In Love, Simon, a closeted teen, Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) wrestles with his identity. Despite having supportive friends and family members, he fears being an out gay person might affect these relationships. He worries the future he had envisioned for himself will be destroyed.
It's a situation familiar to many members of the LGBT community, including Joey Pollari, who portrays Lyle — a potential love interest for Simon — in the groundbreaking romantic comedy, which is the first backed by a major studio to center on a gay teen.
"His experience was similar to mine," said the 23-year-old actor, who began his career in Disney Channel movies like Skyrunners and Avalon High before graduating to ABC's American Crime.
In Love, Simon, Pollari plays a server at a Waffle House who may or may not be Blue, a closeted teen who corresponds with Simon through email. For most of the film, Blue's identity is a secret, leaving a lovestruck Simon to guess who the identity of his crush might be. Along the way, Simon is blackmailed by a classmate, who discovers that he is gay and uses that information against him.
Pollari came out as gay at age 18 to friends and family — although thankfully, unlike Simon, he did not have to contend with blackmail. Overall, Pollari's coming-out was a "positive" experience. "I think all my friends and family knew on some level. I think maybe two people were shocked."
"The only part that was difficult was me coming out to myself. And I think that is the most difficult coming-out," he said. His supportive mother had been "waiting for a very, very long time" to hear her son speak those words. "My mom knew. She laid hints for me everywhere," he said, recalling conversations they had in the past about acceptance of gay people.
There were other early indicators for the Minnesota native — a love of The Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland that inspired a Wicked Witch Halloween costume at age 2; an early interest in foreign films like Y Tu Mamá También with a "completely different approach to sexuality" than American fare, with exceptions like Brokeback Mountain, which he had seen by age 12; an interest in gay literature like James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (a "heartbreaking rite of passage" for a gay person) and the work of AIDS activist and playwright Larry Kramer.
But for a long time, despite these resources and a support network, something held Pollari back.
"A lot of the trouble was self-shame. I do believe a system of power, of patriarchy, of masculinity did impact me," he reflected, adding, "The greatest difficulty I found was that it didn't match my idea of myself. It seemed incongruent with the future I imagined for myself, the identity I had struck up with others. The interplay between me and women, me and men, now suddenly seemed entirely different. That just didn't seem fair or right."
Fortunately, Pollari discovered that his greatest fears about being out were unfounded.
"While it does have a big impact on [my] identity, it doesn't in the ways that I thought it would," he said. When he was in the closet, his mind would often contemplate "nightmares" about what being an out gay man would be like. "On the other side, it's a lot plainer than I thought," he found.
"The real scary stuff and the real exciting stuff is falling in love with someone," Pollari said. That's the prize of it." In addition, of course, to the prize of "loving oneself."
Pollari also sees this message in Love, Simon. The film transcends some of the "more stereotypical torture" present in queer films, he perceived, because Simon's coming out as gay "is tied to a narrative of finding love and self-love." It's an experience he believes any audience would relate to.
"Every love story, gay or straight, has to come from a place of coming out of some closet of some previous fear into a new territory. This one just makes it a little bit more explicit and ties it to the gay experience," he said.
In fact, Pollari has found that there are a million things to come out about, in addition to being gay. Life is a series of "different doors to go through, into bigger, and bigger, and bigger rooms," he said.
Love, Simon's historic representation as a gay-centered teen rom-com is not lost on Pollari, who reflected on the "positive impact" such a production would have had on him growing up. "It feels great to be a part of something that people could connect to the LGBTQ plus community, and youth could find themselves in or be moved by. That's a cool experience."
This is not Pollari's first project that was a milestone in LGBT visibility. The actor was in season 2 of American Crime, in which he portrayed Eric Tanner, a gay high school basketball player accused of sexually assaulting another male student. The acclaimed production aired in 2016, but it dealt with many issues that reverberate today, among them campus rape as well as the dangers of toxic masculinity and the closet.
Although Pollari had recently experienced a closeted high school life himself, he found his character struggled with a "magnified" shame that came from "a masculinity tribe, his basketball team," he said. "Although I wanted part in that as a teenager, I was in theater, in plays, and going to see foreign films, reading books. I took a little bit of an outside approach to that stuff."
While Eric may or may not have committed a crime, he's no one-dimensional villain. His father is not accepting of his sexuality, he is outed to his school, and his gay identity is used as a political weapon by the administration. Portraying him was educational for Pollari. "The show is centered around, its emotional core, sexuality, but it's really about truth. And he finds that this truth [of his gay identity] has actually come to define him. It's curious that he sees the injustice of it. I don't think that's hard to relate to. Having one's self defined by their sexuality or defined by any one part of yourself can be frustrating."
Overall, Pollari called the experience on American Crime, created by John Ridley and starring Felicity Huffman, Regina King, and Timothy Hutton, a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to work with top names in the entertainment industry for an impactful social message. "I dreamed of as a kid [to] get to be part of that community," he said.
On Love, Simon, Pollari also discovered a community of passionate people who cared about the film's social meaning. The movie is directed by the gay director Greg Berlanti ("wonderful to work with," said Pollari) as well as several gay actors, like Clark Moore, who understood firsthand the importance of visibility as well as the power of being out.
From an early age, Pollari recognized the importance of queer public figures to his own life. It's why he felt it was important for him to be out as an actor.
"It's part of my goal to be more transparent, especially in the public sphere," he said. "I think that's a good thing. Anybody who's out? It was helpful to me when I was in the closet. I think just adding another voice there is a good thing to do."
"It meant a lot to me when I was younger," he added. "To see people who are out, to see people who are all kinds of things — people who are so clear in their anger, people who are clear about their arrogance, their pettiness, their desperation. I mean, that's why I go to the movies... I go to learn something about someone else. In a byproduct, I learn about myself. That's the power of representation."
Love, Simon premieres March 16. Watch the trailer below.