When director Ryan Murphy and writer Larry Kramer (both out) announced they were adapting Kramer’s groundbreaking and Tony-winning play “The Normal Heart” for HBO, a virtual who’s who of stars clamored to take part in the powerful and emotional story that deals with the onset of the AIDS crisis in New York City in the early 1980s.
The cast quickly filled with respected names like Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parsons, Taylor Kitsch and Matt Bomer.
“The Normal Heart” follows Ned Weeks (Ruffalo), a gay activist enraged at the indifference of public officials and the gay community. Bomer plays a reporter who becomes Ned’s lover; former “Friday Night Lights” star Kitsch plays Bruce, a closeted investment banker who becomes a prominent AIDS activist; Roberts plays Dr. Emma Brookner, who treats some of the earliest victims of the epidemic; and Parsons portrays gay activist Tommy Boatwright, reprising his critically praised Broadway role.
One actor who was dreaming of taking part was Jonathan Groff. Although too young to remember the events of the time, the 29-year-old had seen the play during its Off-Broadway revival in 2004 and again when it opened on Broadway in 2011.
“I had seen it several times and it’s such an important piece of writing and it means so much,” Groff says. “When I learned HBO would be turning it into a film, something that would last forever, I wanted to be part of it.”
Luckily, Groff already had a relationship with Murphy, having worked with him on “Glee,” playing the one-time Vocal Adrenaline powerhouse Jesse St. James.
“Ryan texted me and said he had this part for me in the movie, and I called him back right away and said, ‘Absolutely, I would do anything in this movie because it’s such a special project,’” Groff recalls. “I feel very lucky to be in it.”
In the movie, Groff plays Craig Donner, a character barely mentioned in the play, but one who has an extremely important role in the film. He plays the boyfriend of Bruce and ex-boyfriend of Ned.
“Craig is based on one of Larry’s friends from Fire Island, when the ‘gay cancer’ at the time started hitting this circle of friends, and Craig was the first one to go,” Groff says. “It hit him so quickly that when he died, his body was still tan. It was horrifying.”
For the part, Groff worked on location at Fire Island, shooting some of the earliest scenes of the movie.
“We did a bunch of the boys partying it up on Fire Island,” he says. “It was nice to be at the beginning of the movie. We were all having a blast, and then it got pretty dark.”
With longtime friend Lea Michele by his side, Groff joined the cast for an opening night screening last week at New York City’s Ziegfeld Theater and said it was unlike any movie premiere he had ever attended.
“Here we are at the Ziegfeld with the whole cast and crew and a lot of the men and women who lived through the AIDS crisis in New York City at the time and watching it in that venue was just incredibly powerful and a night I will never forget,” he says. “Everyone in that room felt so personally connected to the story we were telling. It is such an amazing movie and has such an effect on people — some had to walk out because it was so much. When we left the theater, there was that same sadness and reverence you have when you leave a funeral, it was a really powerful experience.”
Groff admits that the movie is a little different from the play, but that it almost had to be to pull off its importance on screen.
“Ryan is so visual, so he creates some amazing pictures and the way he pulls the story together has the spirit of the play and a lot of those same lines and speeches that we love, but there’s something very specifically Ryan Murphy about the movie that makes the sensibility a little different,” he says. “It’s the same overall experience, but you are served it in a different way.”
“The Normal Heart” debuts on HBO at 9 p.m. Sunday and is expected to be seen by millions, a far greater reach than the play ever could secure.
“When it’s on a network like HBO that everyone looks to as the benchmark of quality programing, you get a lot of people paying attention to what they put out,” Groff says. “We have Taylor and Julia and Matt and Mark, and hopefully it adds a lot of eyes to the story of those who wouldn’t have watched it before and that reach grows once the movie starts to air.”
In addition to being part of this landmark movie, Groff has had a pretty exciting year already. He starred in HBO’s new series, “Looking,” which will be returning for season two this fall and voiced Kristoff in Disney’s mega-hit “Frozen.”
“The movie exploded in ways that I don’t think anyone who worked on it thought it would, certainly we all thought it was great, but you can never predict a phenomenon,” he says. “I feel extremely lucky to be a part of this history.”
For those who know him from his Tony-nominated role of Melchior Gabor in “Spring Awakening” or one of the many other theatrical productions he’s done, Groff says he is itching to get back to the Great White Way.
“I rented an apartment in New York a couple of weeks ago and I spent every night last week watching plays. I am a theater nerd and a fan and I try to see everything and I want to be back on that stage. It’s just hard to find the time and find the right project, but it’s something I definitely hope to be doing soon.”
