The complete article:
For a novel that was never officially finished, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon has had many lives. First published posthumously in 1941, it focuses on idealistic film producer Monroe Stahr (based on legendary MGM chief Irving Thalberg) and his clashes with an overbearing studio owner. It’s been adapted into a 1976 Elia Kazan film, an award-winning 1998 play, and was re-edited and reissued in 1993 as The Love of the Last Tycoon. Now the book lives again as a pilot for Amazon, written and directed by screenwriter and director Billy Ray (best known for helming 2003’s Shattered Glass and writing the screenplay for 2013’s Captain Phillips) and currently available for your viewing pleasure right this moment.
A handful of somewhat clunky narrative pipe-laying scenes aside, the pilot ably captures the wide-eyed optimism of Hollywood in the 1930s while contrasting it with the creeping tension of problems creative (studio bosses too quick to kowtow to the bottom line), domestic (widespread homelessness) and foreign (rising fascism in Europe). The pilot features Lily Collins as the brassy ingenue, Kelsey Grammer as the heavy, and in the lead role, Matt Bomer as Stahr.
Though he’s still getting caught up on his old Hollywood history, Bomer is as debonair and tortured as the role requires. Bomer has been a constant presence on both the big screen and small in recent years, from his lead role on the USA conman series White Collar to parts in Magic Mike, The Normal Heart, and American Horror Story: Hotel. After working nonstop for the past several years, he’s taking the summer off while Amazon decides whether to move forward with more of The Last Tycoon. But in what he says is his long-awaited first interview with Esquire, he still found time to talk to us about Fitzgerald and how Hollywood hasn’t changed all that much since the ’30s.
ESQ: Hey Matt, how’s it going?
Matt Bomer: This is my first ever interview with Esquire. I can’t believe that! I was raised on your magazine. It’s an honor to finally get to speak to you guys.
Esquire: Wait, you’ve never been in the magazine?
MB: [Takes a pause.] I don’t think so.
Esquire: That’s crazy.
MB: And I have whored it out a lot over the years, Michael. I have whored it out a lot. So that’s saying something.
Esquire: So how did you get involved with The Last Tycoon, and what drew you to it?
MB: Billy called me out of the blue in December. He brought the project up to me, and his vision for it. Like all of us, I was very familiar with Fitzgerald’s work, but it had been a while since I had read The Last Tycoon or seen the Kazan film. It sounded like the world he wanted to create, while a period piece, was very topical and interesting. I read the script, I thought it was fantastic, we sat down together, and that was that.
Esquire: Viewers of prestige cable dramas are primed to expect anti-heroes with a dark side, and I kept waiting for the shoe to drop with your character. But it turns out he’s optimistic, virtuous, and good. In its own way, that felt surprising.
MB: Well, that’s great to hear. So much of it is really owed to Billy Ray. I’ve been a huge fan of his since Shattered Glass. I don’t know if you remember that film he did with Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard…
MB: When you are the avatar of a writer-director, a lot of it is his thoughts because he’s lived it for a very long time. We collaborated a lot, but I often found myself imitating him while we were filming. Though a lot of my research was about Irving Thalberg and the studio system at the time, I frequently found myself imitating Billy. I think he has different faces that he shows to people. I think he loves the movie business, I think he loves the art of storytelling, and I think he believes it can be bigger than just business — it can be more impactful and profound than that. But he does have a lot of shadows as well. I think you see that in the last scene. I don’t think it’s a spoiler for anybody because it’s available for viewing at any time, but I think that last scene is indicative of a different side of him that you didn’t get to see for 90% of the pilot.
Esquire: Now you’ve played your fair share of rogues. You got famous playing a con man. Is it more fun to be a bit evil, or more pure good?
MB: You know, I try not to think of it as black and white, because all human beings have a shadow. We all have a great deal of admirable qualities, and we all have some that could probably be improved upon. My favorite characters, when I read them, are people with some aspects of both — that feels more human and [like] the people I’ve encountered and my own experiences of life. I like it when they have a little bit of each.
