Grey’s Anatomy is known for taking its characters on a journey. One of the most enjoyable ones to watch these last few seasons is the arc of Dr. Levi Schmitt. He’s gone from the skittish intern first introduced in the Season 14 premiere (remember he dropped his glasses into a body that was being operated on?) to the openly gay resident finding his confidence both surgically and personally. Last season Levi embarked on a romance with Nico (Alex Landi) and the duo shared the show’s first gay kiss and steamy hook-up in an empty ambulance.
But the sixteenth season has been a rocky one for Levi. To his friends and colleagues’ outrage, he was the one who reported Meredith’s (Ellen Pompeo) insurance fraud which resulted in her being fired from the hospital and her medical license being suspended. In last night’s winter premiere, which was a crossover event with Station 19, Levi survived the latest crisis (this time a car crashing into the bar they all hang out in) and began the slow process of being forgiven by his friends.
Paste had a chance to talk to Jake Borelli, who plays Levi, about what’s coming up in the back half of Grey’s sixteenth season, what it means to play this groundbreaking character, and also his new Freeform movie The Thing About Harry, which premieres February 15.
Paste: Grey’s Anatomy is a show that is not afraid to kill off characters. How nervous were you when you learned about the disaster that would befall the doctors of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital?
Jake Borelli: Oh my gosh it was terrifying. I’m a fan of the show too so I know all about the fears of people getting killed. I remember when they had the plane crash that was one of the most dramatic episodes ever, and this was our version of that. We actually filmed the Station 19 half of it way back in August. So we knew this disaster was coming. We just didn’t know exactly how it was going to resolve itself. We have been very curious who was going to come out unscathed and who was going to be in real danger. I was just as stressed out as the fans had been.
Paste: How has the whole experience changed Levi?
Borelli: Since Meredith’s trial he’s been on the outs and he hasn’t really had anyone to turn to so I think this was the catalyst for him sort of having this anxiety attack. He’s had no one to lean on and now he’s seen his friends in such peril and he doesn’t know if he’s good enough to face them yet. It’s been a lot. We’ve reached the hardest moment in his life. It’s going to be interesting to see how he copes with everything, and how the relationships with his friends stem from here. I think he’s learned a lot about himself. Anytime someone goes through an experience just like Levi has gone through in terms of the traumatic event of the car crash and seeing all his friends in danger, I think it really solidifies what’s important in your life and I think moving forward Levi is going to focus on that quite a bit. He’s really coming into his own right now.
Paste: What can you tell me about the future of his relationship with Nico?
Borelli: They’ve both taught each other so much. Levi has taught Nico quite a bit about being vulnerable and speaking from your heart and really knowing how you feel. Nico conversely has really taught Levi how to stand in his power, and has taught him a little bit more about being a better surgeon. They’re kind of perfect foils for each other at this point but it’s a classic Shondaland show. They shake things up all the time. I think we need to remember that these two are both very young. This is one of Levi’s first relationships ever. There’s bound to be ups and downs. Levi growing will either bring them together or highlight differences that they might have.
Paste: Levi and Nico are the show’s first romance between two male character, and they are groundbreaking in that their romance is treated the same as the show’s heterosexual ones with lots of drama and hospital hook-ups.
Borelli: Bingeing the show the past few years, the on-call room was such an iconic romance place. Watching it I always got excited to see my favorite characters hooking up. But I never felt like I could totally relate to it because it was always a guy and a girl or an awesome lesbian couple of something like that and never two young guys that I could totally see myself in. It’s super exciting to see myself mirrored back in a way that I never would have seen without having to translate it. Am I McDreamy in this situation? Or am I Meredith? Now I see I’m Eli. I get to hook up with the hot guy in the on-call room.
Paste: Did you watch Grey’s before you were cast on the show?
Borelli: I was too young when it first came out my parents wouldn’t let me. I sort of missed the bandwagon. Back before it was on Netflix, it was hard to binge it. When I first got the audition. I watched the pilot just to make sure I was in the right tone and I was doing my job as an actor. After I booked it, I thought I need to watch a few more episodes to make sure I’m in the right world and I got hooked immediately. I was in love with these characters. I binged the whole thing on Netflix within a year and now I’m a super fan myself. I was filming 16 hours days on set and then going home and watching four hours of Grey’s. It was a full year of Grey’s for me.
Paste: You didn’t join the show as a series regular?
Borelli: When I booked the show it was just a one-episode co-star. I had just moved to New York from LA where I had spent eight years. I had sold my car, quit my job, was going to do theater. After I filmed the episode, I went back to New York and they called me again and said, “Hey can you do more episodes?” After two years I became a series regular. It has been a wild wild ride.
Paste: So you definitely didn’t know the arc your character would take. That he would be the show’s first gay character?
Borelli: For the entire first year I was playing him as a straight guy. He has sex with Jo Wilson (Camilla Luddington) in his first episode. He was very smitten with her at the time. The summer before Season 15 I got a call from the show runner Krista Vernoff and she pitched this story line to me about someone coming out in their mid 20s and how that would affect them and she wanted to tell it through me and through Levi. I was immediately terrified because I knew, as a queer person myself, I knew how massive this was going to be in terms of representation, and as a fan of the show it was always something that I yearned for to see—a gay doctor. They had a historic relationship between Arizona and Callie Torres, and it was groundbreaking for the queer community and for the lesbian community specifically, but I still never quite felt represented. I knew that if we were going to tell this story I would need to be honest about my own story. I was at a point in my life where that was a big step for me. I knew that it was something that I wanted to do.
Paste: What do you think it means to have a character like Levi on Grey’s?
Borelli: Just in my own experience, if I had seen a character like Levi on TV when I was younger it would have changed the trajectory of my life and it would have given me a completely different idea of who I could become growing up. There are millions of types of queer people so the more stories that we have out there the more ideas we give people about who they can become as a queer person. It has meant the world to me to bring this character to life because I think he is a different type of queer person than we’ve seen before and he is super relatable which is wonderful. That was mainly what I wanted to say by coming out myself.
It felt like I was in this conversation with everybody and it felt like we were all in this together. Every single morning I still wake up to messages on Instagram and Twitter saying this story is relatable and it reflects them back in a way they had never seen before. They feel less alone because of it. It’s so incredible because it’s the same feeling that I feel every time I read a new script about Levi.
Paste: Do you feel any pressure knowing what your character represents to so many?
Borelli: Of course I feel the pressure. It’s not lost on me how important it is to me and it’s hard not to feel pressure when you know people are looking up to you but I always try to remind myself, and I truly honestly believe it, that we are all part of this community together and we are all helping each other out. I do feel like it’s this large community effort. I have queer people that I look up to and I lean on for support and guidance and try to pay it forward as much as I can.
Paste: Your other big project is the romantic comedy The Thing About Harry coming on next month on Freeform, written and directed by Peter Paige.
Borelli: I’ve looked up to Peter Paige for so long. He’s an icon within the queer community. He’s really paved the way for queer people in this industry and given me a template of what I can look to as to who I can become in this industry.
Paste: What should we know about this movie?
Borelli: I couldn’t put it down. It is a classic rom com. The only difference is it has queer people at the forefront of it which is something so different than what we’ve seen in the past. I’m a huge rom com person. I loved 27 Dresses and it always feels like queer people are delegated to the smaller side characters who don’t have a ton of backstory. We don’t even know if they are in relationships or not. I never felt fully represented by that. In this movie, we as queer people don’t have to translate it at all, it is a story about love, all sorts of universal topics surrounding love. Anyone can watch it but the beautiful part is queer people can really see themselves in it.
[This article was originally published on January 24th]
Grey’s Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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