Jake Borelli stars as Dr. Levi Schmitt — “Glasses” — on the award-winning, smash-hit medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. Fans were left wondering what was going to happen next after the mid-season finale cliffhanger. Borelli was part of a historic storyline in season 15 as fans witnessed the first kiss between two male doctors and the first major gay male romance in the history of the show.
As well as this, we see Borelli star in Freeform’s first-ever gay rom-com, The Thing About Harry. Borelli starred as Sam, a young gay man starting his political career in Chicago.
We spoke to Borelli about his time of Grey’s Anatomy so far, real-life topics on TV, representation, and starring in The Thing About Harry.
When did you realize that you wanted to get into acting? I feel like I’ve known my whole life. I was very young, growing up in Columbus, Ohio, when I first wanted to start doing theater. I remember I loved watching TV. I would watch TV even way more than my parents would let me. I wanted to be on it so bad and tell the stories that I see people telling on the screen. The minute I was old enough, I started auditioning and did about five plays a year until I was in high school. I started doing commercial work and radio work with a local agent in Columbus. I realized I could actually make money from this and then the rest is history!
What else would you want people to know about your background? I was a very artistic kid growing up. I liked making things. I almost went to art school actually for fine art to be a painter. In high school, I had to decide on pursuing a career in painting or pursuing a career in acting. That was definitely a huge part of my decision.
Painting is such an involved thing, that more so I’ll draw or do embroidery. Especially during quarantine, I’ve been knitting and other little crafts like that to keep me busy. My other hobby has been binge-watching Marvel movies. I’ve watched all of Gilmore Girls and Survivor. I think my hobby of TV has never gone away at all.
What was your audition process like for Grey’s Anatomy? It was wild. I had been living in LA for eight years and I had been auditioning. People underestimate how much people have to audition. At a certain point, I was done with LA, I’m going to move to New York. I’m going to try something new and start studying with theater coaches that I love and I’m going to try and break into the theater from a different angle.
So I quit my day job, sold my car, I got rid of my apartment. I told all my friends peace out. Literally, six weeks later, I get a call from my agent saying I have a tape audition for Grey’s Anatomy. At that point, I had been auditioning for eight years. It’s such a huge iconic show that it’s hard to get an audition. I then got a call two weeks later saying, “Can you come and film tomorrow morning in LA on Grey’s Anatomy for one episode?”
I was so excited, it ended up turning into two episodes, the big iconic moment where Levi sleeps with Joe and his glasses fall off. After that, I flew back to New York. That was incredible.
Two weeks later, I get another call asking if I could do another episode. I was like, yeah 100%. I thought maybe he (Levi) would come back as a patient. My best friend at the time, Janine Mason, put out into the universe that one day we were going to work together. Basically, she had been pinned for the six episodes starting with that episode. I was like what is going on? I had no idea when they were bringing me back that I would come back as an intern. I was so nervous. Grey’s is such an iconic show. It’s a well-oiled machine that’d been running at that point for 14 years. So I felt like we had to be on our A-game to catch up.
Was there anything you thought would be a challenge while on the show, but turned out to be better than you expected? A lot of it has been a huge learning experience. It has been great to learn from these incredible people. One of the most difficult things, which I’m still trying to grasp, is with every new script you get, you learn more about your character. It’s not like a play or movie where you have the whole thing written out. I think sometimes people forget that.
I know fans were excited for the new episode to come out and so excited to see what happens to our characters. I think maybe sometimes people forget that I’m just as excited to read a new script and see how Levi’s going to grow and with every new script, you’re folding that into your character and what motivates your character and why they choose to do the things they do. It’s been one of the most challenging and fun parts of the process.
You mentioned that you’d never watched it before you auditioned. So what were some of your thoughts about the show before binge-watching it? I was young when it first came out, so my parents wouldn’t really let me watch it. It was on pretty late. I didn’t watch it in the beginning. Plus we didn’t have these streaming platforms like Netflix where you can sit and binge-watch the whole thing, so I sort of missed the boat. I feel like you can’t live in society without knowing what Grey’s Anatomy is, especially in America.
I would hear about these big moments like the train crash or the plane crash and it just felt like it was iconic in our culture and so when I first got the audition, I watched the pilot to get the tone of the show and figure out how I could fit in. I couldn’t stop watching after the pilot. I watched the whole thing. It took me a year! Now during quarantine, I watched it again.
Is there anything that you have taken away while playing Dr. Levi Schmitt that you have applied to your real life? I feel like Levi and I have gone through so much already. He’s a lot like me in a lot of ways, but he has also reminded me of courage and what courage could look like. I feel like he is a very courageous person. He’s nervous all the time and scared, but he does it anyway with his whole heart.
That’s been a huge takeaway from me. It’s been beautiful getting to play him and getting to tell his story. He came out of the closet and I came out publicly so we got to walk that together. I got to express a lot of my feelings about queerness and being out through Levi, which has been incredible. And now we’re both going through a worldwide pandemic and he’s going through it in a much more visceral way than I am and it’s been nice to walk through something like this with him.
When you play a character on a show, how do you find disassociating yourself from the role after the cameras are off? That’s a hard thing to do. It’s also something that I feel like as an actor, it’s not something that’s easily taught, and it’s not something we’re prepared for. To let go of a character that’s so in you. And especially in the format of TV. You’re living these characters for years at a time. I’ve lived four years of Levi so far and I feel like he’s in me. So I don’t necessarily turn him off, but I do feel like I compartmentalize it. In the real world, sometimes people forget I’m not Levi! Before the pandemic, I’d be walking around New York or LA, people would come up and I would feel like they thought I was Levi. So I do understand it is difficult to separate it and I still haven’t figured it either.
