Matthew López is Beaming Red, White & Royal Blue

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

This August, Amazon Prime releases the highly anticipated Red, White & Royal Blue, the tale of Alex and Henry, the son of the US President falling in love with the son of the King of the UK – shenanigans and politics ensue. The film, both sultry and sweet at the same time, is based on the New York Times bestselling book by Casey McQuiston. The book was an instant hit, and with the charm, stellar cast (including Uma Thurman), and truly heartful direction, this film should be no less. At the film’s helm is the king (or queen) of the stage, mastermind Matthew López, making his feature film co-writing and directing debut. Let’s hope if the film sweeps the award shows, he has enough room on his shelf next to his Tony Award, Olivier Award, Outer Critics Circle Awards, Drama Desk Awards, Drama League Award, GLAAD Media Award, and a handful of others. Despite his youth, he’s already achieved more on the stage as a playwright than most writers accomplish in a lifetime.

Though he is entertainment’s hardworking darling, he wasn’t always the center of attention. His awkward childhood was a blessing in disguise.

I wasn’t very popular [laughs]. I was that kid who was popular with adults, but not with other kids. I read a lot of books as a kid, and I listened to a lot of musical theater cast albums. I was largely out of step, I kept to myself, and I cocooned a lot. Whether that was because I was a little queer Puerto Rican kid in Panama City, Florida, I don’t know. That may have been a coping mechanism. But I think the result is that I learned how to use my imagination. I was an incredibly imaginative kid. I dreamed up scenarios in my head, I put on plays. So, I think I was always telling stories from the get-go, and fortunate for me that I actually turned that into a career!

Entertainment was in his blood. Not only was his father in the original West Side Story film, but his aunt is actor Priscilla Lopez, who originated the role of Diana Morales in A Chorus Line. The real spark, though, was thanks to Broadway itself.

My parents took me to New York for the holidays one year. Not only did I see my first Broadway show, I saw my first piece of theater ever, which was Peter Pan, the musical with Sandy Duncan. It lit my fuse. It absolutely set the course of the rest of my life on that one matinee when I was five years old. There was something there. Obviously, there’s something incredibly magical and fantastical about Peter Pan. There’s something about being a forever kid that is very appealing. I think there’s a lot of Peter Pan in me. There’s a reason my character in The Inheritance, Toby, is named Toby Darling – he’s named after the kids in that story.

López’s pieces couldn’t be more different. Not banking on the success of a previous subject matter, each of his plays tells a tale more different than the other. His breakout play was the Off-Broadway production of The Whipping Man. Taking place immediately after the Civil War, it centers around two former slaves who encounter their former master, all of whom are Jewish. It explores the different ways people can remain enslaved – addictions, prejudices.  It was a hit and extended four times with López winning the John Gassner New Play Award. His next three plays, Somewhere, Reverberation, and The Legend of Georgia McBride, were all hits unto their own, with subject matter ranging from a theatrical family in 1959’s Manhattan (a tip of the hat to West Side Story), to agoraphobic victims of violence, to a down-on-his-luck Elvis impersonator who turns to drag for redemption. It was his fifth major play, The Inheritance, that sealed López’s place in the theatre. Called “the most important American play of the century” by The Daily Telegraph, the play takes place 30 years after the AIDS epidemic and explores the relationships and connections gay men make across generations and social classes, asking the question, what responsibilities do we have for the youth who come after us? It was an instant critical success, sweeping the awards season, including 11 Tony nominations. With each play so wildly different than the other, he doesn’t seem burdened by the need to stick with a style or theme.

I guess I don’t like to repeat myself. I have a tendency when I do anything, I do it with an obsessive quality. It really becomes the only thing that I can think about and when I’m done, I don’t want to think about it again. And so, I think that sort of lends itself to wanting to try different things and try different kinds of storytelling. At the end of the day, I’m fascinated by people who are not me. I’m stuck with me; I’ve been me for all my life. I think that I’m not one of those people who really needs you all to watch my therapy session. I did a fair amount of that in The Inheritance, and I feel like I’m done. I’d rather really explore other people. I think there’s also a part of it that kid who spent much of his childhood in his room alone, reading books and listening to music. So, when I, as a writer, as a creator, get to sort of take bits of people who actually exist in the world whom I know or have observed, and then turn them into my characters, I sort of encounter the world that way. Maybe it’s because it’s safe. Look, I’m not a shut-in, I’m very much in the world and I definitely have very healthy relationships with other people, but many writers are, before anything else, observers. And I feel like I’m the same way.

Not only did The Inheritance win the Olivier, Drama Desk, Drama League, and GLAAD Media Awards, but López made theatre history as the first Latino writer to win a Tony for Best Play. After such success, where do you go from there? Did he feel the pressure to strike gold again?

I’m going to fail at things, it’s inevitable. I’m a human being. I’m flawed. I’m just a person telling stories. I’m truly fortunate that I get to tell the stories that I want to, and that I’ve been supported along the way and been given the chance to tell them. I don’t ever take that for granted. If you can accept that failure is inevitable, then it just relieves you of the pressure to succeed. And you can just simply tell the story you want to tell in the best way you know and hope that you know your instincts are right and that people will respond to it. So far, so good.

