Peter Paige is no stranger to playing gay on television.
The producer behind The Fosters and Good Trouble first made headlines as one of the stars of Showtime’s groundbreaking series Queer as Folk. Now Paige is back with Freeform’s new original romantic comedy, The Thing About Harry, which stars Grey’s Anatomy’s Jake Borelli, newcomer Niko Terho, and Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown. Paige not only directed and co-wrote the movie, he also plays a small role.
NewNowNext spoke with Paige about making The Thing About Harry, his Queer as Folk memories, and why the two projects have more in common than you might think.
I watched The Thing About Harry and thought it was really cute. How have LGBTQ movies changed in the years you’ve been working in Hollywood?
Well, quite a bit in some ways. Back in the Queer as Folk days, big agencies wouldn’t even submit actors to be in that show. And here we are, making an unabashedly queer rom-com for Disney and Freeform for their holiday movie. It’s kind of an extraordinary thing—and it shouldn’t be. It’s long overdue. Somebody recently asked me, “Why is now the time for this?” I was like, “Now is not the time for this; 20 years ago was the time for this.” So I’m grateful that Freeform got behind this and gave us the opportunity to do it.
Why did you want to direct it?
I love a rom-com, always have. I so deeply wanted there to be a rom-com that I didn’t have to translate, that I didn’t have to imagine, like, “Oh, well if Richard Gere could fall in love with a boy, then maybe he would show up at my apartment in Hollywood.” I wanted there to be a movie that the queer boys didn’t have to do all the heavy lifting, that girls watching could do that imaginative lifting for once.
Were the script or characters inspired by anything in your real life?
I mean, Sam [Borelli’s character] is not not me, and I certainly took inspiration from my own messy dating life in New York City in my early 20s. But more than that, it really was about what happens when these two guys find each other, that spark ignites, and all the different things that can get in their way before they actually get together.
Was Sam working on the governor’s political campaign your way of injecting a little politics into the story?
It was. I’m a political creature for sure, and it’s also at a really, really important time for us all to get engaged. So I just thought it was an opportunity to quietly remind people that there is value in fighting for what’s good and what’s right.
Who would Sam be backing for the 2020 election?
I feel like Sam would be all in for Elizabeth Warren, but that’s just my guess.
This year is the 20th anniversary of Queer as Folk. How was being on set for Queer as Folk different from being on set for The Thing About Harry?
You know what? It wasn’t all that different, if I’m being really honest. There was a sense at Queer as Folk that we were onto something special, but there was also a sense of, like, “They’re preparing the Showtime offices for bomb threats.” I guess Queer as Folk felt a little more radical, as it should. But even making this very sweet, fairly PG rom-com, it still felt kind of radical, simply because it hasn’t really been done. We all shared a sense on Queer as Folk and The Thing About Harry that we were part of a story that really needed to be told.
Showtime has had success with The L Word: Generation Q. Could you see a reboot with the original Queer as Folk cast?
Oh, for sure. I think [NBC’s streaming service] Peacock is developing a reboot, but I don’t know that original QAF members are going to be involved in any way, shape, or form. If that doesn’t work, I absolutely think there’s a great opportunity for sort of a multigenerational reboot of QAF. In fact, [QAF co-stars] Scott Lowell and Michelle Clunie were at a screening of The Thing About Harry in New York, and Scott said, “There’s something about this movie that almost feels like what that QAF reboot could be. It sort of feels like Emmett’s grown up and is now roommates with Sam.” I was like, “That’s funny. I hadn’t really thought of that.”
I can definitely see that. What was it like playing Emmett Honeycutt on QAF for five years?
It was incredible. It was one of the absolute highlights of my life. When I got the audition for that show, I originally went in to read for Ted, and the casting director was like, “I’m going to give you a callback.” I was like, “Wait, can I read for Emmett, too?” She was like, “I just said I was giving you a callback for Ted.” And I was like, “I know, but just let me.” So I read for Emmett, and she was like, “I don’t think I’ve ever said this in my entire career, but who do you want to go to producers for? You can go to either one.”
I said, “You know what? You brought me in for Ted, bring me in for Ted.” When I did Ted, the producers stopped me within 30 seconds, they were like, “Stop, stop, stop. You’re fantastic. You’re not Ted. Would you consider reading Emmett?” And I sort of winked to the casting director and said, “Sure, give me a second outside.” And I came back in and nailed it. But at first, I was like, “Oh, I can’t believe I’m playing the big queen. There’s like five gay leads on this show and I’m playing the big queen?”
We stan a big queen.
But they ended up writing me, I think, the most interesting stuff. I would get to do these great comic storylines, but then they would yank the carpet out from under me and give me a beautifully heartbreaking or challenging emotional storyline to find my way through. By the time all was said and done, they had given me such an extraordinary playground to play in that I felt really, really lucky.
Do people still come up and ask you about Queer as Folk?
All the time. It happens less than it used to, but it still happens regularly on social media and pretty regularly in real life. Someone will stop and say, “Thank you,” or, “That meant much to me,” or “Emmett really, really helped me”—things like that. It’s really nice. Getting recognized for any work is lovely, but getting recognized for work that was kind of fundamental to people engaging with their own story is very, very special.
Did you always know you would play Casey, Sam’s roommate, in The Thing About Harry?
No, I didn’t. But I definitely wrote it in my voice, and his big speech was sort of the speech I wanted to give to the younger generation. I wanted Casey to exist because this generation of young gay people have an opportunity that we didn’t have. The generation above me is dead, and I wanted to remind younger people that there are people who came down this road before you. Ask them about their lives, because they can help you.
What are your thoughts on how queer media is disappearing? So many LGBTQ websites and magazines have shut down.
It’s heartbreaking. Queer media is so, so, so, so important. It’s so vital because we are still so underrepresented in mainstream media. We turn to queer media for accurate stories about the issues that matter to us, so, yeah, I think it’s devastating.
With queer representation or storylines, is there something you’re still waiting to see from Hollywood?
More. Really, where’s the great trans rom-com? I think Kristen Stewart is making a lesbian rom-com, but more, more, more. In a recent study, more than 50% of high school students identified as something other than straight.
Why was it important for to you to cast an out actor as Sam in The Thing About Harry?
With my three leads, I knew I wanted at least one of them to be openly queer. I also wanted one of them not to be white, and for the simple logistics of doing something for network, I needed somebody to be a name. I’m really fortunate that I hit all of those marks and then some with three really extraordinary young actors.
After people watch The Thing About Harry, what’s a quintessential rom-com you would recommend?
Well, I think they should watch The Thing About Harry again—that’s the thing about rom-coms, just really milking it. But if you made me pick another one, I’ll go with the Chicago classic While You Were Sleeping.
Ah, both movies are set in Chicago. I see you!
The Thing About Harry premieres February 15 on Freeform.