A Beautiful Heart
Actor Adam B. Shapiro talks about The Normal Heart, de-stigmatizing HIV and bridging divides
Text & photos by Alina Oswald
Many might recognize NYC-based actor Adam B. Shapiro from his appearances on screen and on stage, in TV shows like Friends from College or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and movies like The Cobbler. Many more might remember Shapiro from the Yiddish-language production of Fiddler on the Roof [A&U, July 2018] now playing at Stage 42, in New York City, or as the memorable, funny and fascinating Bella in the AIDS-themed The Normal Heart on HBO. And, so, I couldn’t believe my fortune of having Adam B. Shapiro, himself, in my studio, to interview and photograph him for A&U.
As I find out, the B in Adam B. Shapiro stands for his middle name, Burton, which is his grandfather’s name. The actor added his middle initial when joining SAG-AFTRA, for The Normal Heart, in 2013. Yet for him, the B can have other meanings, too. It can also stand for Bella, the character he plays in The Normal Heart, for Broadway or for Baker, because baking is one of his hobbies.
Being in the presence of Adam B. Shapiro is a delightful experience. He’s funny and graceful. His stories make you laugh and ponder in the same time, as you hang on to his every word.
Adam B. Shapiro grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. He discovered he had “the acting bug” when he was in kindergarten. “My school was having a talent show, and I really didn’t know what that meant, but I knew that I wanted to be in it.” His mother knew that he loved Disney movies and encouraged him to do the talent show. “[Once] on stage I was very nervous,” he recalls, “but I remembered everything. At the end everybody applauded.” He pauses, as if reliving that moment. “I heard the applause and pretty much knew [then] that I was going to be an actor.”
Shapiro acted, sang and danced all through high school. He spent two summers studying at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan then went to Indiana’s Ball State University. He graduated in May of 2004 and by September he moved to New York City to pursue his acting career.
In the spring of 2013, Shapiro received an email from his manager. The subject line said “Appointment HBO’s The Normal Heart.” Shapiro was familiar with the play, and also aware that many actors wanted to get in the movie and, at the time, he had only one TV credit. And so, instead of just hitting Reply, he picked up the phone and called his manager. At his manager’s insistence, he opened the email and read the character’s description, which, in brief, said: larger than life, bearded hairy guy, dirty sense of humor, life of the party. “And I just read this and go, oh, that’s me all right!”
After the initial audition, he got called back. He found out that it was down to two actors. “They wanted me to come in a uniform of some sort,” Shapiro says, explaining that the character, Bella, has a uniform fetish. And so, in twenty-four hours he came up with the idea of a giant boy-scout uniform on which he attached scout badges he’d printed out. “I looked both fabulous and ridiculous,” he recalls. “The cast director came out, took one look at me, and started laughing. And I’m thinking, I just made a big fool of myself or I got the part…and I got the part.”
Shapiro calls the experience of playing in The Normal Heart “one of the most exciting, humbling, overwhelming projects [he’s] ever done.” The Normal Heart was the first movie he got to be in. He got to work with actors he’d admired and respected for a long time, actors like Mark Ruffalo [A&U, May 2014], Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer and B.D. Wong. Larry Kramer’s 1985 play is an important piece, from a theatrical, as well as from a gay, and a historical standpoint; it was one of the first to address the AIDS epidemic.
Adam B. Shapiro’s character, Bella, is interesting, intriguing, and funny, and appears in various scenes—either moving a sofa with Bruce Niles (played by Taylor Kitsch); having a snappy exchange with Dr. Emma Brookner (Julia Roberts); or watching with the other guys, as she makes the speech to the medical board, and which ends up with her screaming and throwing the papers.
Throughout the movie, Bella proves to be a unique character, as the only character to offer a hint of humor—and with it, a glimmer of hope—to the story. “I was very happy that [Bella] got to be the funny guy,” Shapiro says. “I think my character was one of those people [who believe that] if you stop trying to smile then you’ve lost. My mission in all of this was to try to make people [smile].”
Shapiro also met Larry Kramer, who was very involved with the making of the movie. The actor still recalls “the very best day by far” on the set of The Normal Heart, in June of 2013. “It was the day we were shooting the big disco fundraiser scene, which had over 200 background actors, and we were all dressed to the nines.” It was the day when the Defense of Marriage Act was repealed, opening the path to marriage equality nationwide. “I found out about it while I was in hair and makeup. Larry Kramer was there that day. At one point he got up on stage and someone gave him a microphone. And he said, ‘We won!’ [in the microphone] and everybody cheered….”
The Normal Heart offers many of us, including the actor, an opportunity to look at the early years of AIDS through the lens of time. “I was very young when the AIDS crisis was at its height,” he mentions. “Not only that, but I grew up in Indianapolis, [where the epidemic] wasn’t as visible as it was in New York City or San Francisco. We started hearing about it, and pretty much [right away] I understood that AIDS means you die.” He was aware of only one person who died of AIDS-related causes, a hairdresser who worked at the hair salon where his mother and grandmother got their hair done.
Perhaps being Indianapolis, there was much talk about Ryan White. Shapiro still remembers going to an Elton John concert in Indianapolis—that was right after John’s winning the Oscar for The Lion King. At that concert, Elton John dedicated “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” to Ryan White in “a very emotional” performance.
Shapiro reminds that, because of his age and location, there was a lot that he didn’t know about the AIDS crisis. That changed once he moved to New York City and started meeting people who had lived in the city in the eighties, or who were, themselves, living with HIV, and who had witnessed, first-hand, “how horrible everything was” at the height of the epidemic.
“Then, doing Normal Heart, allowed me in some way to step back to that time and witness certain things—some were evident while we were filming; others, once the movie was finished. [When] I saw [the movie] for the first time, they hit me even harder, and drove a lot home.”
Shows like The Normal Heart and Fiddler on the Roof, both shows Shapiro has been a part of, open our minds and take on, each in its own way, universal issues. Issues like the reality that, sometimes, life as we know it changes forever, the uncertainty and the us-vs.-them divide created in the wake of such changes, and also the sliver of hope that guides us through it all.
At its height, the AIDS crisis helped create such a divide. Since then, treatment and prevention have come a long way yet, HIV-related stigma is still around, blocking the way to completely bridging that divide. Therefore now “there’s a lot of work being done to destigmatize HIV,” Shapiro comments.
A way of doing that, of becoming more accepting of others, is by becoming more open to new information, he suggests. And one doesn’t only have to become more accepting of others, but also accepting of oneself. He recalls he once heard an interview with Carol Burnett. “She said, ‘I try not to play the what-if game.’ That’s something that really stuck with me, because, especially as an actor, there are lots of jobs that I audition for that I don’t get. And it can be very tempting sometimes to [ask myself] ‘what if I have gotten this [role] or what if I have done that….’ And now I try not to do this, because, what if I had? I think, the idea is not wondering what might have been, but realizing what has brought you to where you are and knowing that you can always change course moving forward.”
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.