From the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Amazon pilot The Last Tycoon follows Golden Boy Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer), as he battles father figure and boss Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer) for the soul of their movie studio. In a world darkened by the Great Depression and the growing influence of Hitler’s Germany, Monroe’s passion and ambition keeps him fighting to maintain his voice in 1930s Hollywood.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Matt Bomer talked about the creative dream team he got to work with on The Last Tycoon, Amazon’s unique pilot process, avoiding the viewer comments, why this project and character appealed to him, his extensive preparation, how he thinks he might have fared in this era, and his hope that he’ll get to continue to explore this character. He also talked about the status of the Montgomery Clift biopic that he’s hoping to make, and why it’s taking so long to go into production.
Collider: Aside from The Last Tycoon being a fascinating story with interesting characters, this pilot was absolutely beautiful to look at.
MATT BOMER: The creatives behind this piece are like a bucket list, all around. Patrizia von Brandenstein did the sets, and she did Amadeus and films like that. Janie Bryant did an incredible job with the costumes. Danny Moder, who’s one of my favorite D.P.s to work with, shot it so beautifully. And you have the wonderful Billy Ray behind it all, directing all the action. It was really a dream team, to get to work with all of these people.
Typically, if a pilot doesn’t get picked up, people never actually get to see it. So, knowing how Amazon orders a pilot and posts it to see what the feedback is before ordering it to series, how do you feel about that whole process?
BOMER: I love that Amazon has this incredibly unique, diplomatic process where people’s voices are heard, and we’re using this great interconnectedness we have, via the internet, to weigh in and to have a say in what we want to see and what we don’t. Having done television for almost 20 years now, a pilot is kind of like a rough draft. It’s like bringing people into your ultrasound and hooking up to the monitor and going, “Isn’t my baby beautiful?” “Yeah. I can only see the outline of it, but it looks like it might be.” For me, I look at a pilot and go, “I see the landscape. I see the characters. I see the direction and the potential of the story.” And I also go, “That didn’t work. I could change that. Maybe that works. I don’t know. We’ll see.” For me, I look at it, as an actor, as what can I improve upon? So, to have it out there and judged solely on its own merit is really a unique experience for me.
Do you want to read what people are saying about it, or do you avoid the comments?
BOMER: When you really put your heart and soul into something, the temptation is to try to be in control of circumstances, however you can, and looking and seeing how people are responding. But I realized, early on, that that was just not going to be a healthy thing for me to do. The first couple of days, I was looking at people’s responses, and then I thought, “You know what? This is not healthy.” You can’t please everybody. There’s that old saying that there’s no sure formula for success, but the only sure fire formula for failure is to try to please everyone. You’re not going to do that. If you gave your best to what you were given, at the time, it’s going to play out how it’s going to play out.
Billy Ray has said that you were his one and only choice for this role, so I would imagine that it would have really sucked if you had said no. What was it about this character and story that spoke to you and made you want to delve into this?
BOMER: Well, I’m a long time Fitzgerald fan, as probably everyone in America is. And I’ve always been fascinated by that theme of, what is the price of the American dream and what parts of your soul do you walk away with? The conflict of art versus commerce was also very interesting to me. At the time, I had just finished reading The Day of the Locust when this piece was brought to my attention, and I was like, “How do you create art in the system, the way it is?” Looking around the studio film landscape, there are all of these great superhero movies, which is fantastic, especially for my kids, but it’s hard to find real art house films in the studio system, these days. So, I thought that this story was really relevant and it was speaking to the same things that are concerning me. Here’s a character that really believes in the power of story, beyond the bottom line and the business aspect of it. He believes that it has the power to change lives and affect society and politics. At the same time, I really saw Pat Brady, Kelsey Grammer’s character’s point of view that it’s a business. It’s show business. So, it was an incredible opportunity to work with really wonderful creatives and the script was fantastic. What was so interesting to me about the studio system was that a lot of the politics that were in play then are so really relevant to today.
Aside from this being beautiful to look at, it seems like there is such extreme attention paid to every little detail. It also feels like both you and Lily Collins are so at home in this time period that it seems like you belong there.
BOMER: Well, that’s great to hear!
What did you do to prepare for this role, in this era?
BOMER: I did a lot. I’m glad you say that it just seems like it fits, and I’m sure for a brilliant, gorgeous actress like Lily Collins, it’s easy for her. I took movement classes that I wore my double-breasted suits to. I worked on my elocution because people spoke differently then. I was really trying to toe the line. I think that if I had spoken exactly the way that people spoke back then, it probably would have alienated people. At the same time, I at least felt the obligation to speak clearly. This is pre-Brando and pre-James Dean. Nobody mumbled back then. They spoke very clearly. I very comprehensively studied Irving Thalberg and his biographies. He’s who Fitzgerald roughly modeled the character after. He worked for him, as a writer, when he was at MGM. And, of course, I revisited the novel and the politics of MGM and the studio system at the time and familiarized myself with the world. There was a great deal of physical and literary work that went into it.
