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Jake Borelli on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, coming out as gay and his new role representing a community

"I've reached a point in my life that my own personal growth and happiness needs to take the driver's seat."

By Will Stroude

Words: Will Stroude

When Jake Borelli picked up the phone to Grey’s Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff earlier this summer, little did he know how much the ensuing phonecall was about to change his life.

Following the recent of departure of actress Jessica Capshaw, who played popular lesbian surgeon Arizona Robbins, Vernoff wanted to introduce a major new LGBTQ storyline to the hit medical-drama series with the introduction of Grey-Sloan Memorial Hospital’s first openly gay male character, Dr. Nico Kim (played by Alex Landi).

Borelli’s character, young surgical intern Levi Schmitt, had been a popular if somewhat peripheral figure since his introduction in season 14, but the character was about to be thrust into one of the most high-profile same-sex relationship storylines on US network TV as he came to terms with his own sexuality onscreen.

For Borelli, 27, it was a move that would change everything: A jobbing actor for the best part of a decade, with roles in shows like iCarly, NCIS: Los Angeles, and Netflix’s Reality High, the issue of his own sexuality had never crossed into the professional sphere.

Photography: Shanna Fisher

Out to his friends and family since his teens, Jake knew it was time to take control of his newfound primetime platform, and just minutes after Levi and Nico shared their first onscreen kiss during the sixth episode of season 15 of Grey’s aired, the actor shared a characteristically heartfelt yet understated post on declaring it “exactly the kind of story I craved as a young gay kid growing up in Ohio.”

In publicly acknowledging his sexuality for the first time, Jake joined a small but growing number of star unwilling to bow to casting agent pressure and leave their dentity under a shroud of career-enhacing mystery – and, as he tells Attitude during a recent call, the effect on those watching is already plain to see…

It’s been a huge couple of weeks for you – how are you feeling aboutit now the dust has started to settle?

I feel really great! I was hanging out with one of my friends last night and she asked me the same question, and I was like ‘I feel wonderful!’ I feel like I’m a part of something that’s much bigger than myself right now: I wake up every day and I read the comments that the fans of Grey’s are posting on Instagram and I think that’s one of the most beautiful things that’s come out of this whole thing. I thought that this would be me sharing my story, but in reality it’s been more about hearing from some of these young LGBTQ youths around the world who are being really courageous and vulnerable and honest with themselves, which is wonderful. 

When did you decide that you were going to come out publicly to coincide with the scenes airing?

When Krista pitched the story to me I knew it would be big and I knew that people were going to talk about it. And I also knew that if there was going to be a dialogue about this, I would want to be open and authentic about my own experiences and situation. So I knew stepping into this storyline that I would have to come out – I just didn’t know how it would look. Even before the Levi-Nico kiss there was a tease of the relationship, and after that tease I was already getting a bunch of messages from fans saying how excited they were to see themselves represented on screen and getting this outpouring of love. I knew in that moment it was bigger than me, and I just felt the impulse to come out and be honest. 

Coming out can be nerve-wracking however and wherever you’re doing it, let alone in front of millions of people: What was running through your head when you pressed send on that Instagram post? 

It was crazy how quickly the feelings of being a young gay kid in Ohio and being nervous and not knowing what the outcome would be [came back]. The first time I came out I was 17, 18 years old and it was nerve-wracking, it was uncharted territory and, I didn’t know how it would change my life and relationships. My first coming out experience when I was young went so well, and over the past 10 years I’ve come out so many times to so many people. There’s a life-long relationship with your own coming out. A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in my trailer alone and I’d created this message with one of my friends and I was like ‘Ok, now’s the moment’, and all those feelings came back. Because this was the biggest coming out I had had since coming out to my parents at 18. And it was such a large scale, so all those fears of ‘What happens next? How’s this going to change my life?’ All those fears sort of crept in. But I will say when I woke up, those fears were very quickly replaced with excitement and love from the reaction it was getting, and I realised it wasn’t about me and how it was affecting my own life.

Did you struggle to come to terms with your sexuality growing up in Ohio?

I grew up in a bit of a larger city, Colombus, and my family has always been very supportive and very open. So I think I knew that they would be supportive of this as well, but you know, as a kid you make things up in your head and you play every scenario there possibly is to play, and I certainly did have fears. But I think I always knew in the back of my mind that I would be accepted by my family. I also grew up in theatre and surrounded by gay mentors – at that point it wasn’t even explicitly talked about, I wasn’t out and they weren’t really out to me, we were all just doing community theatre – but I think I knew that these people were like me and would support my if I wanted to come out. So it was difficult in the sense that coming to terms with any truth about yourself is scary, but I think I had a bit of an easier time because of the support systems and family I grew up with. 

You’ve been acting on TV for the best part of a decade – did you feel pressure not to talk about your sexuality before this storyline?

