On Thursday’s episode, titled “Flowers Grow Out of My Grave,” adorkable surgical intern Levi Schmitt went all in with his growing feelings for fellow surgeon, Dr. Nico Kim (Alex Landi), with a steamy kiss in the Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital’s “Elevator of Love,” as actor Jake Borelli endearingly called it -- only to be shot down when Nico expressed disinterest in helping him in his coming out journey. The moment -- which kick-starts Grey’s’ first gay relationship between two male doctors -- was personal for Borelli, who has been out as a gay man to his family and friends for nearly a decade but has never publicly acknowledged it. Until now.
“Growing up gay in Ohio, I craved seeing gay storylines on television. I craved seeing things that reflected who I was at the time. It’s mind-blowing that I get to play the story that I would’ve craved to see when I was younger,” the 27-year-old actor told ET during an exclusive sit-down interview on Thursday. “That was always an exciting factor for me in doing it. I also think there needs to be more representation from people of all different types. With art and TV especially, when you can feel seen, that’s when it’s the most impactful and I wanted to do that.”
“I’ve been out to my friends and family for almost 10 years now, but within the last couple of months of shooting the show and really getting to know this character and seeing the response, I’ve realized that this is becoming bigger than just me,” Borelli said. “Within the last year or so, I’ve been giving the opportunity to speak on a much larger platform. With that opportunity, I am able to come out to a much larger group of people. I want to live in a world that celebrates authenticity and honesty and openness and courage, and I feel a responsibility to come out on a much larger scale.”
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Surprisingly, the origins of Levi’s journey of sexual (and self) discovery didn’t come from Borelli and his own personal story, but rather conversations showrunner Krista Vernoff had with the writers prior to season 15 about how to evolve his character, also affectionately known as “Glasses” -- a reference to the unfortunate time his glasses fell on a patient during surgery.
“We felt that Glasses had stumbled and fallen in as many comic ways he could stumble and fall, and what I said to the writers is this character now has to evolve. He either has to evolve as a human being or a surgeon or he has to fail as a surgeon,” Vernoff told ET. That led her to remember a college friend “who would trip over his own feet until he came out as gay. Almost instantly, he emerged out of that clumsiness into a confidence that I did not know he could possibly have. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be amazing to do with Jake? Wouldn’t that be amazing to do with Levi?’ To let him discover himself as a gay man and to let that help him emerge out of that clumsiness and into his own power. That’s where it began.”
Borelli recalled discussions he had over the phone with Vernoff this past summer and how “strongly” she felt that his character was perfect for the storyline she had in mind. “When I came back to L.A., I sat down with her at the office and she was very, very open about hearing my own experiences and the stories that I would want to tell through the character,” he shared. “[The writers] have been very open through the whole process and they’ve also had very, very good ideas on their end.”
The main thing for Borelli was to make sure that Levi, as he progresses through his “new awakening,” “was really [starting to] understand his own relationship to his own sexuality.” “I’m really excited for everybody to see what that ends up being because it’s something I really latch onto myself, and things I’ve experienced in my own life.”
When asked if he was surprised at all by Levi’s journey thus far since his introduction in season 14, when he had an ill-advised one-night stand with Dr. Jo Wilson, Borelli said he wasn’t. “In terms of his sexuality, I’m not super surprised by any of that anymore because I do believe that sexuality is fluid and it’s on a scale,” he explained. “Yes, he slept with Dr. Jo Wilson in the beginning, a woman, and now he’s having eyes for Nico Kim, a guy, and I think that that’s such a normal thing. He’s growing up. He’s in his mid-20s and he’s really learning for the first time about his own sexuality.”
As Borelli tells it, Levi is the character he’s played in his career who is the closest representation to who he identifies with in real life. Because of that, he initially had reservations about where they were taking the character this season, due in part to how closely aligned he was with Levi.
