The poet Rupi Kaur wrote in her 2017 collection The Sun and Her Flowers:
otherwise the butterfly
surrounded by a group of moths
unable to see itself
will keep trying to become the moth
This notion, this state of living, it's one that LGBTQ kids know well. We grow up knowing we are different, watching a media landscape that only tends to reinforce those feelings of alienation by depriving us images and characters and stories that might let us know there's a path forward, that we're not alone in the world.
The moths just kept showing us moths because it never occurred to them that there might even be any butterflies out there, starving. And so, we shrunk back, hoping everyone would just think we're moths, too. Easier that way.
But the thing about butterflies and moths alike is that they both need nectar to survive.
It's a fact that's not lost on the people behind The Thing About Harry, the latest bit of nectar intended to offer the starving butterflies of the world a bit of satiation, comfort, community.
Debuting on Freeform on Saturday, Feb. 15 as the cable network's first-ever Valentine's Day feature, the film, truly the first of its kind in TV history, may seem like a trifle to the moths out there. A rom-com through and through, the film tells the story of high school enemies Sam (Jake Borelli) and Harry (Niko Terho), thrust into each other's orbit years later under less-than-ideal circumstances only for—you guessed it—sparks to fly after out-and-proud Sam learns that his one-time tormentor has evolved and embraced his pansexuality.
Charming, they'll say, but hardly revolutionary.
And yet, for the butterflies, those starving little wonders just longing to see themselves reflected back, there is revolution in the mundane. (Not that the film is mundane. We've seen it. It's anything but.)
"We all want to be seen," writer-director Peter Paige told E! News over the phone ahead of the film's debut. "That's the simple truth. And for whatever reason, we as a culture have chosen the black box hanging on our walls as the sort of great arbiter of truth in this culture. Television is power. And when you don't see yourself reflected there, it's very easy to feel invisible."
Coming aboard the project after fellow executive producers Greg Gugliotta and F.J. Denny has sold it to Freeform, Paige, who helped usher in an age of gay representation on TV two decades ago as one of the stars of Showtime's groundbreaking Queer as Folk, helped shape it into the film it is today, re-writing the script to marry his love of classic-rom-coms with the specificity of the gay experience.
"I'm a huge rom-com fan. I always have been. I was the first in a seat on a Friday night when a Sandra Bullock or a Julia Roberts movie opened," he explained. "And I wanted to create something that honored all of those films, that that shared in that vocabulary, but that was specific and unique to queer men. And from which the twists and turns inherent in that script would be different and unique because the characters, if that makes sense."
Of course, there's no rom-com without a pair of leads whose chemistry you could practically reach out and touch if you wanted. So, Paige had his work cut out for him as he set out to find his Sam and Harry. For the former, a dinner with BFF of three decades Krista Vernoff, who just so happens to be the current showrunner on Grey's Anatomy and Station 19, would set him down a path to Borelli.
"As I was pitching the character of Sam, she said, 'You mean like Jake Borelli?' And I was like, 'Oh, I do mean Jake Borelli. As a matter of fact, I've been thinking of him, but like, what a great idea,'" he told us. "And then I go away, I write the movie, we do a couple drafts. Suddenly it's got a green light, and I call her up. And I'm like, 'Hey, the network is really excited about the idea of Jake, we're going to make an offer. And she was like, 'Oh, no, no, he has a job on Grey's Anatomy, and he's appearing on Station 19. We've got crossovers happening. I can't let him go.'"
It was a blow to Paige, who had to go back and begin reading other actors, all of whom he found lovely, but none ever felt quite right. So, when they reached the chemistry reads, he turned to his friend once more, hoping that something might be done. "I called her and I was like, 'Is there really, really no way that that that I can get Jake for just a few weeks?' And she was like, 'Ugh. Give me an hour," he revealed. "And she called me back and she was like, 'Alright, I'm rewriting something. I'm writing him out of something, I'm moving something so you can have him. I wouldn't do this for another living human on the planet. But yes, you can have him.'"
"Krista really put her neck on the line to make this thing happen," Borelli told us in a separate interview "And it's truly because of her that I was even free to do the project. She had a lot to do with that. So that was wonderful."
As Borelli pointed out, it's Vernoff who he credits with the newfound platform he's been given, as she created his Grey's character Levi Schmidt and worked with him on the character's coming out as gay in the show's 15th season, a move that prompted the actor to come out of the closet professionally, himself.
"There was a huge part of me that, when I said yes to it, thought, 'All the fears that I've had before about being out in this industry and having it pigeonhole me in certain ways, all these fears that my career might actually culminate in my role as Levi, that I might not get to play something as amazing after that,' they were really still quite strong," he admitted. "And then I found out about this movie, and about how much of an instrumental factor she had been in it and how Peter had sort of had me in mind since the beginning. One, I was excited and then two, it sort of relieved a lot of these fears that I had that, you know, maybe I would stop working after accepting this role of Levi Schmidt on Grey's. So it's pretty massive, long story short."
Borelli says the fact that he's getting to make LGBTQ TV history in two spaces, first with his role as Grey's first gay male doctor in the show's first gay relationship—fans will recall that Sara Ramirez's Callie and Jessica Capshaw's Arizona were the show's first queer couple—and now here, with the first queer rom-com made for TV, is not lost on him.
