When Jake Borelli first appeared on ABC’s iconic medical drama Grey’s Anatomy as the charmingly awkward Dr. Levi Schmitt, he became an instant favorite and one of the show’s most endearing characters. Grey’s Anatomy has always been at the forefront of diverse representation, so when Levi came out as gay, audiences were holding their breath and clutching their pearls in excitement. Not only was this a big moment for Levi, but for Borelli himself because he also decided to come out. Up until that episode, Borelli was only open about his sexuality to family and friends. He was motivated to reveal his true self by the fact that he wanted to be honest with his fans who supported his character.
Now, a year later, Borelli was bumped to a series regular, is fiercely advocating for queer representation in the media, and stars in a new film alongside newcomer Niko Terho and Queer Eye’s Karmo Brown called The Thing About Harry that is set to premier Feb. 15 on Freeform. OUT FRONT had the chance to sit down and talk more with Borelli.
Hi, Jake! I would like to begin by talking more about your new film, The Thing About Harry. Without giving away any spoilers, tell us about it. Why should we check it out?
Well, I love the movie first and foremost. It’s a classic rom com through and through; the only difference is that the main characters are queer, which I believe is very important for people to see. It follows these two young guys, sort of young professionals, working and living in Chicago and trying to find love. My character is Sam; he has been out and proud since high school, and he has a sort of wide-eyed optimism about what the world can be. He works in politics and really wants to change things. He then comes back in contact with one of his old enemies from high school, his old bully, Harry. Harry suddenly comes out of the closet, and we see how it changes their relationship moving forward.
How do you personally relate to Sam?
I think simply on the fact that we are both queer. We have a lot of similarities, and I understand a lot of what Sam went through in high school. Being bullied and having to overcome that as you grow into yourself and learn more about yourself and sexuality. I feel like I relate to him a lot on that level. He’s also a little bit neurotic sometimes too, so I feel for him. Throughout the movie, he is having trouble learning how to trust Harry again. I think that is sort of like a universal quality that a lot of people can relate to.
Why did you want to be involved with this film?
When I originally got offered the movie, the first thing I heard was that Peter Paige was the writer and director. Peter Paige is an icon, and I have looked up to him for a while. He created two awesome shows, The Fosters and Good Trouble, and he used to be in Queer as Folk which was an amazing show for the queer community. So, I was just so excited to even read the script before he offered it to me, and when I started reading it, I was blown away by the fact that we could finally have a rom com about two guys. I was so excited to have the opportunity to be a part of this project, and the fact that this is backed by Disney is massive. Disney and Freeform have been behind this since the beginning, and I think it is huge to have a movie like this on a platform like that.
What was it like to work alongside Niko Terho and Karamo Brown?
It’s been wonderful! I love Niko; he is such a good guy. We got along very well. He’s a professional soccer player, so I remember Peter having him teach me how to play soccer at the very beginning to see if it would bond us. He’s great. Then, having Karamo on set was such a pleasure. He is such a good guy and such an inspiration. We had a blast together, just had fun.
The Thing About Harry is being advertised as a queer, Valentine’s Day rom com. Do you have any plans for Valentine’s Day?
Honestly, I’m going to be watching this movie! I’m so excited [laughs]. I’m hoping to get a big group of friends together to watch and have our hearts filled.
What is the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for you?
Oh gosh, the most romantic anyone has ever done for me? I don’t know. I feel like my friends have done more romantic things for me. My best friend Jeanine Mason took me to the hot air balloon festival in New Mexico, and even though it was just a friend thing, it was pretty romantic! I feel like my friends are pretty badass when it comes to things like that.
Nice! Well, are you currently seeing anyone?
No, I’m single, and I’m ready to mingle! Let me know if you know anybody!
Once you came out publicly, were all the guys sliding into your DMs?
You know, a lot of people slide into my DMs, yeah [laughs]. It’s kind of an everyday thing, which makes it even harder to filter through and see who actually likes me or likes my character. Like, I’m not Levi from Grey’s Anatomy right now!
You came out the same time Levi did on the show. I know you have talked about this in other interviews, but for our readers, why did you decide to come out that way?
