The Thing About Harry star Jake Borelli talks rom-coms and Valentine's Day
Jake Borelli knows you hate Valentine’s Day.
To be honest, he’s not the biggest fan either. “I’ve never had a boyfriend on Valentine’s Day, which is a little sad,” the Grey’s Anatomy star admits.
But that means he has another favorite February tradition: watching rom-coms (or even the occasional romantic tearjerker) with his best friends. It’s part of why he was so excited to sign on to The Thing About Harry, the new Freeform rom-com debuting this Valentine’s Day weekend.
It caps a crazy year and a half for Borelli, who has seen his star steadily rise on ABC’s juggernaut medical drama since he publicly came out alongside his character, Dr. Levi “Glasses” Schmitt, in November 2018. In that time, he’s gone from making the decision to share his sexuality with the world to starring in a queer rom-com that indulges in all the best tropes of the genre without ever veering into angsty coming-of-age territory.
“I haven’t seen a queer rom-com like this, and especially a movie geared towards a younger audience that is unabashedly a rom-com,” Borelli says. “This is not trying to be anything else. This one doesn’t deal with coming out at all. It doesn’t deal with really shame at all.”
For once, the LGBTQ character isn’t the supportive, quirky best friend — no, his straight gal pal is the one who fills that role, as we see in the exclusive sneak peek above, in which Borelli’s Sam debates the merits of Harry (Niki Terho) with his BFF Stasia (Britt Baron). The film centers on Sam and Harry’s journey from formal high school enemies to friends to lovers, with the action kicking off during a road trip together.
Ahead of the film’s Feb. 15 premiere, we sat down with Borelli to talk about his whirlwind year, his teenage crush on James Marsden, and his most cringe-worthy online dating experiences.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You came out publicly a little over a year ago, and now you’re starring in a queer rom-com. What’s it been like to make that leap from one to the other? Does it feel fast to you or beyond what you expected at all?
JAKE BORELLI: It has been a massive year for me. It has been wild from beginning to end. Ever since I came out, so many people are reaching out to me and excited to tell me their stories. I just felt like I was welcomed into the community fully, and it never stopped from that moment until now. It’s also been terrifying because I’ve been thrust onto this new platform on a new level, and it’s been crazy to keep that going too. But I always talk about how coming out for me was a huge decision — for me personally, but also career-wise, because there was a huge part of me before coming out that was very afraid to be out in this business because I saw what it had done to other people in terms of their career. I was honestly still afraid that maybe if I said yes to doing this role as Levi [on Grey’s Anatomy], to him coming out and him taking this big leap, maybe that was my role. Maybe Levi was it, and I might not work after that. It was something I was willing to risk just because I knew how much the story line was going to affect people. When I got offered this movie from Peter Paige, my mind was blown. It calmed me down about what it could mean to work as a queer person in this industry moving forward. It felt like all these doors were opening up that I didn’t believe at one point could.
There’s definitely a hunger for LGBTQ rom-coms because there have been so few. Because of that, was there a different sense of responsibility you felt on this than other projects?
First and foremost, I was just so excited. We talk about how life was for my character, Sam, back in high school, but at this point in his life, he loves being queer, he loves being out. It’s really just him navigating love, which is universal thing, and we are fully in this rom-com genre. It’s not something that I’ve ever seen with queer leads. When I sat down to read the script, I was just flipping through it. I read it all in one sitting. Once we started doing it, I started to feel the pressure of it, but it was very similar to how I felt about Grey’s. I knew when I was doing Grey’s that this was going to be big because as an audience member it was big for me. I feel the pressure, but I also know all the other kids out there who are like me, they’re gonna love it just because we are so dry for these stories. We need them so much.
Was there something particularly refreshing or exciting about the script to you? Something that felt groundbreaking or like you hadn’t seen before?
Well, it opens up with a scene between me and my best friend Stasia. That was something I hadn’t seen a lot — this new dynamic between a gay guy and his best girl friend. The way that she treats Sam throughout the movie, it just really shows you what an ally should be and what an ally can be. That’s a really beautiful relationship that the movie touches on. The fact that the queer characters were not pushed to the side — we weren’t the best friend, we weren’t the one helping the lady find the wedding dress, we were the leads of the movie. That was just super-massive and new to me.
Sam has been out since high school, while Harry has just recently figured it out. Did you relate to one of those stories more? How much did your own experiences play into Sam’s story or characterization in your conversations with Peter?
