By Chris Azzopardi
Photos: Prime Video
Pro-queer viewers have spoken, and they’re royally head over heels for “Red, White & Royal Blue.” The film’s widespread success is a win for director and co-writer Matthew López, for Amazon Prime Video and, most notably, for LGBTQ+ representation.
After the gay romance premiered in July, Prime Video reported that the film hit No. 1 on the popular streamer, placing it in the top three of Prime Video’s most watched rom-com films ever. Amazon also noted that there’s been a big uptick in new Prime membership sign-ups due to the buzzy film. Even with what seems like a homophobic R rating, the movie couldn’t be stopped. Consider, also, that this is an unsettling time in our queer history, when LGBTQ+ people are routinely under attack across the world. A hit queer love story on a global streamer is a win for all of us.
But before the film, there was Casey McQuiston’s 2019 book. Those who pored over every juicy word in it already had bigger crushes on Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez) and Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) than they did for each other. Now readers can find new ways to love them in López’s film, where, like in the book, their romance doesn’t begin as a romance — Alex is the son of the U.S. president (Uma Thurman), and Henry is British royalty; they have reputations to uphold. But the two families shift into damage-control mode after something goes awry at a royal event, leading to a tentative friendship between the royal studs. That friendship gradually leads to the bedroom, where more than friendship-type things happen.
Ahead of the film’s release, López, who became the first Latino to win the Tony Award for Best Play for “The Inheritance” in 2021, spoke in depth about his approach to the movie’s sex scenes and how he looked to the “Harry Potter” films to inform his approach to turning a fan-loved book into a film.
What has it been like promoting this movie without the cast given the SAG-AFTRA union strikes?
Well, look, working in this business, you wear multiple hats. And the multiple hats that I’m wearing right now are, I’m very angry and I’m very sad. The part of me that’s sad is that I know how much love this film was made with, how much love that was put into this film. And that the cast is such a huge part of the film’s success.
If you are to think of the movie as a success, it’s because of this cast in large part. They deserve to be celebrated. And especially Taylor and Nick deserve to go out into the world and introduce themselves to the world. And I’m sad that Taylor and Nick don’t get a chance to do that.
I’m angry because this strike could have been avoided and it wasn’t. And that ain’t the fault of the actors and that ain’t the fault of the writers. So at the end of the day, I’ll be fine. The movie will be fine. Nick and Taylor will be fine. But unless we get a fair deal from the studios, nobody’s going to be fine.
From your point of view as director and co-writer, what was it about Taylor and Nick that made them ideal romantic leads for this film?
They’re just really special. I saw hundreds, and I mean hundreds, of actors for these parts over the course of about five months. And from the moment I met each of them for the first time, they stood out as special. And I saw a lot of really special people, and it wasn’t an easy decision in many ways, but it was indisputably the right decision to go with these two. And we kind of knew it from the moment we met each of them.
It’s rare that you get one young, dynamic actor giving what is in effect an introductory performance. To have two of them, and to have them both be so individually special, and together jointly otherworldly, is a unique thing. And I recognize that I am a lucky, lucky filmmaker. I am. And it is what makes me sad that I am not here with them, that they’re not here with me. The work will speak for itself. And Nick and Taylor don’t need any more than they’re about to get in terms of attention, but they deserve everything.
During the film, I was thinking about the conversation around why authentic queer sex is missing from a lot of content. But you give the LGBTQ+ community what we’ve been asking for. What was on your mind when it came to shooting those sex scenes?
It was really keeping in balance two seemingly diametrically opposed things, which is to be able to deliver authentic-seeming queer sex, gay sex, and allowing the audience an opportunity to understand something about the characters that they had yet to understand until this scene. So it was sort of like, how do you do both things?
And I also knew that the most important thing, actually, was the characters and that I had to serve the characters’ needs before the audience’s needs. In this scene you have Alex having penetrative sex for the first time with another man. And for Henry, the decision that Nick and I made before shooting this scene was… I allowed Nick to determine for himself the truths of Henry’s past. And there are a lot of things that Nick knows about Henry that I don’t know and that not even Casey knows. But one of the things that Nick and I decided together was this is the first time that Henry is having sex with someone he has real feelings for. So for both of them, it’s an incredibly life-changing experience.
There’s no way to have a life-changing experience without having an actual experience. And so, on the other side of the equation, I knew working with Robbie Taylor Hunt, my intimacy coordinator, and with Nick and Taylor, the four of us spent a lot of time talking about this scene and what I needed from it and how we were going to do it. And we all kind of arrived at this decision, led by me, that I wasn’t going to shoot any wider than the mid-torso because I couldn’t sacrifice for a moment the looks on their faces. And so what these two actors were going to need to do was, instead of merely perform a sex act, they were going to act the emotional response to a sex act, which is what I was really interested in telling.
But I also knew that the people watching this film who knew what was going on would know what was going on, and we couldn’t cheat. We couldn’t flub it. We couldn’t deliver anything other than something that was really authentic. So yeah, this was a scene that was devised by a queer filmmaker who knows a thing or two about what’s going on in that scene and what I wanted down to the most minute gesture. The thing that Robbie and I talked a lot about is, just the momentary moment of consent for the bottom to say to the top, “Go further.”
