How Matt McGorry falls in love: "When I do, I’m all in"

Salon talks to the TV star—and Twitter's "woke bae"—about his starring role in new indie film "How He Fell in Love"

Published July 8, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Matt McGorry in "How He Fell in Love"
Matt McGorry in "How He Fell in Love"

Matt McGorry, former bodybuilder and current actor/feminist/activist/heartthrob, gets a juicy leading man part as Travis, the “He” in writer/director Marc Meyers’ “How He Fell in Love.”

In the film Travis is a struggling musician who attends his ex’s wedding without his girlfriend Monica (Britne Oldford) in tow. On the way back home, he shares a ride with Ellen (Amy Hargreaves), an older, married woman, with whom he soon begins an affair. How the two lovers navigate their lives and relationships forms the crux of this intimate, affecting drama.

McGorry’s Travis is described in the film by a friend as being “charming, comforting to people,” and in our discussion, McGorry is as well. The actor, who came to prominence with TV roles on “Orange Is the New Black” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” has an affable, winsome quality to him, one that was on display throughout our interview.

Travis, however, is in a rough place both professionally and personally. His emotional situation may be ameliorated by his passionate affair with Ellen. But, then again, maybe not.

McGorry chatted with Salon about his thoughts about relationships and making “How He Fell in Love.” 

What can you say about your experiences with love? Are you easily smitten or are you choosy?

I don’t easily fall in love. With my friends, I prioritize a strong connection over a lot of connections with different people. I’m the same way with love. It’s hard for me to find something that excites me, but when I do, I’m all in.

There’s the website, “Wait But Why,” and they do incredible articles. Tim Urban did one on dating and finding your life partner, and he breaks it down in an objective way. People’s views of love tend not to be that objective. When online dating was a new thing, people thought it was weird to say they met online, but now it’s trendy. Consider that versus the traditional ideas of marriage that were more transactions. TV and film portray a large role in our perception of love, and if there is something to be said about that, it’s that it is portrayed as a bit more simplistic than it actually is. One of the important takeaways from that article, which rings true for me, is that people typically view being in a relationship as better than being single. At the bottom of the hierarchy is being with the wrong person, then being single, then being with the right person. I would agree with that. There are a lot of notions of love that are oversimplified. Love is a lot of work. Love, someone said, is never asking someone to change. 

Would you attend or have you attended an ex’s wedding?

Yeah, I would. One of my long-term exes is one of my closest friends. If I were feeling the way Travis was feeling, I wouldn’t do it. It didn’t seem healthy for him; there was an underlying agenda that he would get validation or closure, which is not appropriate. It’s unclear in his relationship with Monica as to whether or not they are exclusive. There is a different set of expectations for the both of them. As humans, we get in these situations where one person wants something we’re not ready to give, but we keep doing it. He rethinks that relationship with Monica. He’s in a place of emotional shutdown. And I love that Monica calls him on his shit. You don’t want to change the fundamental character of a person you’re dating, but there’s a compromise and you figure out where you can and can’t. It’s not going to be the first six months of a relationship forever.

Travis is a musician. Are you a singer/performer?

I am not, actually. I feel I’m weirdly the antithesis. I always thought I could never play a musician. I don’t think I look like what musicians look like. I’ve never taken any instrument lessons, but both my brothers are musicians. This [role] was my first real foray into it. I understand why people would like it.

Travis says the band was his life, but he doesn’t have that anymore. How do you “change things up?”

In the world of acting, I think there are people at certain levels who have a full breadth of choice. Like Leonardo DiCaprio. Anyone below that, oftentimes, it’s not “I want to do this now…” It’s been important to challenge myself in new ways and see what I can do. Bodybuilding and lifting was about challenging my discipline and my ability to commit to something that frankly many people in my life don’t care about, but it was important to me. That’s been an important lesson for me. When I put bodybuilding and lifting behind me to pursue acting, it gave me a sense of autonomy. Learning about the science of training, how to eat and train for objective results, is something I applied to my acting career as I got that off the ground.

Do you feel pressure as the lead in an indie film? That this role is a break-out opportunity, a chance to prove yourself as an actor?

There was some pressure. I am good at tricking myself into forgetting about the high-stakes situations in a very functional way. Even the same way when I started on “Orange,” I was stressed out to do the best I could do with the character and scripts, and I realized that was not a great recipe for me to do my most relaxed work. So I worked on not putting that pressure on myself. I was able to do that in the atmosphere Marc Meyers created. That was helpful as well. He was open to my improvisation and ideas and we were more collaborating and creating something in terms of what I could bring to it as well. That made me feel good about it. We had a similar style of working. I gave a variety of takes and let him piece the story together in the editing.

