A gentle rush of water fills the silence left by quiet contemplation and appreciation for the hushed serenity. Watching over the city that has hosted him for the past decade, Jake considers his journey from his appearances on Nickelodeon classics iCarly, True Jackson VP, and The Thundermans to how he landed his role on Grey’s Anatomy off a tape sent in from New York. Just before the pandemic put a screeching halt to the world, Jake starred as Sam in Freeform’s first ever gay Rom-Com The Thing About Harry where he plays a young man returning to his hometown and dealing with the complex relationships he uncovers, like many of us faced during the initial months of lockdown.
Shanna Fisher falls into rhythm with Jake, capturing the waves of reflection and emotions that follow. Silhouettes and shadows sprawl through the streets as the sun sinks lower into the horizon and darkness begins to fall. To complement the rapidly descending dusk, stylist Luca Kingston dresses Jake in a midnight suit with fine embroidery swirling across the onyx fabric. Retreating from the river further into the City of Angels, the day is drawing to a solemn close as the light is lost.
A few days later, thanks to an eight-hour time difference, I sip my evening cup of tea while Jake is having his morning coffee and we discuss his past, his future, and the wise words of an adventuring group of illustrated animals. The bright Californian day sharply contrasts the dark English evening but the thrilling escapism of reality TV competition shows transcends borders as Jake tells us why he should have won a fan-made version of Survivor in a local park. Settle in with a mug of your favourite winter drink as we discuss the bliss of being brought coffee in bed, taking a step forward when you feel lost, and why you shouldn’t fall asleep with a giant Italian sub…
Catch Jake Borelli as Dr Levi Schmitt in Season 18 of Grey’s Anatomy on ABC.
What pieces make up Jake Borelli?
The first one that comes to my mind is art - creativity and curiosity. I feel like those go hand in hand. I’m very crafty. That’s an embroidery that I did [points to an embroidery piece on the wall behind him] and I paint. I love art so that’s a big thing. Family is a big one too. Especially because of the pandemic, family is a lot bigger of a thing. The pandemic has given me a new perspective on what’s important. I have two nieces now and I love them so much. Yeah, art and family. Oh - and I love self-care! I love sleeping! Hiking too. I do a lot of breath therapy techniques and regular therapy and of course relaxation.
What makes you unique?
That’s hard because I feel like everyone is so unique which means no one is unique! Everyone is completely different. Going back to the curiosity thing, I’m also very sceptical which I think is something that a lot of people don’t know about me because I come across as this very sweet and bubbly person, which I am, but I’m also very sceptical of everything! I’m like ‘errr, are you sure?!’ at everything. I don’t know if I’m answering your questions correctly but it’s where I’m at!
You are! What was the last thing you were sceptical about and you were right to be so?
Oh Gosh! The first thing that comes to mind is the pandemic! I feel like I’m always one step behind everybody because I have stayed inside longer and I washed my hands more than other people. I was a little traumatised by the pandemic! Now everyone is like “Things are getting back to normal!”, and I’m like ‘are they??’. I remember the second big spike in America was massive and it was right around the holidays, everyone said “We flattened the curve! Everything is better!”, and I was like ‘I don’t think so guys!!’, and then of course it wasn’t. So that was a thing!
Seems like you know more than the politicians!
I’ve lost a lot of trust in the last two years! I think we all need to research things from actual sources and listen to actual professionals.
Not from Facebook and Twitter!
What is something you’re proud of?
Honestly, I’m proud of myself. I’ve come a long way in my life. Sometimes it feels like I’ve done it on my own which I know is not true, but I started acting when I was 18 and I literally moved across the country and was living on my own and didn’t know anything about the business. I built it slowly over the last twelve years and I’m proud of myself for sticking it out and for working hard and not giving up.
It’s so nice to be proud of yourself and your journey.
It’s an interesting point where I’m at because it’s been a time of reflection. It’s also interesting because a couple of years after I got Grey’s Anatomy there was this weird - not a depression - but a weird sadness around finally getting to a goal of yours and then it not being quite the same as what you had anticipated it being. It wasn’t Grey’s necessarily, it was just finally being on a TV show and being able to quit my day job. It was what I had been striving for over a decade and then I finally got there, I was like ‘well now what?’. I didn’t know what to do. For the past couple of years, I’ve been reflecting on it and I’m starting to figure out what my next dreams are. Instead of being sad about the fact that I completed something, it’s more like I’m proud of myself for doing it. I did it, and now I get to find something next.
