In Papi Chulo (Treasure), written and directed by John Butler (Handsome Devil), gay actor Matt Bomer plays Sean, a TV weatherman who has an onscreen breakdown. His sensitive but ratings-obsessed boss Ash (Wendi McLendon-Covey) gives him a leave of absence. Unfortunately, the recently single Sean doesn’t know what to do with the time. He repeatedly calls Carlos, his ex, and gets his voicemail. When he notices a section of his deck needs painting, he hires migrant worker Ernesto (Alejandro Patiño). But Sean is so lonely and lacking companionship that he ends up attempting to socialize with Ernesto, in spite of the language barrier and the fact that Ernesto is a straight, married man. What initially starts out as a sweet and funny comedy takes an unexpectedly dramatic turn, but by then viewers will have grown so fond of this unlikely buddy-movie duo that they will gladly go where the characters lead. Bomer, who shines as Sean, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the movie and some of his other projects.
Gregg Shapiro: Matt, what was it about Sean that made you want to portray him in the movie Papi Chulo?
Matt Bomer: There are a dozen adjectives you could list before you even mention the fact that Sean is gay. There’s something inherently comedic and tragic about the contradictions in Sean. The fact that he’s going through this terrible trauma and pain that he’s not willing to acknowledge. The public persona that he affects, and how he tries to bury it and avoid it and subdue it. Those were all really playable to me. Sean talks to Ernesto about his fears and then asks him, “What are you scared of?” and Ernesto answers in Spanish, “Immigration.” Can you please say something about the timeliness of the undocumented-immigrant story line in the age of Trump? I think this movie was written before Trump was even elected. It’s a story of two very different men at very different places in their lives, from very different worlds, who come together because of their shared humanity and form a great and true friendship. We live in such divisive times [that] it’s hard to make an apolitical film these days. It became more relevant as it went along.
Sean hires Ernesto, a migrant worker who speaks very little English, to paint the deck at his house. Part of the experience of the movie is watching them attempt to communicate. How is your Spanish?
I think you see it all on film. A lot of that was improvised. I would go through the script and try to figure out what I could try to say in Spanish at any given point. I’d run it by John [Butler]. Even though he is a writer/director, he’s not overly precious about anything. He’s willing to improvise and add things in that bring authenticity to a scene. We were fortunate enough to shoot it sequentially for the most part, with a few exceptions. Alejandro [Patiño, who plays Ernesto] and I were getting to know each other, as our characters were, and a lot of the stuff in the car, on top of the wonderful dialogue that John had written, was improv.
At one point, Sean says he’s “completely opposed to nature” which made me think of the quote by the late gay humorist and writer David Rakoff: “If you want something green, order the salad.” [Laughs]
How do you personally feel about nature and the outdoors?
Oh, my gosh! I love it! I need it! It’s a necessity in my life. I would argue that it’s another example of Sean being completely out of touch with himself, because I think someone like him needs to be outside communing with nature. For me, it’s incredibly relaxing, especially living in a big city. Even in New York, I try to get down to the West Side Highway and walk and exercise there, just to get a sense of the outdoors, even in a city like Manhattan.
Sean takes a lot of spills and pratfalls and gets kind of bloodied. What was that aspect of the character like for you?
I think he’s nosediving toward rock-bottom. A big part of that is his physical journey. I think I did everything except for the one fall at the quinceañera, when he crashes the party drunk. They would not let me do that because it was a little riskier, and this was not the kind of movie that had the budget to shut down if I injured myself. If I injured myself, the movie was over, basically. [Laughs] I love that about indie filmmaking. There’s something really renegade about it. Also, the stakes are sort of high in that regard. You get what you can get in the time you get. There’s nobody who’s going to sweep in and save the day and buy you an extra.
In Papi Chulo and the recent season of Will & Grace, you play a TV news weatherman and a TV newscaster, respectively. What do you think that says about you, and what do you think that says about TV news programs?
[Laughs] I would argue two very different things, depending on which character you’re talking about. They’re two distinctly different guys who both happen to be on camera on a daily basis, which has its own set of pressures and its own kind of odd celebrity. When I was auditioning for conservatories, I was living in semi-rural Texas. I had no idea if I was going to get into any drama schools. My backup was to apply to some broadcast-journalism schools. I was lucky enough to get into a few great programs, which I would have attended had I not gone into acting. I don’t know if that’s a weird way of [a profession in broadcasting] manifesting itself in my life. Now that I’ve played a couple of them, and co-hosted a couple of morning shows, that’s a lot of pressure on a daily basis to have to be on, regardless of what’s going on in your life. In Papi Chulo, we certainly see how that can catch up to you in the first scene with Sean.
Without giving anything away, there is an unexpected twist that occurs a little over an hour into the movie. What did you think about it, and how do you think viewers will react to the movie’s change in direction?
Hopefully they’ll all go down the rabbit hole. For me, that moment was kind of everything. That’s where I had to start from with the character—what he’s finally willing to acknowledge in that moment. My preparation for that role started from that place. All of his outward manifestations of behavior, and how he moves through the world, all come from an attempt to escape or deny that.
You grew up in Spring, Texas, and I was wondering if you would mind sharing any fond memories that you have of Houston?
I’d like to share something about the Alley Theater. That was a great oasis for me. [Growing up in] Spring had its own benefits, but it was nice to go down into the city and see people from all walks of life and get to see other people who wanted to do what I wanted to do for a living. I got to work with Michael Wilson and do an incredible production of A Streetcar Named Desire. That was a great time of awakening for me. I would finish school and I’d race down to the theater and do my homework during intermission. It was such a thrilling thing to be able to do at that age.
You are also currently playing Larry Trainor/Negative Man in the DC Universe series Doom Patrol. Would you consider yourself to be a comic book geek?
No. I grew up in a pretty strict household. A lot of secular material was not allowed in our house. I got a lot of the classics like Superman and the Justice League and Spider Man. But I remember when we had a copy of Ghost Rider in the house, it was so controversial. I think we had to get rid of that one. Like any kid, I was a fan of comic books. But I would say I only have a layman’s knowledge of the different characters. What I love about Doom Patrol is that it’s such a character-driven show. It’s a big-budget show and there are amazing action scenes. But I would argue that it is one of the most idiosyncratic shows on television. Jeremy Carver and Greg Berlanti and the team of writers have done such a phenomenal job of making it about this group of people who don’t see themselves as being heroes and don’t even want to be, for the most part. And their journey to understanding and acceptance of themselves and how they can use who they are for good. They have their warts and all. I like that about any character. They’re not bright, shiny, perfect superheroes.
Finally, we’re speaking in early June, and I was wondering if you had plans to do anything special to celebrate Stonewall 50?
I’m bummed because I have to be in New York for work during L.A. Pride and then I have to be in L.A. for work during New York Pride. The timing of that was bad. But I’m looking forward to helping out with a few different causes and supporting from the sidelines and doing whatever little bits here and there that I can to contribute. I’m happy to get the kids involved. They all went to their first Pride in New York last year and loved it. It was their first Pride parade. They were already asking about it this year.
This article appears in the July 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.