Mark Ruffalo was puzzled when he was recruited to play Ned Weeks, a thinly fictionalized character based on AIDS activist Larry Kramer in the HBO film adaptation of Kramer's Tony award-winning play "The Normal Heart."
"I was like: 'Me?' " said Ruffalo. The actor, who often plays sensitive roles in films such as "The Kids Are All Right," asked director Ryan Murphy, "Shouldn't a gay person be playing Ned Weeks at this point in time? Aren't we there yet?"
Murphy told him he was "missing the point," that "the whole meaning of this movie" was that it did not matter whether a gay actor plays Kramer.
"He was much more evolved on that than I was," Ruffalo said.
"The Normal Heart," which debuts on HBO on Sunday, also features Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory," Oscar-winner Julia Roberts ("Erin Brockovic,") and Matt Bomer of TV's "White Collar."
The play was first staged in 1985 and revived on Broadway in 2011. The story covers 1981 to 1984, early years of the outbreak when fear and confusion reigned.
Kramer, a former Hollywood screenwriter, became the face of AIDS activism, helping to establish groups such as Gay Men's Health Crisis and the more militant ACT UP. He spent years adapting his story, often consulting with Murphy, now known for the hit TV series "Glee."
Murphy decided the adaptation would not shy away from explicit gay loves scenes or graphic depictions of the illness.
"I didn't want to make it hazy and romantic, I wanted to make it raw and scary," Murphy told Reuters. "I told Larry my approach was, it's a horror movie."
Murphy, who married his partner in 2012 and now has a child, was not alone in embracing the film as a passion project.
Parsons, who reprises his role of a young activist from the Broadway production, said: "As a gay man living in this day and age, it's never been so clear to me whose shoulders I stand on than it is when you take part in a project like this."
Bomer, who plays a New York Times reporter and Ruffalo's boyfriend, was 14 when he first read the play in school in a Texas Bible belt town near Houston.
"Two hours later I was weeping and my entire world view had been changed," he recalled.
The early battles of AIDS activists "catalyzed the gay rights movement and gave me a lot of the rights I have today," said Bomer, who is married to his partner and has three sons.
Ruffalo said that spending time with Kramer, 78, helped him bring nuance and vulnerability to the role.
"This whole story is love," he said. "It's not the fighting, it's not the angst, That's the byproduct of a broken heart that comes from being so let down by your beliefs about people, about America and democracy, things that we hold in high regard supposedly, but were so sidetracked during this epidemic."