Born in 1985, Groff feels he is part of “a younger gay generation” whose members don’t always understand the history of those who came before. He hopes the movie will change the way that some approach their advocacy efforts.
“I think there’s a disconnectedness that my generation has in some ways for the AIDS crisis and what the generation before us went thought emotionally but fought for and got political and advocated about,” he says. “I hope probably more than anything that the movie reaches my generation and not only teaches us about what happened before us, but inspires us to advocate and stay connected to each other and protect each other and continue to be vocal.”
Daisy Edgar-Jones knows why ‘the Crawdads sing’
Actress on process, perfecting a southern accent, and her queer following
Daisy Edgar-Jones is an actor whose career is blossoming like her namesake. In recent years, she seems to be everywhere. LGBTQ viewers may recognize Edgar-Jones from her role as Delia Rawson in the recently canceled queer HBO series “Gentleman Jack.” She also played memorable parts in a pair of popular Hulu series, “Normal People” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Earlier this year, Edgar-Jones was seen as Noa in the black comedy/horror flick “Fresh” alongside Sebastian Stan.
With her new movie, “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony/Columbia), she officially becomes a lead actress. Based on Delia Owens’ popular book club title of the same name, the movie spans a considerable period of time, part murder mystery, part courtroom drama. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Blade.
BLADE: Daisy, had you read Delia Owens’s novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” before signing on to play Kya?
DAISY EDGAR-JONES: I read it during my audition process, as I was auditioning for the part. So, the two went hand in hand.
BLADE: What was it about the character of Kya that appealed to you as an actress?
EDGAR-JONES: There was so much about her that appealed to me. I think the fact that she is a very complicated woman. She’s a mixture of things. She’s gentle and she’s curious. She’s strong and she’s resilient. She felt like a real person. I love real character studies and it felt like a character I haven’t had a chance to delve into. It felt different from anyone I’ve played before. Her resilience was one that I really admired. So, I really wanted to spend some time with her.
BLADE: While Kya is in jail, accused of killing the character Chase, she is visited by a cat in her cell. Are you a cat person or do you prefer dogs?
EDGAR-JONES: I like both! I think I like the fact that dogs unconditionally love you. While a cat’s love can feel a bit conditional. I do think both are very cute. Probably, if I had to choose, it would be dogs.
BLADE: I’m a dog person, so I’m glad you said that.
BLADE: Kya lives on the marsh and spends a lot of time on and in the water. Are you a swimmer or do you prefer to be on dry land?
EDGAR-JONES: I like swimming, I do. I grew up swimming a lot. If I’m ever on holidays, I like it to be by the sea or by a nice pool.
BLADE: Kya is also a gifted artist, and it is the thing that brings her great joy. Do you draw or paint?
EDGAR-JONES: I always doodle. I’m an avid doodler. I do love to draw and paint. I loved it at school. I wouldn’t say I was anywhere near as skilled as Kya. But I do love drawing if I get the chance to do it.
BLADE: Kya was born and raised in North Carolina. What can you tell me about your process when it comes to doing a southern accent or an American accent in general?
EDGAR-JONES: It’s obviously quite different from mine. I’ve been lucky that I’ve spent a lot of time working on various accents for different parts for a few years now, so I feel like I’m developed an ear for, I guess, the difference in tone and vowel sounds [laughs]. When it came to this, it was really important to get it right, of course. Kya has a very lyrical, gentle voice, which I think that North Carolina kind of sound really helped me to access. I worked with a brilliant accent coach who helped me out and I just listened and listened.
BLADE: While I was watching “Where the Crawdads Sing” I thought about how Kya could easily be a character from the LGBTQ community because she is considered an outsider, is shunned and ridiculed, and experiences physical and emotional harm. Do you also see the parallels?
EDGAR-JONES: I certainly do. I think that aspect of being an outsider is there, and this film does a really good job of showing how important it is to be kind to everyone. I think this film celebrates the goodness you can give to each other if you choose to be kind. Yes, I definitely see the parallels.
BLADE: Do you have an awareness of an LGBTQ following for your acting career?
EDGAR-JONES: I tend to stay off social media and am honestly not really aware of who follows me, but I do really hope the projects I’ve worked on resonate with everyone.
BLADE: Are there any upcoming acting projects that you’d like to mention?
EDGAR-JONES: None that I can talk of quite yet. But there are a few things that are coming up next year, so I’m really excited.
