Fifteen seasons in and Grey’s Anatomy is still breaking new ground.
On Thursday’s episode of the ABC hit, Dr. Nico Kim (Alex Landi) and “Glasses”/Dr. Levi Schmitt (Jake Borelli) shared a kiss — the first kiss between two male doctors on the show. Now Landi, Borelli, and showrunner Krista Vernoff are opening up to EW about how the storyline came to be.
Krista Vernoff: Jake [who joined the Grey’s cast last season] is an incredible actor, and the more we wrote for him, the more we wanted to write for him. So the story didn’t begin with, “Hey, we’ve never done a gay male love story.” It began with, “What are we going to do with Jake this year that’s different?”
I remembered a friend of mine in college who was sort of a clumsy, fumfering type who would trip over his own feet [like Borelli’s character] and would stutter, and then he came out toward the end of our freshman year and emerged as a completely different human being because he was living in his truth. Living in his truth seemed to set something free in him where he was no longer tripping over his own feet. He emerged with strength and power and sex appeal that had not existed in him publicly prior, and when I remembered my friend, I wanted to tell that story with Jake because it felt like a really beautiful way to evolve his character. Then we realized we’d never done it! It was a hugely exciting thing.
We’re always just looking for fresh stories, and to realize that somehow we had never told this story was shocking and exciting. It felt like an avenue unexplored after 15 seasons, and when we began to talk about it in the writers’ room we all got really excited, and then we woke up the next morning to an email from our production assistant Xaiver, who is a gay man and took the brave steps of writing to the whole writing staff saying he couldn’t stop crying reading the writers’ room notes realizing that we were finally going to tell a story that would speak to him in this way. He was just so moved and so excited, and he thought it was going to be moving and exciting to a whole community of people who had not yet felt represented on the show but that were huge fans. I was already excited to do it, but that email made me cry.
I called Jake and talked to him about it, and he was really excited and game and wanted to know how we were going to tell the story. When I talked to him about my friend, that felt perfect to him. That’s when we went searching for a love interest and found Alex Landi.
Alex Landi: I knew from the beginning that the character was openly gay and felt it was a great opportunity and I couldn’t pass on it. They wanted him to be a masculine, strong, bro type, but at the same time he was openly gay, which definitely defies LGBTQ stereotypes, and I think that’s great. And the fact that he’s Asian as well, that just adds to the mix.
Vernoff: I looked at a dozen [audition] tapes, and [Alex] was the only one and I said, “I need to work with him. I want to meet him because this storyline is ultimately going to be a big deal.” He flew in from New York, and in the casting room I said, “So how long are you in town?” And he said, “I only bought a one-way ticket.” And I was like, “That’s my guy.” Just the confidence, it was just great.
Landi made his debut on Grey’s when season 15 premiered Sept. 27. Immediately his character took a liking to Borelli’s Levi, making the intern blush with every smoldering glance.
Vernoff: You know you’ve got two great actors, but you don’t know if they’ve got chemistry, and that’s where we worked out. These guys are just magic together, I think, and it’s been so exciting to watch it evolve.
Landi: I love the flirting between Nico and Levi. I think it’s a push-and-pull type of relationship. Levi being the little, insecure, shy type while Nico is definitely the more dominant, confident character. I think it’s really fun to play with that — its like a tug of war every episode. I know fans have been in pain waiting to see what happens with them.
Borelli: I totally ship Levi and Nico. I think their relationship so far has been super-endearing and super-cute and super-honest.
On the Nov. 1 episode, after Levi works on an ortho case for the first time, Nico kisses him. Levi is excited to embrace his interest in men for the first time, but Nico is quick to dispel any hope of a relationship after he learns that Levi has never kissed a man before.
Borelli: I think Levi’s speech about being a general surgeon and being focused on general surgery and then finally getting a chance to do ortho — and that he’s really excited about being in ortho — is such a great metaphor for his coming out. I think it’s in his own way, it’s how he feels comfortable saying, “I’m gay.” It’s a really important thing to see, as well, that he is so earnest about sharing these feelings and about coming out to Nico, but he just doesn’t have the ability to articulate it yet. So it comes out in this really beautiful metaphor about general surgery versus a more specialized surgery, which is ortho.
I think after this kiss, we see something click in him that all of a sudden this feels right. That he feels empowered by this, that this is something maybe he knew was deep inside of him somewhere, but he didn’t fully understand it. I think he’s changing right before my eyes, and I think he’s changing right before his own eyes. Yes, he slept with Dr. Jo Wilson at the beginning of season 14, and I think he didn’t necessarily know what that meant and didn’t understand. I think at this point in his life, he is coming to terms with his own sexuality. He’s learning about sexuality for the first time. He’s a little bit of a late bloomer. I think it wasn’t until Nico had started to be smitten by him or to start advances by him that he was even consciously aware that this might be something he would be into.
Landi: It’s crazy because the scene goes from “Oh my God, it’s happening!” and all of a sudden it’s, “Oh my God, what the hell is happening?!” It goes from 100 to 0 really quick, as opposed to 0 to 100. I’m sure Levi is ecstatic and confused when it first happens, and then all of a sudden Nico has a realization that Levi has never kissed a guy before and it kind of goes from a moment of euphoria for Levi to him being crushed. It’s definitely an unexpected twist that hopefully the audience will appreciate — but at the same time it builds the storyline, which is great.
Borelli: I hope that [after this kiss, Levi] is able to come into his own more. I hope that he feels empowered by this. I hope that he’s accepted by everybody at the hospital. I just want the best for him. I have so much love for Levi, I really want it to work out for him. I know he doesn’t have the best track record in terms of having things work perfectly for him, and I really hope that this changes with this.
Grey’s Anatomy airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.