Travis seeks Ellen out in her yoga class. Do you do yoga?

I don’t do yoga. I’m hyper-mobile and my joints are too lax, so it doesn’t behoove me to do much flexibility work. Stretching out more is not good for me. I enjoyed yoga in the past, but from a workout perspective, it doesn’t do it for me, but I do Transcendental Meditation (TM) every day. You’re supposed to do it twice a day, but I do it only once. It’s not having moments of profound awakening, but it frees up my mind and allows me clearer thought. I was into meditation before TM, but it was hard for me. TM was said to be very simple and easy and I found that to be the case. The point is to do it, not be perfect at it. Historically, I have tried to do things perfectly, and that’s not the way to live a happy life. 

What is your response to your heartthrob status?

It’s nice. [Laughs] I think that there’s a lot about celebrity culture and social media culture that really can go different ways very quickly. The role on “Orange” was a likeable character, especially in a world where the men were not particularly likeable. It was written “romantic,” so that played a factor—if people like to think of me that way. On “How to Get Away with Murder,” I’m less of a romantic character. It does change people’s perceptions.

For me, it makes sense to examine and remember to build that confidence internally, and rely less on the external. I’m new to being a public figure, and I’ve relied on external validation in my life—more than I would like—and when “Orange” came out and social media increased, it was validating, but not in a way that one should bank on. Acting can be a fickle career. It could disappear tomorrow; but I hope it won’t. I tried to prepare myself for that outcome. How do you not rely on that external feedback in the age of social media? Everything we do, we feel we haven’t done it unless we post it on social media, and get likes, and we get a chemical response in our bodies when that happens. That’s great, and I’m grateful for fans and platforms, but it’s good to remind myself on how to validate myself. That can be tricky. 

Why do you think Ellen and Travis are attracted to one another? What do you think they see in each other?

It’s hard to say exactly. She represents—despite her situation—a safety, a certain level of caring. She seems very forthright and trustworthy, which he values. As with all things in love, it’s hard to pinpoint the defining characteristic. But from the outside, you wonder how do these people work?

There is something to be said for the fact that these people come together in imperfect times, and have an experience…

How did you and Amy develop your on-screen rapport?

We auditioned together; she had the role. There was a chemistry that you can have with some people and not others. It’s hard to define. We had trust from each other. The scenes called for intimacy in the audition, and in that process I made sure things were OK for her, and that made her feel comfortable and that she could trust me. We had respect for each other as performers and people.

I got out of a relationship recently, so there were aspects of that were fresh for me. It’s hard to describe the process. It’s dynamic and fluid. 

Who do you think has control in the Ellen-Travis relationship?

That’s the fluidity of it as well; that’s the complexity. We don’t see the same dynamic play out. With Ellen and her husband (Mark Blum), she has the power. With Travis and Monica, he has the power. But with Ellen and Travis, there’s an ebb and flow. It’s based in circumstances, and love doesn’t exist outside of external circumstance. We can’t get around things. I talk to friends, and it’s “I really like him/her but can’t get around this one thing…” People talk about these circumstances like they are a tumor that can be snipped away. 

You have self-identified as a feminist. Have you taken on projects that align with your beliefs?

I think I’ve been fortunate that many of the projects line up with my belief. Starting out, I would have taken any project, even if my character were on the problematic end of the scale. But [my outlook] definitely influences my choices, but I won’t say I wouldn’t choose a character because of [their politics]. That is not the only factor. I don’t think it can be. It’s great when it happens, though. 

Travis is weighed down by guilt. How do you cope with responsibility?

It’s a complicated issue. I see that a in lot in people and friends of mine, this sense of a weight of past things. It’s important to realize mistakes, and part of realizing it is how we effect change in the future. Travis may not have done anything wrong. I’ve had that feeling in my life, and I want to assign responsibility to myself even to things beyond my responsibility. I sometimes take on too much, and finding a healthy place to find responsibility for the past while not allowing it to paralyze you is important. 

What observations do you have about relationships from what you have experienced in life, or even through making this film?

I think that it comes back to what we were saying before, about relationships that feel world-changing in the beginning but very quickly don’t take a turn. You can’t always know that will happen. The older you get and the more experience you have, the better you are at deciphering what makes the most sense. In general, it’s a good thing to be aware of past patterns. But if this is the fifth time Travis has been in a relationship with a married woman, then therapy could be helpful.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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