It’s funny because when you start to dissect it, it sounds incredibly schematic, and you don’t want it to ever appear schematic. But in fact, this was probably the most carefully thought out, choreographed, edited scene in the whole movie. But I think it had to be in order to get it right. I think hopefully what it does is it allows the audience to understand that sex between two men can be loving, can be tender, can be emotionally connected, as well as being very sexy and physically satisfying.
What would this film have meant to you as a kid?
This was the movie I needed to see, that I didn’t get to see when I was younger. And I say that not to self-aggrandize, but this is the story that I needed to see. That’s why I made the movie in the first place. I read the book and I thought to myself, “Where were you all my life? Where was Alex Claremont-Diaz all my life? Where was this beautiful fairytale all of my life? Why didn’t anybody think to write a fairytale for me?”
And so, for me, it really was my reaction to the book. I needed to make a movie in response to this book, in some ways, to make it up to young Matthew. Even though it wasn’t my fault that these things weren’t being made, but I needed something for the younger me to retroactively get. And so even though I had to wait until I was 46 and make it myself, I do hope that this is one of many things that makes life for queer audiences different than the life that I had growing up.
“The Inheritance” came to mind while I was watching this, and both that and “Red, White & Royal Blue” are based on books. What were the differences for you in adapting a work to stage versus screen?
Well, those are two incredibly, vastly different experiences. With “The Inheritance,” what I got to do, what I challenged myself to do with “Howards End,” is take my favorite novel and reframe it in a queer way. And to take it and update it by 100 years. And examine how much has changed in society, but how little has changed in human hearts and human behavior. And I allowed myself seven hours to tell the tale, and it really was in a way, not just an adaptation, but it was a reclamation, and it was an opportunity to just retell my favorite story in my own way. I knew that with “Red, White,” I had a very different set of responsibilities. All respect to my beloved E.M. Forster, there’s a slightly less rabid fan base for “Howards End” than there is for “Red, White & Royal Blue.” I had many more responsibilities to other people when I was making this film, not just financial.
The fandom around “Red, White & Royal Blue” is rabid.
Yeah. I actually had to allow myself to forget about it while I was making the movie, because if I thought about it, I would freeze up. And I think some of the worst film adaptations are the ones that are too worried about the fans. I’m going to say something bad about another filmmaker, and I don’t really mean it. Until the filmmakers of “Harry Potter” decided to just make movies rather than take the books and turn them into screen, that’s when those movies started to breathe. Those first couple of movies were really tight. They were really tight. And then [director] David Yates came on board, and David Yates said, “Let’s just make movies.” And they worked better. And I love [director] Chris Columbus, but David Yates made those movies films.
So I knew that if I was too observant to the novel, I would end up failing the very people that I was making this for in part. So for me, it was very simple. It was Alex and Henry. It was their journey. It was their story. Anything that didn’t help me tell that story didn’t belong in the film. And my goal at the end of the day was to simply give the audience an opportunity to feel exactly the same way they felt at the end of the movie as they did at the end of the book. I always say that however long the runtime of the audiobook is, subtract that by two [hours]. The number of hours that it runs subtracted by two, and that’s what’s not in the movie. And that is the huge difference between a book and a film, right? It was daunting, but it was only daunting when I allowed myself to think about it. And so I tried not to think about it too much.
I was watching this and thinking it could have been episodic. Had you ever considered making “Red, White & Royal Blue” a TV series?
You would have the same problem, but in reverse — you’d have too much time to fill. And instead of subtracting, you would’ve ended up adding. That’s when you’re going to really get into trouble with the fans. And I was talking to Casey McQuiston about it the other day, actually. Case has seen the film and really loves the film. I got to show Casey the movie at a screening room a couple of months ago. And my hope for it, and Casey’s hope as well, if I’m allowed to speak for them, which I think I am in this regard, is that instead of one thing, the fans of the book now have two things. They have their novel, which they can always return to anytime they want to, and now they have the movie, which is different enough from the book to be its own thing, but respectful enough to the book, and in love enough for the book, to also deliver exactly the same feelings that the book delivered.
With “The Inheritance,” what’s it like to see a work so close to you being brought to theaters around the world?
Especially a play that is so personal to me as that is — it’s why you write theater. You don’t just write theater for the New York and London audiences. You write theater, you create plays for everyone. And that so many different communities, not just in the United States, but around the world, are getting to see this play, and that it’s being translated into so many languages, it makes all the sacrifices that I had to make in order to bring that play into the world worth it.
You made history as the first Latino playwright to win a Tony Award for Best Play. Where do you keep that Tony?
At my house in London. It’s an ongoing debate in my relationship as to where to put the Tony, because we moved into this house about a year ago, and there is this beautiful fireplace mantel. And my husband put my Tony Award and my Olivier Award next to each other on the mantel. And I walked in and I looked at it and I was like, “That’s gauche.” I was like, “Let’s put it on the fourth shelf from the bottom, and let’s just let people find it.” And he was like, “No, no, no, no, no. We are proud of this. We put it out there.” And so it is sitting very prominently on a mantel in my living room. And sometimes I am proud of it, and sometimes I’m like, “One day I think I’m going to move it to someplace a little more discreet.” But for now, he wins.
Proud husband wins.
Proud husband wins, and it’s on the mantel. Once he started installing the spotlight and the lights blinking at it and the seat in front of it, staring up at it, then I do draw the line there.