It’s almost impossible to silence Larry Kramer, the influential activist and writer who started the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. But around the May premiere of HBO’s “The Normal Heart,” which he wrote based on his 1985 groundbreaking play, a mysterious sickness left Kramer bedridden. “All I know is I almost died several times,” says Kramer, who is doing better now. “We don’t think it was HIV-related. If it weren’t for my partner David Webster taking charge of finding the best doctors to tend to me, I wouldn’t be here.”
Kramer hobbled onstage at the Emmys, where “The Normal Heart” won best TV movie, and he’ll be honored at the ACRIA holiday dinner benefit on Wednesday night in New York. At 79, he’s still working furiously. He’s adapting a “Normal Heart” sequel for HBO (he hopes Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo and Jim Parsons will reprise their roles). And next spring, he’ll appear in an HBO documentary about his life, and release his 800-page book, “The American People—A History: Volume 1,” which makes the controversial claim that George Washington was gay. “I’m going to leave town,” joked Kramer, who lives in Manhattan.
He spoke to Variety for a long-ranging interview.
You’re being honored this week for AIDS advocacy.
I didn’t want to be honored at all. I’m probably going to say a few words about the state of things today, comparing how the world has responded to the Ebola plague and how the world did not respond to the AIDS outbreak, especially the media and the New York Times.
Did you think “The Normal Heart” would ever make it to the screen?
Well, one hopes. I wrote a screenplay very early on when the play was still at the Public Theater. Listen, you take what happens as it happens the best you can. I wanted a lot of things, and they came later than I would have liked. The play did very well at the Public Theater. Then Barbra Streisand acquired the rights. It would have been a different film. But it would have been useful to have it as a film earlier.
How was it different?
Oh, who remembers!
Why wasn’t Barbra Streisand able to direct the film?
You’d have to ask her. We had a public argument about it already. She claims she couldn’t get the money, and it was budgeted at that time at–I don’t know, $30,000. Whatever it was, it was just a little less than what HBO put into it. They were happy to come on board years later.
When Ryan Murphy called you, were you a fan of “Glee”?
I was aware of “Glee.” I wasn’t particularly aware of Ryan Murphy. I didn’t know who he was. The play was sent to him by one of his producers, and it turns out that Ryan had always wanted to make it. I was nervous, because I didn’t know much about him and how he worked.
Were you surprised that he cast Julia Roberts to play the doctor?
Ryan had worked with her before. They were good friends. My friend Joe Mantello, who played Ned in the Broadway revival, had directed Julia on Broadway and said that he was sure she could do it. I thought she was brilliant. I really believed that she had polio in a way that not all actresses had been able to relay that.
When did you first see the movie?
I was brought in from the hospital in a wheelchair to an HBO screening room to watch the final version. It was an experience more surreal than anything else. I wasn’t able to really take in the magnitude of Ryan’s achievement.
Did you cry?
I was more stunned by that point. There’s certain parts of the movie that always bring tears to my eyes, mostly involving the character based on my brother. Alfred Molina is so wonderful. What a great actor he is.
So you’re happy with the movie?
I’ve been very happy. I thought the cast was superb, and HBO has got to be the most wonderful producers in the world. I think it’s the fifth most-successful movie they had last year, and they commissioned the sequel, which I’m now in the process of writing.
How far along are you?
I’m about two-thirds of the way through the first pass. It starts around the end of “The Normal Heart” in 1984. And it goes not the appearance of the first drugs around 2001. Mark Ruffalo, who we hope will repeat his performance, will have to play Ned at a few times in his life: at the time of “The Normal Heart”; in the middle where he gets sick; and today.
Is Ned still the main character?
He still is. The part of Tommy, which I hope will be played again by Jim Parsons, is much bigger. He becomes a more important character in the sequel, as he was in my real life.
Will Julia Roberts be back?
I certainly hope so. Ryan wants to use the same actors as in the first movie, if he can get him. It was a very close company. In the sequel, the part of the doctor is quite dramatic in that her polio returns and she has to go into an iron lung, and she conducts business from the hospital.
“The Normal Heart” won the Emmy this year for best TV movie.
I wasn’t expecting it, and I wasn’t well. They had taken me backstage for the screenwriting award so in case I should win, it would be easy for me to get on stage. When the film got it, I was in the audience, so I got to make a very dramatic entrance, hobbling up the carpet with my cane. I got the only standing ovation of the evening.
Would you agree that gay characters are more visible on TV?
It made up a bit for lost time, yes. But I don’t see what I want to see. We’re still a population of people tragically unrepresented by power. We are very disorganized in terms of power in Washington, our ability to lobby, our ability to get what we’re entitled to and the few organizations that we have are not strong enough. We still don’t fight hard enough and we’re still denied so much in terms of equality. Marriage, that goal will probably happen, I guess. But everybody has been concentrating on marriage at the expense of other issues—certainly health care, insurance and AIDS, which is still very prevalent in the gay world. Sadly, the drugs that have come along to control HIV have sent a lot of people back into living the kind of life that got us in trouble in the first place.
But don’t you think that gay people have more rights now?
I don’t think that way. I only see where we still should be and have to get rather than what we’ve got, because what we’ve got is not enough. I don’t think self-congratulations in terms of look-how-far-we’ve-come is very useful in getting to the next step.
How did you get started in Hollywood?
In 1961, I was a reader at Columbia Pictures in New York. London was just beginning to be the important film production center that it became in the 1960s, and the man who was running Columbia British was looking for a story person, and so I was sent over there. I had always wanted to write, but like many people who always want to write, I was not writing.
You were Oscar-nominated for your script to 1969’s “Women in Love.” Why did you stop writing screenplays?
I did write more screenplays. They weren’t made. I found I didn’t particularly enjoy screenplays mainly because I couldn’t write about the things that were important to me, i.e., homosexuality. It was hard to get the gay-themed stuff financed. When I came back to New York in 1971, I wrote a couple plays that were not a success Off Broadway and then AIDS came along and I wrote “The Normal Heart.”
Do you think your new book, which comes out next year, will be controversial?
I’m sure it will be. I name people in history who were gay. It’s important for gay people to know what our history was. That Abraham Lincoln was gay, for instance. That Lewis (of Lewis and Clark) was gay. That George Washington was gay. I’ll leave that for you to read about it.
Are you sure that they were all gay?
Are you absolutely certain that they weren’t?
When you were first diagnosed with HIV, did you think it was a death sentence?
I was diagnosed very early on. I didn’t want to know because in those days, there wasn’t anything to take. I had another operation at NYU, and they tested me without my permission and I found out.
How did you survive for so long?
I guess my anger keeps me all juiced up. There’s so much wrong in what AIDs represents not only in the gay world, but in the research world, the pharmaceutical world and the United Nations. Nothing has gone right.