Jake Borelli had just moved from Los Angeles to New York City when he received the audition for Grey’s Anatomy. “I had been in LA for eight years and built a life out here and started my career out here,” he tells STYLECASTER. “After eight years of auditioning and working other jobs, I was like, ‘You know what? I need to come at this a little differently.’”
And so Borelli quit his job, sold his car, left his apartment and moved across the country to NYC. However, after less than six weeks in the Big Apple, Borelli booked the role of Levi Schmidt, a new medical intern at the time on Grey’s Anatomy, and had to move back. “At that point in my career, I don’t think I even believed Grey’s could be an option because I had looked up to the show for so long,” he says. “It’s such an iconic machine.”
I’ve realized now that you have to become the person you needed to look up to when you were younger.
Borelli joined Grey’s Anatomy in season 14, which saw Levi hook up with Camilla Luddington’s Jo Wilson. The summer before season 15, he received a call from showrunner Krista Vernoff, who told him that she wanted Levi to be a part of Grey’s Anatomy’s first gay male love story. “I was terrified when she told me that, and super excited as a queer person that the show was going to tackle a storyline like that,” he says.
Borelli came out to Vernoff on that phone call. “I said, ‘I want to do this storyline, but it would be a huge moment in my life in terms of coming out on a much larger level and that I need to think about it,’” he recalls. After hanging up the phone, Borelli immediately called his parents for advice. “They gave me a pep talk and said, ‘When you share something that you’re afraid to share, oftentimes you feel lighter afterwards.’ That’s exactly what happened. I called Krista back immediately and was like, ‘Let’s do this thing,’” he says.
Levi came out on the midseason finale of season 15. At the exact same time that viewers learned of Levi’s sexuality, Borelli also came out in an Instagram post, where he called Levi’s relationship with Nico Kim “the kind of story” he “craved as a young gay kid growing up in Ohio.” “Already I was getting so many messages, especially from young queer people around the world, telling me how seen they were by this story,” Borelli tells StyleCaster. “Once it was clear Levi was coming out of the closet, I wanted to share how supportive of the storyline I felt as well.”
Ahead, Borelli talked to STYLECASTER about how his relationships feel “mirrored” in Schmico, similarities between Levi and George O’Malley, and what he knows about the finale of Grey’s Anatomy season 17.
On his hesitations to come out publicly
“As a queer person, we’re taught at a young age that, in some people’s eyes, being queer is wrong. As members of the queer community, our stories and our lives are as valid as anybody else. When you’re taught the opposite of that at a young age, you carry that fear throughout your life. Coming out is something you do over and over and over again. It certainly gets easier. But I don’t think your nervous system forgets the fear. Coming out on a large scale like that is something that I couldn’t have been prepared for. It’s something I’m still not even prepared for. That was scary on a personal level. But also on a career level, I had grown up seeing actors’ careers crumble after they came out or were outed. Even if you take Ellen DeGeneres’ story, it’s so empowering now. But back when I was a kid, all I knew was there was a lady who had a network sitcom and then she came out of the closet and her sitcom was cancelled. There were so many other stories like that. You’re told at a young age that, if you’re queer, you can’t be successful. I’ve realized now that you have to become the thing you needed as a kid, you have to become the person you needed to look up to when you were younger.”
On how he feels seen in Schmico
“I love Schmico. It’s such a specific relationship to these two specific characters. I feel like any queer relationship I see on film, we’re starting to get to tell much more nuanced stories and much more specific stories. Levi is a lot like me, so I feel like the queer relationships I have in my own personal life are mirrored a lot in this character. I felt more seen by this relationship than I have by other relationships.”
On his reaction to Alex Landi starring in Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” music video
“Oh my God! I didn’t know he was in it and then I saw the video, and I freaked out because it was so incredibly awesome and he looked so good in that. The two girls looked so freaking good in that. Literally, I showed up on set a couple days later and we were in a scene together and I was like, ‘Alex! Oh my God! It was so hot! What the hell?! Why didn’t you tell me!’”
I felt more seen by Schmico than I have by other relationships.”
On similarities between Levi and George
“I loved George when I watched this season. I’m honored people are drawing parallels between the two of us. He’s such a funny, lovable, great guy, and I like that people see that in Schmidt as well. I didn’t meet T.R. [Knight who played George] when he came to set, but several years ago, when I first started on the show, my friend Jeanine Mason and I—she played Sam Bello, one of the other interns—were at an event and we saw him across the bar. Both of us freaked out. We were like, ‘Oh my gosh! Should we go up and talk to him? I don’t know!’ We fangirled out over him. We worked up the courage to go say hi, and he was so sweet and so supportive and excited that we were starting this journey on Grey’s. It was a cool moment.”
On what he wants Levi’s medical specialty to be
“To be honest, I don’t know what he would specialize in. I know he just started getting his bearings. We’ve seen several surgeries with him where he actually takes charge and he’s been saving lives on his own now. As a fan of this show, the momentsI like are him and Bailey together. I’ve had a lot of scenes with Chandra [Wilson who plays Miranda Bailey], which I love. A lot of scenes with Ellen [Pompeo who plays Meredith Grey]. They’re both general surgeons, so I can see him going the general route. But I also love the dynamic between him and Owen Hunt. I could see him finding his place in trauma. I’m excited where he lands as well.”
On the first time he felt represented in the media as a queer person
“I used to stay up super late. We’re talking like 2 a.m., 4 a.m. in the morning to watch reruns of Degrassi on Nick at Nite. There were several queer characters on that show, and it was the first time I had seen young queer people. But on the flip side, the sad part is that it was airing in the middle of the night, so it felt like I was sneaking around to watch these stories. It felt even more taboo than I thought at the time. It was the first time I felt represented, but it felt like I was sneaking around to get it, which wasn’t the best, especially for a young teenager.”
On a misconception Hollywood still has about the LGBTQIA+ community
“The next step for us is to wrap our heads around the fact that queer families can be marketable to middle America. We’re so concerned about: Is the show sellable? Do people want to watch the show? The more movies and TV shows we have with queer people at the helm, the more we realize these stories are just as valuable and are just as sought-out as other stories. It doesn’t make a difference in terms of marketability.”
Grey’s Anatomy airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.
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Read More: Hollywood News