Confidence Man of Steel: Matt Bomer

Source: Houston Magazine
Date: July 29, 2010

It’s a blistering summer afternoon in New York City: 98 degrees radiating off every surface, a day that makes even the most committed New Yorker wish he were anywhere, anyone, else. But Matt Bomer isn’t sweating. The 32-year-old actor has been shooting White Collar outside since 8AM, but breezing into an Italian bistro two blocks from the set, he’s the picture of cool. In a white V-neck T-shirt, gray shorts, boat shoes and a straw pork-pie hat, he’s in the seasonal uniform of the fashionable young urban dude, accessorized with thick-rimmed black glasses that evoke Clark Kent (ironic, considering that he was originally cast, then cast aside, as Superman in the most recent movie version of the franchise).

“Growing up in Houston gave me the wherewithal to withstand humidity,” he says with a grin, settling in for his first in-person magazine interview. In fact, Bomer seems well prepared to take the heat literally and figuratively, navigating with aplomb a path to stardom fraught with potentially devastating career setbacks—and relentless questions about his private life.

On USA’s White Collar, which airs through October, Bomer plays Neal Caffrey, an upscale criminal turned FBI agent. The show is a breakout, as is Bomer, who’s one of the most buzzed-about stars of the last few TV seasons. Named People magazine’s “Sexiest Newcomer,” he was also featured as the “Must List Summer Crush” in Entertainment Weekly—tipping a water bottle over his torso with pinup panache, his abs rippling through a soaked T-shirt. And he landed the cover of TV Guide in June. He modestly attributes all the attention he’s getting to the winning character Collar’s producers created for him. “We can all be con artists at one time or another,” he says casually, taking a hearty swallow of iced coffee.

In person, Bomer looks a bit ruddier and slighter than on screen, more regular-guy; he’s one of those performers who seem to conduct electricity in front of a camera. In conversation, he’s engaged and engaging, with an actor’s expansiveness—much animation, many hand gestures—and a screenwriter’s vocabulary (he calls living in New York City after 9/11 “a diaspora” and the People accolade “flattering, but not a meritocratic achievement”). Overall, his vibe is that of the high-school jock everybody liked, who sat in the back of the cafeteria drawing in his notebook. Which is essentially what he was.

Bomer was raised in the Houston suburb of Spring, the middle child of Sissi and John—Dad was a former draft pick for the Dallas Cowboys—with a younger sister and older brother. He grew up playing backyard football, along with just about every other sport. “Track, baseball, tennis, soccer, swimming, diving,” he says. “My parents pushed me into athletics at a young age. It was probably smart of them, considering they had two boys. We needed to run our energy out.”

But Texas football glory wasn’t on the horizon for young Bomer. “I wasn’t that great a player,” he says with a shrug. “I wasn’t going to get a Division I scholarship. I played because it was fun, a lot of my friends played. It also made my dad really happy. That was really important to me.”

Instead, he gravitated toward acting, an interest sparked when his mother took him to see E.T. In high school, he balanced athletics with school plays; he compares himself to the jock-turned-troubadour on TV’s Glee. (“I was a free agent, not an alpha male,” he says.) His frequent costar in stage productions like The Diary of Anne Frank and Platonov was Lee Pace, who recently starred in TV’s Pushing Daisies and appeared on the April 2008 cover of Houston magazine; the two still hang out.

In Bomer’s senior year, he left the football team for the Alley Theatre in Houston, where he played several roles in a revisionist production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It required him to get up before 7AM for school, commute an hour to the theater afterward, and arrive home after midnight. “It was crazy,” he says. “I remember being really, really exhausted. And having a blast.”

At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he majored in theater and music, then moved to New York City, where he landed in early workshops of the Broadway hits Spring Awakening, Grey Gardens and Thoroughly Modern Millie. After 9/11, precarious finances forced him to drop out of the latter and take a job on Guiding Light; a year on the soap led to an audition for Superman Returns. “I screen-tested in the tights. The director wanted to hire me,” he says. “I was going to sign the three-picture deal.”

Then director Brett Ratner left the project, and Bomer was dropped in favor of another unknown, Brandon Routh. “They never told me why,” he says, and it’s only here that his tone wavers from completely upbeat. “I think it was a creative decision that was way above my head. Brett Ratner probably knows, and the creators probably know.” Did it bum him out? “Maybe for the first year or so. But I’m a huge believer—and I think you have to be, to stay sane in this industry—that everything happens for a reason. So many amazing things have happened in my life because that job didn’t work out.

