Exclusive: Jake Borelli promises a ‘truly jaw-dropping’ future for ‘Grey’s Anatomy’
This interview contains spoilers for those not caught up with the latest season of Grey’s Anatomy.
With each new season of Grey’s Anatomy comes new storylines, interns, doctors, and a slew of ups and downs that will undeniably take viewers on an emotional roller coaster ride.
Jake Borelli plays Levi Schmitt; the beloved resident fans met as an intern in season 14. Fans are familiar with the drill of falling in love with new interns each season and rooting for them as they try to survive the ups and downs at Seattle Grace-turned-Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital; it’s natural to viewers by now.
Schmitt is most definitely a fan-favorite character, and for good reason. Borelli brings an honest and authentic look at an intern, and a resident, just trying to make life work. Schmitt is chasing a dream, diving into his truth, and trying to navigate a life that is stressful and all-consuming but at the same time rewarding.
While his current situation is heartbreaking, Schmitt can still see a glimmer of hope, albeit a dim one. That outlook is a testament to Borelli as an actor and person. We got to speak with Borelli about his start in acting, Schmitt’s character transformation, and what fans should expect from the future of Grey’s Anatomy.
WGTC: You’ve enjoyed acting since you were young — what initially drew you to it as a career path?
Borelli: “Yeah, I caught the acting bug SUPER early. I remember wanting to be on Barney so bad as a kid, so the second I was old enough, my parents let me audition for plays at The Columbus Children’s Theater in Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up. I did SO many plays between the age of like, 10-16, and then in high school, I got my first agent in Ohio and started doing commercial and voice-over work. I was SUPER obsessed with sitcoms at the time and would watch them for hours. In the beginning, that was my big dream, to be on a sitcom.”
Performing in 15 plays in 5 years is impressive. What were some of the plays you took part in? Which stands out as your favorite?
Borelli: I loved being Stanley Yelnats in CCT’s production of “Holes,” and I also played Edmond one year in “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which was SO fun.
You’ve acted across several genres — what has been your favorite so far?
Borelli: “There’s something so fun about doing Grey’s because we are a true Dramedy. We get to play really intense dramatic moments hand in hand with very funny moments, and I love that. But I think doing multi-camera sitcoms has been the most fun, especially when there is a live audience!”
What role do you feel has challenged you the most?
Borelli: “Definitely Dr. Levi Schmitt in Grey’s Anatomy. We have grown so much together and have both experienced such huge life changes at the same time. It’s such a special thing to get to play a character for such a long stretch of time.”
Levi was a quick fan favorite when you joined Grey’s Anatomy; what drew you to the role of Levi Schmitt?
Borelli: “I loved his earnestness and his courage. He cares SO much about his work and his friends, and I always try to use that as his driving force. I also love having the chance to bring some levity to some otherwise really dramatic situations.”
Were you a fan of the show before your audition? What actors/doctors did you most hope to have interactions with?
Borelli: “I had never watched it because when it came out, I was a little too young to start, and back then, you couldn’t binge it on Netflix like you can now, so it always felt impossible to catch up. I watched the pilot before sending in my audition tape to make sure I was in the right tone, and then after booking the role, I started the big binge and have now seen all 400 episodes twice!”
Borelli is a true Grey’s fan, and it’s a testament to the power of the series that fans — both on and off set — love to watch the show repeatedly. We also discussed the importance of telling the story over the last few seasons, in the middle of a pandemic where burnout is a natural sensation.
There’s an essential aspect of telling Schmitt’s story right now — more than two years into a pandemic where people across so many fields feel like they’re at the end of their rope. What was it like being able to bring that relatability to audiences?
Borelli: “From the beginning, we wanted to tell a story of burnout. Something a lot of us are dealing with right now. It’s certainly a feeling I can relate to, so it was definitely interesting to see how Levi’s burnout manifested throughout the season.”
The medical field saw COVID’s death and despair firsthand more than any other field. Did you feel a big responsibility in telling that story? Were those conversations you all had behind the scenes?
Borelli: “I definitely felt a huge responsibility in season 17 to make sure we were telling the stories of these doctors in an honest and authentic way. In my opinion, Season 17, at its core, was truly a love letter to frontline workers of all kinds, and I hope that we did their stories justice. We are so indebted to all of the people who have helped us get through this pandemic.”
If you’ve not watched season 18’s ninth episode, it’s a part of the show that will go down in history; we asked Borelli how it felt to be part of something so raw and iconic.
Some films and episodes of television with very little dialogue pack a significant punch. At the top of my head, I imagine Drive and 2001: A Space Odyssey. We see Schmitt have an intense breakdown in episode 9 of season 18, and he says almost nothing the entire episode. The emotion portrayed told the story all on its own — how did you prepare for that episode?
Borelli: “That episode was rough, and it was certainly wild to have no dialogue to work with. But the character these writers have written is so rich and specific that I really just put my shoulder behind the circumstance Levi had gone through and made all my choices based on that. I’ve been playing Levi for so long now that oftentimes my body knows how he will react before my mind does, so sometimes, just trusting that is the best technique.”
