With ''The Normal Heart,'' Arena Stage is putting Patrick Breen and Luke Macfarlane -- two out LGBT actors -- center stage

Interview by Chris Geidner
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on July 5, 2012, 7:36am | Comments

Playing Ned and Felix, the two lovers at the center of The Normal Heart, Patrick Breen and Luke Macfarlane have come to D.C.'s Arena Stage to lead the first touring production of the show that won three Tony Awards in 2011.

Larry Kramer's 1985 play is a difficult one, dealing with the beginnings of AIDS, the horribly unexpected deaths that came with it, and the slow response from the government – and the gay community. Both Breen and MacFarlane had been in the Broadway performance, although not in the leading roles they play at Arena.

Luke and Patrick: 'The Normal Heart'

Luke and Patrick: 'The Normal Heart'

(Photo by Todd Franson)

Macfarlane, best known for his role as Scotty on Brothers and Sisters, comes into the theater carrying his bike, sweating and shirtless. Before venturing into the conference room to talk, he puts on a shirt.

A few minutes later, Breen, who starred in the Broadway debut of Geoffrey Nauffts's Next Fall, arrives, carrying a box from Amazon.com. He shares his purchases: Linda Hirshman's Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution and Alif the Unseen by graphic novelist G. Willow Wilson that, to his surprise, is not illustrated, but that Breen nonetheless remains excited to read.

Macfarlane, pre-show (and post-workout), is energized, having had a group of D.C. friends attend the previous night's show.

''I spent a majority of the day thinking about my evening last night, so that play never really goes away for the whole day,'' he says. ''And I do this thing to myself where I have to amp myself up into the performance.''

Turning to Breen, he adds, ''We talked a little bit about how you and I are different. I really feel like I have to get my blood moving, literally, or else I won't have enough energy to do it.''

''I don't,'' Breen counters. ''I was at the Phillips Collection with [Patricia Wettig] today from like 12 to 2:30. But around 2:30 or 3, we're both like, 'Gotta get home, and start preparing.' Maybe eat a little something, having a coffee or tea, take a little nap, and made dinner at 5. … Then, I've got to get to the theater.

''Ten minutes before, I just sit in the back of the theater and listen to the audience coming in, and sit in the dark and be quiet and let my mind wander. Then, right before that killer music starts, I think about the names on the projections that I put up there, that I know of people who died of AIDS. So, I think about them right before we go on.''

METRO WEEKLY: This is quite a show to perform, night after night.

LUKE MACFARLANE: The way George [C. Wolfe] has directed it, there's no moment of rest in anything. There's really no time where you can just [exhale].

PATRICK BREEN: Because you have to observe, if you're not acting.

MACFARLANE: And the observing takes a real level of focus.

BREEN: Plus, you have to stand.

MACFARLANE: And I stand, for like 15 minutes, in those shoes.

MW: Those shoes?

MACFARLANE: They're just these lovely little Brooks Brother-y type of conservative shoes.

BREEN: They're uncomfortable?

MACFARLANE: They're very uncomfortable.

BREEN: Get insoles or something.

MACFARLANE: I was thinking about asking for it.

BREEN: Get those pillow-y things with the gel in them.

MW: You'll look forward to those moments.

MACFARLANE: I'm just going to stay here.

MW: You talked about the Sunday night performance, and how much this takes out of you. Thinking about what you go through to do a show like this, how do you do it?

BREEN: You have to sleep and eat and don't really talk to anybody. This weekend – we pretty much do five shows in 52 hours, from Friday night at 8 till Sunday night at 9:30, 49-and-a-half hours – so, after Friday night, maybe I'll go out with people, but it has to be really, super-low key, sleep, eat a lot, maybe go run a bit. I isolate, because there's no stamina if you don't, for me, personally. I have to pretty much shut everything else down.