"We've all got to remember that I am an audience member myself and, as a queer person growing up, I just yearned for movies and television shows like this," he told us. "I would dig through the ground to try to find a role that I could relate to in the media that was out when I was growing up and it was very difficult. So it's not lost on me how massive this is that there's even stories like this out there right now and what it can mean to a young queer person growing up to see themselves reflected back, to almost get a validation that our love stories are worth telling, that our love stories have value too. Its massive. And so, to be a part of that, I'm still shaking and my fingers still tingle when I think about that."
"What I love so much about him inside this role is he's so specific," Paige told us of Borelli's performance. "He's so clear about who Sam is and Sam's quirks and Sam's need to control and Sam's heartbreak. He carries all of that into every scene, but inside all that specificity, he manages to be so human and so relatable. He's such a terrific, you know, kind of queer every man, I think, that you want so much for him to find what he wants. And to be able to receive it, you know? And that's what makes for a great rom-com hero."
As for finding his Harry, Paige says newcomer Terho just materialized as if out of thin air right when the project needed him most. "We had been looking for Harry and had seen, again, lots of great actors. And all the sudden, this tape shows up out of New York and I got chills all over my body," he revealed. "I was like, 'Oh, there's something really special there.' I was like, 'Who is he?' And I tried to look up his resume, and it didn't exist. I was like, 'Oh, my God. All right, well, let's get him on a plane. Let's get him out here for chemistry reads. It'll be a high pressure, high stress situation, and we'll see how he does.'"
"Niko's from Barbados and has this amazing chill island vibe, you know? That sense that like nothing's too too important," Paige continued. "And he came in and was easy in his skin and can talk and listen. And that is, I think, for young actors, that's the first thing that goes out the window is the ability to listen. And it's the most critical thing, especially when you're shooting a character piece, you know? He was just so present with Jake and they just lit the room up and there was kind of never any question."
"This is Niko's first job ever, as an actor," he gushed. "It's an astonishing thing that he did. And it is not easy. That job he's got, he's doing physical comedy, he's doing public protestations of love. He manages to be funny and earnest and present and a goofball and completely oblivious— he really does something very, very special, and he does it with such ease."
That the film is airing on Freeform, a network Paige has had a solid working relationship with since pitching them The Fosters back in 2012 when it was still going by the name ABC Family, is not lost on either the film's director or its star. Paige, who asserted that he felt zero resistance on anything in The Thing About Harry, said that it's the perfect home for his film not just because they've "been champions of LGBTQ voices and LGBTQ character visibility ever since I started working there," but because "they made it."
"I mean, nobody else bought it. Nobody else was asking for it," he continued. "So they have put their money there and it's their big Valentine's event movie. That's where they chose to put their dollars. And that is worth noting."
For Borelli, who remembers having to watch episodes of Degrassi: the Next Generation in the middle of the night growing up in Ohio to sip from the sweet nectar of representation in a manner that made him feel "like there was something wrong with you doing that," agreed with Paige.
"It's really important for me to show, especially, young people that it's so okay and we're not telling stories about shame and the trials and tribulations of coming out," he told us. "We're actually just telling love stories about how wonderful queer love can be. And I think that's something that's super important, which I which is also why it's incredible that this project is on a platform like Freeform and supported by one of the largest companies in the world, Disney, you know what I mean? It is so incredible that these companies are finally saying, 'You know what? These stories are worth telling.'"
While both are anticipating that not everyone in the queer community will find themselves falling in love with Sam and Harry—"When you are doing something new that people are hungry for, they want to be able to identify with it as specifically as possible," Paige told us. "I get it. I understand that."—Borelli is keeping his eye on those who he knows will.
"We have to remember the queer community is so vast and so amazing and has so many different types of beautiful people in it that there's no way one single project is going to be able to please every single person in the queer community. And that's okay. But I know that the people that this movie is for are gonna love this movie," he said. "I always think this is the type of movie that I would have killed to see when I was a teenager. And any person in the queer community was a teenager and could have used a movie like this. So I'm just excited for people to watch it...I love this movie, and it's meant a lot to me already. So yeah, I know it's gonna mean a lot to a lot of other people."
For Borelli, the hope is that The Thing About Harry will open doors to more avenues of queer programming, to tell queer stories of all sorts. "We're only getting better and we're only doing and supporting more and more queer stories. So, honestly, I have a ton of hope for it. I just think that the more versions of people we put out there, the better," he said. "And I think a lot of these larger companies are really getting behind that idea now, and really seeing that these stories have value."
"Does that mean that there's going to be a Hallmark Christmas movie about queer people? I don't know. I think it's certainly needed because I know a ton of people who are obsessed with Hallmark," he continued, laughing. "I think it would just be a bad business move not to, frankly. But, you know, baby steps. I think it's going to be movies like this that people really enjoy that will show these larger companies that it's beneficial."
As for those butterflies watching at home, if they can head back out into the world with their wings held just a little higher amidst the endless sea of moths? Metamorphosis complete.
The Thing About Harry premieres Saturday, Feb. 15 at 8 p.m. on Freeform.