EDGE Interview: With his Directorial Debut, Matthew López Goes 'Red, White & Royal Blue'
Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 9 MIN.
You might know out playwright Matthew López as the Tony Award-winning author of the play "The Inheritance," a modern New York version of E. M. Forster's novel "Howards End" that has transfixed audiences and transported critics – so much so that the stage work commanded the 2019 and 2020 awards seasons, including the Tony Award for Best New Play. Thrillingly, he queered Forster's plot (and the long-closeted Forster himself) into a moving chronicle of how AIDS has impacted two generations of gay men.
But López also has an appreciation for less "literary" entertainments, helping turn Billy Wilder's uproarious 1959 Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon vehicle "Some Like It Hot" into a 2022 stage musical and netting a Tony Award nomination (as well as a second Drama Desk Award) for the musical's book, which he co-wrote with Amber Ruffin.
Now, in his feature film debut, López has co-written (with Ted Malawer) the movie adaptation of queer and non-binary author Casey McQuiston's beloved 2019 novel "Red, White & Royal Blue," a gay romance about the heated relationship between an English prince, Henry, and Alex, the son of the first woman to be President of the United States. More than that, López is making his debut as a feature film director with the project. The result is a cinematic work that feels as confident as it is breezily charming – even if the Motion Picture association, the same group that recently slapped an NC-17 rating on Ira Sach's gay drama "Passages," has seen fit to saddle the film (which arguably rises to a PG-13 territory) with an R rating... something that López, quite rightly, has questioned.
EDGE caught up with Matthew López to ask the newly minted movie director about casting the film's heartthrob leads – Nicholas Galitzine and Taylor Zakhar Perez – as well as getting his read on the book's "enormous" popularity, and how he shot the classic cake-and-tuxedoes scene that puts the story into motion.
EDGE: There was huge anticipation for this adaptation of the novel from the start. Did you expect that would be the case?
Matthew López: No. And the reason is, I first encountered this book before it became a phenomenon, and I let it be known that I wanted to make this movie long before [the book] became big. Then I was busy for the last two and a half years making the movie, and I wasn't really paying too much attention to much else. The phenomenon of this book kind of sprang up simultaneous to the making of this movie. So, by the time I got my head back up out of the sand and looked around, I realized that I was directing a movie based on a book that had an enormous, enormous fan base.
I think I noticed it the day the project was announced, and announced me as director. I realized that I had, like, 15,000 new Instagram followers overnight. I think if I had known going into it, or if it had already been a phenomenon by the time I came on board, it probably would have stymied me, so I'm kind of glad I worked from a place of ignorance, because it certainly helped make my life a lot easier.
EDGE: There must be a completely different challenge to adapting a novel into a movie than there would be to writing a play from scratch.
Matthew López: Yeah, absolutely. Although, in some ways, it does feel the same. You're always starting from scratch, no matter what. You have a roadmap from the book, for sure, and you definitely have the characters – which, for me, that was the way in, was the characters. But what you still are left with is the challenge of how to tell this story in a different medium. The use of time, the use of space, even, is so different.
It's certainly helpful that a lot of the imagination has already been done. Casey's imagination is something that I could then borrow. But you always feel like you're starting from scratch.
EDGE: Having read the book before you came to this project as a filmmaker, did you have a strong sense of what you wanted in the actors, and who the actors should be? Or were you looking for someone who would ring that bell for you?
Matthew López: They rang the bell. I knew that with roles like this, probably with the exception of Uma [Thurman, who plays the U.S. president] and Stephen Fry [who plays the king of England], I couldn't really allow myself to have too many preconceived notions about what I wanted. Especially for Alex and Henry – I needed them to reveal themselves to me. I couldn't actually go out and hunt for that specific type that I wanted.
So, I saw quite literally hundreds and hundreds of actors for these roles, especially for Alex, and they emerged. Taylor and Nick showed up the first time in my inbox with self-tapes, and I was very intrigued by them. I could instantly see those characters in them, and I did a lot of work with them one on one and built an understanding of who they were as actors. Then I did this chemistry read with them over Zoom one day, and by that point it was obvious to all of us that we had found our actors, and it was so exciting.
I told the producers that I wouldn't make this movie if I didn't find the right actors for Alex and Henry; there would be no point in it, because it wouldn't be good. I'm glad I didn't have to stick to my guns on that, because those two make the movie what it is, for sure.
EDGE: If they already had chemistry over a Zoom meeting, what was it like to bring them together in the same space?
Matthew López: We rehearsed this thing for about two weeks before we started filming, and it was almost entirely Taylor and Nick. They had had phone calls and FaceTime in the weeks leading up to it. They just they clicked on Zoom, and they really clicked in person.
It's a very simple thing of, they're two people who really like each other, they get each other, they click. They're very, very different from one another, which also helps, and they ended up really trusting one another. I think there was an element, too, that they knew that each of them knew that they were taking on the biggest thing that ever done before, and they needed each other. I think there's an element of them deciding to trust each other because they needed to.
EDGE: Hearing Uma Thurman with a Texas accent took the film to a completely different place. What drew you to Thurman for the role of the first woman U.S. president?
Matthew López: She was always high on my list of actors for that role. When we were talking about that part, Uma was always at the top of that list. Eventually we just sent her the script, and she responded to what she read, and she wanted to get on a Zoom with me. We spoke for about an hour, hour and a half one day, and then we had another follow up conversation. Uma is so creative and so collaborative. She wanted to get right to work, even though she hadn't accepted the part yet.
EDGE: One of the most iconic images from this movie already is the two actors covered in cake in their tuxedos. How many takes with that cake did you need to get what you wanted out of that moment?
Matthew López: [Gestures: "One."] The big cake that you see all composed and put together, that was actually latex and Styrofoam. The consumable cake that we had to get them all mucky with... we had multiple costumes ready, we had plans to get them into the shower, redo their hair and makeup, but I also knew that I'd lose 90 minutes each time I did that. Anybody who has ever directed a film will know 90 minutes is an eternity. So, we got them on the floor, and it was me and my production designer with globs and globs of cake and frosting in our hands. We made sure everything was right; everything was set up; we didn't leave anything to chance, and she and I threw the cake into their faces!
I looked at the footage, and I knew that we had it. And I didn't want to do it again. We went in and rebuilt, then we filled in the space around them with more cake, and more gunk, and more Styrofoam, and more icing. But we actually got it in one take, which is pretty incredible.
"Red, White & Royal Blue" streams on Amazon starting Aug. 11.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.