The star of Love, Simon—a film about a closeted gay high schooler—identifies as straight. But with nuance, poise, and the direction of Greg Berlanti, the 22-year-old Robinson’s portrayal of Simon Spier is everything we need it to be.
GQ – There’s a more-than-certain chance you don’t know Nick Robinson. That’s going to change. You’re about to know Nick Robinson the way you knew Ansel Elgort after The Fault in Our Stars became event viewing for teens everywhere. That’s all because Robinson’s turn in Love, Simon feels like a long-overdue moment. The movie follows Simon Spier (Robinson), a closeted gay high schooler who falls in love with an anonymous classmate he’s been chatting to via e-mail. He’s also being blackmailed by another classmate who threatens to out him to the whole school—typical high school stuff, then.
Based on the must-read book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, and directed by the current king of teen TV Greg Berlanti (Riverdale might ring a bell), the film is notable not only because there’s a lead gay character, but because it’s the first gay teen romance ever to be released by a major movie studio. Unlike another queer movie that deservedly found itself swept up in hype and awards-season chatter, Love, Simon isn’t chasing after an art-house crowd searching for picturesque cinematography. No, this is a movie made (quite literally) with teen audiences and their parents in mind.
“One of the things that I think Simon does is that he’s extremely self-aware, basically to a fault, to the point where he is suppressing his own personality out of fear of anyone finding a little tick or inclination that might be perceived as gay,” Robinson explains. “He’s very polite, he’s very nice, but he’s also editing himself constantly, and that, I think, can leave you cold.”
It’s tapping into this that elevates Robinson’s performance. Despite being an actor who identifies as straight, he harnesses that interior sorrow, loneliness, and emotional turmoil that hiding your identity entails, while never overplaying it for melodrama or dramatic effect. And it’s clear when you speak to him that he carries some of this seriousness with him always. Still, his turn as Simon is what transforms this fairly standard teen romance into emotive and essential viewing
GQ spoke to Robinson about his own high school experience, what a straight actor’s place is when playing gay characters, and being immortalized as a GIF.
GQ: What is it like being Nick Robinson right in this very moment?
Nick Robinson: Controlled chaos would be a good way to describe it. Although they might be the two words to describe my life all the time, but especially right now.
Was your life controlled chaos in high school?
I like to think now I put a lot of emphasis on balance. I mean there are moments of chaos, but it’s balanced by moments of serenity or reflection. I might have a very messy room, but the rest of the house is clean. In high school I was similar. High school is chaotic enough as it is, but I probably did help it along a little bit. I went to a few different schools—I bopped around a bit, and I think I got pretty good at fitting in and finding different groups that I could hang out with. In one way that’s a great thing, and in other ways not so much. You lose, I think, the consistency and the depth of relationships that you would have if you were to stay at one place all four years.
I guess that displacement might help you adjust to joining different film sets and getting close with cast and crews.
I think going to a film set is like going off to camp. You bond really quickly because you have these really intense experiences. It’s a group of people who are on a team and you’re all trying to get something done. Usually that means that people will form relationships faster than they normally would just out of necessity. It doesn’t always work like that though. Sometimes, y’know, you’re really just trying to get through it and it can feel like more of a 9-to-5 than something more exciting. You try very quickly to find someone, and there’s usually someone that you can relate to.
Greg Berlanti, the director, has talked a bit about how the two of you built the character of Simon and how he talked to you about his experiences being a closeted teenager. What was that like having someone tell you those personal things about themselves?
Greg and I did speak in depth. He was so willing and open that it felt like he wanted to share his story. I really did get to know him and his family and his story. But sharing those stories, even if for him it’s been 20+ years since he came out of the closet to his family members, it’s still really intimate. I hesitate to say it’s a hard thing to do, but it’s not something that you just go around sharing casually.
Hearing his experience was really helpful, but also really touching. He had a similar experience to Simon in that he was closeted in high school and it wasn’t until college that he started to slowly come out the closet.
Simon’s so reserved because he’s afraid of people finding out his secret, and that was something Greg and I talked about, too. It’s difficult when you’re constantly self-aware and editing yourself to create friendships. But luckily for Simon, he’s had these friends his entire adolescence and even pre-puberty, before any of the conversations about sexuality entered the picture. His friendships are definitely a crutch for him to lean on when he otherwise couldn’t make them, especially at the beginning of the film when he’s so entrenched in his routine, in keeping his head down and being invisible.
