At least Julia Roberts knew she was making people roll their eyes.
“It all just sounds like horrible cliches that you guys (TV critics) will grind your teeth over,” predicted Roberts, when asked about her role in the made-for-TV movie The Normal Heart, which debuts Sunday, May 25 on HBO Canada.
“But 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, in a piece like this, with someone that I'm very safe and comfortable with (director Ryan Murphy), it was really great.”
As for the story, though, there is nothing safe or comfortable about The Normal Heart, which was written by Larry Kramer, adapting his largely autobiographical Tony Award-winning play of the same name.
The Normal Heart is a drama about the onset of the HIV-AIDS crisis in New York in the early 1980s, as gay activists and their allies in the medical community fought to expose the burgeoning epidemic to a city and nation in denial. In addition to Roberts, the all-star cast includes Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch and Jim Parsons.
Roberts plays Dr. Emma Brookner, a wheelchair-bound survivor of childhood polio who treats several early victims of HIV-AIDS.
“I had been asked twice before to play this part and both times turned it down, not only because of conflicts of time, but my inability to fully understand who this character was,” Roberts said. “So when Ryan (Murphy) asked me to play this character and I said no, I didn't think he heard me, so I was like, 'Well, maybe, I don't think I can.' And he just said, 'Well, call me back.'
“I thought, 'Let me ruminate about it.' I ended up watching a documentary on polio, which unlocked the door to who this woman is to me and where her ferocious, relentless pursuit of correctness comes from.
“That's when Ryan received what he always gets, which is the answer he wants.”
It's a rougher road for Dr. Brookner to get the answers she wants. She suspects gay men are infecting each other with this horrible new disease through sexual activity, but she can't prove it yet. She therefore gets a lot of resistance from the gay community, who worry that if they self-identify as carriers of whatever the hell this is, the anti-gay lobby will target them even more.
“If we are connected by a true thread, it's impossible physically to turn your back on somebody,” Roberts said. “That's the real point of storytelling, to nurture that idea, and this movie does it in such a profound way because it's dealing with a moment that's so desperate and mysterious.
“We, as a humanity, failed each other in that time. That's always a great reminder to do better and to stay together.”
No eye-rolling at that, Julia.