CAMP Rehoboth’s president talks pandemic, planning, and the future
Wesley Combs marks six months in new role
June marks half a year since Wesley Combs stepped into his role as president of CAMP Rehoboth. In a conversation with the Blade, Combs recounted his first six months in the position — a time he said was characterized by transition and learning.
Since 1991, CAMP Rehoboth has worked to develop programming “inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities” in the Rehoboth Beach, Del. area, according to the nonprofit’s website. As president, Combs oversees the organization’s board of directors and executive director, helping determine areas of focus and ensure programming meets community needs.
For Combs, his more than three decades of involvement with CAMP Rehoboth have shaped the course of his life. In the summer of 1989 — just before the organization’s creation — he met his now-husband, who was then living in a beach house with Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald, CAMP Rehoboth’s founders.
Since then, he has served as a financial supporter of the organization, noting that it has been crucial to fostering understanding that works against an “undercurrent of anti-LGBTQ sentiment” in Rehoboth Beach’s history that has, at times, propagated violence against LGBTQ community members.
In 2019, after Elkins passed away, Combs was called upon by CAMP Rehoboth’s Board of Directors to serve on a search committee for the organization’s next executive director. Later that year, he was invited to become a board member and, this past November, was elected president.
Combs noted that CAMP Rehoboth is also still recovering from the pandemic, and is working to restart programming paused in the switch to remote operations. In his first six months, he has sought to ensure that people feel “comfortable” visiting and engaging with CAMP Rehoboth again, and wants to ensure all community members can access its programming, including those from rural parts of Delaware and those without a means of getting downtown.
Still, Combs’s first six months were not without unexpected turns: On May 31, David Mariner stepped down from his role as CAMP Rehoboth executive director, necessitating a search for his replacement. Combs noted that he would help facilitate the search for an interim director to serve for the remainder of the year and ensure that there is “a stable transition of power.” CAMP Rehoboth last week announced it has named Lisa Evans to the interim director role.
Chris Beagle, whose term as president of CAMP Rehoboth preceded Combs’s own, noted that the experience of participating in a search committee with the organization will “better enable him to lead the process this time.”
Before completing his term, Beagle helped prepare Combs for the new role, noting that the “combination of his professional background, his executive leadership (and) his passion for the organization” make Combs a strong president. Regarding the results of the election, “I was extremely confident, and I remain extremely confident,” Beagle said.
Bob Witeck, a pioneer in LGBTQ marketing and communications, has known Combs for nearly four decades. The two founded a public relations firm together in 1993 and went on to work together for 20 years, with clients ranging from major businesses like Ford Motor Company to celebrities including Chaz Bono and Christopher Reeve. According to Witeck, Combs’s work in the firm is a testament to his commitment to LGBTQ advocacy.
“Our firm was the first founded primarily to work on issues specific to LGBTQ identities, because we wanted to counsel corporations about their marketing and media strategies and working in the LGBTQ market,” he explained. By helping develop communications strategies inclusive of those with LGBTQ identities, Combs established a background of LGBTQ advocacy that truly “made a mark,” Witeck said.
Witeck emphasized that, in his new position, Combs brings both business experience and a renewed focus on historically underrepresented in LGBTQ advocacy — including people with disabilities, trans people and people of color.
Looking to the rest of the year, CAMP Rehoboth hopes to host a larger-scale event during Labor Day weekend. In addition, the organization will revisit its strategic plan — first developed in 2019 but delayed due to the pandemic — and ensure it still meets the needs of the local community, Combs said. He added that he intends to reexamine the plan and other programming to ensure inclusivity for trans community members.
“CAMP Rehoboth continues to be a vital resource in the community,” he said. “The focus for the next two years is to make sure we’re doing and delivering services that meet the needs of everyone in our community.”
Melissa Etheridge shares Q&A in advance of April 26 Tysons tour stop
Rock pioneer finds inspiration in the past — from revisiting old demos to reconnecting with celeb pals like Ellen
We caught up with rock legend Melissa Etheridge on April 8 by phone from Snoqualmie, Wash. — it’s about 26 miles east of Seattle —where she was playing the Snoqualmie Casino on her “One Way Out Tour,” which plays our region on Tuesday, April 26.
It’s named after her latest album, released last fall, which found Etheridge, who’s been out since ’93, revisiting demos from early in her career.
Her comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: “One Way Out” sounds like such a cool project. Was it all re-recorded stuff of old songs or were some of those vintage takes on the record as well?
