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Matt Bomer Takes His Dark, Sexy Turn: “I Got to Be the Bad Boy”

Fellow Travelers marks Bomer’s first executive producer credit, and only his second producing credit to date; his first came for the latter years of White Collar, which ended nearly a decade ago. What binds those two roles, arguably his most notable onscreen thus far, is the embodiment of deception. In White Collar, a snappy procedural, Bomer played a con artist who lends his unparalleled skills in illegal maneuvering to the FBI. You believe he’s a career criminal because Bomer can sell it with a smirk.

When the show ended, Bomer was newly out in the industry and realizing his place in it was changing. If a certain kind of leading-man lane had closed to him, his collaborations with the likes of Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike) and Ryan Murphy (The Boys in the Band) opened up a more fruitful path. “I can’t look back in anger,” he says. A project like Fellow Travelers weighs on him because of what it took even for him to nab to such a juicy part. “I want more queer actors to have opportunities to play roles like this and to be trusted with roles like this,” he says. “I’d be lying to you if I said that wasn’t in the back of my mind.”

Aside from some voice work, a cameo in the latest Magic Mike movie, and most significantly the acclaimed Murphy-produced adaptation of The Boys in the Band, Maestro is Bomer’s only movie since 2018. His first days in production took place at the music venue of Tanglewood, where the legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein, portrayed in the film by Cooper, performed and taught throughout his life. (Bomer plays the clarinetist David Oppenheim, one of Bernstein’s lovers.) In the Massachusetts woods, he was rehearsing for Cooper, also the director, while producer Steven Spielberg hung around, spontaneously filming Bomer on his own personal camera. “I thought, Oh, my God, it’s like two of my heroes in the same room. How do I do this?’” Bomer recalls. “With Bradley, I felt like I was working with Cassavetes and Orson Welles at the same time.”

Now a significant Oscar contender for Netflix, Maestro represents another breakthrough for Bomer. He filmed it just before Fellow Travelers and found watching Cooper inhabit Bernstein across different eras impact the way he approached the Showtime limited series: “Watching him jump through all the time periods, I thought, Oh, wow. Okay. You can do this.” He had to go back and forth between Fellow Travelers and reshoots of Maestro in the fall. His head was spinning.

Not that you’d ever witness the chaos on camera. In Maestro, too, Bomer is cool, collected, and commanding. He sees both Oppenheim and Travelers’ Hawk as people who “did what they had to do.” He sees himself that way, in fact. “When I was first breaking into the business, I did what I had to do to try to get roles,” he says. “And then at a certain point, I hit the fuck-it button.” Maybe so—that unburdening is evident in his rich recent work. But it’s no secret that Bomer is a master of appearances. He’s played suave liars for most of his career; he’s learned exactly what to give to the camera and when.

In an upcoming episode of Fellow Travelers, Hawk and his new bride, played by Allison Williams, prepare to have sex. Filming of the scene, as always, began with the director calling action. In character, Bomer then reached up and gently pushed Williams’s hair back. The improvised move seemed like a simple, tender, loving gesture—but its function was sneakily practical. The episode’s director, Uta Briesewitz, whispered to Nyswaner, who was beside her at the monitor, “He just cleared her profile.” Bomer knew Williams’s hair was blocking her face. He didn’t ignore it or restart to get through the take; he instead managed to fix the shot’s composition while simultaneously enhancing its mood—and all as if he weren’t doing a thing. “That’s who Matt is,” Nyswaner says. “He’s so aware.”

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