Prestige films depicting the lives of LGBTQ people have garnered a bit more attention over the past decade with dramas like Moonlight, Carol, Call Me By Your Name, and The Favourite cracking the awards circuit. Even queer teen films like Love, Simon and Booksmart have enjoyed mainstream success. But the romantic comedy, with its implicit happy ending, has long been a bastion of heteronormativity. Queer people have traditionally been relegated to ancillary gay best friend characters in traditional rom-coms. But that's about to change.
With the backing of Freeform and its parent company, Disney, multihyphenate Peter Paige has reclaimed the romantic comedy and holiday movie for LGBTQ people with the sweet same-sex romance The Thing About Harry. A love story that begins around Valentine’s Day, the film is replete with humor, close connections and near misses, grand gestures, and sexy romance. And for Paige and his out star, Grey’s Anatomy’s Jake Borelli, the project is personal.
“It didn't exist,” Paige, a confessed lover of romantic comedies of the Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock variety, tells The Advocate on the set of the film about being out and never seeing a love story that looked like something that represented his identity on screen.
“When [queer representation] did [exist], we were clowns and we were the most likely to die in any story. We were tragic, one way or another,” Paige says. “We were either tragically funny or we were just tragic, and it's impossible not to take that on on some cellular level.”
A co-creator of Freeform’s The Fosters and Good Trouble and an out actor on Queer as Folk 20 years ago when it was considered a career killer to be openly gay in Hollywood, Paige was approached by producers Greg Gugliotta and F.J. Denny about penning a romantic comedy for Freeform, and he savored the chance.
“This opportunity to tell a story where the boys actually said it to each other just felt really special,” Paige says. “So I called the network and told them I had a pitch for what I want to do with a movie. They loved it. And literally, I wrote it in two weeks on vacation.”
In November, a few short months after Paige delivered the script, he was on a marathon shoot in Chicago with stars Borelli and newcomer Niko Terho. Borelli had been Paige’s dream casting for the role of Sam, a slightly buttoned-up gay man whose primary relationship for much of the film is with his best friend, Stasia (GLOW’s Britt Baron), and who turns to politics after college.
Meanwhile, Terho was new to the business, but he sent an audition tape that wooed producers with his easy charm. He eventually landed the plum role of Harry. The movie begins with Sam forced into a road trip to his hometown with his high school nemesis Harry for an engagement party of mutual friends. Along the way, Sam discovers Harry is more multifaceted than the jock he remembers who made his life miserable in high school. It turns out that Harry admired Sam’s self-assuredness in being out in their small town. And he's since come into his sexual identity.
Karamo Brown, Jake Borelli, Niko Terho, Japhet Balaban, and Angelica Herndon
It’s a little over a week out from Thanksgiving, and Borelli, Paige and Terho are on set during a break from shooting the denouement of the film, a grand overture that Harry makes to Sam that’s part courage and part vulnerability — a staple of the rom-com. The men are gathered to chat about the film in the basement of the venue, which happens to be an old boxing ring with all of the accoutrements. The discussion inevitably turns to creating something historic and new for LGBTQ viewers. After weeks of working together for hours on end, they also occasionally finish each other’s sentences.
Borelli began shooting The Thing About Harry nearly a year to the day since coming out publicly at the time his Grey’s Anatomy character, Levi, was coming out on the show in November of 2018. While considering the impact of The Thing About Harry he’s thoughtful about its representation for LGBTQ audiences past, present, and future.
“It would have changed so much [to have a queer rom-com],” Borelli says of the dearth of same-sex romances (with happy endings) he experienced as a young person.
“I’ve already grown up in a different world, in a world that is much more accepting and that is sort of like the by-product of the fights that the generations before me have fought. I’m so lucky for that,” Borelli says, acknowledging the fearlessness of people like Paige, who broke down barriers for LGBTQ visibility on Queer as Folk.