Always one to challenge himself, he is shifted from the stage to the screen for the adaptation of Red, White & Royal Blue. Filled with romance and comedy, it also has substance but is never heavy-handed. It is simply a love story first. For someone who has witnessed the evolution of LGBTQ content on the stage and screen, this type of content is the future in representation and a sign that we have moved on to a new level of storytelling.

At the end of the day in a story like this, you need to care. Sometimes in order to make an audience care, you need to put your heroes in danger, but you also want the audience to fall in love. And there is nothing more deliriously fun than falling in love. Just as Alex and Henry fall in love with each other, the audience has to fall in love with them. And that is such a fun thing to be able to create. That’s a fun story to tell. I never thought that we were making something completely lightweight and disposable. I definitely didn’t want the movie to feel disposable. I didn’t want people to see it and then forget about it the next day, because the characters stayed with me after I read the book. I wanted the movie to feel exactly the same way the book felt. I wanted those characters to linger in the audience’s mind once the movie was over in the days, in the weeks after they’d seen the film. And that was the most important thing to me.

I grew up in the ‘80s and the ‘90s and the only queer media I was able to consume was all about dying of AIDS, or how to hate myself. There are great works that came out of that time. There are tremendously beautiful pieces of traumatic literature, movies, and even television at the time. But I’m very grateful that I am able to participate in the creative process now. I think one of the exciting things is the scope of representation and the number of people who I, as a queer creator, get to both work with and get to watch their work. With this explosion of storytelling, what I’m eager for is the beginning of a conversation between these pieces, between queer creators. Are we creating a constellation of individual pieces that don’t cohere in any kind of a cultural narrative? Or are we actually building some sort of a tapestry that generations from now can look back at the work we are making right now, and be able to tell a story about who we were as a society?

Directing this film was at the top of López’ to-do list.

I read the book and I basically stalked (producers) Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter until they relented and let me make the film. I read the book in early 2020 just before the pandemic, and I was so crazy in love with it. I felt crazy in love with Alex and Henry. I read it in a day and a half, and I was obsessed with it. I wouldn’t take no for an answer. I said ‘I have to make this movie.’ I’m grateful that my passion didn’t read as insanity and they all said yes. It has been my very happy obsession for the last two years.

This film also marks Matthew’s debut as a director. Even with all of his stage awards and successes, doing film is an entirely different beast. What were the first few days of filming like?

Nausea every morning [laughs]. The best bit of encouragement I got was from my 78-year-old director of photography, Steven Goldblatt, who worked with Mike Nichols and Francis Ford Coppola. He said to me, after the first hour of the first day, “You will no longer be an inexperienced filmmaker, you will simply be an unpracticed filmmaker, and that will take care of itself over time.” I remember those words almost verbatim because they really calmed me. I was surrounded by incredibly experienced people who taught me how to make a film, especially through the pre-production process.

The most daunting thing was that we had a Covid shutdown about three weeks into production. So, I went into the edit because I had nothing else to do, and I figured I’d go ahead and get started cutting the movie. That was the most helpful thing for me because I came back to the set once we went back into production, and I had a week’s worth of knowing how to edit a film. It changed the way I made the movie. I wish I had sat in on someone else’s edit because the most daunting thing was simply trusting that I had what I needed and trying not to overshoot and avoid undershooting. Someone else knew where to put the light, someone else knew where to put the camera, and I knew how to talk to actors from my experience in theater. I think for me, it was how do you have the movie in your head before you’ve even made the movie? That was the practice I needed to gain.

The leads in the film are hot, hands down. And the film does not shy away from the physical aspect of Alex and Henry’s relationship. Even though straight mainstream films are saturated with sex scenes, there is a bit of tension when watching same-sex coupling in a mainstream film. With the political attacks on our community focusing on our alleged hypersexual and grooming nature, why was it so important to keep these scenes in, naked and all?

Our sex is beautiful. The way we have sex is beautiful. Our intimacy is beautiful. Consensual sex between two humans is a beautiful thing, and it’s one of the wonderful things about being alive. The book is very steamy, very sexual, and I really love that about the book. I knew that I’d be committing heresy if I didn’t bring that into the film. A sex scene in a movie is like a song in a musical. It really does need to either charm you or teach you something about the characters and move the plot along. The other thing, too, is that you’re asking two performers to do something that is really vulnerable, and you don’t ever want to ask too much of them, and you don’t ever want to make anybody feel uncomfortable or forced into doing something. We were conscientious about how we approached each one of these scenes. I spent a lot of time with my intimacy coordinator mapping them out. We really paid particular attention to what story are we telling with each and every one of these intimacy scenes so that we could turn around and speak to Taylor and Nick and explain to them exactly why we were asking them to do what we were asking them to do. Beyond just sort of the mechanics of the filmmaking, to tell the story of Alex and Henry and not include the fact that they are very passionately, physically attracted to one another, is to not tell the full story of Alex and Henry.

The full story of Alex and Henry is beautifully crafted and a joy to watch. No doubt it will join the library of queer films that become a staple of viewing not just for the queer community, but for everyone. No doubt López’s film career will meet the same success as his stage career for the simple fact that any one of his projects comes from the heart. Obsession has its payoffs.

Red, White & Royal Blue streams on Amazon Prime on August 11th.

Last modified: August 8, 2023