Hero's journey: Greg Berlanti on his two decades of LGBTQ inclusion
Families and superheroes. Families of superheroes. Biological and chosen families. When it comes to storytelling, you could say that Greg Berlanti has a type. Over the course of 22 years and nearly 60 projects — from The Broken Hearts Club to the ever-expanding Arrowverse — the wildly prolific 47-year-old writer-producer-director has relished telling tales of how normal people are superheroes and superheroes are just like us.
Whether as the steward of his own work, or as part of the support team helping realize another creator's vision, Berlanti has explored tales not with a perfunctory eye towards LGBTQ inclusivity but an insistence on it. His history of quietly staking out new territory onscreen, particularly in the more staid arena of broadcast network TV, is long. It includes a landmark same-sex kiss on a teen soap (Dawson's Creek), a tenderly handled coming out interlude on a family drama (Everwood), a simple tale of friends living and loving in West Hollywood without a specter of tragedy hanging over them (The Broken Hearts Club), several LGBTQ superheroes (Doom Patrol, Batwoman, Black Lightning), trans characters with actual story lines (Dirty Sexy Money), teen rom-coms with gay leads (Love, Simon), and more. While the stats are impressive, Berlanti's stories are even better because no matter who they may belong to, they are universal human stories. At the moment, the clearly indefatigable Berlanti currently has a stunning number of shows in production: 17.
On the 20th anniversary of his directorial debut, The Broken Hearts Club, we recently asked him to share some of his own origin story of being out, proud, and very busy in Hollywood, from the sparkly magic of the Arrowverse to the celebratory and combustible family dinner table of Brothers & Sisters. (Plus, just a shout out to Eli Stone, because we loved it.)
(Note: The very humble Berlanti would never call himself a hero, but he did just donate $1 million to Covid-19 relief in late April to help the crews of his shows and the production community at large.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You pushed early in your career for a kiss between gay characters on Dawson's Creek. As a 28-year-old kid inheriting this big show, did you have any fear about that?
GREG BERLANTI: I did not want that job to begin with. [Laughs] So, I picked a cause that was near and dear to me. But some part of me was also hoping, "Oh, they will recognize this kid is not ready to be doing this." But they did. They were like, "No, no, we'll help you." Having grown up watching so much TV, and having to look just so deeply into the nooks and crannies of things and insinuate story lines, it just seemed like such an injustice to me that there wasn't — forget about equal representation — any representation of intimacy between two people of the same gender on network television. At the time, I don't think I was thinking much past just that moment. I'm half joking about it, because I was intimidated and overwhelmed by the gig and, at the time, Dawson's was doing really badly. It was just really lost without [creator] Kevin [Williamson]. There was the sense of, "Well, if I'm probably going to fail anyway, I might as well fail telling stories that I would want to see."
About those "nooks and crannies" — what were some shows that made you cock an eyebrow like, "Maybe this story is for me?"
Well, whenever it was a gay storyline, it would be when one man would put a hand on another man's shoulders. [Laughs] Even that, to be honest, was painful, because I would see the look on my father's face. So, there was always a part of me that, as much as I wanted this story line to happen, was hoping that it wouldn't happen in front of my parents.
So, there was a friction in wanting to hear, see, and ultimately tell your story, but also legitimate fear regarding the reaction.
Yeah, there was always a hesitancy. It was just part of the package for me, what it meant to be a gay person at that moment. There was always a sense of duality of "Will they accept us, but not?" At that same moment that I was growing up, most of the content on TV that was about gay men was about how an entire generation of gay men was being wiped out by disease. And then, when you would get maybe the one character when it wasn't a joke — Jack Tripper pretending to be gay — it was treated like it belonged as an afterthought.
Do you remember any shows or movies that felt like positive modeling?
It wasn't until I got to college, when I was still in the closet, when it really felt like there were independent movies dealing with being gay. Often the subject matter was something having to do with AIDS, but it was still hopeful, because I was watching people that reminded me of myself.
Like Longtime Companion...
Longtime Companion was so pivotal for me. I had a copy in college hidden in the box of another movie. And I would watch it when no one was around. Going back to TV, there was a miniseries in the '80s, when it was all miniseries and they were awesome — and they were all gay without being gay. [Laughs] There was one called Celebrity about three guys who commit this heinous act, but all go on to be famous in different ways. One of them is gay and moves to California and I remember thinking, "Oh, I might move to California one day..." They never show the guy having sex, but he's out there with his boyfriend by some pool in California, and I thought, "That seems like a goal."
What helped you transform from closeted college kid in the early '90s to fighting for a network to air a same-sex kiss a few years later?