Sunday night, I've noticed, is incredibly difficult to do. In other ways, it can be more raw because you're – it's not unguarded – but, if I had any sort of barriers…. When you get to the Proust speech and you're defending gay culture, and you're railing against people who refuse to see that perhaps their sexual behavior is contributing to the epidemic, you just keep tearing it out. I'm not shaping it, I'm not able to go, ''What is the best way to do this?'' You just have to kind of spill it out and see what happens. It may be a little sloppier or whatever, but I think it can be more raw and maybe interesting that way, but I think that's the only way I'm left with. I sound like such a fuckin' –

MACFARLANE: No you don't. What I was thinking was, your ideas don't really get you through as much as your emotions.

BREEN: It's less conscious and more unconscious. It's not unconscious, I'm not psychotic. Some might disagree. But all of us have to feel that way. Our scene, the grocery scene, where you just – ''Alright, what are we doing? Tear it up.''

MW: It's hard to imagine something with the constant emotional depth that this gets into.

MACFARLANE: It's a wonderful freedom to be given the opportunity to sort of say, ''Find the deepest place in you, and go there.'' Obviously, in real life, you can't go there, for whatever reasons. I think that's why Ned, in D.C., is such an interesting character, because this entire city is sort of about, ''You can't really go there.''

The sort of emotion that we get to have onstage to get to tell the story, it's actually really rewarding, and we don't get to do it in real life. At all, really. So, in that way, it can actually be really wonderful and energy-giving. I actually do feel more energized, sometimes, at the end of the show than I do at the beginning.

BREEN: He's right. The Tuesday through Fridays, when you have one show, I can aim it, hone it like a crazy laser from a crazy superhero movie, and go, ''There's the show.'' The weekend is different. It has to be more raw, more emotional, because I don't have the same stamina.

Larry's play requires that level of intensity, because it doesn't work otherwise. I think if you just read it, it can be kind of a screed, a political screed. When you read Larry's writings on it, he says, ''I tried to make Ned as obnoxious as possible.''

MW: George C. Wolfe makes Ned more likable. I think the other people being in the scenes, in the background, does change the way you watch it, because Ned can come off as being so isolated. You get this sense that he's maybe not as alone as he thinks he is.

BREEN: The great thing about the play is that Larry, after seeing the Broadway production, maybe it was opening night, said to George, ''I didn't know I'd written a love story.'' What differentiates this production from other past productions is that the love relationship between Felix and Ned is the focus in a way that it wasn't in other productions.

You see the political and the struggle and the history, and then he sneaks in this love story. It's not even snuck in, I don't know how he could have missed it. There's three scenes in the first act, three scenes in the second act, and it ends with a gay marriage and the death of a loved one. How doesn't that break your heart?

MACFARLANE: I'm so curious by that comment that Larry made because I thought, ''If it's not a love story, then what the fuck is Felix doing in this play? What else would he have been?''

MW: The sense that I always got was that Felix was almost a way to keep Ned from not being completely off-putting to other people. Seeing the way that this performance is done, I did feel it differently. Taking on this show, knowing that you're taking on this emotional commitment, is that a positive for doing the show?


Patrick Breen, and  Luke MacFarlane: 'The Normal Heart'

Patrick Breen, and Luke MacFarlane: 'The Normal Heart'

(Photo by Todd Franson)

BREEN: It's absolutely positive. These are the roles that you dream about playing. It's a modern Hamlet. It's a contemporary play, in my opinion, of that challenge. That's why I do it.

If they're not going to pay you a great deal of money and if you're not going to be in Rio de Janeiro, then you pick it for the role.

I saw Joe Mantello do this role 80 times, and I went, ''I want a crack at it.'' So, when they said they were doing this regional tour, I was hoping that they would ask me to play Ned. I would have thrown my hat in the ring if they hadn't, but they did ask me to do it. I thought about it for a little bit, but I said, ''Yeah, I got to do it.''

[Macfarlane] called me and he said they asked him to do Felix, and we were both in the Broadway production, and we were like, ''Fuck yeah!'' I really like Luke, and the crazy thing is, our characters, Mickey and Craig and Grady, were often connected in the Broadway production. We did all the set changes together, we stood together a lot, we had – Grady and Mickey had this friendship –

MACFARLANE: Completely to the point that, when we were rehearsing the Grady scene, a very small little scene, I totally made up this whole thing that my character is flirting with Mickey.