“Maybe it’s because my parents are very strong Christians and have a really firm set of morals,” he adds, “but it was always ingrained in me that you never based your ego on what you do, or what happens to you. I never started thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m it, man.’ But I started to believe in myself on some level.”

Even though it was not to be his big break, his flirtation with the Man of Steel raised his profile. After starring on two highly anticipated but quickly expired series (Traveler and Tru Calling) and landing a small but showy role as a dapper spy on NBC’s Chuck, Bomer snared White Collar, which is now in its second season. The role requires him to be suave, ruthless and easy with banter, and he does it well; to prepare for the role, he studied Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief and Frank Sinatra in Ocean’s Eleven, and spent a month-and-a-half alone in a room practicing how Neal would walk. Reviewers have approved—EW’s curmudgeonly TV critic called him “a smooth criminal without smugness”—and the network flew banner-toting planes over Los Angeles to campaign for a Best Actor Emmy nomination. (Maybe next year.)

For his part, Bomer learned to appreciate his cool-conman character as he studied to become him. “I like his sense of fun, curiosity and sense of humor,” he says. “And I like the way he sees the world: as his oyster. I do think I have certain social graces that are similar to his. When push comes to shove, I can spin myself out of any situation.”

In his spare time (he flies back to L.A. on weekends), Bomer writes (frustrated by the capriciousness of TV executives, he penned a pilot called Nashville, which attracted the attention of Brad Paisley), hangs out in a downtown jazz club (“I like to think it’s something Neal would do”), plugs into pop culture (the Scissor Sisters and Janelle Monae are on his iPod) and meditates in the parks on Manhattan’s west side. “I’ll sit out there, read, watch the sunset,” he says, “and remind myself of the things that are really important in life: family, friends, the people who are special to me.”

Turns out that is a subject—the special people—about which Bomer will say little. (Interviewers by now have learned not to take it personally. Last year, a Details writer probed as the actor steadfastly declined to comment. “I have a show and a network on my shoulders,” he said, explaining his silence.) But now that Collar is more established, as is Bomer, can he talk more freely about his personal life?

“No, because it’s personal,” he says with a laugh. “There are a lot of reasons. But the biggest reason is that my personal life is what’s most sacred to me, and I want it to stay sacred. It’s also the source of my greatest happiness. But the other people in my life didn’t necessarily choose to be in the spotlight. So for me to drag them into it would be inconsiderate, to say the least.”

He says this with great confidence and self-assurance; it’s something he’s clearly given thought to. “In terms of the profession in general, it’s not anything I’m afraid of,” Bomer continues. “Anyone who knows me, knows me—including everyone who’s on that set right around the corner. But when I look at actors onscreen, my favorites are the ones I can watch without thinking of the picture I just saw of them in the tabloids doing X, Y or Z. I can just get invested in the storytelling process.”

But it must be difficult, one might suggest, to avoid sharing the basic biographical information other actors mention so freely.

No, it’s really not,” he says. “I don’t feel shut in, or cramped, or that I hide anything in my life. I’ve lived my life very openly and honestly, and that’s how I like it. I go to work, and sit down with you and other people in the media and talk about things that have to do with the job, and I go home and have my real life. It’s a whole separate entity that I get to enjoy, and it gives me proper perspective on the billboards and subway signs and magazine covers and all that. It prioritizes my life.”

After White Collar wraps for the season, Bomer plans to do a play. After that, “I want to let the compass of my career not be navigated by fame or wealth but by risk and creativity,” he says. “In any medium, TV, film, theater. Ideally, I’d get to do all three of those.”

His life, he says, has two discrete parts. “One is a complete maelstrom of creativity. There are times I feel like I’m living in the studio of Salvador Dali: My apartment is strewn with pages and pages of lines and notes … a lot of brainstorming and creativity and disorganization. And then there’s my family life, which is beautiful and rock-solid and chaotic in a whole different way.”

An hour has passed and Bomer has to get back to the set; dinner hasn’t advanced beyond coffee. The waitress is nonplussed. “You didn’t like the menu?” she says, mock-hurt. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll be back to eat here real soon,” says Bomer soothingly. He insists on paying the check, leaving a $15 tip against a $5 tab, and he reflects on how his Houston upbringing has surfaced today.

“There’s something about being from Houston that helps you keep a really good head on your shoulders, no matter what life throws at you,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of different people approach me at different times and say, ‘You were raised well.’”

Unlike magazine hot lists, these are superlatives he’s not quick to dismiss. “To me,” he says, “that’s the best compliment I can get.”