Nick Robinson grew up watching the classic high-school movies that inspiredLove, Simon. Directed by Dawson’s Creek alum and DC handler Greg Berlanti, Love, Simon puts a gay lead at the center of a high-school coming-of-age story complete with awkward romance and friendship drama, where two closeted teens strike up a romance via email.
“Ferris Bueller was a major touchstone for me,” says Robinson, who plays the titular teenager Simon, over the phone. He and Berlanti also talked often about the directing style of The Breakfast Club, which Love, Simon updates with Gossip Girl-esque message boards and group texts. “[John Hughes] was prolific,” Robinson says. “I think it speaks to the power of his storytelling that both Greg and I could grow up on the same films, 20 years apart.” The result is a sweet and simple high-school romance that twists and turns as Simon figures out his online pen pal’s secret identity and navigates his own coming out. Robinson talked to Vulture about working with Berlanti, the movie’s Whitney Houston dance number, and being “popular-ish” in high school.
How did you get involved with Love, Simon?
It was really the director, Greg Berlanti. We’d discussed the concept behind it, how it was something we hadn’t seen before. It was a new idea: a mainstream coming-of-age film with a gay protagonist. We also discussed the implications of that, how it could potentially be helpful to people. After our conversation, it got me excited about this project and all the people involved. I went back in to audition, we did chemistry reads with the rest of the cast. The main takeaway was that everyone involved in this thing was doing it for the right reasons. Greg is a gay man, and he had his personal story. Everyone seemed to have a personal story that they were bringing to this. I think it was a labor of love that made for a great work environment.
So, what was your personal story?
There were a few things. Members of my family have come out over the years, people close to me. The concept of representation is really important, just to see either people you identify with or stories you identify with represented onscreen is a powerful thing. Not to say that this movie is representative of every LGBTQ experience, but it’s a start.
I thought Greg was the right person to shepherd this thing. He had gone through this experience of coming out and being closeted in high school. He’d seen all the repercussions of that: what happens to a person when they’re not really living their truth, and they’re not being fully actualized. I guess it was just potential that I think this project had and hopefully achieved. It was just a way to do a project itself that was timely and relevant, and had a message that we could use more of. It was a very inclusive and welcoming film.
Have you spent a lot of time thinking about opening the movie in this political climate? I’m sure it’s much different from when you came onboard.
I think that oftentimes the arts are reactionary. Right now we have, unfortunately, a lot of hateful speech going on. Our job as artists is to offer counterprogramming to that, to bring out as much of a message of positivity and inclusiveness as we can. It’s the right thing to do.
I don’t think the current political climate is indicative of the United States. We can do better, and we’re working toward different solutions. I think that this movie was definitely aware of what it was coming into. And, from what I’ve seen, audiences are ready for something like this. I think it’s the right cultural climate for a movie like this: People want to see stories that are representative of themselves, that also have a positive message and bring something good into the world.
It’s impressive that you’re working with diverse filmmakers so early in your career: in Everything, Everything you were directed by Stella Meghie, and now a LGBT director with Love, Simon. How did you start to prioritize this in your decision-making as you’re selecting projects?
As of late I’ve definitely been working as much as possible with people from all different walks of life and backgrounds and genders. I think it’s important to give everyone an equal playing field. We’re seeing that more and more now, with the Time’s Up movement. Right now is the time for equality and inclusion, and a leveling of the playing field. If I can be a part of projects that move the needle socially, even a little bit, that’s exciting. I’d prefer to be on the right side of history.
Tell me about filming Love, Simon’s final scene with Jennifer Garner. It was a really moving monologue from a mother to a son about his coming out.
That was an emotional day. When you do a scene like that — at least for me — there’s a little bit of dread at the start of the day. It’s a heavy, emotional scene. But then once we got started, it all kind of just clicked. Everyone was emotional that day. From our producers, grips to camera operators, everyone was getting kind of misty-eyed. I think it’s because people underestimate the power of words, of hearing that you’re enough, that you’re loved, that you deserve love, and that you can exhale now. Regardless of your sexuality, I think those are important words to hear. I think everyone was feeling that that day. It was definitely an emotional day. I think Jen did a great job of creating a template of what you want to say if your son or daughter, or anyone close to you, came out to you. She gave a really touching performance. It’s really sensitive.
There’s a song-and-dance number in the middle of the movie to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” where Simon thinks about what it would mean to come out in college. Was that always a Whitney song?
That’s a good question. I think it was always a Whitney song. I know that Greg is a big Whitney Houston fan. Either it was always Whitney Houston, or it wasn’t specified. I think that Whitney definitely brought it out of everybody.
Tell me more about your high-school experience. Were you popular?
High school was super weird. I went three different high schools, ultimately. I began high school in my hometown, and left after freshman year. I did a year of online school, then I went back and finished junior and senior year at a school in California. It was interesting. Ninth grade I wasn’t popular, but I had a couple of close friends. When I went back for junior and senior year, I think I was hungry for friend groups, so I tried really hard to fit. I was popular-ish during that time. It wasn’t a real popularity, it was just an adaptability, being able to fit in.
I love when people admit they were popular in high school.
I mean, I just sort of rolled with a crew that was considered popular. But in hindsight, they were the dumbest people at the school. They were the shallowest, I guess. I don’t think anyone has a great time in high school. If you do, you might be in trouble.
Sometimes straight actors playing gay characters have spoken about feeling an added responsibility, and been the subject of some critique. Have you felt that way?
Yes and no. I did feel a certain responsibility, not only for playing a gay character and trying to represent the community, but also to fans of the novel. When you’re working with source material like this, people often have an idea of the character in their mind. You have to just do your own interpretation, the best way I know how. In conversations with Greg, he was really adamant that I was right for this part, and I had to trust him. His experience really informed my experience.
Simon’s big celebrity crush when he was growing up was Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter. Who was yours?
I don’t remember specifically, but maybe Xena. I remember that being on TV when I was growing up. She was a babe.
This interview has been edited and condensed.