I have been out privately for a long time, but I was still afraid of being out publicly because I didn’t know what that would mean for my career. When I was younger, I formed this idea in my head that if I was out and proud, I couldn’t be a professional actor. I saw a lot of stories about actors coming out of the closet and either losing their jobs or fanbase and not getting the respect they deserve. To be honest, I was very afraid, but I was reaching a point in my life where I think my personal life needed a little bit more care and compassion, and it coincided with the fact that our showrunner Krista Vernoff pitched this storyline about my character coming out of the closet.
It was sort of like two sides of the coin. As a fan of the show, I was so excited that we were finally going to see a male, queer doctor, but I was also terrified because I knew playing the first queer doctor on Grey’s would mean me having to be more honest about my personal life. So, for the first, like, five episodes, we didn’t know if my character was coming out or not, but I was getting all these messages from queer people, especially queer youth across the world, saying how excited they were about this possibility. That this might be a storyline that was coming and how much they felt seen and represented, and it was crazy because that was the exact same feeling I was having while reading the script.
While building this character with Krista and the other writers, I was just so excited to say, ‘Me too; I’m in the same boat.’ We are all in this together; I am as excited as you are, and I am excited to do it. The moment I was able to say that Levi was gay, I was like, ‘I have to say I am, too.’ That’s how it all went down. It was terrifying, but it became one of the best things I have ever done in my enter life. It has changed how I view the world and how the world views me and how I feel a sense of belonging within the queer community.
That’s amazing. And I bet it’s fun to kiss Alex Landi, right?
[Laughs] Alex is such a fun guy. We’ve gotten along so well the past couple of years. He’s great.
As an openly gay actor, what more would you like to accomplish with your platform?
I would love to move into directing and start creating my own content in a similar way Peter Paige has done. I would also love to be a voice behind the scenes for queer people and queer content. You know, there’s so many amazing stories coming out now, but there’s still not enough, and I think there are still people in the industry and in other networks that are still scared to tell queer stories. I think it is important to have people who are really championing that.
So, you think there’s still not enough queer representation in film and television?
Yeah, I don’t think there’s enough, and I also think that there’s so many nuances within the queer community about the types of people you can be. I think the more different types of queer people we have in the media, the more ideas it gives young, queer people on who they can become. I think it widens their future, and I think it is important to have every single type of queer person on TV. Not just the stereotypical queer guy who is sort of delegated to the funny best friend role, or even, like, the hyper masculine gay guys that are delegated to the leading roles. We need everything in between.
How does it feel to be a regular on this season of Grey’s Anatomy?
Oh my gosh, it’s wonderful! A literal dream, I still don’t believe it. Grey’s is such an iconic show, and there haven’t been that many regulars in the past 16 years, so it is massive to me to be welcomed into the family that way. I learn so much every day from being surrounded by these people.
Were you a fan of the show before being cast?
You know, I was honestly too young when the show first came out to watch it. I was too busy watching Full House and such [laughs]. So, I didn’t watch it, and it started in an era where you couldn’t just binge the whole thing on Netflix like you can now. When I was auditioning for the role, I watched the pilot. After I booked it, I watched a few more episodes just to catch on, then I became obsessed with it. Like, disconnected from being an actor, I became obsessed with it as a fan, and I watched the whole thing in a year.
I’ve seen every single episode, and I love so many of the characters. I am such a fan, and I remember after that year, I was so excited to talk to the fans about it. Like, I just binged on 350 episodes, and it took me a year. I thought everyone was going to be so proud of me, and literally, most of the people were like, are you kidding me? I watched this thing in three months. Like, you’re such a newbie! I had to remind myself, like, yes, it took me a year, but I was also filming, like, 25 episodes of the show. I would be on set for 16 hours filming, then go home and watch, like, four episodes.
What direction would you like to see Levi’s storyline head towards next?
He has been on this road of finding himself and getting more confident in being a surgeon, so I would love for that to keep going. He’s still new; he’s still a bit clumsy, but I would love to see how his confidence can grow even further with his knowledge and how competent he is with his job. I would love to see him get his own surgery; I think that would be exciting. I’m just excited for any possibility and maybe learn more about his family.
What’s next? Are there any other upcoming projects we should be on the lookout for?
You know, we are very excited about the second half of this season for Grey’s. I believe it’s going to be insane with a lot of twists and turns coming. Then, I just hope everyone loves The Thing About Harry on Valentine’s Day weekend. I think it’s going to be big for this sort of new generation of queer people.
*Featured image by Jessica Castro