It’s been a rough few years for Grey’s Anatomy resident Dr. Levi Schmitt since the pandemic began. The beloved character, who came out as gay at the same time Jake Borelli, who portrays him, came out publicly, worked amid the trauma of early COVID-19 last season, and suffered full-on burnout after losing his first patient under the hospital’s new training method this season. Toss in Levi’s breakup with his handsome doctor boyfriend Nico (Alex Landi) and his mom’s major health scare, and the young doc was primed for a meltdown this season that had him reckoning with leaving medicine altogether.
Borelli, who says he’s grateful for the opportunity to portray Levi but adds it was tough to play out the COVID storylines almost in real time with the pain of the pandemic in the world, was already noticing parallels between his character’s burnout and a bit of his own. But for Borelli, a gay blood ban story that involves Levi in Grey’s Anatomy’s 18th season finale (also the show’s whopping 400th episode), is deeply personal. He shares that the story elided some barriers between him and his character.
The ban, which was put in place more than 35 years ago and barred men who have sex with men from donating blood, and the subsequent adjustments to it got Borelli so fired up that he pushed for some of his opinions to also filter into character’s point of view.
In 2015, the FDA changed the lifetime ban on men who have sex with men to a requirement of a full year of abstinence before donating blood. During the worst of COVID, that time frame was shortened to 90 days. Borelli says the bigoted blood ban is not justified by science and that even the 90-day rule is “manipulative,” calling the partial step “insulting.”
“To think of that [ban], as you have this poison blood, which is just not it's not scientifically accurate. And we have come so far in terms of blood safety tests. … There's no reason for it,” he says.
“In preparing for the episode and talking to people about this, I found that especially from the straight community, that there’s this idea that oh, well, the blood ban is now no longer a lifetime blood ban for gay men,” he adds. “The fact that oh, now that we have a blood shortage, now, we need you, so we're going to change the rules to benefit us.”
He draws a through line from the Supreme Court’s leaked decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in which Justice Samuel Alito cited Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the case that led to national marriage equality, and Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which overturned anti-sodomy laws.
“You're fine as long as you don't have sex, as long as you don't partake in sodomy, or if you don't get married,” Borelli says of conditional acceptance of gay and bi men.
“[It’s] exactly what we were just hitting on at the beginning of this with the new Supreme Court stuff,” he adds.
Ellen Pompeo as Meredith and Jake Borelli as Levi in Season 17
Grey’s Anatomy is notoriously mum about its episodes [screeners are not available to journalists]. Borelli can’t go into detail about the plot, but he hopes Levi’s story for the 400th episode will illuminate the hypocrisy of the blood ban for a wide audience.
“I was able to bring my own queerness into this finale, And I chose to have that opinion leak in a little bit to the character because it’s not all wonderful these rules have changed [to 90 days]. I think it’s good to see Levi angry a little bit. And I'm hoping that that shows in the finale.”
Borelli, 31, joined ABC’s long-running medical drama in 2018, coming out publicly as his character’s gay storyline unfolded not long after. About a year later, he starred in Freeform’s queer rom-com The Thing About Harry from director-writer Peter Paige. While Harry afforded Borelli a shot at a romantic lead out of the gate, the erudite Levi began his stint at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital rather inauspiciously, failing to catch his glasses before they slid off of his face and into a patient lying open on the table. A mentee of the show’s revered Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), Levi has blood-related storylines in his veins, Borelli points out.
“Levi has had lots of nicknames over the years — ‘Glasses,’ for one. ‘Blood Bank’ was one because, in season 1, there's a patient who is in need of blood in surgery when the power goes out. They can't open the blood bank,” he explains. “So Meredith Grey volunteers Levi to get hooked up to the patient mid-surgery and basically transfused his blood into the patient because he is the universal donor.”
Amid what viewers can expect will be a massive Grey’s-style tragedy (there have been sinkholes, plane crashes, mudslides, earthquakes, and more over the years), it appears Levi and his universal blood type will become a point of the story. Only the circumstances have changed since season 1, when he wasn’t out and was hooked up to the patient, and now when Levi’s known to have a healthy, vibrant sex life.
“Years later, Levi has come out of the closet, and somebody with O negative blood, especially in a pandemic, is so vital,” Borelli says. “It’s completely asinine and not backed in science that Levi wouldn't be able to donate blood in an environment like this, and we're going to confront that head-on in the finale."
Beyond sharing a queer identity with Levi, Borelli has a personal memory of wanting to become a blood donor.
“I’ve gotten emotional even talking to the writers about the story. I remember back to when I had just moved out to L.A. and I was trying to donate blood. I couldn't because I knew that I was gay,” Borelli says. At that point, I wasn't even out yet. But I was so afraid ... because the rule stated that I couldn't give blood and that I shouldn’t.”
Since stepping into his authentic self along with his character, Borelli has become a beacon of visibility, and especially with the blood ban story, an actor willing to fight for inclusion of important beliefs in his storytelling.
[The] coming-out experience is so hard, and we come out every day of our lives for the rest of our lives, really, in small ways. And in big ways,” he says. “For me personally, and especially on a platform as big as Grey's, it sort of thrust me out there a lot quicker than I had anticipated.”
“I do feel like a member of this community more than I ever had before. I feel supported by everybody, and able to support people,” he adds. “It’s beautiful, and I really do have Grey’s and the people at Grey’s to thank for that.”