When you are having a rough day, how do you pick yourself up and make yourself feel better?
I call my nieces for sure. My one niece will turn three around the holidays and my other niece is only a month old so I’ll call them and just watch them play or draw. That just puts you in the moment. If I’m alone I’ll go on a hike and put in a podcast. One of my philosophies has always been: if you don’t know what to do, just do anything. It doesn’t matter what, just do something else and something will happen and then you’ll keep moving forward.
So, get out of your headspace and leave it for a bit?
Yeah! But that’s when I’m in a healthy mode. When I’m not I’ll definitely sleep in until 5 pm! Then I’ll have a glass of wine. There are other ways of dealing with it that aren’t as aspirational but they work!
But the one you recommend is going on a hike, speaking to family…
Yes - don’t order a giant Italian sub, eat it all, and then pass out… which sometimes I do also…
Just waking up with bits of sandwich on your face…
Oh my God, let me tell you… I would literally do that all the time. When I was younger, I was stress eating and I was like 20 years old living on my own and I woke up with an entire toasted Italian sub underneath me - fully clothed. It stained my clothes, my bedsheets, everything! It had been smashed! I was so tired and I ate this sub and then passed out… I stopped eating in bed after that! It was not good!
Yeah, keep it at the dinner table maybe?
What does the perfect morning look like for you?
A late wake up. Someone bringing my coffee in my bed so I don’t have to get up and make it. Then just drinking my coffee and maybe going back to sleep! Honestly, if someone brought me coffee in bed every morning I would never be sad. That’s the perfect morning.
You’ve appeared in several short films and television shows, including Nickelodeon classics True Jackson VP, iCarly, and The Thundermans. Do you have a favourite memory from those experiences?
There are so many… iCarly was my first professional role out in LA but they were all so exciting. As an actor when you finally book something you’re usually only working for a few days and so my life will just shut down so I can focus on the thing and everything was very exciting. True Jackson VP and The Thundermans were so fun because we would shoot in front of a live audience which was fun! I did an episode of NCIS: Los Angeles and the woman who played my mum in it was Elaine Hendrix and she’s the stepmother in The Parent Trap - the intense diva blonde woman. She was playing a rich diva woman in NCIS too and we were the little rich kids. We were the actual murderers but you don’t know that until the end! I was so excited that she was playing my mum but I was also terrified of her so I didn’t talk to her much and she didn’t talk to me either because she was playing the stepmother who isn’t friends with the kids. I was terrified and at the end of the week after we had fully wrapped, she comes up to me and she’s like “Jake! It was so good working with you! Be safe this weekend!”. She was so sweet and I was like ‘oh, she was acting!’. That was a trippy moment for me!
You recently starred in Freeform’s first ever gay Rom-Com, “The Thing About Harry” in 2020 as Sam who winds up in a taxi with his high school enemy while on the way to a hometown party. Can you tell us about the complex relationship between Sam and Harry?
It was so complex because Sam hated Harry for things that had happened years ago in high school. Sam has grown in his queerness and had come out and had been dating but now he’s forced to revisit somebody who would make fun of him when he was younger for being queer. That’s never fun - where you feel like you’re regressing. That’s where they find each other and he doesn’t want to be around Harry. Then you find out Harry is pansexual and it’s a little bit like ‘well, shit!’. All this stuff that he had been making up in his mind over the past couple of years is so different and now does he need to talk to this person? It’s a very complicated starting off point. It asks the questions: ‘do I forgive this person?’ and ‘did I misunderstand the situation?’. It’s an interesting place to start a rom-com and then of course things develop from there.
During the pandemic, a lot of people experienced the weird feelings that come along with returning to your hometown.
