Grey’s Anatomy star Jake Borelli is ready to inspire a new LGBTQ generation

Gray Hamner

In November, American actor Jake Borelli came out to the world as gay after his character on Grey’s Anatomy – surgical intern Levi Schmitt – shared a kiss with Dr. Nico Kim after weeks of will they/won’t they, which led to Levi admitting that it was the first time he’d ever kissed another man.

“I feel like I’ve been flooded with love from all different directions,” Jake tells us, still overwhelmed from the positive reception on his social media. “I’ve received so many messages, I can hardly read them all. I sat there for like four hours and some of them were heartbreaking, and some of them were filled with joy and excitement. It was beautiful to see how brave all of the fans were being with sharing their story. It truly felt like we were doing this together.”

The 27-year-old, who joined the Emmy Award-winning series in its 14th season, didn’t know this was the story arc for his character when he first joined the show. “I think I, along with the rest of the audience, assumed Levi was straight. That was all the information we had, and that’s how I played him for the whole first year, just because I wasn’t given any contradictory information.” Earlier this summer, Jake was approached by Krista Vernoff (showrunner), who pitched the idea that Levi would explore his sexuality in the show’s 15th season. “I took a step back and I was like, ‘Okay, how do we shift the backstory that I’ve created for Levi, and make this make sense?’ And I think we came up with something really beautiful and really exciting, and it’s a story I would’ve loved to have seen when I was younger. It’s a story that fits right into my own history, and it’s very close to me in some ways.”

Even though Jake has been out in his personal life for almost ten years, it became apparent to him – after seeing the outpour of love from fans – that he had to be authentic to, well, the world. “I realised that this was going to be way bigger than me and my own coming out,” he explains. “I admire people who run with the inner story of running authenticity and honesty, and I knew that at the beginning of my career, that I wanted to be one of those people. Now that I have this new platform, I was basically like, ‘You know what Jake? You have to be honest, you have to be authentic, you have to spread that.’”

Even though Grey’s Anatomy has had several LGBTQ characters throughout the series, most notably Callie Torres – who boasts the honour of being the longest running queer character in TV history – the show has never had a romance between two men at the forefront of a storyline, which makes this particular story arc so historic. The series is still garnering over 10 million viewers, a remarkable feat for any show in its 15th season, which means Levi and Nico’s romance is reaching a massive audience. “It’s a huge testament to how many people this show affects,” says Jake. “I think that is what’s so special about having this storyline on this show specifically, because it does reach so many people. Everything we’re doing on this show is affecting, not just the audience as a whole, but individual people, very specifically in their lives. That responsibility is not lost on me. I’m really honoured to be in a place where I can speak to this many people.”

When his character debuted on the series, Levi had a one-night stand with Dr. Jo Wilson, Alex Karev’s main love interest. “I think Jo was one of his first sexual encounters and it was exciting because it was that, you know?” Jake confesses, before opining that his newfound romance with Nico doesn’t necessarily mean he’s exclusively gay. “What I’ve personally learnt from this process, you probably shouldn’t assume anything about anybody’s sexuality because I assumed he was straight. I would say he doesn’t even know yet at this point. He’s still learning, he’s still grappling with his own sexuality.”

Despite the increase in representation on TV (Pose, American Horror Story, Orange is the New Black), Grey’s Anatomy is still well-known for being one of the most diverse shows on television, having had nearly every corner of the LGBTQ community represented in some way – and Jake is excited to see how this particular romance influences Hollywood. “Grey’s has always been this iconic leader in representation and in the LGBTQ community in terms of representation, and it will continue to do that. I can’t imagine other tastemakers in the industry aren’t seeing this and aren’t getting super excited about it, do you know what I mean? We’re craving diversity and representation and different stories – stories that weren’t at the forefront of the narrative.”

Growing up in Columbus, Ohio – which Jake describes as a “fairly liberal city” – he was hesitant about coming out because the city could “run quite conservative”. He knew he was gay from the age of 14, but not knowing how his family or his friends at school would react to his coming out, Jake decided to stay in the closet until he was 17 – when he chose to come out to his best friend. “Her and I kept this secret for basically all of senior year. I think a lot of what kept me sane and feeling not alone in that environment was having her to be a sounding board, and to be a very strong force of support in my life.” He also chose to hide his sexuality due to the negative portrayals of coming out stories he saw in the media. “People came out, and it didn’t work out for them, and those stories scared me, which I think is why I was so excited about this Levi story, that brings some hope into it,” he reveals.

However, Jake credits Kris Colfer’s coming out story on Glee as something that was “very beautiful” to him, especially because the storyline aired when he started acting professionally. “I saw this guy on one of the best television shows at the time, unapologetically being himself.” Another television series that had a profound impact on Jake was the Canadian drama, Degrassi: The Next Generation, which often touched upon topics such as sexuality, body image and mental health. “It was one of the only times I felt truly represented. Even looking back on it, I’m not even sure what the characters were, but these were gay high schoolers who really impacted me.”

