Simon Says 'Come Out': Greg Berlanti pioneers with a gay teen studio rom-com

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It may be hard to believe, but in the century-long history of film there has never once been a teen rom-com with a gay lead released by a major studio. All that changes on March 16, when Love, Simon makes its way into theatres from 20th Century Fox.

Adapted by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker from Becky Albertalli’s best-selling young-adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Love, Simon found its director in Greg Berlanti. It’s the director’s third film, following The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy (2000) and Life As We Know It (2010). Between films, Berlanti’s kept busy—though that’s perhaps too mild a word—as a prolific producer who helped usher in a new era of superhero TV with “Arrow” and “The Flash.” “Supergirl,” “Black Lightning,” “Legends of Tomorrow,” “Blindspot” and “Riverdale” have all borne the Berlanti stamp—and those are just the shows that are still running.

Suffice it to say, Berlanti wasn’t exactly sitting at home, twiddling his thumbs, waiting for an offer of work to come in. “For directing, I only do it when I really know I can stand before anyone—studio heads, press people, actors, any person—and say, ‘I’m the person to tell this story… I have to be a part of this,’” he explains. “I don’t know why that alarm goes off in me when it does on certain things… For me, it’s so profound to know that this [story] is going to be the number-one thing I think about, workwise, for every minute from now until the second it’s on movie screens around the country, and maybe even beyond.”

The core subject matter of Love, Simon, placed up against such high-school rom-com classics as The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink, is fairly standard: A teenage lead struggles to achieve self-acceptance against a backdrop of potential romantic partners and the ever-shifting sands of high-school friendships. Simon (Nick Robinson) is obsessed with music, has a family he loves but doesn’t always connect with, and fits into the Molly Ringwald mold of “cool because they don’t know they’re cool.” Love, Simon’s script, and the book it’s based on, blends comedy, drama and romance in a way that appealed to Berlanti, who came of age during the august John Hughes era of teen filmmaking. “There were a lot of movies like that growing up,” Berlanti notes. “There are fewer now.”

But there’s one major difference between Love, Simon and its ’80s predecessors: Simon just happens to be gay. He strikes up an anonymous online correspondence with a gay classmate, nicknamed “Blue.” Problem: Even as their friendship blossoms into romance, Blue is too scared to tell Simon who he really is. Their relationship makes Simon question his own decision to hide his true self from family and friends. Or, as Berlanti puts it, “Who are you to the world, who are you inside and how do you get those things to align? You can’t really be happy until you can be on the outside all the things you are on the inside.”

For Berlanti, then, himself a gay man, part of the appeal of Love, Simon was that “I would have loved to have seen this film when I was 16 years old. And I would love to be a part of putting something there that should be there, but for whatever reason wasn’t.”

When Berlanti and I spoke, Love, Simon had already checked off a handful of screenings, garnering a generally positive reception from audience members across the sexuality spectrum. And, not for nothing, the geographic spectrum as well: A screening in California was followed by another in “a very, very, very red state,” where it tested “just as well, if not a little better. People there were just as desirous of something that was emotional and told from the right place.”

“My own personal belief is that people are essentially the same and just want to watch good stories and great acting,” Berlanti argues. “[There have been] a lot of straight people saying that [Love, Simon] still represents their high-school experience, even though the lead happens to be a gay character… [Simon’s narrative] is really specific to the gay experience, but also universal in that sense of ‘What if I’m not ready to tell the world who I am, because I don’t know who I am yet?’”

To play Simon, Berlanti had just one choice: Nick Robinson, who “broke [his] heart in Kings of Summer,” the young actor’s 2013 breakout. A role in Jurassic World followed. “I tried to get him on TV stuff, but I couldn’t,” Berlanti recalls. “For me, whenever I’m trying to cast something, I usually find one person that I’m linked up with, and I feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, this person really captures and expresses the heart and soul of the character, and now I can’t imagine anybody else in the part, and I’m screwed if they don’t let me cast who I want to cast.’”

Happily, both the studio and Robinson concurred with Berlanti’s casting decision. It was the beginning of setting the tone of Love, Simon, a particular mix of comedy and poignancy Berlanti argues only Robinson could have achieved. “The movie could only be as funny as him,” the director says. “It would only be funny in the way he’s funny, really. And it could only make you feel as much as he could. All the colors of the film really start with the lead actor… [Robinson’s] sense of humor never feels shticky. It always feels believable. There’s a comfort and a warmth around him that you see through his eyes, and yet there’s something about him that’s unknowable and a mystery. That’s what people around Simon are feeling. He had all those things Simon had.”

In years past, one would hear stories about actors shying away from playing gay characters lest it have a negative impact on their career. In contrast, Simon’s sexuality was never an issue for Robinson. “I think it says a lot about him and a lot about where we are [as a society] that he came in and never talked about the sexuality of the character,” says Berlanti. “Most of his questions were about the tone of the piece. ‘Can you make this funny in the way that I thought the script was funny and emotional in the way I thought the script was emotional? Can it be both those things but never feel too broad? Is it going to be human and real and still filmic?’ A lot of ‘How are you going to do this? How are you going to do that?’… We discussed the heart and soul of Simon and what his relationships were like and what it means to be afraid of yourself at that age. It was so refreshing to me! I kept thinking, ‘I’ll go there if he wants to go there and discuss this if he wants to.’ I’ve always been so impressed with him as a person. He approaches his job like a real artist.”

With Simon locked in, Berlanti did “a lot of screen tests” for the other actors, followed by two weeks of rehearsals, all with the goal of making sure the cast had the right chemistry. “We really wanted as much diversity in the film as possible, too, in the casting of it in addition to the subject matter it dealt with,” Berlanti says. “Our country’s more diverse than I think people realize. Audiences, from my experience, crave stuff that feels fresh and new.”

On the adult side, there’s Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel as Simon’s parents and Tony Hale as a well-intentioned—if more than little awkward—vice principal. For Simon’s friends, there’s Katherine Langford (“13 Reasons Why”), Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse, Tragedy Girls), Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. (Brigsby Bear), Logan Miller (“The Walking Dead”) and Keiynan Lonsdale (“The Flash”). Notes Berlanti, “I really did feel like I was working with a generation of kids who will all do really great and wonderful things, and 20 years from now we’ll be talking about them the way we we’re talking about some of the cast of The Broken Hearts Club”—Berlanti’s first film, a funny, heartfelt rom-com about a group of gay friends that boasts Timothy Olyphant, Justin Theroux, Billy Porter and Zach Braff among its cast—“today. They’re all very special in their own way, independently, and then collectively they were just terrific.”

The film’s in the can, and one question remains: Will audiences respond to a teen film with a same-sex romance at its core? If the film’s quality is an indication, it will. Berlanti himself is optimistic, citing the aforementioned screening responses and rapturous reactions from people who have taken to social media to gush about “what it feels like to even experience the trailer in theatres.” If all goes well, Love, Simon may be the first major same-sex teen romance, but it won’t even be close to the last. “There’s been a lot of great, wonderful LGBTQ content on television” in the last few years, Berlanti remarks. “But there’s been less in mainstream film. Hopefully, this will be just the first of a lot of films that include a lot of stories about people from all walks of life. There will be far more that people can reflect on, and we don’t have to be the burden of being the only one out there.”