Schmitt is no stranger to loss, but the loss of his patient really sent him reeling. Do you think he blames Webber’s method? Himself? How would you explain it if you could tell us how he’s sorting through those emotions?
Borelli: “As a viewer, I would say they share the blame. A huge mistake was made, and I think it is impossible to put that on any single person.”
Speaking of Webber, we’ve seen him step in and try to help Schmitt through this loss. Webber becomes that pillar of strength for several people, and while Schmitt tries to keep it at arm’s length, we see him give into it after the latest episode (where Schmitt fears he’s going to lose his mother). What’s it like having that bond with Richard Webber and, in turn, James Pickens Jr?
Borelli: “It’s incredible; Levi and Webber have this unspoken father/son dynamic in some of the more recent episodes, and I LOVE that. They are polar opposites in many ways, and I love that dynamic too. Jim is such an incredible man AND actor, and I am so fortunate to get to work so closely with him.”
No spoilers, of course, but what do you hope Schmitt’s future looks like at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital? What do you think the next layer of his story looks like?
Borelli: I hope that he learns from this and pushes forward in a strong way, but it’s so hard to know what comes next.
Schmitt found a lot of comfort and confidence in his relationship with Nico, but the pair struggled with ups and downs. Everyone is rooting for them, but Schmitt seemed very serious when he told Nico they were done. Was that as brutal a scene to film as it was to watch?
Borelli: “It was definitely a Schimco moment like we have never seen before. I’m so curious to see how they move forward from this.”
You and Alex Landi (Nico) are the first gay couple to be a focus of the series — which has been a breath of fresh air for fans. Callie and Arizona had a similar relationship that made viewers at home feel seen. Did the two of you hope to be an inspiration to an audience who might be struggling with coming out and embracing who they are within their own lives and career fields?
Borelli: “I definitely felt a responsibility to speak about my queerness when I was given this platform. I have benefited so much from seeing queer people succeed, and I know how valuable it is to see yourself reflected back to you. I’m so grateful to be a part of this community, and I’m so glad this experience has brought me closer to so many people.”
When Schmitt came out on the series, you posted an Instagram message confirming your own sexuality. “His vulnerability and courage inspire me every day, and I hope he can do the same for you. To all of you who feel like little Levis out there, know that I do too, that you are seen, and that we’re all in this together.” How much of yourself do you channel for the character? Are you learning to grow alongside him as you continue your own ups and downs?
Borelli: “I channel a lot into Levi. I work so hard to make sure everything Levi does is coming from an honest and authentic place, and so I rely on my own lived experience quite a bit.”
If you could give any advice to “Little Levis” or anyone who feels stuck and afraid to embrace themselves, what would you tell them?
Borelli: “I would say, “You are not alone. I know it might feel that way at times, but we are all out here rooting you on and waiting for you to step into your truth.'”
If you’re a fan of romantic comedies, you’ve also seen Borelli in The Thing About Harry, which stole the hearts of viewers worldwide. Borelli talks about how he got the role and the special influences he had on the film.
You also had a starring role in The Thing About Harry, which was as sweet as it was meaningful. What was the audition process like for that film?
Borelli: I loved The Thing About Harry, and for the first time, I didn’t actually audition. I had met Peter Paige through our showrunner on Greys, Krista Vernoff, and unbeknownst to me, Peter had written the movie with me in mind. So when the time came to start shooting, Peter brought me on board, and the rest is history!
What did you love most about The Thing About Harry?
Borelli: “The story is exactly what I needed to hear as a kid, and getting the chance to bring something like this to life at this point in my career was immeasurable. We also filmed in Chicago, where my brother and his family live, so I spent weekends with them. My niece Margot, who was one at the time, ended up getting to be in the movie at the very end, which was also SUCH a highlight.”
If you could give viewers three words to describe the future of Grey’s — what would they be?
Borelli: “Truly jaw-dropping”
Are there any genres of acting you’re interested in exploring next?
Borelli: “I would LOVE to do more professional theater. All my training was in the theater, so I would love to work my way to a Broadway stage in the future. That, and a network sitcom of my own ;).”
If you could have a scene with any Grey’s character, alive or dead, who would it be, and what would you do?
Borelli: “I would love to have a scene with Lexie Grey; she was always one of my favorite characters. I also really like Penny, which I know is controversial, but it would be so fun to see her come back in some capacity.”
Last but not least, we hear you love to travel — where is a place you’ve never been that you’d love to go? Where is your favorite place to vacation?
Borelli: “I would LOVE to go to Brazil. I have never been, and I hear it is incredible. We have so many people in Brazil who watch the show, so it would be so fun to go down and visit. As for vacations, I usually love to just go up into the mountains and spend some time camping or hanging in a cabin. I find that most relaxing. But my favorite trip I’ve been on was to Tokyo with my brother for one of my birthdays. I love Japan so much, and that city is just so magical.”
While Schmitt’s future is a little uncertain at the moment, we have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of him yet. You can see Borelli in Grey’s Anatomy, airing Thursday nights on ABC, and in the rom-com, The Thing About Harry.