So, Peter had a concept for the main character for Sam, and he was pitching that concept to his best friend Krista Vernoff, who happens to be the showrunner of Grey’s Anatomy. He was pitching this version of a character and she apparently said, “Oh, like Jake Borelli!” And Peter was like, “Wait, yes, like Jake Borelli.” Then he finished writing the movie with a version of me in mind. So once I was reading it, it was already pretty in line with how I am.
You’re from the Midwest, and it looks like you shot most of this on location in Chicago. What was that like? Did you have a favorite place you shot at?
It was so fun. We shot all around Chicago. It’s great because Chicago is quite a character in the movie too. All the scenes where we look like we’re freezing cold, we actually were, because the whole first week it was like 10 degrees. I love that city. I go all the time because my brother lives there. We went out to the Boystown area. There’s a drag queen in the movie, and so we went and saw her perform, which was super-fun. She did Sunday brunch like every weekend, and so we all went and saw her one weekend.
What about that road trip?
We filmed it in Chicago, but in a soundstage. I had never seen it before: It’s a real car, but it’s surrounded by television screens, so it’s not even greenscreen. It’s an LED screen, so you’re watching it. It felt like a Disneyland ride, but you’re not moving. There was this guy with a wooden plank to make the car rock. It made me so dizzy, to the point where in between scenes I had to close my eyes. It was nauseating. But fun.
Valentine’s Day is what the events of the movie circle around, and it’s a great excuse for you and Niko to wear gorgeous pink and red suits. How do you feel about the holiday itself?
Oh my God, those suits make me want to cry they’re so good! I do a lot of Valentine’s with friends, so one of the ones I remember the most — a good friend of mine and I didn’t have dates on Valentine’s Day so we wanted to do something together. But we both had to work on Valentine’s Day. We decided to meet super-early and watch The Notebook and make pancakes, because he eats pancakes in that movie. She came over to my house at like 7 a.m. one day, and we watched The Notebook and then she left at like 10 to go to work. But what I’m super-excited about this Valentine’s Day is to watch this movie. I’ll be doing that with all my friends on the weekend.
This movie engages with an age-old question: Can friends be successful lovers? Where do you fall on that?
I fall on either side any given day. Because I want to believe that you can be friends and then become more than that. But in various real-life experiences I’ve had, it always becomes a little tricky.
How did your own friendship with Niko Terho develop on set? Did you have a particularly funny or awkward moment while filming?
He’s so cute, right? I love Niko so much. He’s such a goofball. He’s a professional soccer player. Before the movie started, Peter Paige had Niko teach me how to play soccer. So we were up in one of the hotel rooms of the hotel we were staying at, and he was literally teaching me how to play soccer. I almost busted a window. It was nuts. But we were in this swanky hotel in Chicago playing soccer.
That was your bonding activity?
Yeah, and it pretty much worked. He’s so much like the character too — so chill, so laid-back. He’s a great dude.
Sam has some epic fails in his attempts at online dating. What’s your most cringe-worthy date story?
Oh God, with online dating? A lot of it’s pretty cringey. To be honest, I met my first ever boyfriend in high school, when I was still in the closet, online. On this thing called the GYC, which stands for the Gay Youth Center, and it was this website. Thinking back, it was really not regulated. You had to be under 18 to sign in, and it must’ve been connected with some sort of LGBT center or something, but I met this guy on there, who was also a teenager. I fell in love with him. It was so sweet. We would Skype every night. It did not work out well. It was my first heartbreak, for sure — it was online.
What’s your favorite rom-com?
27 Dresses is my favorite rom-com. I forced my mom to go see it with me. I remember the whole time I felt like I was Katherine Heigl, and it felt like I couldn’t be that. So I remember loving the “Bennie and the Jets” scene with James Marsden. At that age, I couldn’t put a finger on why I loved that scene so much. As I grew up, I started realizing it’s because I’m in love with James Marsden and I want James Marsden to talk to me like that. When I was a kid, I was like, “Oh, this is how a guy should act, I should be like James Marsden.” Then I slowly realized no, no, no, I just want James Marsden to run in through the rain, soaking wet, and sing “Bennie and the Jets” to me on a bar. I used to work at a pet store, and he came in one time as a customer, and I died. Literally I almost had a heart attack.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.