It’s pretty impressive that the pilot was able to convey the clothes, the music, the different way that people carried themselves and the viewpoints of the time.
BOMER: That’s a testament to Billy Ray. He loves this world. When you are the avatar for the writer/director, a lot of times, I just trusted him. If he had a choice, even if it wasn’t necessarily what was my first impulse, I was like, “This guy has been living with this for two years before I even came on board, so I’m going with him.” He’s just a lovely, brilliant man to get to work with, so I’m glad I got the opportunity to flesh out the character with him.
Having delved so deeply into this world, do you think you would have enjoyed living in this time period yourself, or are you appreciative for the time we live in now?
BOMER: It depends. Who am I in this time period? Am I someone suffering at the height of the Great Depression? Am I a young executive in the film industry that’s booming at the height of the Great Depression? Am I somebody who’s in the Spanish Civil War? Am I suffering from Hitler’s rise to power? It depends on where I am and who I am, at this time, as far as whether or not I would flourish. Some of the politics, in terms of just the business and it being show business, hasn’t really changed that much. Some of the things I experience are probably pretty similar to what I would have experienced back then. But in some ways, we’ve grown exponentially. So, I’m really grateful to live in the times that I live in. I’d want to go back and party for a week, but I think I’d be ready to get back in my time capsule.
What have you most enjoyed about playing Monroe Stahr and living in his shoes?
BOMER: I feel like I’m just getting to know him. He’s a very multi-faceted individual. There’s the side of him that’s the breezy studio guy who’s letting everyone know that all is right, and how to run things in a ship-shape fashion and tell a story just right. There’s the side of him that’s a little bit severe. There’s the side of him that’s having an illicit affair that has incredible personal and professional stakes to it. There’s the side of him that watches old movies of his wife and weeps by himself at night. You’re really at the trunk of the tree in the pilot, and you’re figuring out who the faces are that he’s showing to who, and when and why. It was so much fun to get to put so much work in, and then you do the piece and you feel like, “Oh, man, I’m just getting to know the guy, and now we’re going to have to wait and see if we get to expand his world or not.”
It would be heartbreaking, if you don’t get the chance to continue to explore this story and who this character is.
BOMER: I think Billy Ray has a lot of great stories up his sleeve. I’ve heard a lot of his plans for the show, should it go forward, and I think there’s a lot in store for people, if it’s given a chance.
Did Billy Ray fill you in on where this story would go and how it would develop over the course of the season?
BOMER: Billy is a preternatural enthusiast. He would say things to me like, “Now, let me tell you about Episode 3.” I’m a big superstitious, having done television for quite some time, and I would say, “Billy, I can’t wait to hear about it, but let’s just stay here for right now, see what happens, and enjoy this moment. When that moment comes, I want to talk to you all about it.”
Why do you think Monroe is holding onto Minna (Jessica De Gouw) so tightly? What is it about her that’s made him dedicate himself to her, even though she’s no longer there?
BOMER: I think his number one priority is legacy. Everything is about legacy and gaining immortality in the time that he has, which is very limited due to his health situation, and she was a huge part of that. You’re talking about someone who was a carnival barker and is now an executive at a studio. So, the fact that he got this great film star as his wife by his side, very rarely do you achieve legacy without someone by your side who adds to or contributes to that legacy in a strong way, and I think she was that for him. And I think he really loved her. He feels like he invented her and created her, much like Irving Thalberg did with his wife. He feels partly responsible for her success and partly responsible for her death. He really loved her. It was real love. I think he would have been happy with her, for the rest of his life. Getting over that person that you’ve found that with is probably an ongoing process, for the rest of your life.
There’s something fun and playful with the dynamic between Monroe and Cecelia (Lily Collins). He acts like he finds her a bit of a nuisance sometimes, but he’s also one of the only people who makes her feel like he actually hears her. What was that like to play?
BOMER: It’s really what she brings to Cecelia. She’s a wonderful actress and really fun to work with. Cecelia is an incredibly intelligent, savvy girl who wants to be heard and taken seriously, even though she’s young and impressionable and green. That was the great journey they got to take, over the course of the pilot. At first, he sees her as someone he wants to protect and shield from this shady business that he’s a part of, but her ideas are so brilliant that that last interaction they have is like, “All right, welcome to the big leagues kid. You’re in now.” The amount of respect between them grows, over the course of the pilot.
How are things going with the Montgomery Clift film? It’s something that you’re clearly very passionate about, so is it any closer to happening?
BOMER: It is and it isn’t. If it were an easy story to tell, I think it would have been done a long time ago. Right now, we’re on a new draft that’s due in September, and we’re just making sure we get the story right. The last thing I want to do is having someone get behind a Montgomery Clift biopic, and then just do the first script that came out. Sometimes it takes a long time for these things to gestate. And I’m only going to do it if it’s the right story that’s told for the right reason, and that’s relevant to this day and age, as much as it pays homage to who this man was. Should that happen during the time when I’m still young enough to play him, perfect. And if not, hopefully someone else will get to play him because I do think it’s an incredible story.
The Last Tycoon pilot is available to watch on Amazon.