Yeah, going back to their childhood bedroom or living with their parents again is a weird feeling. How do you move back to a place that could invite regression but also stay yourself? I was talking to one of my friends who didn’t get to see their family for a year and a half during the pandemic, and they finally went back home and was worried because they were like “I’ve changed so much in the last year and a half and I’ve grown so much. I’m finally taking care of myself in ways that I wasn’t taking care of myself before”. They were worried that if they went back to their family, they would suddenly regress. How do you stay in your new self? Or in a healthier self? With my family I feel like we’ve successfully transformed our relationship into a friendship - we rely on each other and talk about things. We communicate and now when I go home, I feel like I’m visiting my parents and we’re hanging out as opposed to it being like I’m a child again.
What was your favourite part of that project?
It was so fun! Just the fact that it was a queer movie made by queer people - our director Peter Paige is a gay man, I’m gay, a lot of the people on the crew are gay. It felt like we were telling our own story and there was no need to question things. A lot of times productions are not helmed by gay people and so when they’re making gay characters things tend to get straight-washed or dumbed-down because everyone is afraid, like “Oh is this what gay people do??”. We didn’t have to do that because we are gay people so anything we do is what gay people do! Another huge plus was that it took place in Chicago which is where my brother and his family live so it was nice to hang out with them on the weekends. My niece Margot is actually in the movie! She plays my baby at the end of the movie! In that scene when I see her and she looks at me and smiles, she’s literally just smiling at her uncle. She was so cute and so good and so chunky!
Any funny stories from set?
Everyone was so funny! Britt Baron was so fun to work with and Niko Terho who plays Harry is a professional football player from Barbados. Peter had us up in the hotel room before we started shooting to do bonding exercises and he had Britt and I lay in bed and tell each other secrets! Then he had Niko teach me how to play football but we were in a fancy hotel room kicking this football ball around and I was like ‘this is not a good idea!’, but it was so fun. Also, a bunch of us went to a drag brunch together because the drag queen from the movie was hosting it!
How do you blow off steam?
I used to go running all the time but I don’t really do that anymore! Honestly, I usually go the other way and watch TV or eat a sandwich. I love camping so much and just being in the wilderness or in the forest. I go hiking in the mountains here in LA all the time. Yeah, I love that feeling. Acting class is good too - where you’re yelling and you get to put it in your acting. A lot of my acting is cathartic in that way. It’s probably an issue of mine - I don’t have concrete ways to blow off steam and I hold it in and then that turns into back tension and jaw pain. It’s something I haven’t fully tackled yet!
You play Dr. Levi Schmitt AKA ‘Glasses’ in the award-winning American medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, joining in the 14th season as a sub-intern and obtaining the position of a resident in the 16th season. Who is Dr Schmitt to you?
Dr. Schmitt is someone who is innately hopeful and so courageous. That’s something I think a lot of people miss in him because he is so nervous and bubbly. He makes a lot of mistakes, but that is what courage is, right? It’s continuing to make mistakes but pushing forward anyway and being hopeful about it. He takes some of the biggest risks - him coming out of the closet, him coming out to his bosses, him living unabashedly and moving out of his mother’s house. All of these things are so courageous. The way he holds empathy for people and gets affected by their stories is hard to do. I see him as a very courageous person for sure.
How much of Dr. Schmitt is from the script versus what you’ve put into him?
In the beginning, we weren’t told anything because the writers were trying to see how we all fit into the story so there wasn’t a lot. As the show goes on you get little bits and pieces that inform the character but in the beginning a lot of it is just you filling in the holes. You make stuff up and hope it works! The writers will come up with other ideas that add to the character so it’s an amalgamation. Dr Schmitt’s clumsiness ends up becoming a big part of his character but it was actually an accident! Debbie Allen was directing the episode and we were in the dungeons down below the hospital and the floor was super slippery. In the scene we were late, so I run to go to catch up with the other interns and I just fall and it happened to be on camera. I immediately got up like ‘Debbie! Oh my God, I am so sorry!’, and she’s like “Honey, it was great!”, and it made it into the show and that formed his klutziness!
Known for his clumsiness and lack of social skills, Dr. Schmitt has the desire to become more confident and deal with his difficult relationship with his overbearing mother. How do you think these aspects of his life affect his character?
A lot. I think a lot of his neurosis comes from his relationships with his mum and who he was as a kid. He wants everyone to love him and he doesn’t want to hurt anybody so he held himself back a lot. Now he’s coming out of that and growing. As an actor, it gives me context for how important it is for him to become independent and to grow.