As well as being able to confide in his best friend, Jake was able to meet other queer youth on a chat site called the GYC, which was a “huge and important source of support” in his life because he could discuss his own journey with other like-minded people. “That was life-changing for me, and I know a lot of other gay people my age because it was a resource you wouldn’t otherwise have in rural Ohio. That really helped with my relationship to my own coming out.” He also had the support of his theatre group in Ohio and the guidance of his gay mentors, who made him realise his sexuality was nothing to fear. “I’m so thankful for the community that I grew up in. I wasn’t out of the closet and I didn’t know what was going on, but to see them living their lives was something really beautiful. That to me helped so much more than anything I could even ask for.” Despite this, he wasn’t ready to come out because “there was all this fear wrapped up in it, all of the normal fears of opening up and being vulnerable and not knowing the outcome.”

When Jake turned 18 and finished senior year, he moved to LA. After four weeks, he returned to Ohio and decided to come out to his parents. “They were so supportive and I knew they would be,” he tells us, before recalling the events that led up to his coming out: “My mom was putting on clothes to go out and garden and my dad was literally taking a nap with a pillow over his face, and I was like, ‘This is not the best time to do this, but you guys, I’ve got something to tell you!’” My dad said, ‘Well I think I knew that.’ And my mom was very supportive. She started crying because she knew how hard it was for me over the past four years. After, I was like, ‘Oh shoot, I should’ve done this three days ago because we could’ve had three days to sit in this love and joy.” He continues further: “A big part of me didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t want them to have to keep a secret for me, so I thought it would just be easier on them if I didn’t tell them. But instantly, I felt the love and support from them, and they’ve supported me ever since.”

After his move to LA, Jake pursued his career as an actor, but wasn’t fully out during auditions, so was never discriminated against for his sexuality – but going forward, he says this is not a worry to him. “At this point in my career, I understand that I’m a product in a way, and sometimes when you are open about yourself, it changes the way that one would market you. I’m at a point right now where my own personal growth and the personal growth of the people who might look up to me is far important to me than how people are going to market me.” Jake, however, is excited about where the industry is going with the increase in representation and diversity, and wants to see viewers become more accepting of gay actors in straight roles – because if straights can do it, why can’t we? “I think we’re in an environment where the audience is craving diversity, and the audience is smart enough to understand than an actor’s personal life is different to what they’re portraying on screen. We have, throughout history, straight actors playing gay roles, and I think the next step is for the audience at large to become comfortable with gay actors playing straight roles.” Jake continues: “Right now, I think it’s important to perpetuate the idea that people are not alone and that everyone is seen and recognised.”

Jake’s been out in his personal life for nearly ten years, but since coming out publicly, he’s realised the greatest aspect of the LGBTQ community is the support we show each other. “In hard times, we push each other forward and I think it’s beautiful. Growing up in the LGBTQ community is not an easy thing by any means, and when I look at these people that I share this community with, all I see is strength because they made it through. Everyday can be a battle. We’re all in this together, and just talking to you, I can see that we are the same.”

But with Tr*mp’s administration, Jake acknowledges that the rights fought for us by the older LGBTQ generation could be diminished. “The last handful of decades, the LGBTQ community has come so far and sacrificed so much to take such large steps forward, and I can’t thank the mentors and the generation above me for all the work they’ve done. In this day and age, we’re coming up against some pretty serious opposition that is trying to push us backwards. It’s a very important time to be pushing forward, especially because of all the men and women, and trans and queer and bisexual people who fought before us. We’re not just fighting for ourselves anymore, we’re fighting for all of the work that the generation did before us. We deserve the rights of everybody else, and we deserve to love the way that everybody else does.”

This is precisely why we need stories like Levi and Nico right now, to provide a glimmer of hope for queer audiences, that we can be represented, and we can be heard. But will their relationship end in tragedy, ala Meredith and Derek? Surely we’ve (I’ve) cried enough over this show? “I hope that if we cry with this storyline, it’s tears of joy,” says Jake. “That’s my hope. I can’t promise anything, obviously, because of the world that this takes place in. I hope that with this newfound awakening that he’s going through, and these changes he’s going through sexually and emotionally, that he gains some confidence from this.” Reflecting on his similarities with Levi, Jake tells us: “What I like about Levi is that any time he gets knocked down, he stands back up immediately. He puts it all out there, and that’s inspiring to me as an artist and as a human being, that’s how I want to live. There’s been a lot in my life and Levi’s life that has been hard, and I believe getting back up on your feet and moving forward, and that’s the energy I want to put out into the world.”


Photography Gray Hamner
Fashion Tyler Cunningham
Grooming Scott King


 

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