BREEN: So, we knew we were going to be moving into these roles.

MACFARLANE: Our plan all along.

BREEN: Luckily, I wasn't working for three months before this. Because it takes a lot. Like an athlete, like you're preparing for a marathon. You have to eat and train. Sort of, you have to ration your feelings. That's going to sound really strange –

MACFARLANE: I like that actually.

BREEN: I'm not in a relationship. I was living alone. But, I knew this was coming and I knew that it would require a lot of feelings. I don't know whether that's even possible, but you have to sort of ration. I'm glad I wasn't working for a few months before rehearsing this and then performing it, so that I could just send it out, see what happens. With George's shape and my own abilities as an actor and the ideas I have for the character and certainly building on the framework that Joe Mantello created. No question about it, I steal a lot of his stuff.

Did you feel that at all?

MACFARLANE: Yeah, I had decided that I had to know all the words, and I had to get that out immediately – which is something that I had never really done before.

BREEN: Did you? Did you come in off book?

MACFARLANE: Yeah, pretty much. That's my own personal thing. I have a really hard time – I'm dyslexic – I have a hard time with ''words, words, words,'' so that was part of me preparing. Most of the rationing of the emotion happens a little bit more in performance for me, like during the week I can't just say, ''Oh, I'll meet you at wherever and I'll do this thing with you,'' because I know that I can't. And I need to be really sensitive to who I talk to on the phone. In fact, it's actually interesting. Some of my closest friends, our relationships have sort of stopped, because I get really worked up when I talk to them. I just don't want to do that, and I don't want to get worked up, so I have to protect myself in that way.

BREEN: It's so important to perform this play honestly. And it's not easy to do life and art at the same time, and that's a common theme for performers, but particularly with a performance of stuff as complicated and as loud as this. In my experience, I'm better when my life is incredibly boring and quiet so that I can then live like a madman in this play.

It's imperative to express it in the way, in my opinion, that Larry wrote it, from when he wrote it in 1985 and the kind of man he was – and still is. In the '80s: outrage. And then, to turn it into an artistic work, it has to be heightened. So you think, ''Larry, heightened?'' What is that?

Joe said – when I said I was stealing his shit – he said, ''Well, I took everything from the Tasmanian Devil and Charles Nelson Reilly anyway. I stole everything from them, so you can steal from me.'' That's why I do the little spin, because I wanted to put the Tasmanian Devil in.

MW: One of the things that Larry brought up when I talked with him was the age of the audience, and whether the show would open the early AIDS crisis to an audience that came of age not living with that fear that Larry is trying to capture.

MACFARLANE: Let's be honest, in the theater, we all – every playwright wants to reach younger audiences. Of course, he wants to, especially with this subject matter and the fact that infection rates are still going up, but this is the state of the theater as well. [Older audience members] are the ones that build the glass pavilions, they're the ones that donate the money.

BREEN: If you could get Justin Beiber to play a role in this, then you could do it – but it's hard. They're 21, they didn't know what the hell this was. To them, AIDS is a chronic illness that you just take a handful of pills for and then you live your life. So, I don't know how you – and theater's expensive.

MACFARLANE: And, they have to come all the way to Southwest, which I'm told is a big deal.

I have this big group of people – I've joined this CrossFit gym here in D.C. CrossFit Balance –

BREEN: Maybe you'll get a free month out of that [mention]!

MACFARLANE: Wonderful people! Once sort of early on when I was there, in this moment of boldness that I really don't normally do, I was like, ''You guys should come! I'll get the theater to call you and arrange some sort of ticket thing!'' So, now, there's this group of CrossFit people coming to the theater tonight, and I'm sort of terrified. ''I hope we have a good house. I hope the audience is full.''