I think as an actor, any time you talk about your personal life a lot, it’s gonna affect your work. And sometimes it affects it in a good way and sometimes it affects it in a bad way. It’s really difficult to know one way or the other, so I think the go-to line over the past few decades has been ‘Let’s not talk about sexuality because it can affect your career poorly’. That was something I’d certainly heard, and it was something that was certainly scary, but I think I’ve reached a point in my life where my own personal growth and happiness need to take the driver’s seat right now. Business and marketing and all of that maybe needs to sit in the backseat for a little bit. I don’t know why the implications are going to be: I don’t know what tomorrow’s gonna look like. But right now I’m just focused on being honest and authentic and I truly hope that is the direction that the business is moving in, and the audience. Hopefully as a society we can include people of all different types and understand that acting is acting and someone’s sexuality doesn’t change that. 

Did not being out publicly ever complicate things when it came to your romantic life and personal relationships?

You know, I never ran into to any problems in terms of my dating life and the business. I’ve been steadily working for the last 10 years but I haven’t had a platform quite like this where it’s even been a discussion of ‘Do I come out or do I not come out?’ So it’s kind of a first time run for me! I’ll see how it affects my relationships, but as of now I haven’t run into any problems in terms of work and relationships.

Grey’s Anatomy has been on screen for so long and tackled so many issues over the years – were you surprised it had taken 15 seasons for the show to get its first male same-sex relationship?

Grey’s has always been such a force in terms of pushing the boundaries of representation, especially for the LGBT community. They’ve been such a huge ally, and I think we have to remember the LGBT community is so vast, and it’s hard to tell all the stories. They took this relationship between Callie Torres [played by Sara Ramirez] and Arizona Robbins [Jessica Capshaw] and they didn’t just tell a simple story, they took 13 years and told it from beginning to end. It was so nuanced, so rich and so full of life, [and] I think that was actually a much more important decision, to take two characters and really go deep. Because that’s something that before Grey’s Anatomy we weren’t seeing on television: We were seeing a lot of gay characters in small supporting roles, whereas we had these characters who were both leading ladies and we got to see them evolve. As a fan I thought that that was so important. And now that that story has ended I think it’s really cool they’re taking another part of the LGBT community, which is gay guys, and they’re starting a new story. But there are so many stories we can tell in the LGBT community and I’m so glad the show is at the forefront of putting LGBTQ people at the head of these stories.

Compared to yourself, Levi is someone who’s coming to terms with his sexuality slightly later in life. Could you still relate to his is experience?

I think that our experiences are similar in that when you start to have these feelings it’s a little hard to understand because they’re new, and you don’t know if they’re real, and I think we both have that experience. Mine happened much younger, when I was 13 or 14, and his is happening now when he’s 24, 25. But I can also related to the fact that [while] I might have known I was gay at 13, 14,  I didn’t really start exploring with other guys and dating other guys until I was older, when I was 18, 19, 20 was when I really started dating. So in a way I was a little bit of a late bloomer myself! I feel like I’ve been a couple of years behind a lot of my peers in terms of understanding love and relationships and how to be with somebody.

There’s a beautiful scene between Nico and Levi where Levi says that kissing Nico felt like ‘he existed’ for the first time. Did you ever have that kind of lightbulb moment with someone?

To be honest, because the relationship I’ve had with my sexuality has been a very long road, it’s hard to remember if there was an ‘A-ha’ moment. It’s been so long that I can’t remember anything before so it’s kind of hard to answer that. But I do feel that right now in this moment there’s sort of a purpose behind it, like I’m having an ‘A-ha’ moment of sorts, and [can] maybe help someone whose experiencing right now what I experienced ten years ago. 

What’s Alex Landi been like to work with? 

Alex Landi is such a goofball, I love working with him. He’s been such a great partner in all of this and one of the greatest parts about him is how open he is and how willing he is to try new things and to be vulnerable. I think this experience probably would have gone very differently had he not been like that. You know, we’re doing intimate things together: we’re making out, we’re having sex scenes, and it’s been really nice to know it’s a safe space. I’ve been so happy to be working with him. 

Did he know you were going to come out as your first onscreen kiss aired?

I guess I didn’t talk to him about it specifically. I had my own coming out to him and with various other cast members that I’m close to, and if I remember I think I told him at a certain point that I was going to make a public statement, but maybe I didn’t tell him exactly when I was going to do it! At that point I was so I my own head I was like ‘Hey, it’s gonna happen when it happens’! But I remember him being very okay with everything.

What’s the reaction of your castmates been like?

They’ve all been so fantastic about it. And I think now after coming out publicly I’m able to be more open about it at work and be more comfortable just personally talking about things, which has certainly given me more confidence, and I think will make the friendships I have at work even stronger. They’ve been wonderful and really supportive and all of them have said ‘We’re here for you if you ever need any advice or someone to talk to’, and I think that’s really beautiful.

Season 15 of Grey’s Anatomy continues on ABC in early 2019 in the US.