Esquire: Obviously, Fitzgerald based The Last Tycoon on Irving Thalberg, but it is not necessarily about him. Did you model your approach on Thalberg, or did you try something different?
MB: Well, you have to be careful not to spin your wheels too much, because ultimately the script is what the script is. You can do all the research on Thalberg that you want to, but at the end of the day, you have to play the scene that is on the page. For me, I read a couple of biographies on Irving Thalberg to get a sense of who he was because Fitzgerald wrote for him when he was at MGM. That’s who he loosely based this character on. But of course, as we know, with every F. Scott novel, the protagonist is also him. It was also important to know a lot about F. Scott, and thankfully I had done a play where he was a character years ago, and had done a good amount of research on him. And also just the politics of the studio system and what was going on at the time — the social dynamics and the politics that were influencing the decisions that everyone was making there. It was really important for me to know. There’s a great podcast called You Must Remember This, by Karina Longworth, and there’s a whole ten-part series dedicated to MGM during this time, so I listened to those ravenously.
In terms of the physical life, he’s described in the novel as being an ascetic, hyper-disciplined man who looks like he’s just on the verge of being seriously ill, so I lost 25 pounds for that and did my best to fit into those double-breasted suits. That was a part of creating his physical reality for me. Should we be blessed enough to go forward, I don’t know if I will maintain that for six months at a time — or maybe I will develop some kind of heart condition.
Esquire: Now you filmed the pilot, and Amazon is waiting around to see what the reaction is, and then it will decide whether to order it to series or not, right?
MB: Yeah. That’s the plan.
Esquire: How are you feeling? Is this a nerve-wracking way to work? Because all you can do is get the word out and hope people see it and like it.
MB: You know, I try not to worry about it too much. Thankfully, I have a very full life. I’m married with kids, so I have a lot of things to focus on, other projects either in post-production or pre-production, so you just do the best you can. I love that Amazon has this diplomatic process where people’s voices can be heard, and they can weigh in. I think it’s a great way to use the interconnectedness we have with the Internet. At the same time, pilots are essentially rough drafts. It’s a bit like bringing all your friends into an ultrasound and saying, “Isn’t my baby beautiful?” You can make out the rough outlines and the edges and get a good sense of what the baby is going to look like, but you won’t know until you get a chance to flesh it out. I just hope people will visit the world and enjoy what they see. For me personally, I look at it and go, “Oh that’s great, that’s cool, that did not work, I can work on that,” and you soldier forward should you be given the opportunity.
Esquire: Are you resisting the urge to check in with your agent or whomever every day and go, “Okay, what are the numbers now? How about now?”
MB: You know, I think for the first couple of days I did, and then I realized that’s just not a healthy endeavor. There’s an old saying: “There’s no sure formula for success, but the only certain formula for failure is to try to please everybody.” I think if you over-concern yourself with what people’s opinions are, I don’t think it’s really healthy for anybody. And certainly as an artist, you don’t want those voices in your head when you’re trying to make a choice for a character. You want to be operating from where you are in that space with the work you’ve done.
Esquire: At least from the pilot, it seems like Billy is reaching for a Frank Capra-esque sweeping glamor and an old Hollywood-style feel. Are you a big fan of movies from that era?
MB: I am, and this has been a great chance to revisit some and to really educate myself. I grew up in a household where we weren’t allowed to watch a lot of movies — which I am not complaining about by any means. I’m actually really grateful for it, in some regards, but I have so much homework and catching up to do. I actually have a list of 100 movies, and a big part of my summer for me is catching up with films both from this time all the way up to now that I didn’t get to experience as a kid or I haven’t had a chance to yet as an adult.
Esquire: What are some of the movies on the list?
