The psychic has to be able to tell us," jokes Matt Bomer, cupping his hands around his eyes, pressing his nose to the glass of Maddam Grace's Los Angeles storefront. In black shorts and a well-worn gray T-shirt bearing the tiger mascot of his dad's alma mater, the University of Memphis, Bomer yanks at a locked door. "Nobody's here," he says, undeterred, a weathered sign promising glimpses into the past, present, and future hanging above his head.

"Don't worry," Bomer says, turning back toward his car, a black Mercedes station wagon. "We'll figure it out. We'll find our way."

At 36, Bomer has sharpened his Hollywood-navigation skills. For the moment, he's using them to find an elusive taco truck. "It's supposed to be here," he says. "In this lot. With this psychic." But in a broader sense, Bomer has used what amounts to a finely tuned inner compass to strengthen his profile while driving toward commercial, and now critical, success.

For the past five years, Bomer has played Neal Caffrey, an ex-con turned FBI ringer, on USA Network's White Collar, a tentpole drama for basic cable's highest-rated channel, now about to shoot its sixth and final season. Bomer describes Caffrey as "part Cary Grant, part Ferris Bueller, with a little Axel Foley thrown in." And while the character doesn't exactly punch at the premium-cable weight of a Walter White or a Don Draper, Caffrey has earned Bomer a large, loyal, and, rarest of all, inter-gender fan base that has suits swooning over his long-term potential. "There are guys men gravitate to and guys women gravitate to. Rarely do we get both sides of the audience gravitating equally," says Bonnie Hammer, the chairwoman of NBCUniversal's Cable Entertainment operation and the executive who green-lit White Collar for USA. "With Matt you get both. Everybody sees him as the perfect leading man. That's rare."

This month, Bomer takes a supporting turn, but one that drops the code-cracking breeziness of Caffrey for a character certain to earn him a whole new level of acclaim. "Felix Turner?" says Bomer, merging into traffic, having already come up with an alternative destination. "Felix Turner is a whole different ball game."

• • •

Turner's death plays out over the course of HBO's The Normal Heart—the movie adaptation of the human-rights activist and writer Larry Kramer's landmark 1985 play about the dawn of the aids crisis. Having contracted the disease, Turner, a gay New York Times reporter, wastes away painfully and vividly, a victim of the virus that has inhabited his body and of the ignorance and indifference of the body politic. Part of an ensemble cast, Bomer delivers the kind of heartbreaking performance, jarring in its verisimilitude, magnetic in its intimacy, that can forever alter the course of an actor's career.

It's the kind of strategic bid for gravitas we've seen before, wherein a perceived lightweight tackles heavier themes. And, while it's not exclusive to retroviral roles, there is a precedent whereby powerfully portraying the aids-afflicted can catapult an actor into the ranks of the elite. A few years before Philadelphia, Tom Hanks starred in a canine-cop buddy pic called Turner & Hooch. And after seeing him portray Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, it's hard to picture Matthew McConaughey being all right, all right, all right about returning to Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Bomer's Normal Heart costar Alfred Molina predicts such a leap here. "What Matt's done will redefine him," Molina says. "All Matt's professional life, he's clearly been a very good actor, but I think this performance puts him there among the greats."

Born outside St. Louis in Webster Groves, Missouri, Bomer grew up in Spring, Texas, a suburb of Houston. His dad, who had been an offensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys, worked as a shipping executive. The family attended church multiple times a week, and PG-13 movies were taboo. Bomer first read The Normal Heart in 1992, as a high-school freshman following in his father's footsteps by playing football. "At the time, I was clueless and obviously in a different place in relation to my sexuality," he says. "I was in romantic relationships with girls—whatever that means at 14. But I read it. And it completely rocked my world." Bomer credits the play with helping him embrace his sexual orientation while still a teen and also with fostering a sense of social justice. "It's just such an amazing call to arms," he says.

After high school, Bomer enrolled in the drama program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He then moved to New York City, where he applied for government-subsidized housing and eventually found acting work playing a murderous and suicidal trust-fund sociopath on the soap opera Guiding Light.

That yearlong exercise ended in 2003 and Bomer moved to Los Angeles, where he nearly landed the role of Superman, but the project switched directors and the cape eventually went to Brandon Routh. Bomer also cowrote and sold a doomed television pilot for a show called Nashville that somehow had exactly the same plot as ABC's current country-diva drama of the same name, though it preceded it by several years. "Brad Paisley was a coproducer," Bomer says somewhat wistfully.