May 23, 2014 9:30 AM EDT

Taylor Kitsch was at home in Austin when his manager sent him the script for The Normal Heart, the Ryan Murphy-directed adaptation of the seminal Larry Kramer play about the early days of AIDS (airing on HBO on May 25). The story traces the early days of the leading AIDS-advocacy group GMHC in the days when the disease was widely misunderstood, through the fictionalized stories of its founders.

As Kitsch recalls, his manager said that whatever he was doing at the time was less important than reading the script. Most of the other primary characters had been cast, but by the time the actor got halfway through reading it, he knew that he wanted to fight for the role of the Bruce Niles, a banker who becomes an activist despite remaining in the closet.

“It was an opportunity to tell something that’s bigger than all of us and still needs to be told,” he says.

But getting the role didn’t mean the hard part was over. As he discusses in the video above, telling the heart-wrenching story of a group of friends facing a devastating crisis proved, not surprisingly, to be a taxing experience. Kitsch says that emotions were already heightened on set, but that one particular scene involving the difficulties his character has to go through to retrieve a body from a hospital was “gutting.”

“That was something that I wasn’t hoping we would do too many takes,” he says. “You try to do this in any scene, but this one more in particular than others, of just like, you don’t need to dramatize this stuff as an actor. You just be honest to what’s in front of you and what’s going on.”

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