Director Greg Berlanti On How “Love, Simon” Is Different From His Own Closeted High School Days

The out filmmaker says as a teen, "I was putting on a brave face so people saw me as a happy kid next door."

Premiering Friday, 20th Century Fox’s Love, Simon is the first major studio rom-com with a gay teenager at its center. And director Greg Berlanti is the first to admit it’s been too long in coming.

“It shouldn’t be 2018 and we’re talking about this film,” he tells NewNowNext. “We should’ve been talking about a movie like this in 2000.”

Love, SImon/Ben Rothstein

Adapted from Becky Albertalli’s YA novel Simon vs The Homo Sapien Agenda, the film stars Nick Robinson as Simon Spiers, a closeted junior who gets into an email correspondence with a mystery guy who goes to his school.

Berlanti previously swam in the gay rom-com waters with 2000’s The Broken Hearts Club, and has put his touch on LGBT-friendly shows like Dawson’s Creek, Riverdale, and the CW’s Arrowverse shows. In December he married retired soccer player Robbie Rogers, and the couple is busy raising their 2-year-old son, Caleb.

Love Simon/Ben Rothstein

The 45-year-old filmmaker admits the situation for gay youth is different now from when he was a teen in the 1980s. “I can only imagine what I would be feeling right now if I was a 16-year-old watching people like Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy on TV.”

Below, Berlanti talks about Love, Simon, fatherhood, and where Hollywood needs to go next in terms of LGBT representation.

How hard was it to get Love, Simon greenlighted?

I walked into my first meeting to get the job and I said, “Are you really making this? There hasn’t been a film about a gay teen protagonist by one of the major studios of your size.” They said, “We’re absolutely making it, no matter whom you cast in the part.”

Their commitment to the film from the outset and determination and decision this movie had to get made should really be celebrated.

Love Simon/Ben Rothstein

Did any actors pass on the film because it was a gay project?

It’s very different now. Nick and I had a lengthy conversation about this character before he signed on, and Simon’s sexuality never came up. It was all about the tone and what I would do to execute that tone. Nobody passed. When I was trying to cast Broken Hearts Club I had agent after agent telling me, “I’m not letting my client do that.” There is definitely more openness now and I think they get that young people see [the sexuality issue] very differently than people over a certain age.

How did you feel about having out actors like Keiynan Lonsdale and Clark Moore in the cast?

I knew Keiynan because we did Flash together [but] he wasn’t out publicly until after we made Love, Simon. I know there’s a lot of conversation about whether only gay actors should play gay characters.

Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox

It was important to me the movie have representation, and at the end of the day when I looked at the cast list of this film there was straight, gay, bi, actors all playing different kind of parts, but I didn’t know where their personal lives existed. I tend not to ask actors about their personal life and focus on the work with them. It’s like any other form of employment—you can’t ask if they’re LGBT.”

There’s a funny scene where Simon Googles “How to dress gay” and a photo of Andy Cohen and Anderson Cooper pops up. Were they flattered to be included?

Andy has seen it and cracked up at that moment and loved it. It had been cleared [for use], and Andy wrote to me that he loved the movie and loved that bit. He’s now memorialized in gay cinema. I haven’t discussed it with Anderson, but I hope he sees the movie, loves it, and helps get the word out!

How similar were your teen years to Simon’s?

I wasn’t ready to come out in college or high school. I think the fear was similar, and putting on a brave face so people saw me as a happy kid next door. I had family that was close-knit, but that didn’t make me less terrified. I came out in my early 20s, around the dawn of the Internet exploding, which I think made people feel less isolated or alone.

How has the Internet changed the game for queer youth?

It’s made certain things better in terms of connecting them to other individuals at a younger age. But the thing that is just as hard today, and in some ways puts even more pressure on teens, is figuring out who you are can be just as daunting. And finding the voice to say that to people can be just as challenging.

Social media is like a whole other person you have to curate. When I was in school it was hard enough to figure out what to wear that day, let alone what photo to post every ten minutes. I have nieces [that age], and there’s a lot of editing I try and enforce of what they post by calling their mother and asking, ‘Did you really let her post that?’ To which she says back to me, ’You don’t understand girls—wait until your son is this age and let’s see how much control you have over him!’

Love, Simon was filmed in Georgia. As a gay dad, how did you feel about the state’s new anti-LGBT adoption bill.

We have an event coming up for the Family Equality Council, which helps fight a lot of those laws. We shot Love, Simon in Atlanta, and Robbie and I were there with [our son] Caleb and we took him everywhere. People saw us as a gay family both on and off set, and we didn’t perceive or encounter anything other than genuine acceptance and openness. The people we experienced in Atlanta have very open hearts, and I hope and pray will not stand for something like that.

Would you have shot in another state if you knew SB-375 was going to pass?

I think it would be a conversation. Whenever you make any sort of decision like that, you have to look at all the information and if we want to make progress, sometimes you have to approach things knowing where your own line is in the sand. But also you can’t expect everyone to change without challenging them with an open heart, too. A lot of people want to divide the country and you can meet that mentality with a similar one, or meet it with the same amount of strength, but with an openness and yearning.

I hate to bring it back to the movie and my own experience, but my parents weren’t the most immediately understanding people. I think every gay person can understand being afraid of how people will react, and the hope is once they get to know and experience you that you can change their hearts and minds. If you really believe and want to do that, you have to be as committed to that as you would be to meeting force with force.

How is married life and fatherhood?

Right now Robbie and I are producing a project together, a CW pilot that Robbie shepherded to the screen. It’s based on the life of NFL player Spencer Paysinger, who grew up in South Central L.A. and went to play football at Beverly Hills High. So it’s about him straddling both of those worlds.

I have a tremendous amount of admiration for Robbie finding a new way to define himself. I hope one day when Caleb is amazing at soccer that I get just as much credit, because I certainly practice with him as much!

Now that we have the first major-studio gay teen rom-com, what types of LGBT movies need to get made in 2019 and 2020?

Some of what we’re doing on the TV shows I make is providing representation in every way, shape, and form. I remember when My Best Friend’s Wedding came out and how there was talk surrounding Rupert Everett doing a gay action film as the lead. I think gays as leads in action movies, romances, and all the genres out there is where this stuff has to go, and there will hopefully be a lot of other filmmakers who take it there.

Love, Simon arrives in theaters on March 16.

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.
@LawrenceFerber