As Dr. Levi Schmitt, a.k.a. “Glasses” on Grey’s Anatomy, Jake Borelli is a part of life-changing moments on a weekly basis. When showrunner Krista Vernoff called this summer to say Levi would be part of the first gay male romance on the ABC hit drama, he didn’t expect to find himself facing his own life-altering decision. As his character made major realizations about his sexuality on network TV, would he continue to keep his own sexuality private?
Borelli, who has been out to his friends and family for nearly a decade, immediately called his parents to talk it through. “My dad said, ‘When you have a truth about yourself and you finally have the courage to speak up and share that truth, a weight gets lifted,’” Borelli tells EW. “I knew in that moment this is the right thing to do. This is bigger than me.”
On Thursday night, immediately following the West Coast airing of Grey’s and Levi’s own coming out, Borelli took to Instagram to tell the world he is gay. He wrote, “As a gay guy myself, tonight’s episode was so special to me.”
Growing up in Ohio, Borelli says this type of storyline is what he hungered to see on television, staying up late to watch Degrassi: The Next Generation. “I finally felt seen and understood from a piece of art,” he explains. He noticed a similar response from fans over the last few weeks as it seemed like Levi was headed for a potential romantic connection with Nico (Alex Landi). “I’ve had so many comments from fans of the show who are finally feeling seen by this story, and I just want to let them know that I feel seen too,” he says. “I’m right here with you and we’re all in this together.”
A storyline like this is something Borelli hardly dared dream of when he first started acting -– being able to be a source of authenticity and representation for the LGBTQ community. “I get a chance to act in a storyline I would have craved when I was younger,” he says. “I feel so connected to the character, and I’m super excited to go into work every day and bring this storyline to life.”
Part of what makes Borelli so excited (and helped him to feel secure in his decision to open up about his private life) is how closely Vernoff and the writers worked with him to handle the story sensitively. He says he was very excited when he got the call. “She pitched the story to me and said how much she wanted Levi to be the character to tell this story, the coming out in your mid-twenties story. She expressed how much she wanted me to be the actor to tell it,” he recalls.
Vernoff tells EW that the idea for this storyline actually came not from a place of wanting to do a gay romance, but rather trying to find a new, compelling arc for Borelli. “Jake is an incredible actor and the more we wrote for him, the more we wanted to write for him,” she says. “Jake has fallen in as many different ways that he can fall. He is delightful and we want to see him change and evolve and where would that begin?”
Vernoff remembered a friend of hers from college who was a klutz until he came out at the end of their freshman year. “[He] emerged as a completely different human being because he was living in his truth,” she reflects. “Living in his truth seemed to set something free in him where he was no longer tripping over his own feet. He emerged with strength and power and sex appeal that had not existed in him publicly prior and when I remembered my friend, I wanted to tell that story with Jake because it felt like a really beautiful way to evolve his character.”
Borelli says he talked at length with Vernoff about Levi’s arc and the “stories [he] wants to perpetuate and put out there into the universe.” In a pre-season meeting, they hashed out Levi’s own understanding of his sexuality prior to meeting Nico and discussed whether the character was out to himself, developing a backstory based partly in Borelli’s own experiences. “I’ve known that I was gay since I was very young, 8th or 9th grade, and I came out to myself around that time. The back and forth that Levi’s feeling right now and this confusion with all these new emotions he’s feeling [is] something I had at a much younger age,” Borelli explains. “He is coming to terms with his sexuality. He’s learning about his sexuality for the first time. He’s a little bit of a late bloomer.”
The show has played host to key LGBTQ moments on television before, notably with Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) and Arizona Robbins (Jessica Capshaw). But before Arizona and Callie’s romance, there was also Erica Hahn (Brooke Smith) whose speech about “leaves” and Callie being her “glasses” inspired many a coming-out metaphor. Levi gets a similar moment in this week’s episode, explaining in the aftermath of his kiss with Nico how moving from general surgery to orthopedic surgery (Nico’s specialty) has been a clarifying moment for him.
“In his own way, it’s how he feels comfortable saying, ‘I’m gay,’” says Borelli. “With my own coming out process and with a lot of other people’s coming out process, sometimes it’s really hard to find the words. It’s a lot easier to explain it through metaphor and through how it feels. He’s a surgeon through and through, so it’s much easier for him to explain it in surgery terms.”
Borelli says this moment on Grey’s Anatomy and his concurrent coming out feels like a “testament” to the progress LGBTQ representation has made on television and the world at large. A decade ago, former Grey’s Anatomy star T.R. Knight came out under intense media scrutiny and pressure in the wake of a scandal involving co-star Isaiah Washington using a gay slur on set. In contrast, Borelli, whose character ironically has been compared to Knight’s George by fans and Meredith Grey alike, gets to come out on his own terms.
“I was fortunate enough to grow up in a time that had Grey’s Anatomy as a show and had shows like Glee and Will and Grace,” says Borelli. “I had all these giant, iconic television shows telling me that it’s ok to be gay, it’s ok to be out, and growing up in that environment for the last 10 years had made it a little bit more of a welcoming environment for me to come out right now.”
In spite of that, talking to EW hours before going public with the news, Borelli admits feeling vulnerable. “As a gay guy, you have to come out all the time. People think coming out is the first time [someone] says they’re gay when in reality coming out is a constant process,” he says. “The last huge coming out I had in my life was when I came out to my parents when I was 18. I’ve forgotten how intense the feelings are and how big a step it is.”
He adds that portraying Levi and delving into this storyline is the most vulnerable acting experience he’s ever had. “I hope he can get to a place where he feels accepted and loves who he is because that’s where I am now in my personal life, and I hope he’s able to get to that place,” Borelli muses about Levi’s journey going forward. “I feel very connected to him and I really want it to work out for him.”
Regardless of where Levi’s journey leads, there’s no looking back for Borelli now. He hopes fans can take strength from his choice to reveal this aspect of his life. “This is not just coming out for me. This is about speaking your truth and being authentic and really being vulnerable,” he stresses. “For people who are watching, I hope it can inspire them to tell their truth, whatever that may be. It doesn’t have to be about being gay. It’s just about being honest.”
Additional reporting by Patrick Gomez