A lot of times they’d scream “Jake,” and I think it’s someone I know. I was trying to remember how I knew this person and then I started realizing that I don’t actually know this person.
How important is that that as a show, you stay relevant to real-life events, as there are talks about the pandemic and BLM? I think it’s something they’ve done so well. They always stay current and talk about issues that need to be talked about. We did an episode about the BLM protests and it left me in awe. I watched it twice. Incredibly, these storytellers have the courage to tell these stories in such an authentic way.
I think it is important as a society to be confronted by these stories and to have someone hold a mirror to us and see how they fit into the world at large and see how we can change these narratives so that they are more inclusive and better for everyone. I believe that’s one reason why Grey’s has stayed so popular and so loved for so long. We do honor these stories that should be honored and do it in an authentic way that focuses on representation.
When it comes to representation in the media, how do you try to portray your authentic self in your roles? Are there any characters in TV/movies that you can relate to now? I think it’s so important as an actor that the main thing you can do is bring your heart to it. Even if the character is nothing like you, there are parts of you that you can see in that character that if you can step into it with your authenticity, then the character will automatically be authentic. I’ve been lucky enough to play this character where we have a lot in common, so I have the opportunity to be more vulnerable than maybe I would as specifically with another role.
There are more characters available that represent a lot more types of people than we had before. There either was a lot of straight, white attractive people on TV, and I think we have a much wider range. I was watching It’s a Sin. I loved that show. I’ve been watching Search Party, which is an incredible representation of certain types of people in my generation. I just love all these authentic voices we have behind the scene, in terms of writers and directors that reflect the society we have now.
You said previously that you regretted staying closeted, as it made you feel alone. When you made the announcement, did you feel like you could be the person you have always wanted? I think it’s a lot more complicated than just that. I thought it was going to be terrifying. I was terrified before coming out publicly because I was out to my family and friends but I truly believed that if I came out publicly that my career would end because that’s what my nervous system was told. All the information I got as a kid was that if you’re gay, you can’t be successful.
I was given this opportunity to tell this incredible story and I was terrified. When I decided to do it, I did it even though I was afraid and when I first came out, it was incredible. I was welcomed into the community with open arms. I was getting messages about how much this meant to other queer kids around the country and it just felt like I had an instant community. Now that I’m two and a half years into being out publicly, I feel like I am just processing what happened and I don’t think anyone prepared me to be out on a public level.
Tell us about your character, Sam, in The Thing About Harry. Are there any similarities between you and this character? I think Sam is a little more guarded than Levi is because Sam had been out since he was in high school, so he had a long relationship with this queerness than Levi had and he had been burned a little bit by that. There’s a bit of sarcasm about Sam and a bit of bite to him that I feel like I have in real life. When I harness Levi, I feel like I let it all flow out. I was able to be a little bit more skeptical with Sam, as I walked through life in his body. In the movie when he finally opens up to the love of his life from Harry and lets that in, that was a very beautiful moment for me to play.
When reading the script for the movie, what were your initial thoughts on your character and the story? It was unlike anything I had seen and at the same time, like everything I had seen in terms of rom-coms. It was everything I loved about rom-coms growing up, but it was from a queer point of voice and it was something I hadn’t seen. It was something I needed as a kid and didn’t have. The moment I knew what the story was I couldn’t stop reading it. I knew I wanted to be a part of the movie. It’s a classic rom-com through and through.
What do you feel has been missing from the movie industry/rom- coms that The Thing About Harry may have started a discussion about? Honestly, perspective and representation. Throwing a queer person in or a person of color into the story doesn’t cut it in terms of representation. We need perspective. We need to tell these iconic stories through the perspective of queer people or people of color or people from other minority groups that haven’t been given a voice.
We just need some new perspective. I think that people are afraid. It goes back to what I heard as a kid. It’s this message that no one wants to hear these stories, these stories are marketable. These stories are worth telling. We need to get out of this cycle. We have shows like Grey’s Anatomy that tell these stories every week and people love them.
Was there any piece of advice that a family member or friend has given to you earlier on in your career that has stuck with you till now? I do feel like I had so many people to look up to in my life and I’ve picked little things from so many people. It all culminated into this worldview that I have that you have to keep trying. If you don’t know what to do next, which is a huge problem for me sometimes. It’s that I have this drive, but I don’t know what next step to take. When you’re in that position, what I’ve learned is just taking a step in any direction and doing something. Even if it doesn’t feel like it’s something that’s going to get you to where you want to go, just take a step in any direction.
Someone that talks about it beautifully is Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote Eat Pray Love and Big Magic. She talks about curiosity and when she’s starting a book and doesn’t know what to write, she gets curious about something. Anything. Then she leans into that and then all of a sudden, she has a book idea or inspiration comes. That’s that same concept. If I don’t know what to do for my career, I might take up something that might inspire me in a way or inspire a friend.
So what’s next for you in the next few months? We’re finishing up Season 17 of Grey’s. A few more episodes of that. Jaw-dropping is an understatement. I wish I could tell you what’s happening! It’s a lot and it’s incredible. People are going to be on the edge of their seats. So we’re finishing up that and then there are a couple of things boiling for this summer. I’m just excited to do another road trip and see my family. And to rest.