MB: I have a list of a 100 movies so I would have to get it out for you if you really want to know, but so far my most recent discovery — and you’re going to be shocked that I’ve never seen it — was Sunset Boulevard…
MB: It’s actually one of my favorite movies that I’ve ever seen. I think it’s incredibly close to a perfect movie. I re-watched Citizen Kane, which I really liked.
Esquire: Well, I should hope so.
MB: I basically assembled a list from some of my favorite film directors, their ten favorites, and some of the AFI Top 100 that I hadn’t seen yet.
Esquire: I don’t know if this is true or not, but there’s a long-running rumor that if you work with George Clooney and get to know him even a little, he will send you a box of what he considers the 100 best movies of all time, and he expects you to watch them all.
MB: I can imagine no more enjoyable assignment from a director. I would love that. As a matter of fact, if George Clooney ever reads this, I want those 100 movies regardless of whether or not we work together.
Esquire: One thing that will draw people into this series is the glamor of that bygone era. But it is 2016, and audiences are very aware that Hollywood, or even America, was great back then if you were a heterosexual white man with money, but for everyone else, it wasn’t such a great time, and if you glamorize it too much the internet will let you know.
MB: Well, I think Billy did a really good job with the Shantytown, right next to the studio, and showing that we’re in the height of the Great Depression, and this time period, in general, is fascinating. You have the Spanish Civil War, Hitler is rising to power in Europe, the height of the Great Depression — but at the same time, the movie business is booming. People are going to the movies to escape. I think Billy did an interesting and commendable job of creating this lavish, lush world, but right next door to it is a Hooverville, the lowest depth of poverty, where’s there’s an Oakie who is scrapping by to feed his family and trying to get involved with the studio that way. As glorious as it may seem, you also realize how much control the studio has over their artists and talent and how that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Esquire: As a person working in today’s studio system, how do you think it compares to back then?
MB: Well, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this series, and that’s one of the great aspects of getting to do it in this format. You get to expand it beyond a two-hour, open-and-shut story. There’s so many politics that were so prevalent at the time that I feel are still relevant now — a lot of the decisions that are being made, a lot of the casting choices, and a lot of the markets that are being appealed to. At the end of the day, it’s show business, so that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a part of the piece, because I don’t feel that Hollywood has changed that much. The main difference with the studio system is that they don’t have the same level of control over the artists that they did at the same time.
Esquire: And now because of places like Amazon or Netflix, if the studio says something is unmarketable or the lead actor is wrong, someone else can decide it is, in fact, the sort of story they want to be telling.
MB: I think these outlets are where you go to make a 30 million-dollar drama now. And in the studio system, the people who used to be writing Kramer vs. Kramer are now writing superhero movies. Which is why they’re so good. So now if you want to be able to make Kramer vs. Kramer, you go to Amazon or some other cable outlet, and that’s where you do it. Actually, the cable world seems to mimic the studio system a lot, at least in my eyes, because the writers are really the key elements. The writers are the ones crafting the story, and the directors march around from piece to piece. They’re not given the same kind of authoritarian lay of the land that they are given in film.
Esquire: Now in addition to this, what other projects do you have coming up?
MB: I think the next movie I have coming out in theaters is The Magnificent Seven in September. And then I finished two independent films in a row. One is called Walking Out, and one is called Anything. Those are both in post-production at the moment. And I’m writing a project; that’s really what is going on for me right now. I’ve been working for almost two years consecutively, I’m really looking forward to taking some time off this summer and spending some quality time with my family.
Esquire: Finally, one more important question. There’s many people on the internet who insist that Lily Collins has the greatest eyebrows in the entire world. As a person who has seen them up close, can you confirm that they are as great as advertised?
MB: Better. She is a wonderful actress to work with, first and foremost, but she is also an extraordinary beauty in many, many regards. The eyebrows are but a small piece of the gorgeous whole that is Lily Collins.
Follow @Music_IntheDark on Twitter