I'm excited. I don't know how many of them regularly go to the theater. It's always exciting when people who don't normally come to the theater come to the theater. It's so fantastic. There are so many people who buy their season tickets and schlep their way. But, as an actor, you feel that so much. I don't think people are aware of how much effect they have when they're in the audience. You can hear specific voices, you can hear specific laughter, and they literally give you the energy to move through a scene.

So, it is lovely when there's young people in the audience; you get a whole different thing back from them. And when the audience is not young – old – or quiet, you step off stage and you feel hostile or you're angry. ''God, why aren't they giving back to us?''

BREEN: And then, the truth is, George says this a lot, they become one animal. Even if there's someone who really enjoys laughing a lot, he gets cowed or she gets cowed into not laughing if the audience is quiet. That doesn't mean they're not enjoying it. Some of our most enthusiastic curtain calls have been quiet houses over the weekend, Sunday afternoon. Really quiet, and then roaring at curtain. ''Now you give us this?''

MW: We didn't realize you liked it!

BREEN: We gave up on you guys in Act 1.

MACFARLANE: You're all sort of masochist-y. You like to cry more than you like to laugh. The play – the first act is so different from the second act, when this monster comes to visit and stays around for a while.

MW: Being in this performance, knowing the place that the show comes from, how does it impact you? Is it just a role?

BREEN: I believe in the message of the play. One of the wonderful things that they've done is that they've asked us if we've had friends who have died of AIDS, and their names are on the screens behind us. Everybody involved in the production has names up on there if they knew someone who died of AIDS. So I personally feel that I'm performing for them, giving voice to their voices that have been stopped. That makes me fight harder for this.

The idea that I think Larry was so prescient about, the idea of gay marriage now in this country, that he ends the play with a gay marriage. There are references throughout the play: ''Why didn't you guys fight for the right to get married instead of the right to legitimize promiscuity?'' Tommy Boatwright says, ''Maybe if they had let us get married in the first place none of this would have happened.''

The fact that that is now – it's not a tsunami, but it's a tide coming in. Things are changing. Obama saying that he's for gay marriage, the president saying that. Whereas Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. That's extraordinary change in a very brief time.

I identify as one of the LGBT people. So, in that this play argues for cultural recognition, marriage recognition and is a kind of – it becomes, the wall becomes like any other war memorial in this city, the Vietnam War Memorial. It's a eulogy and a memorial, this play, for the victims of AIDS, and, you've read the letter that Larry passes out at the end of the play: It's not over; people are still getting infected. The more it's just a sexual – that promiscuity is the way you identify as a gay man, that leads to death, just as silence does.

The more we go, ''Guess who is gay? Guess what show you like, guess who's gay on that show?'' Anybody who's ever had sex with someone of the same gender, even if you were just experimenting in college, they need to come forward and say it. Just say it. Just tell everybody who you fucked, and that it's all part of the Kinsey scale – people are straight, gay, and there's a lot of more gray than we admit – then you've made some change in people's minds. Be heard. Be visible.

That's why that incredible Proust speech is so powerful to say because it's so contemporary. He wrote it in '85, but it's like: We are there. We are there. We are all through history.

I've been watching all these documentaries: Outrage, about all the politicians. Crist and Mayor Koch and shit like that. Everybody. All the gay staffers. Guess what America? We're here, and we're running your country.

MW: When you talk about the importance of everybody coming out, regardless of the specifics – looking at you, identifying as bi.

BREEN: And there's more gay actors coming out, which is great. Jim Parsons just put it in his interview and the guy on White Collar. I'm not outing anybody, he's out –

MW: Matt Bomer.

BREEN: Yeah. I was talking to an actor who was in town recently, and I can't say his name, but, I was encouraging him to speak about it to the press, and he was like, ''I'm waiting for somebody to ask me, but nobody does.'' And, I'm like, ''Well, then you have to volunteer. You know what I mean.''

MACFARLANE: That's the amazing thing. People feel like, they keep waiting for, ''When I get to this certain point in my career and then I'll do it,'' then, ''When I get to this next point.'' The truth is most people, when they're at the height of their career --

BREEN: They're the most afraid to lose it.

