When executive producers Julie Plec and Brett Matthews set out to expand the Vampire Diaries universe with Legacies, the second spinoff of the long-running CW supernatural drama, they knew they wanted to depict a same-sex romance between two male characters at the Salvatore Boarding School for the Young & Gifted. But instead of simply checking another box for network television, they wanted to wait for the right story to present itself.
In the show’s third season, Price Peterson—a former recapper of The Vampire Diaries and current television writer who had recently joined Legacies—was helping to oversee the production of his first episode when he struck up a conversation with Kaylee Bryant, who played Josie Saltzman (and who left the series last December). In addition to discussing the romantic potential of Josie and Finch (Courtney Bandeko), Bryant informed Peterson that Ben Levin, who plays Jed Tien, had expressed his willingness to play a queer character in an homage to several members of his family who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. As they began to map out the fourth season, the writers—who have become famous for balancing the absurd (think leprechauns, banshees, killer clowns) with classic adolescent angst—found an opening to flesh out Jed’s backstory.
In the “Was This the Monster You Saw?” episode, which aired on March 31, Jed—who was first introduced as an insecure, hot-headed bully—revealed that he had killed his own abusive father instead of fighting his childhood friend (and first crush) Trey to the death. In the process, Jed activated his curse as a werewolf and eventually found himself at a school where supernatural beings can learn to control their natural abilities and impulses. But all of the feelings that he had repressed about his true identity came bubbling to the surface when he met Ben, a.k.a. Prometheus (Zane Phillips), a 5000-year-old demigod who once stole magic from the gods to save his ailing lover, Ashur. When those efforts proved unsuccessful, Ben bestowed the magic upon the people of his village, who only abused that power, leading to the creation of monsters. In retaliation, Ben’s father, Ken (Luke Mitchell), cursed him to be attacked by monsters and to heal by sunrise for eternity . . . until he crossed paths with Jed.
Phillips, a New York-based theater actor who will next be seen in Hulu’s gay rom-com Fire Island (out June 3) and Netflix’s legal drama Partner Track, auditioned for Legacies with a self-taped audition last October, but he originally thought he was vying to play Rasputin’s immortal son. Peterson, who had written new material specifically for that audition, said he watched a hundred casting tapes of young actors but was immediately drawn to Phillips’ physicality and ability to take “very, very silly” dialogue and give it “this seriousness and this emotional resonance” with his “almost paranormal level expressive eyes.”
“He was just a very buff and square-jawed sort of guy, and let’s just say there’s not a big pool of people that are good actors who look like that,” Peterson told Observer. “We narrowed it down to a smaller group of people, but there was never anyone else at any point. If anything, the biggest debate was, ‘Who is our back-up in case Zane says no?’ It felt almost supernatural that he came along” at the perfect time.
From the outset, Matthews, who now serves as the showrunner, and Peterson were also adamant about finding an openly gay actor who could bring their own lived experience to the role. In this case, Phillips had posted about his personal life on Instagram and had already filmed Fire Island, which was written by Peterson’s good friend, Joel Kim Booster. “I reached out to Joel and I was like, ‘Hey, there’s a guy auditioning for our show who was on Fire Island. What’s his story? We’re looking for a sort of a gay, demigod type,’” Peterson recalled with a smile. “And he’s like, ‘Well, not only is Zane that for sure, but I actually have willed this into existence. I’ve always said he should be on The CW, so this is perfect.’”
After he was cast in November, Phillips arrived on the Atlanta set a couple of months later to shoot his first scene, in which Ben—having fully transformed from a flayed, charred corpse into a hunky, chiseled god—tells an instantly besotted Jed that monsters are now the least of his problems. Since Ben initially couldn’t speak due to his injuries, some of his scenes from earlier episodes were shot with a smaller body double, so that was also the day Levin and Phillips first met.
And while they hadn’t done a chemistry read, Levin and Phillips “immediately began to hang out, and they got to know each other and just became instant friends, and that was Ben Levin just being so welcoming and excited to meet his new scene partner,” Peterson said. “He knew the importance of who Zane would be playing, and he knew this would be a romance. I think he really appreciated just getting to know Zane and talking about what he’s bringing to the character.”
Even in separate Zoom windows, Levin and Phillips’ natural chemistry was on full display. The night before our interview in early April, Phillips had shown Levin an early cut of Fire Island, which the latter raved about at the start of our conversation. Between light-hearted, quick-witted banter about who’s taller (Phillips), what their characters’ “ship” name should be (it’s a tie between JedBen, BenJed and Jedetheus right now) and their initial impressions of one another (Levin immediately noticed Phillips’ “very deep, piercing blue eyes” and “how physically imposing he is”), both actors understood the shared responsibility of telling a queer love story in a genre that has historically overlooked those narratives.
“I’ve heard [some] not great things about actors who are in the queer love story, but they don’t really want to be,” Phillips admitted. “And for me, I just wanted to be open-hearted the entire time, and I could not have been more blessed to have Ben because I think he’s the ideal scene partner. He is so open, he is so responsive, he wants the work to be good. He wants to have a personal relationship with me because I think it shows through in the characters. I do think we’re good friends now, and I adore him so much as a person already, so it’s not hard to have chemistry with him onscreen.”
From the moment they first meet, Jed finds himself drawn to Ben—a personal connection akin to kindred spirits or soulmates that only seems to deepen as they begin to bond over their experiences with toxic father figures in broken homes. In doing so, Phillips said, Jed and Ben “unlock a new part of [their] own personalities, and it does speak to this soul connection. Of course there is attraction there, and I adore that, but to discover more about yourself through another person, I think that’s one of the best things that can happen in a relationship.”