MELISSA ETHERIDGE: The last two songs, the live songs, were from where? From 2002? OK, but the other songs were newly recorded.
BLADE: And how many of them did you remember?
ETHERIDGE: You know, when I found them again, they all came back very clearly. And I was like, “Oh, this is — why did I throw that away? That’s weird.” And I really enjoyed, you know, hearing them, they were just old demos. I’d never done full-blown recordings. So I thought, “This is great, I want to do these songs.”
BLADE: We have a relatively new venue you’re going to be playing, Capital One Hall. I’ve only been there once. You excited?
ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it’s always fun. I love the D.C.-area crowd. It’s just really, really nice.
BLADE: And how do you decide where you’ll be? Or do you have any say in it?
ETHERIDGE: Well, it’s not necessarily me. I do have a say in it, in what I want the whole tour to look like. But it is really up to William Morris, my agent, to find the right venue that understands what we need and the kind of atmosphere we’re looking for that and the amount of people and, you know, that sort of thing.
BLADE: Tell me about Etheridge TV. I just wonder, when we were in that acute phase of the pandemic, wasn’t it even remotely tempting to you to just take a break?
ETHERIDGE: No, because since I was 12 years old, I sang all the time for people, like five days a week and it’s just been what I do. And so when it was like, I was looking at a massive, cavernous amount of time that I was going to be home, I still needed a way to pay the bills, so we put our heads together — I’ve got one of the greatest television minds with me, you know, my wife (TV producer Linda Wallem), so I had the space and I had the equipment, and I was like, “Let’s do it.” And it was really fun to learn new things. It was fun to learn about computers and sound and streaming and lights and cameras and all these things that I didn’t know. … I feel a little smarter.
BLADE: When did you start back on the road?
ETHERIDGE: We went out last fall. We went out September, October, right around there. And you know, it was a little different, Now things are things are loosening up … but some places still require masks. But people are starting to get back out and it feels good. It’s not the overwhelming thing that it was a few months ago.
BLADE: And what was it like being on ‘Ellen’ again for her final season?
ETHERIDGE: Oh, I love her. She’s such an old friend. You know, I say that about myself, too. (chuckles) But, you know, she’s just a relationship in my life that I have treasured. We’ve watched each other grow and the changes we’ve made and the successes and what we’ve gone through and I love that she had me on and just it was just a really — she’s a dear friend. And she showed an old photo there, and we both said, “Oh, that was before we were so busy.”
BLADE: Do you talk to her often?
ETHERIDGE: I would say we see each other socially once or twice a year. It just seemed like once we started having children, all my friends from my 20s and 30s when we were not as busy — it just gets harder to stay in touch and life got crazy.
BLADE: So when you were hanging out back in the day with Ellen and Rosie and everybody, how was it that Brad Pitt was in that group too?
ETHERIDGE: Well, my girlfriend (Julie Cypher) had been married to Lou Diamond Phillips and we were all very good friends with Dermot Mulroney and Catherine Keener and Catherine Keener did a movie with Brad, like a movie nobody saw, like Johnny Dangerously or something (1991’s “Johnny Suede”), some really weird movie. So I met Brad before he was terribly famous. He was a part of that group. There was a whole group of all of us that just hung out, and we were all totally different. We were just like young, hungry Hollywood and we’d talk about, “Oh, I had this audition,” or “I went and did this,” and we were just all trying to make it in that town. So we’d get together and have fun.
BLADE: I was so terribly sorry to hear about Beckett (Etheridge’s son, who died in 2020 at age 21 after struggling with opioid addiction). How are you and the rest of the family, especially (Beckett’s twin) Bailey, dealing with it now?
ETHERIDGE: There are many, many families like us that deal with a loss like that. It just blows a family sideways. But we have a deep love and connection, all of us. We all knew he had a problem and it’s a problem that starts way before he actually passes, so it was not a surprise. So now we’re just living with the missing aspect. You try not to think about what could have been and you try to think about him in a happier place and that he’s out of pain, so that helps us.
BLADE: Had he and Bailey been as close in recent years?
ETHERIDGE: They were very close, but in the last couple of years as he made worse and worse choices, we couldn’t support that, so they were less close, but of course in her heart, it was her brother, he was very dear to her.
BLADE: Did you watch the Grammys? Was there anybody you were particularly rooting for?
ETHERIDGE: I watched bits and pieces of it. I had a show that night, so I didn’t get to see the main thing, but I have seen pieces and I just love the crazy diversity and you know, the TikTok people winning stuff, it’s like, “Wow, this is so not the Grammys I remember from the ’80s,” but that was what, 30 years ago? So it’s all good.
