Gay Rom-Com The Thing About Harry Makes Room For Joy

The stars of the Freeform flick explain why LGBTQ+ characters deserve happily ever afters

In the universe of romantic comedies, a happily ever after is all but ensured. That’s why we love them: They’re predictable and comfortable, marked by time-honored tropes that predate the renaissance of When Harry Met Sally… and Pretty Woman. And while, in recent years, the genre has expanded to include diverse characters and more relatable storylines with films like Plus One and Crazy Rich Asians, the rom-com remains a stronghold of heteronormativity. LGBTQ+ characters are relegated as the token best friend, while the queer experience within the mainstream canon has largely been defined by trauma, as in Brokeback Mountain and Boys Don’t Cry, or coming out. Even Greg Berlanti’s wildly successful teen comedy Love, Simon doesn’t stray far from this traditional framework.

That’s what sets apart the holiday flick The Thing About Harry: There is no shame present in the film, no triumphant coming out narrative. Rather, its characters are perfectly comfortable in their identities from the outset, and queerness, rather than being othered or marred by stigma, is aligned with the universal desire for love. According to co-writer, director, and star Peter Paige, best known for his role on Queer as Folk, it boils down to three perfectly ordinary needs: “See me. Validate me. Love me.”

The movie kicks off with Sam (Grey’s Anatomy’s Jake Borelli), a type-A gay guy who’s dedicated to his political career after graduating from college, and whose main relationship is with his best friend Stasia (GLOW’s Britt Baron). Pressured into a road trip to his small hometown with his high school enemy, Harry (Niko Terho), to attend the engagement party of two mutual friends, Sam discovers along the ride that Harry is no longer the jock bully he remembers. Harry, who reveals he admired Sam for his openness about his own identity, has since come into his own as a pansexual man. (In terms of pan representation on-screen, there is little beyond David, played by Dan Levy, on Schitt’s Creek.) A monthslong game of cat-and-mouse ensues, spanning multiple heart-to-hearts with Sam’s older roommate Casey (Paige) and a cameo from Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown as the bossy art world pro Paul, until Harry and Sam fatefully reunite in an elaborate Valentine’s Day setup.

With the backing of Freeform, and its parent company Disney, this visibility is brought to a whole new audience. But the film also serves as unique milestones for each of its stars. The Thing About Harry marks newcomer Niko Terho’s first on-camera role. And when filming began, it was almost exactly a year to the day that Jake Borelli came out publicly, when his character on Grey’s Anatomy would grapple with the same struggle on primetime. For industry veteran Paige, who began working on Queer as Folk two decades ago — a time when being openly gay was considered career suicide — it is a reclamation of a treasured genre. MTV News speaks with the stars, who explain the importance of the rom-com as a space for LGBTQ+ storytelling.

MTV News: The Thing About Harry released the day after Valentine’s Day. What are your most special, or perhaps most embarrassing, Valentine’s Day memories?

Peter Paige: I live in a romantic fantasy, but my real Valentine's Days have been nothing but disasters. But there was one where I was dating a straight guy, and it involved a lot of whipped cream.

Jake Borelli: I remember, when I was in sixth grade, I had a crush on this girl. I felt like I had to woo her, so I snuck out of my house, got on my bike, rode to the Hallmark store, and bought her this white plush stuffed bear. I was going to give it to her the next day at school, but then I totally chickened out. I hid it in my basement. Valentine's Day came a week later, and my mom had found the bear in the basement and put it in her bedroom on her nightstand. I think she thought it was just for decoration. It was super awkward.

Niko Terho: Every Valentine's Day, I've just started seeing somebody. So it's always weird. It feels very official, like we’re getting to a certain stage too quickly.

Paige: So what you're telling us is you never make it past a year with anybody?

Terho: I guess I kind of did say that.

MTV News: What are your favorite rom-coms? 

Borelli: 27 Dresses. The “Benny and the Jets” scene was my favorite as a kid, but I didn't know why. In hindsight, it was because I was in love with James Marsden. Where's my James Marsden?

Terho: 10 Things I Hate About You was my all-time favorite when I was younger. But I recently watched Notting Hill. Julia Roberts, she's the queen.

Paige: I am a rom-com junkie, so I have seen them all a billion times. It was super important to me to honor the tropes of the rom-com and to pay homage to all of those rom-coms that I grew up loving but, at the same time, make it queer-specific. That allowed for some great twists, and some things that I think made it feel really fresh. But probably my favorite rom-com of all time is While You Were Sleeping, which is another Chicago rom-com, with Sandra Bullock running around with her hands in her sleeves. If that token-taker on the L train with no hands can find love, then so can I.

MTV News: What are some of the themes you explore in this movie?

Paige: We think we know people, but we really don't. We're all editorializing all the time, and it's worth taking a step back and reexamining what we believe to be true. Everyone is beautiful if you get close enough, and that’s what this movie solidifies for me, the fundamental idea that we all deserve love. And we all deserve to have our love celebrated in these big, cinematic ways.