Something I found so moving was the way that you portrayed that inner turmoil, especially in the scene where Simon is outed and he shouts at his sister. How did you get into that headspace?
Oftentimes when we’re hurting, we push away the people who are closest, either because they’re in arm’s length or because we’re just lashing out in frustration. Simon had been so careful in his life up to that point to hide his secret that when he’s outed very publicly and not on his terms, he wants to give up. He doesn’t want to be consoled and he doesn’t want to hear that things will get better.
The only thing about that is when you lash out in anger like that, especially to someone who’s close to you, you almost immediately regret it and feel worse afterwards. Unfortunately, after speaking with Greg and others, it’s obviously a very common experience to feel absolutely alone in those moments. It’s when you need people the most, really.
There is an argument in certain circles that gay actors should be playing gay roles. Was there any hesitance on your part of taking up the role because of this?
It’s a valid question and it was a concern of mine. Initially I thought that maybe making this movie was not my place. But in speaking with Greg, he was very adamant that I was right for this role, so I just had to trust in him and believe in his vision. I think that now is a better time than ever to be not just playing a gay part, but just in general to be playing parts that are outside of your experience or comfort zone. I know it didn’t have bad intentions at all. I really just had to trust in Greg’s vision for this thing based off of his experience and what he had to say.
It is a nuanced conversation because it’s not necessarily a bad thing for straight identifying actors to play gay roles. To believe that is, in my opinion, silly.
Right, and I would agree. It’s sort of what acting is, right? There’s a quote somewhere that’s like, “Acting is like stepping into someone else’s shoes without suffering the consequences,” and that’s both a good and bad thing. But I think that it breeds empathy and understanding. It could be said for exactly the opposite. Why can’t queer identifying actors play straight parts? It’s a character; it’s not a reflection of the person. I think representation is a powerful thing, and I can understand people wanting to be represented on screen by people that they feel represent them in real life.
So I put my faith in Greg and did a Hail Mary. And from what we’ve seen it appears that people are really responding to this story, and I think that this movie and these characters actually take on a life of their own outside of whoever plays them. I think that Simon is now his own thing; I play him, but I think people can put what they want on to him and that’s okay. That’s the point, that people can see something of themselves in Simon, regardless of their sexuality. That’s the important thing.
Are you prepared for how fandom might build around the film?
It’s happened already in a certain sense. I’ve done films before this and see the reaction from people who really, really like the movie, and I try not to pay too much attention or laugh about it, but it is intense. We were in Dallas yesterday with 200 rabid Simon fans who are really excited about the movie and I think it’s that’s amazing that it’s reaching people and resonating. But my hope is that people can separate the character from the person. We’ll see what happens. I think that it’s a hard thing to prepare for having a GIF made of you or a Tumblr page.
Your own social media accounts are quite elusive. What’s your relationship like with it?
I remain mysterious. I actually had accounts before the ones I have now and I used them much more frequently, but then I kinda got nervous after Jurassic World and I retreated. I haven’t really gone back to it. I don’t really know if the best thing to do is to pretend it’s not there or to embrace it. Right now, I don’t use it very much because I don’t want it to have a lot of power in my life. Social media is the wild, wild, west, and I’d prefer to stay out of the fray as possible.
I think a certain generation are aware of how it can impact people differently. Obviously in Love, Simon that’s exemplified, but we’ve also seen it recently with how teenagers have rallied around conversations about gun control following the Parkland shooting.
Social media is a yin and yang like that. I’ve tried to, with this new iteration of my Instagram account, be socially aware, to be an active citizen by getting out certain messages here and there. I don’t want to over-politicize anything, but after the Parkland shooting it was heartbreaking. You’re seeing the same cycle happening again of “thoughts and prayers” and then no actual legislation. It’s kind of insane that we’re having conversations about arming teachers, like that’s somehow a solution to the problem. I think people are aware, too, of the impact that social media can have on a person.
There’s been some very public figures who have been very forthcoming with their experiences of social media and mental health, and the pressures that it exerts on a person. So I think hopefully users—people, followers, whatever—are more aware now of the duality of it. I think it’s a step to demystifying celebrity. You can really relate and reach people directly who have seen your work and that element is sort of deconstructing celebrity, if that makes sense. Not to get too deep about it. I don’t know. People have said it much better than I have.
You know, whatever. I’ll resign myself to GIFs. I’ll just be a GIF.