One prominent aspect of Dr. Schmitt’s storyline is his exploration and questioning of his sexuality. With this, he became the series' first gay male regular, as well as one half of the first kiss between two male doctors and major gay male romance in the show’s history. Why do you think this was an important part of the show?
It’s huge. It took 15 years to have two gay male doctors. We had a lesbian doctor and a bisexual doctor - Callie and Arizona’s relationship was massive, but then that ended and we didn’t have anything. As a gay audience member of the show myself, it was so great to see the Calzona relationship but there was something about it that was like, ‘yeah, but that’s not me, that’s not my story because I’m not a lesbian’, you know what I mean? A lot of times people say “Well there was a lesbian relationship before”, but there are so many different stories within the queer community. There are different types of people within the queer community and to tell this story and have people feel seen in a different way was so important. How had there not been any gay male doctors on the show ever?! That’s crazy! So, it’s huge. I knew it would be huge from the beginning. I wasn’t expecting it would get quite as big as this but I knew it would be a big moment.
What do you hope young gay men who are watching the show can take away from it?
Just that they can see queer people like them who can be successful. When I was younger, I didn’t believe it was possible. I didn’t believe that you could be out and proud and successful. There are still issues within the community that we haven’t talked about on Grey’s yet - it is hard to be a queer doctor. There is homophobia within the medical community and there is the ‘good ol' boy’ system but to see an example of someone like Levi who is queer and successful surrounded by people who accept and love him is huge. To go one step further, to see me as a queer actor playing this role on a successful television show is also something that I hope people see because when I was younger, the reason why I stayed in the closet so long was because I didn’t think I could be an actor and be out. I didn’t think it was possible because I had seen so many other queer actors come out and their careers tanked. It’s all about representation and seeing that it is possible.
You also came out yourself publicly on Instagram after Dr. Schmitt’s episode of the same nature, why did you decide to do this?
When our head writer Krista Vernoff came to me and pitched the idea of Levi coming out, I was very on the fence about it. In my heart, I knew how big the story would be and how much people would relate. I wanted to be in the conversation in an authentic way but that would mean I was going to have to come out publicly which I was terrified about. I didn’t know if I wanted everyone in the world to know that I’m gay. I wasn’t even out to some members of my family. I was out to people in my circle but there were some people that I just hadn’t had the conversation with. I was on the fence about coming out publicly anyway but then the show started airing and it’s teased that he is interested in this doctor and you don’t know if Nico’s character is gay and flirting or not. As those episodes were airing, I was getting messages every single day about how excited people would be if he did come out. I just wanted to be like ‘he is coming out and I’m so excited too!!’, but I couldn’t because I didn’t want to spoil anything. The second I knew the kiss was going to happen I was like ‘I’m joining in the conversation! I know how excited you guys have been! I’m really excited too!’. I’m excited about this storyline as a queer guy myself as well. That’s why I chose to come out. In that moment I was ready to join the conversation. I did it on my Instagram and it blew up! It’s been a wild ride ever since.
I imagine there was a lot of support.
There was a lot of support but it was terrifying because I was actually at work when I clicked the button to post and then I turned my phone off and drove home. When I got home it was flooding in and I was texting with my friends like ‘oh my god this is happening!’. I started getting texts from my cousins saying “We’re so proud of you”, and it was going everywhere. I did an interview the next day and people were texting me that they saw the interview. It was like Pandora’s Box – there’s no going back now! Then I just sat and read all the comments and tried to respond to as many people as possible. It felt like an instant community. It was really great.
What were your emotions afterward? Was there a weight lifted off your shoulders?
Totally. That was a huge part of it. When I was deciding if I wanted to play this storyline, I called my parents and my dad said, “Oftentimes when we say something that we feel we’ve been hiding, a weight feels lifted”, and he was like “I think you should do it”. That’s one of the reasons I ended up doing it. It’s true, I did feel like I didn’t have to hide anymore. With all the press that surrounded it, I couldn’t hide anymore. Still to this day, if you Google my name, it’s like ‘gay, gay, gay!’, so there’s no hiding it. It’s a relief in some ways. I’ve been living this way for a few years but it’s still scary to be open and vocal. People knowing that I’m gay that don’t even know me is a little weird but it’s been great!
