From staying power to star power: The rise of Matt Bomer

With his matinee-idol good looks and easy manner, it’s not surprising that Matt Bomer has had a healthy career playing characters that exude old-Hollywood appeal. But he hasn’t let years of playing dashing men on screen go to his head. Even after starring in two of 2023’s most acclaimed projects, “Fellow Travelers” and “Maestro,” Bomer says he feels lucky just to be landing good parts and — after working as an openly gay actor for over a decade — seeing a day when audiences are interested in storytelling over sexual politics.

“I’m so blown away by this younger generation and the fact that their open-mindedness has obliterated so many obstacles. They are hungry for story, and they don’t have any blocks or judgments in terms of the characters they want. They want all of humanity,” Bomer told NBC News, reflecting on how things have changed for LGBTQ actors and storylines over the years.

He added, “I’m so grateful that I hung in there in the industry long enough to see both sides, because there was a time when it certainly felt insurmountable. It felt like we wouldn’t see a day like this.”

While waiting for the industry and audiences to evolve over the past few decades, Bomer — whose breakout role was in the USA Network series “White Collar” — made the most of the parts that came his way. In the aughts and 2010s, he delivered scene-stealing performances as minor characters in action flicks and danced his way into the minds of moviegoers in the “Magic Mike” films. He didn’t shy away from playing gay characters, shining in titles like 2017’s “Boys in the Band” remake and the 2014 TV movie “The Normal Heart,” which earned the actor his first Golden Globe.

But 2023 marked a major shift for the 46-year-old screen veteran who, after turning down “Barbie” to spend time with his family, went on to star in the Showtime series “Fellow Travelers,” which premiered in October, and Netflix’s Leonard Bernstein portrait “Maestro,” released last month. The buzz around both projects and a Golden Globe nomination for “Fellow Travelers” have made Bomer, once again, a dramatic leading man to watch. His staying power is now true star power thanks to a year of career-crowning roles that add to his long list of TV, film and stage roles.

In “Fellow Travelers,” which is based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 historical novel about two men who meet and ignite a lifelong romance in McCarthy-era Washington, Bomer shares both steamy and heart-wrenching moments with fellow star Jonathan Bailey. Together, Bomer and Bailey, best known as a “Bridgerton” heartthrob, convey the complexities of life as gay men in America during the 1950s through the late ‘80s. Amid McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, the assassination of Harvey Milk and the AIDS epidemic, their characters cling to each other, whether they’re physically apart or wrapped in each other’s arms.

“The fact that something like ‘Fellow Travelers’ even got made, and the fact that folks have responded to it the way that they have, is mind-blowing to me. It’s not the case that people just go, ‘Oh, that’s a fun show!’ They have a really deep dialogue and share their stories of love and loss,” Bomer said, describing audiences’ reactions to the series in Q&As. “I think, as an artist, that’s what you always hope for. That’s what I’ve always hoped for — that I’d be a part of telling a story that resonated with someone, that helped them to see their own humanity in some way.”

Jonathan Bailey as Tim and Matt Bomer as Hawkins “Hawk” Fuller in “Fellow Travelers.”Ben Mark Holzberg / Showtime

Unlike “Fellow Travelers,” Bomer’s second major role of the year didn’t earn him an acting nod ahead of this weekend’s Golden Globes ceremony, during which he’ll compete for best male actor in a limited series, anthology series, or a motion picture made for television. But, when Bomer signed on to Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” he did so knowing that he wouldn’t have much time to bring to life David Oppenheim, Bernstein’s lifelong friend and onetime lover.

“I’ve always had a fascination with Leonard Bernstein. His music is in all of our psyches, and, as a young artist, I was always looking for anyone on the LGBTQI+ spectrum out in the zeitgeist. So I wanted to be a part of that story,” Bomer said of the composer of classical and popular works like “West Side Story,” “Candide” and “On the Town.”

“I thought that, even though it’s a small role, it is impactful on the story and the trajectory of Lenny and Felicia’s relationship,” he said, referring to Bernstein and his wife, the actor Felicia Montealegre. “David is one of the many people who enters the orbit of Lenny and is a little burned and a process, but their love was so strong that they stayed in each other’s lives regardless.”

In “Maestro,” the men’s too-brief onscreen romance plays out in the first 40 minutes, which is done in black and white, before the film turns it’s full focus to Bernstein (Cooper) and Montealegre’s (Carey Mulligan) marriage, as well as a brighter palette. But Bomer’s scene-stealing turn as David — whom he describes as representing “the cost of a certain type of love in that day and age” — leaves a lasting mark on the film, adding depth to Cooper’s portrayal of Bernstein’s tenuous relationship with his sexuality. And much of that, it’s worth noting, is done in scenes without dialogue, which were informed by letters between Bernstein and Oppenheim that Bomer studied via the Library of Congress.

Matt Bomer as David Oppenheim gets a foot massage from Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein.
Matt Bomer as David Oppenheim and Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro.”Netflix

Effectively unearthing queer trauma and joy from the past — as well as making an impact in spite of the size of his parts — has become a defining characteristic of Bomer’s career, as evidenced by this year’s roles and his work in projects like “The Normal Heart,” which also earned him an Emmy nomination for outstanding supporting actor in a miniseries or movie. But, as he’s attested to over the years, being an out gay man hasn’t exactly been an industry advantage, even causing him to lose out on roles at times. So it’s a credit to him that, after coming out publicly in 2012 while working on “White Collar,” he’s not only survived the industry but also continues to have his biggest career moments playing queer characters.

Bomer isn’t one to gloat about his success or complain that Hollywood still seems to be catching up to him, however. Instead, he said, with nothing on table at the moment, he’s cautiously optimistic about the future but is trying to remain realistic about what might come next.

“It’s not like I’ve suddenly gotten a string of offers or Hollywood is suddenly beating down my door,” he said. “I think there’s this great misperception about me that I have this bevy of roles to choose from at all times. I’ve really always just tried to make do with what I have, what’s been given to me, and I was just fortunate that this year, in particular, it was two great projects that I’m really proud to be a part of.”

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