My lowest point was right when I moved [to Los Angeles] and I was still in the closet. The biggest thing that transpired was I came out and made friends and built a found family for myself of other people that were like me. Whether it was by fate or by luck, in writing about that particular thing, I both found my voice as a writer and landed on a story that I thought, "Okay, this is something I feel like is ready to share with the world," and that was something that I wanted for other people. I knew how important TV had been for me as a lifeline. Having been so alone and having felt somewhat connected to certain characters through the television set, I felt like it was a very rewarding part of what could be the storytelling process.
That first story was The Broken Hearts Club, right? You were working on Dawson's but also writing that?
That was the thing. Actually, the two individuals that helped me work on that script — and are thanked in the credits of that movie — were my friends who had no TV shows on the air at the time: Julie Plec and Ryan Murphy.
Was your perception that trying to make it in the business as an out gay man at the time was going to be difficult?
It's so far back now, but I remember thinking that it would be the end of my career, not the beginning of it. That's what we were told. In that era, particularly actors were told you cannot come out.
Which is interesting given the number of straight actors in Broken Hearts Club playing gay men. Do you think that would fly today when we justifiably ask who gets to tell which stories?
That's definitely the conversation happening now. I'm old enough to have witnessed all the changes in those conversations. The challenge at that time was to get any actors to play gay, because a lot of gay actors at the time didn't want to, because they didn't want to get asked about it. And then straight actors didn't want to because there was still the belief that it would tarnish their career. Now, nobody was right, but it was common. The battle du jour was to open people's minds and hearts, and now, obviously, the conversation would be around casting people who aren't gay to play gay parts.
Where we're at now is we have to be making progress on multiple fronts because while there's been advancements in TV, there really haven't been advancements in major motion pictures. Where is the LGBTQ representation in those films? That still feels unabashedly and horribly like it felt in 2000. I would love to be able to watch more films or family films or anything with my own children now. I hope that there's a real commitment over the next decade for more inclusion in that area. As for who's portraying or directing or writing those parts, the primary goal, I think, still needs to be to get more opportunity for the people that have been marginalized. It's better for our storytelling. It's better for the audience. We will have better stories if more people get to share their story.
(Berlanti, center, directing on the set of 'Love, Simon,' from left, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Nick Robinson, and Talitha Bateman.)
Why has the concept of LGBTQ superheroes specifically been so important to you?
One of the things that I'm most proud of in terms of my involvement in this universe is in helping make sure that the heroes looked and felt like the people that they are saving. That's part of the responsibility of anyone that's going to usher these iconic characters from one generation to another, is to expand the elements about them so that they reflect the generation of people that are telling them today, and that there's progress for those characters. As an audience member, I'm yearning for the same kind of progress in movie theaters.
Your inclusivity has also pointedly extended to women and people of color, so clearly that matters to you as well.
Very often when we are telling stories on TV, you ship it out to the world, and maybe you're in a coffee shop, and someone happens to be talking about this episode that meant a lot to them, but you don't always get to touch what you do. But in the actual making of the thing, you get to change people's lives all the time with the opportunity. And that is one of the most gratifying — if not the most gratifying — aspects of this job. Ask any showrunner, they'll tell you one of the most amazing things is you can change someone's life with an opportunity. If you remember who afforded you those opportunities, it's a great way to pay it forward.
Who are some of the newer LGBTQ voices whose work you are enjoying?
I love Ryan O'Connell [of Netflix's Special]. He's such an incredible talent and voice. He is on my list of storytellers that I'm glad that we have coming for tomorrow. Another one is Rebecca Sugar, who does Steven Universe. I've never met her, but my 4-year-old and I are writing our first fan letter together to her because we've devoured her show and her movie over the last year. It's the only thing I have that really has helped him and I understand who I am and who he may be and allows you to, in a way, talk with children about some of the same issues that we've been trying to get people to talk about as teenagers. I can't wait to see what she does next.
In 2000 EW asked how you felt to be identified as a gay filmmaker and you said, "I'm just grateful to be identified as a filmmaker. They can identify me as a black filmmaker if they want."
[Laughs] I'm glad that I said that. That has not changed.
You have a record-breaking 17 shows in production now. Is it ever irritating to be ID'd in 2020 as a "gay filmmaker" as opposed to simply a filmmaker?
I've always seen myself as a storyteller, and however big or small the landscape of those stories gets, I'm just grateful that I'm still here and excited by whatever progress is coming for all of us. And now, getting to experience it as a full person. The biggest difference between my life [at the start of my career] and now was I was still living with this belief that even though I was out, I probably didn't deserve a full life, and didn't deserve to share that life with a family. That's been the greatest change in my life and the one that I'm the most grateful for. A lot of it came because of the work of our sisters and brothers in the movement who were storytellers themselves, who helped change people's hearts. So, I've actually gotten to reap the rewards of other people's creativity.
For more from Entertainment Weekly’s celebration of LGBTQ pop culture, order the June issue now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.