“But it [having a same-sex romantic comedy] would have saved me years and years of being in the closet,” Borelli says. “It would have saved me a lot of the shame that I still have about whether or not I can have a family and have a husband and kids or grandkids or whatnot.”
He elaborates that he has plenty of supportive people in his life but that he’s also not a stranger to people telling him, “Aw, you would have been such a great father.”
“I'm like, ‘I still can be.’ But it's the fact that we don't see these stories represented that caused people like me and my loved ones to feel that way,” he adds. “I think a story like this and some of the other stories that Peter has talked about that he's created have really given language to people to express those ideas and have given examples of what queer people can be.”
But Paige, who’s one of the creators behind two of the most inclusive shows of all time in terms of depicting a swath of sexual and gender identities, took the opportunity with The Thing About Harry to offer representation that’s rarely been seen in film or TV and wrote Harry as pansexual.
“That's what this next generation is. Their sexual identities are very different than ours [earlier generations]. Ours were pretty black-and-white, and then there were some zebra stripes. That was it,” Paige says. “This generation — they are so many people who are kind of somewhere on a scale and who are just really open.”
“It's such a beautiful thing about the generation that's following us that I wanted to honor it in the film,” he says.
Brown, Borelli, Peter Paige, Terho, and Britt Baron
Terho, who jokes that he was originally just thrilled about a free trip to Los Angeles when he got the call to read for the film, says he’s honored to inhabit a character whose identity is so open.
“I was like, ‘OK, rom-com, awesome,’” Terho says of first seeing the script. “Then there was just so many other factors in it that were just like, ‘I don't think that's been done before.’”
The actor says he found a lot in common with Harry in terms of his affability and openness, which plays off of Sam’s more fastidious nature to a tee. In terms of pansexual visibility, he knew he would be playing an underrepresented part of the LGBTQ community. The only reference point for pan representation on film and TV Terho could think of is Dan Levy’s character David on Schitt’s Creek.
“I think it's so perfect for his [Harry’s] character,” Terho says. “He's very open to all sorts of experiences. It just sums him up completely. He’s such a great character and a new character and I get to really make it my own because nobody has any preconceived notions about it.”
Terho, who grew up in Barbados, says he's hopeful that The Thing About Harry will impact the lives of LGBTQ people back home in positive ways.
“It would have been so great growing up and seeing a romantic comedy with that being represented so that we get a better understanding of everything,” Terho says. "This movie will speak to so many people back at home, and I think that it'll do tremendous things for just information around the world.”
In the canon of LGBTQ films, there are outliers that qualify as romantic comedies, although many are also what would be deemed “coming out” films, and they were all made on independent budgets. Those films include The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love (1995), But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), Trick (1999), and Imagine Me and You (2005). But Freeform and Disney's support for The Thing About Harry takes those romantic stories to new levels of visibility.
While entertainers now, mostly, come out with less backlash than in Paige’s generation, the notion of being out in his career still gave Borelli pause. So the scope of signing on to The Thing About Harry hit him deeply.
“There was a huge part of me that didn't believe I could be an actor or a successful person in general if I was out of the closet — if I showed these things about myself that I didn't necessarily have the courage to show yet.”
“I meet Peter and he offers me this movie that he wrote with someone like me in mind. When I got that phone call, I was so emotional about it because it was a thing that I didn't believe could happen,” Borelli says. “It was the lead of a movie, and it was the lead of a movie about queer people made by queer people. And he was allowing a queer person to act in it.”
“It's giving real validity to the stories that I've been wanting to tell. And possibly didn't believe I could tell even just a year ago,” he adds.
Paige, who has also returned to acting in the film as Sam’s roommate Casey, smiles knowingly at Borelli.
“I love that. Not only did it not confirm your fears, it's the exact opposite. You got the offer of a lead in a movie,” Paige says. “Not only did you not stop working, you got the best offer you've gotten in your career. It’s pretty great.”
The Thing About Harry airs on Freeform tonight.