Because of Ben’s curse, “he is doomed to not have people who he can care about and who will care about him,” Phillips added. “And to have this guy come along and say, ‘No, of course, you can have a home here’—I think it just can’t be overstated. There’s this sort of ancient tendency to say, like, ‘You have done this great thing for me, and that, to me, speaks of love, and therefore I am gonna show you my loyalty and my love.’” In other words, they are “able to be a place of safety for each other, even in this very unsafe situation.”
Late one night, Jed finally reveals his “deepest, darkest truth” to Ben, which is “a huge leap for Jed,” Levin said. “The goal on that day was really to tie those two aspects of myself—one being revealing this dark, horrible truth and knowing that I don’t regret killing my father because he was such a horrible person, and then tying that into the person who makes me feel safe now, who has brought this out of me.” After coming to terms with his past, Jed kisses Ben, marking a turning point in their relationship and allowing Jed to reclaim the power that his father once held over him. “You’re seeing him with all of his assuredness going for that kiss,” Levin explained.
The kiss was also a first for Phillips, who had never kissed another man romantically in a project before. “We had done the wide shot [for that scene] and Trevor [E.S. Juarez], our director for that episode, was like, ‘Hey, you guys don’t have to do the kiss for this if you want to keep it fresh.’ [But Levin] fucking planted it on me regardless, and I think every single take I made a little noise—a little ‘uh,’” he recalled with a laugh. “It is this sort of release between these two characters, and I think this relationship in the show is this constant tension and release, because we are seeing these guys both with a lot of trauma, both not having unwrapped themselves in this way ever before.”
While Hollywood has made major strides in LGBTQ+ representation in the last decade, Phillips, who grew up in a “very conservative” small town in Texas where he struggled to articulate what it meant to be queer until he was much older, thinks “there is still a fundamental fear” when it comes to depicting a relationship between two men. “We want it to be a little defanged, we want it to be a little sexless, we want it to seem safe or funny or a joke,” he said. So, “to see two men come into their power through a relationship with each other—[they] are two very powerful forces coming together—is so, so cool. This idea that you don’t have to diminish yourself to pursue something with another man, you don’t have to pretend that you’re less than you are, which is a contrast to how we’re taught to grow up as queer men.”
“There’s still so much room for us to broaden the definition of what queer characters onscreen should look like, and I’m coming at this as a cis[gender] white man who presents a certain way. So hopefully, I’m just a jumping off point when I’m in things,” said Phillips, who noted how much this storyline would have meant to his closeted 12-year-old self. “But it does mean a lot to me that I can do these projects and still bring who I am to the table. It’s a very powerful sense of freedom, and I think to be able to empower queer creatives is a huge accomplishment.”
As a straight actor, Levin said he was initially wary of overstepping or portraying a character that could contradict over three seasons of characterization. But when he learned of his character’s backstory, Levin felt like the introduction of Ben helped to awaken an existing part of Jed that had laid dormant for years. “Jed listens to Ben’s story, and I think that very detailed retelling that we see is kind of what really propels Jed to feel that deep connection,” he said. For Jed, “now it’s about that sliding scale of sexuality and coming into my own and realizing that that the way I’ve been behaving was because of that repression and trauma.”
Phillips added: “The way our patriarchy works, it doesn’t allow men of any sexuality to feel the fullness of who they are. It doesn’t allow them to explore feelings, intimate friendships or anything like that. [Legacies] does pursue intimate male friendship, and it does pursue this sort of coming out—and the trauma to do with coming out isn’t from what people would think. That’s why I think it’s refreshing.”
In a recent Instagram post, Peterson wrote that Jed and Ben’s undeniable connection will “bloom and deepen in surprising and hopefully moving ways.” While The Vampire Diaries and its first spinoff, The Originals, were “very dark and nihilistic,” Legacies is “almost brutally optimistic,” in the sense that all of the characters are fighting for their own happy ending, Peterson said. Although conflict is necessary for any love story, the writers have had a lot of conversations about getting this queer romance right—and avoiding harmful, pervasive tropes—while also acknowledging that logistical challenges meant they have fallen short with exploring other fan-favorite relationships in the past.
For Jed, meeting Ben “sort of shifts his world view because up until this moment, protecting the pack and being a pack leader is a defining characteristic of Jed. It’s something that he prides himself in—it’s his loyalty to the pack and protecting Hope [Danielle Rose Russell] at the school,” Levin said. “And now he has this extremely powerful force of love in his life that is pulling him away from what his duties have been and what he feels aligned to.”
And while the last episode ended with Ben reawakening his evil father, seemingly in an attempt to reunite with his former lover, there is more to the demigod’s plan than meets the eye—and it all comes back to Jed.
“After 5000 years of mourning his dead boyfriend, Ben is now all in on Jed, and there is a very singular focus to this character,” Phillips previewed. “And there is this idea of, just because he is now all in on this one man, he still doesn’t really know how to work in a team setting. There’s still gonna be an element of taking things into his own hands, but now it’s like the primary motivation is, he is going to keep the man he loves safe . . . There’s an element of, like, is this too good to be true? I think that’s what you can expect from Ben—it’s a total and fervent devotion to this man who has taken him in, who has given him a home, and who was showing him this new part of himself.”
Legacies airs Thursdays at 9/8c on The CW.