MACFARLANE: They're the most afraid to do it, they never do it, and then they do it all these years later, and no one gives a shit and quite frankly it doesn't matter.

MW: Was there a point that you made a decision that you would be out?

MACFARLANE: Yeah. And it actually really was a decision. It was clearly a choice. And it has to be a choice. It was quite simple, I was at a point in my career where I was starting to get asked. I had done a television series before, and it was the first time I had ever really experienced the press barrage. It was a political show, it was set in the war in Iraq and I played a soldier in Iraq. And it just never came up. Yet, I always felt this anxiety around any kind of interview. There was always this notion that it was kind of in the room and it could just pop out, so I always felt on guard and it was a terrible, terrible feeling that started to affect my life on set in a major way.

So, what happened with Brothers and Sisters was I started from, ''Oh, it's going to happen again. I'm going to feel that sort of bizarre anxiety, so I'm just going to get it out of the way.'' In an effort, I swear to God, to make my life more simple. Yes, it does look like a political act, but it wasn't. It really was in an effort to make my life more streamlined, to sort of remove as much anxiety from those interviews as possible.

And it did that, for the most part. Except for now I feel rage because I just wish everybody else would do it. Because I can't stand being the only person who answers the fucking questions. I'm like, ''There's so many of you guys out there. Say something. Do something.''

BREEN: And you have to take a hit. I think people who come out in this climate, their careers are still going to suffer. I think they're going to not get the auditions, there's just going to be less consideration.

MACFARLANE: And, I don't think that that is because people are evil and homophobic. I just think people are afraid and ignorant. And there's a distinction in my mind about that.

BREEN: I'll give you that.

MW: How so?

MACFARLANE: I don't believe that people are saying, ''Don't hire him because he's gay.'' It's sort of just like, ''He's gay. This is what gay looks like, and that's not what I want in my role.'' So, the more people come out and you go, ''Oh, gay doesn't just look like this, it looks like this.'' And then it becomes easier. They're walking around with their notions of what gay means, and it's very small. Because, throughout history, the kind of gay people that we've seen and understood, and been sort of identified in the media, have been small.

We need sports players. Politicians. Where are the gay athletes? You're trying to tell me that in all the major leagues out there, there aren't gay players? It's actually fascinating to me that that is like the last realm. It's very interesting now, with the military, to see this version of ''gay'' coming out.

MW: There are just so many stories, and so many of them look so different than what you think they look like.

MACFARLANE: I think it's so hard, and I think that this is a bigger conversation, but I think at the end of the day, so many gay people still walk around with this feeling like, ''These feelings that I had when I was a little kid were really confusing and weird'' – and they are connected to sex. And those things are still shameful to so many people, so you're afraid of saying them out loud because we were taught you just don't talk about sex. It's still so much connected to the simplicity of the shame that surrounds sex, and I just hope that goes away.

It's exactly what you were saying about people that made out with a dude when they were in college. If they just came out. Start to sort of erase some of that shame around sex.

And, I'm not talking about a full-on sexual revolution, Part 2. I'm talking about –

BREEN: Openness, honesty, acceptance.


BREEN: Even if there is a little repression, it's also money and movies. People who put up $50 million, they don't want anything that's going to make them lose a little of their audience. So, if they say, ''How do I have an openly gay man play a straight man with, say, Jennifer Garner, and if there's going to be a certain amount of people who won't see that movie because they think, 'How can that guy?' then I won't make the movie.'' Even just a tad, it's a business decision. Pure, flat-out business.

So, that's why this generation of people that come out are going to be the Jackie Robinsons. And you're going to take the hit.

It's not a small hit, to your money, to your security, to all that stuff. We will see whether Neil Patrick Harris gets another straight role. Or Bomer – he's so beautiful. I feel like the bigger the pool of people that is, the more people are just going to say, ''Who cares? Can you act?''

Arena Stage presents The Normal Heart to July 29 in the Kreeger Theater, 1101 6th St. SW. For tickets, $40 to $94, call 202-547-1122 or visit arenastage.org.

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