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“I was very nervous. A lot of times with acting, you get to jump into a character who’s a little further away from you; that’s what I like about acting. This character is much closer to who I am in real life,” he confessed, “and so, it is much more vulnerable. Being vulnerable is a scary thing to do and it’s one of the most important things to do. You can’t be courageous without being vulnerable. Even though I was nervous, I was also really, really excited. I called my parents the second Krista called me and was like, ‘You guys, this is the plan. What do we think?’ I thought it was going to be a little bit more of a dialogue between them and both of them were instantly like, ‘Jake, you have to do it. You have to.’ My dad said something along the lines of, ‘When you have a truth about yourself and you finally get to courage to speak it, a weight is lifted.’”
Speaking more specifically to Thursday’s episode, wherein Levi and Nico share their first kiss -- a passionate makeout in the storied Grey Sloan elevators (also the first gay kiss Borelli has ever had on-camera; “a little nerve-wracking,” he admitted) -- and the heartbreakingly cold reaction Nico has immediately afterward. “The scene is so heartwarming, honest and charming, and then it becomes almost brutal and heart-wrenching in how alone he feels afterwards,” Borelli said of Levi’s mindset. “That was something that resonated with me so much when I read it for the first time because it wasn’t just a romance scene or it wasn’t just a coming out scene, it was both.”
“Levi is confronted now with these feelings that make him feel empowered and who he really, really likes for the first time. He’s found someone who is like him and moments later, he feels very alone and very abandoned by the person who just made him feel this way. That is tragic,” he noted.
“That moment was extremely important. I cheered for that kiss every single time I saw it,” Vernoff said; Borelli recalled Vernoff giving him the “biggest hug” afterward. “I think their chemistry is palpable, and I love this journey that we’re taking Levi on. I think so often in television coming out stories are mired in shame and I wanted to tell a different kind of coming out story, where it’s mired in joy and self-discovery. You’re going to continue to see this story evolve. It’s not over just because Nico panicked and walked away.”
Borelli doesn’t fault Nico for reacting the way he does just moments after he and Levi kiss. “I think where Nico’s mindset is… he had done the work for himself. He had come out -- I don’t necessarily know what that coming out process looked like, but sometimes when it’s really hard for people, you don’t necessarily want to go back into the closet to help somebody else because it’s too difficult,” he hypothesized. “I don’t think he was being mean, I don’t think he was trying to hurt Levi, but I do think it was too painful for him.”
“They’re not in the best place,” Vernoff agreed. “Nico sort of threw down a gauntlet and walked away, and that gauntlet he threw begs a response from Levi. That response will come in episode eight, our midseason finale (airing Nov. 15) -- and it’s a beautiful response.”
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Life has a funny way of presenting things when you least expect it -- and if you believe in the spiritual, only what you can handle at the time. Even Borelli, who usually doesn’t subscribe to that stuff, acknowledged that the timing of Levi’s coming out tale and his decision to tell his own story at the same moment was kismet.
“I think there is a little bit of fate involved in it, frankly,” Borelli said. “When I first booked the show, I was so excited. It was the biggest thing I had ever done; it’s one of the most iconic shows on television. Now, on top of that -- on top of it being such a professional success for me at this point in my life -- it is now becoming a huge personal success for me, which feels amazing.”
On a broader spectrum, Borelli credited the longtime medical soap for being on the forefront of telling gay stories of substance over its run.
“Grey’s Anatomy has always been a huge ally in the LGBT community. They have done so much work to push the dial forward for all of us. They have had countless gay characters on the show, which has been amazing as a viewer,” Borelli said. “Callie Torres and Arizona Robbins’ relationship was so nuanced and so big and so fantastic for the community as a whole, but now that we’re jumping into a different facet, it’s exciting to see, on a personal level, a story that resonates so much with me.”
“Two young, gay guys -- one of which is coming out, one of which is a little more comfortable with himself -- and seeing how they fumble through it. It’s such a fresh, young take on it. Callie and Arizona’s story dealt with big issues like marriage and a custody battle; we have an opportunity now to deal with something that’s starting at the beginning of a relationship. It is such an honor to play a part in the first gay relationship between two male doctors on the show.”
Meanwhile, Borelli took to Instagram with a heartfelt post after Thursday's Grey's, writing, "To all of you who feel like little Levis out there, know that I do too, that you are seen, and that we're all in this together. And to everyone who has supported me over the years, I can't thank you enough, and I love you more than all the stars..."