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‘Love Simon’s Joey Pollari on making it as an out and proud actor in Hollywood

"We’ve got a lot of work to do."

By Will Stroude

After months of anticipation, Love, Simon finally arrived in UK cinemas last week, injecting some long overdue LGBT lovin’ into multiplexes across the country.

Greg Berlanti’s high school comedy rama has won plenty of plaudits for propelling a gay love story into the mainstream, but the movie’s impressive cast of LGBT actors has also set it apart from the rest.

One of those is Joey Pollari, the 24-year-old Minnesota-born actor who shot to fame on the US version of The Inbetweeners before landing a gritty role as closeted basketball jock Eric in the second season of American Crime.

LoveSimon sees Joey play the enigmatic Lyle, or may or may not be the classmate who Simon (played by Nick Robinson) has been falling for via email. 

We caught up with Joey prior to the film’s UK release to find out more about the film and his still all-too-rare position as an out and proud actor in Hollywood…

Love, Simon has had such a great response so far – how are you enjoying the buzz?

It feels great. I’m really happy that the movie’s getting a positive response and people are connecting to it. It’s really the dream.

What can you tell us about your character Lyle?

Lyle works at The Waffle House and is one of Simon’s fellow students, and as Simon gets these letters he thinks that I might be Blue. I think that’s all I can say!

Obviously the film’s premise means the audience is kept guessing and a lot of characters’ sexualities are kept ambiguous. Did that affect how you approached the role?

No because I knew the ending! But I think in terms of my character’s sexuality, I think it doesn’t really come into the picture until later. He’s got something going on…

It’s such a big step for a teen film to challenge stereotypes and tackle LGBT sexuality in such an over manner.

It is a big step, and [Simon’s] sexuality being at the forefront of the arc is big step. It’s hard to know what kind of change it will make when it comes out, but it’s refreshing to see a gay character who’s trying to be in the world. And [his sexuality] is not a mystery to us. It’s not why what we’re there for, to see whether he can get through the torture of coming to terms with himself.  It’s more of an authenticity question than an identity question. The story is actually about finding love, and I think that’s why people are really connecting with it. Ultimately the movie is about coming out to oneself. Yes he’s trying to figure out the best way, but the movie tries to get a wider window in some respects –  it’s more of an authenticity question than an identity question. And if people connect to that, that’s great.

Greg Berlanti has done so much for LGBT visibility on screen with his work on shows like Riverdale. What was he like to work with as a director?

Greg is great. It’s why the things he’s worked on have done well. Sets are often affected from the top down and he works with a lot of integrity and a lot of love. And it’s clear when you see the movie, and from my own experience on set, that he’s really passionate about this project, that he wanted to make something he could have connected to when he was a teenager. And I think that’s beautiful. Nick [Robinson, who plays Simon] was great to work with. Kind, funny, affable. Similar to Greg, if you’re number one on the call sheet, it trickles down, and he’s a great leader on set. I think he does a great job.

Of course you also have experience playing another gay character – Eric in American Crime – and talk about the other end of the spectrum [from Love, Simon] in terms of repression and darkness. How did you go about preparing for that role?

I mean, the sexuality in Eric’s case I didn’t think was the deepest thing that was going on. The stuff that was harder to get to was the deep-held anger and self-hatred – that was a trickier one than his sexuality. It was really about him being so angry with the world and absolutely hating the fact that he’d gotten himself into this position where he had to come out in the first place, and especially angry that people were reacting in such a negative way: His teammates abandoned him, he couldn’t be a part of this masculine community which he’d found himself in. I don’t think all that stuff is specific to just him being gay or coming out – a lot of that is relatable on a human level about trying to be ‘one of the boys’. It doesn’t matter whether you’re gay, straight, bi or transgender: being part of a tribe is something we all cling to.

Did you draw on your own personal experience as a gay man growing up?

I mean my experience… I was pretty lucky. I had parents who supported me, friends and family who I think knew. When I went to act that role, the thing I drew from wasn’t really… of course drawing on the shame of it is important, but the anger was more of a human thing. The shame wasn’t tied to queerness but to being othered, being outside of a tribe, which I think happens to anyone, gay or straight.

I read that other actors turned down that role, which is sad to hear.

It doesn’t surprise me. I think the hesitation is understandable. Not that I agree with it, but I think it’s understandable, because yes we’re in 2018 and there are many LGBTQ+ allies out there and people making careers out and proud, but there is still stigma, there’s still a battle to go. I think I’d be fooling myself if I though that was all done. We’ve got a lot of work to do. I think there’s a lot of closets to come out of in the industry. It’s a long road.

Did you ever have personal concerns about being open about your sexuality as an actor in the industry?

No, I’m not too worried about it. I don’t feel that it’s affected me. You know, maybe talk to me in five or ten years and I’ll have a different answer, but no. I think the problems are there, but I think a lot of the quote unquote ‘problems’ I’ve run into have been more self-imposed. Even let’s say hypothetically the industry does make it harder [for me], some of that for me – and I can only speak from my own personal experience – is self-imposed. I know a lot of people who’ve made incredible, incredible careers being out and playing all kinds of sexualities. The problem is there, I don’t want to be misunderstood –  there’s definitely people being out and not being hired because of that. And we all have to face that struggle. But I think we’re seeing more and more now, especially in this era of making our own content, authenticity and individuality are becoming a commodity more and more. We’re really celebrating people who are brave enough to come out and have the careers they desire. I don’t mean to underplay the difficulty that remains there, but in my own personal experience some of that difficulty has been self-imposed.

What do you mean by self-imposed?

That I’m a gay man and I can’t play straight roles. That’s the biggest one. I just don’t think it’s true whatsoever. It’s ridiculous that we think sexuality is the defining thing that we cannot break out of. You know, when I played a rapist I did not need to have that experience to have that understanding! It’s an old idea and a pervasive one in our culture that our sexuality is rigid or that because I’m gay I don’t know what it’s like to be straight or vice versa. I mean, lots of straight actors have played gay roles brilliantly, there’s no argument about that. And it goes both ways. The acting thing, I go through it not with one part of me but with all parts of me: the gay guy from Minnesota’ the parents that I have; the things I saw and experienced; it’s too wide a range to say ‘oh you’re gay, you can’t play a straight role’.

Yeah, it’s incredible that while an actor’s sexuality is completely invisible it can still affect the roles they are offered.

It’s like if you’re playing a lawyer and you’re not a lawyer! I mean I really have no authority on saying it. I’m young in my career. In 10 years I might have a completely different take. But at this stage it seems misguided.

Love, Simon’s success is obviously going to be dependent on straight audiences seeing the film as well as LGBT ones. Do you think it will help open the door for studios to tell LGBT stories?

I hope so. I don’t know how it’s going to be received within the studio system, and I hope it’ll be commercially successful and critically successful so there’s a little less fear going forward. I guess we’ll have to see! I would love it if that happens. And not only gay youth stories, but LGBTQIA+. I do hope it will. I’m proud to be a part of it. You know, if people’s takeaway from it is related to queerness, and they love Simon and his character and they don’t identify ad LGBTQ+, that’s a win too.  

Love, Simon is in cinemas now.