Dr. Schmitt is also the series' second Jewish main character after Dr Cristina Yang, why do you think religious representation is important?
It’s huge. Any type of representation is important because for so long in media and TV, there wasn’t representation. It was only straight white Christian people - like Friends the TV show. As a piece of art, anytime you can reach out to somebody and say ‘your experience is valid and special and understood’ is great. I love that Grey’s does that. I think it’s one of the reasons the show has such longevity to it. It makes so many people feel seen which is wonderful.
What were you doing before you got Grey’s Anatomy? Were you working a normal job?
Yeah, I had been here in LA for eight years at that point. I had worked in TV but I had a day job to pay rent. I worked at a parrot store! I worked there for five years and I ended up managing the store. It’s ridiculous, I know so much about parrots! I was working there to make ends meet but at a certain point I was like ‘I have got to change things up’. Something was not working and I needed to do something different. I had an audition to do the Harry Potter play to be Harry Potter’s son - Severus Snape Potter - and I got a callback so I ended up going to New York. I was there for ten days and it immediately felt right so I went back to LA and told my boss that I quit. I sold my car, got rid of my roommates, drove a rental with all of my stuff to New York, switched my health insurance – everything! Then six weeks later I booked Grey’s Anatomy off a tape that I had sent in from New York so I had to move back to LA with nothing - literally just two suitcases! I didn’t have an apartment anymore and I didn’t have a car. I crashed on friend’s couches for almost a year while I was shooting Grey’s. It was crazy.
How does it feel to be a part of one of the longest-running successful television shows in recent history? Are there any pressures that go along with that?
Totally. I don’t believe it sometimes! I’m still pinching myself like ‘is this real?’. We are the longest-running medical drama and one of the most popular medical dramas ever. When I think about all the fans around the world from Brazil to Italy, it’s a little daunting. Sometimes you forget but maybe that’s a good thing because when you’re on set you don’t want to think about millions of people who are watching you! Grey’s Anatomy is going to go down in history as one of the biggest things in television and I don’t think a show like this is going to happen again. With the format of streaming, I don’t think shows with 25 episodes a season will last this long. It’s something special and it feels crazy to be a part of it. In the beginning, it just felt like I was on the show visiting but now I look back and it’s been five years! I’ve been in a quarter of the episodes of the entire show that’s been on for 20 years! I haven’t fully processed it!
Have you learnt any lifesaving procedures or knowledge on the show?
I have learned how to suture. If we’re in the wild and I have a suture kit, I could sew people up! I know a lot of different threading and different knots. In the episode that just aired where we were sewing on bananas, we literally had a masterclass on it beforehand. We also learned how to skin fish in one of the episodes. We were separating the skin from the meat with Exacto knives - not Exacto knives! What are they called?
Yeah, scalpels! Exacto knives… see, I’m an artist! I’ve definitely learned stuff but no, I’m never going to be able to save anybody! I don’t even know how to do CPR! I should probably learn… But I’m definitely more familiar with medical terminology than I would’ve been before the show.
On the show, when the doctors are performing a procedure, what are you actually operating on?
There are so many different techniques that they use. Our medical department is incredible. It’s run by a real nurse and there are so many real doctors on set to make sure that we’re doing things right. BokHee is the scrub nurse on Grey’s and she’s an actual scrub nurse! A lot of the background people are real doctors and nurses so they don’t have to teach people what to do. For the operations, they make full-on prosthetics and they literally look like body parts that you can cut open! The production value is incredible. Usually, the patient is laying on the table and the camera will pan up from their face up to our faces but they don’t show the body - we’re pretending at that point. Then we’ll do it again without the actor and they’ll put down a dummy that has a bucket carved out of their belly and that’s where all the prosthetics go. Once the blue sheets are covering the dummy and you only see the prosthetics, it looks so real! As an actor, it’s incredible because you don’t have to pretend - you’re literally cutting a prosthetic. It feels so real because it looks so real. Sometimes they’ll use real meat if we’re cauterising because it only works on flesh so they’ll put like a little bit of steak there and you cauterise it.
Currently airing the 18th season, Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t shy away from difficult or delicate storylines and the pandemic is one of them. How did the show handle the topic of COVID-19?