MTV News: One of the motifs I noticed throughout was this idea of the friend zone. 

Paige: “The Friend Zone” was of the working titles of the movie, for the record.

MTV News: Do you believe in the friend zone? Can friends fall in love, or is that always a bad idea? 

Terho: It's definitely possible, but I feel like the friend zone doesn't occur as frequently as we believe it does.

Borelli: I think you can go through times of being in the friend zone and then times of being more or less than that. Everything can evolve.

Paige: I'm a hardcore believer that it's a bad idea. For gay men, especially, once you settle into the friend zone, it's really unlikely you’ll claw your way back out.

MTV News: When did you first feel represented on-screen?

Borelli: I used to watch Degrassi a lot, and I would stay up late to catch it because it had teenagers in situations I didn't see when watching primetime TV. That said, it was on around 3 a.m., and my parents were asleep, so it felt like I was doing something wrong. Even though I felt represented in a way, and I was seeing queer teenagers on-screen for the first time, I was also reminded that maybe this isn't OK still. It was a long time until I felt represented in a healthy way. Reading The Thing About Harry was big for me in feeling like I was truly reflected back, and my role on Grey's Anatomy was a huge turning point for me as an artist. Before that, it was a lot of translating, taking straight relationships and translating them into my own language.

Paige: I'm so glad you referred to yourself, Jake, because my answer is Queer as Folk, the show I was on. Because when I grew up, it was Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, just because Paul Lynde was such a flamer. Then there were like these little glimmers of RuPaul, when “Supermodel” came out, in the early '90s. I remember I used to call my friends when Ricki Lake had gay people on her talk show, and they were these hopped-up club kids. That was it. That was the representation we got. So I feel like my career started with this watershed moment when queer people claimed some space in narrative television.

Borelli: That's the thing. Just because there's a queer character, that doesn't mean I'm going to relate to them, just because I'm gay.

Paige: 100 percent. And by the way, I get that Queer as Folk was not that for a lot of people. If you were not a white cis male, then that wasn't your jam. I understand why people were frustrated by that. I absolutely do. But for me, it was the first time that I recognized myself in stories.

Borelli: That's why it's so important that there are more queer people out in media now, because it just gives you so many different ideas of who you can be as a queer person. In this movie, specifically, we have so many queer characters that, if you don't relate to Sam, you might relate to Harry, or you might relate to Casey.

Paige: You might be a bitch like Paul.

MTV News: The idea that everyone deserves love is something that all people, LGBTQ+ or otherwise, can identify with. But how do you balance that universal truth with creating something that feels distinctly queer?

Paige: Being queer has meant translating forever. We've been putting ourselves into Julia Roberts's heels, so I always knew that that people can translate. That was one of the great takeaways from Queer as Folk. The audience was around 80 percent straight women, who could project romantic fantasies into all these boys. You tell human stories about human beings and human beings will relate, full stop. It doesn't matter how they're dressed, how they identify. It's love and longing. That's the core of everything for everyone.

Borelli: Love is not gendered, and I totally believe that. Something that Niko and I were able to tap into was just love. The fact that we're both guys is great, but what we were acting was just this pure love, which I think is universal and people can relate to.

Terho: Totally. I tried to come to the character like, this is Harry, and he's unique. You can't generalize anything. Yeah, he is pansexual, but that just happens to be who he is and that doesn't really change how he acts.

MTV News: What about your characters do you identify with? 

Borelli: There's a lot of me in Sam. I'm very type A, but I'd like to think he's a little bit more type A than I am. Maybe I have a little bit more fun. I'm a little bit more of a pessimist-realist than Sam is. I think Sam has a little bit more hope for what he can do, whereas I think I'm still learning that about myself.

Terho: I feel like we are all basically our characters. There's a scene where Harry’s in the mirror [primping] and that's exactly what I do.

Paige: I didn't direct that. We put a camera on it, and Niko just got himself ready in that bathroom scene. That wink in the mirror was 100 percent Niko Terho, and I will love it my whole life. And, by the way, this was Niko's first job on-camera.

MTV News: What are your hopes for the future of the rom-com genre? 

Paige: I can't wait to see a great trans rom-com. We're long overdue for a great lesbian rom-com. A rom-com is just such a great way to spend an hour and a half. Especially in this world we're living in right now, where it's really dark, and every time you go on social media there's challenging news. So to be able to retreat for just 90 minutes and feel safe and know that a happy ending is probably coming, I just think it's a really worthwhile endeavor of cinema. So I'd love to see more voices represented in this space.

Terho: Love is such a universal thing, and everybody needs to feel themselves represented on-screen. So moving forward, the genre being a more accurate mirror of life would be great.

Borelli: The fact that we can make a movie about queer people that isn't about coming out, and there is not a lot of shame in this movie, I think is great. We can just be in this genre that is light and about love and makes you feel good. If we can give that to many other groups of people, that would be wonderful.