can take the essence of the original story and fan it out. A lot was going on then."
A lot is going on with the series' lavish production values and the dazzling Tinseltown style it revives.
"To recreate the 1930s in Hollywood is irresistible," says executive producer Christopher Keyser, speaking for himself as well as the audience: "It's like this amazing toy that you want to play with."
But at the same time, the Depression is literally at Brady American's studio gates: a Hooverville of homeless people is encamped beside the lot. Meanwhile, the Nazi threat is bearing down on the free world — and on Stahr as he fights to stay true to his artistic vision against political and commercial pressures.
Bomer meant to stay true to Fitzgerald's vision in his performance.
"I read the novel several times," he says. "I'd highlight passages that I thought were really central to the character. I wrote them in my notebook so I could always refer to them as we were going scene by scene. That was my way of trying to keep F. Scott in the picture."
What did he discover about his character from this immersion?
"I learned a lot about self-reinvention," Bomer says. "How you can be born Milton Sternberg in the Bronx and then become Monroe Stahr in Hollywood."
Reinvention is a fact of life for any actor, but it was also often been part of the plan for Hollywood's behind-the-scenes moguls. In the past, many tried to leave behind their Jewish identity as they claimed power in a town where anti-Semitism once flourished. And, as with Stahr, they always felt apart from the world they dominated.
That rang familiar for Bomer.
"As a gay man in Hollywood," he says, "I certainly understand what it means to be IN it, but not OF it, to be marginalized at times and kept out of certain clubs. That was a close parallel."
Series creator Billy Ray says that, while there was a bit of a leap of faith in selecting Bomer for the role — a character different from any he had played before — "one day into pre-production, we knew we had the guy. Who he is, what he's overcome, what he's made of himself — all of that gives Matt a kind of insight into what it must have been to be Milton Sternberg turning himself into Monroe Stahr."
In 2011, Bomer married his longtime partner, publicist Simon Halls, with whom he has three sons. He publicly came out five years ago by recognising Halls and their children while accepting an award for his efforts in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
He grew up in a Houston suburb in a loving yet "church-going-two-to-three-times-a-week" family, which helps account for what he recalls as "a little sense of alienation" that resulted.
"But they're scars that I'm fond of and grateful for, in a way," Bomer says. "Hopefully, they've only helped me to become more interesting and compassionate. Not someone who feels less than or other than."