BLADE: You were such a perennial favorite back in the day in the best rock female category. Were you pissed when they eliminated it?
ETHERIDGE: It’s sad because I felt like the criteria they were using to judge what is female rock, they just really dropped the ball. I still think there are some amazing musicians that could be considered, you know, rock, but it feels like we’re having a hard time even defining what rock and roll is now anyway. There’s a whole bunch of strong women out there playing, rocking, you know, playing guitar, being excellent musicians and songwriters. If you can’t call it best rock female, OK, call it something else.
BLADE: I remember so vividly when you were on the Grammys in 2005, in the midst of chemo, when you sang “Piece of My Heart.” I remember you saying you were wondering how people would react to seeing you bald. Having been through that, any thoughts on the Will/Jada Oscars situation since her baldness, too, was due to a medical condition?
ETHERIDGE: You know, it’s funny, I did feel a little remembrance of (thinking), “I just hope people don’t make fun of me.” That was kind of the first thing because to go out there bald, that was so different for me as an artist whose hair had kind of defined her. I was thinking, “How am I gonna rock without my hair?” I thought people might make fun of me, but I got over that. I just thought, “Well, if somebody makes fun of me, that just makes them look bad.” So I just walked through it. And you know, it’s hard to draw the line between what’s funny and what’s painful and how to look at something. I feel for all parties involved.
BLADE: When you go on these cruises, do fans give you some space or do they swarm around the minute you walk out? Is it even enjoyable for you?
ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it is. You know, we did our last one, now we’re doing Etheridge Island, we now have a destination in Mexico, outside of Cancun, it’s just this island that we’re going to that is really fantastic. But I do I make myself available, I don’t run away. When I have to be somewhere, I have a great company we work with called Sixthman that knows how to get me from point A to point B without being bogged down. But I do my make myself available. Everyone gets a picture with me. It’s my work, but I love it. I try to make myself available but also have some time just for myself too.
BLADE: You Tweeted a few nights ago about having a tight curfew of just 90 minutes at a casino but then it worked out and you got to do a full set. Why are the curfews so tight at casinos?
ETHERIDGE: Why do you think? They want people at the tables. Like for tonight, we we settled on 100 minutes. They’re giving me 10 extra minutes. I don’t like it, but in some areas, the only really good venue is a casino, so if you want to reach your folks there, you kind of have to meet them half way.
BLADE: Yeah, but it seems like in concert halls, the curfews can sometimes be really tight too. Even Madonna got her lights shut off a couple years ago. Of course, she’s notoriously late, but why are they so strict with these things nowadays?
ETHERIDGE: There are all different situations — concert halls often have union crews that will absolutely shut you down if you go one second over. There are also sound curfews, noise curfews, mostly with outdoor venues, but sometimes indoor as well. They have an agreement with the neighborhood. So you have people in the neighborhood standing by with their phones ready to pounce the minute it goes over one minute, they’re gonna call the police. As a performer, you just realize, “OK, it’s not just about me.” When I don’t have a curfew, I usually land at about two hours and some change. That seems comfortable to everyone. Any longer and I think I’m wearing my audience out. When I’m at a place with a shorter show, I just do my best.
BLADE: I know you’re a big Chiefs fan. Did you watch that game back in January all the way to the end?
ETHERIDGE: Well, at the end of it, I was on the floor. My wife was like, “Honey, honey, there’s still 13 seconds,” and I was moaning and sort of getting my feet on the floor and, you know, laying down and throwing a fit. And she’s like, “No, there’s still 13 seconds.” I dragged myself back to the television. And I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Wait a minute. Did we just win?” You know, just really crazy, really crazy stuff. … When you’re a fan like that, it’s a ride you can’t fully explain.
BLADE: Are you in a cordial or good place with your exes? Does it get easier when the kids are starting to grow up?
ETHERIDGE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And you realize that it’s best for the kids if you can really get along and that any sort of conflict that can’t get resolved, that gets emotional, does no good for anyone. And absolutely, I have, I’ve gotten better at that as the years have gone by.
BLADE: Do you have the slightest inkling yet what the next studio album might be like?
ETHERIDGE: Well, I’ve got some interesting projects that I’m not ready to talk about just yet. But they have to do with my life story. There’s a lot of digging up of my past and really telling the story. So I imagine the next series of music you’ll get from me is going to be very focused on my journey.
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