I thought it was incredible. The writers talked to real doctors, nurses, and healthcare professionals in the hospitals during the pandemic. A lot of the stories were derived right from these people. It’s how Grey’s has done it for a long time. I can’t say how close it was because I was never in the hospitals and I can’t even imagine how horrific things were but I felt like the show was like a snapshot of what was going on. We got to see how it affected these doctors and their home life. There were moments of joy and moments of pure pain. I’m glad that this show that’s always tried to represent medical workers took on that story because it was a discussion in the beginning - whether we did it or not. Some shows pretended like it wasn’t going on, and it was difficult, but I’m glad we did it.
How did the pandemic impact you personally?
I was alone for a lot of it because I live alone. We started filming Grey’s in September of 2020 and I was really locked down because we were trying to keep each other safe. We were sometimes filming without masks and getting tested every other day - which we still do after a year and a half - so I was very locked down. It wasn’t great for my mental health. My mental health suffered a lot because we were shooting about the pandemic during the pandemic. There was no escaping it. My OCD came up a little bit, like with the handwashing stuff. I was in therapy a lot trying to cope with it. I’m just starting to come out of it and gain perspective. I’m now starting to see people again now which is wild! It wasn’t the best time for me but I’m healthy and I’m safe and I’m doing my best - that is the mantra I say to myself.
What do you think we can learn from recent world events?
That science is science and opinions are not science! That’s all I have for that!
If you had one chance to improve the world, what would you do?
I would find a way to make people welcome change as opposed to being afraid of change because I feel like that’s the root of everything. If something is different, everyone freaks out. Change is the only constant here. Things are changing, things are different, no one is like you. If people understood that everything would be okay.
What is your favourite form of escapism?
Recently it’s been reality TV. I watch so much reality TV! And not just reality TV – reality TV competition shows. It’s escapism but it’s also heightened and I love that. Other ways to escape… I definitely like alcohol! That’s fun, especially with friends. Me and my friend had a dance party in my living room until 3 am the other day and it was so fun! I love doing art, like embroidery or knitting because you’re so focused - it’s repetitive and it’s like a meditation.
Would you ever go on a reality TV show?
Yes absolutely! I want to do Survivor so bad! If they asked me to do Survivor I would go tomorrow. I want to do it so bad!
Do you think you could win Survivor?
I think I could win! I played Survivor in the park recently - someone set it all up! There were 18 of us and I didn’t know anybody so I just showed up in the park. It was a full day from 6 am to 11 pm and it was like a full-on Survivor. I got second place and I’m so peeved about it! The girl who won was an actual Survivor player and a lot of the people playing were super fans of hers. There’s a tribal council at the end where all the voted off players vote for who they want to win. There were three of us in the final and I was so good at the tribal council! You have to prove why you should win and I was so good but one of the people on the jury left before the final tribal council. Instead of just having this guy not vote, the person who was running it said, “Vote for who you want to win and we’ll just put it in”, but he didn’t get to hear the final tribal council. I was so good at it and I lost by one vote! It’s because that guy voted for her! I ended up seeing him at a bar after and I fully confronted him like ‘what the hell man!’, and he was like “I’m so sorry! I was just starstruck by this girl!”. I so should have won!
Do you have any life lessons you wish you had learned earlier and would like to share?
Something I would want people to hear is one that me and my best friend used to say, which is: ‘it’s not stupid if you own it’. I don’t remember where it came from but some people think something is stupid but it’s not if you fully commit to it. Nothing is silly if you fully commit. The other one is that if you don’t know what to do, just do anything - one step forward. There’s an artist on Instagram called Charlie Mackesy and he draws a boy, a horse, a fox, and a mole who go on adventures and it’s all very wise. He has one quote where they’re in a forest and the boy says to the horse, “I can’t see what’s in front of me. I can’t see where to go.”, and the horse asks, “Can you see one step in front of you?”. The boy says that he can and the horse says, “Take that step and you’ll be able to see a bit further.”.
If you’re paralysed and you don’t know what to do, just do something. Even if it’s taking a deep breath or closing your eyes and plugging your ears, just do anything. That’s a piece of advice which I would have liked to have heard when I was younger.