In 2018, Matthew López’s transformational play The Inheritance debuted at London’s Young Vic. During its runs in the West End and Broadway, it earned accolade after accolade, including the Tony Award for Best Play. López, who went on to co-write the book for Broadway musical Some Like It Hot, may have seemed like an unlikely candidate to bring Casey McQuiston’s queer romance novel Red, White & Royal Blue to the screen. But López was so drawn to McQuiston’s characters and the central relationship between U.S. first son Alex Claremont-Diaz and British Prince Henry, he not only co-wrote the screenplay but also directed the film.
The movie stars Taylor Zakhar Perez as Alex, son of President Ellen Claremont (Uma Thurman), and Nicholas Galitzine as Henry as they navigate a will they/won’t they relationship that eventually becomes deeply passionate. It has all of the trappings of a funny, genuine romantic comedy, offering audiences a chance to see a same-sex couple go through the relatable ups and downs normally reserved onscreen for heterosexual couples. López knows it might be a surprising choice for his first movie, but he sees it as an opportunity to tell an aspirational story with authentic characters.
López spoke to Observer about bringing Red, White & Royal Blue to life with Amazon (AMZN) Studios, depicting a female president and how The Inheritance has changed everything for him.
Why did this story feel right as your directorial debut?
The thing that I responded to almost immediately was that this book had at its center a young, Mexican American, biracial, queer lead. I’ve never encountered that before. I mean, I’m sure it exists. But I have never encountered it. And what I haven’t ever encountered is a character as vibrant and as beautifully flawed and as multi-dimensional as Alex. He really captured my imagination. Alongside that was the romance with Henry. I really felt for the characters and I thought, “Well, this feels like something that I could put my stamp on. This feels like something that I could bring myself to while simultaneously honoring Casey’s novel.” The impetus for me was Alex and then, by extension, his relationship with Henry.
Are you generally a fan of romantic comedies?
I don’t want to meet anyone who isn’t! They’re staples of any good filmgoer’s diet. But I’ll be honest with you. I was looking for a movie to make. I had just opened The Inheritance on Broadway. I didn’t think that I was going to make a rom-com. If people were taking bets on the genre I would do as my first film, I don’t think it would be this. But Casey’s story was so compelling, it didn’t matter what the genre was. If it had been a space odyssey I would have done it as long as Alex and Henry were in it.
There’s a perception that rom-coms are fluff. But there can be a lot more to them, especially in terms of queer storytelling.
Look, I was one of the very first people in line to see Brokeback Mountain the day it came out. I was one of the first people in line to see Call Me By Your Name the day it came out. I love a good queer drama. But there’s also something really nourishing about seeing queer love applied to something that is light-hearted. Which isn’t to say unserious, because I think the other thing that I loved about Casey’s book is that it there is there are consequences for these characters. There are real stakes.
When I was making this film, with everybody who was working on the film, I told them, “I didn’t want this movie to look or feel disposable.” Because when you think about all the really great rom-coms they’re not disposable at all. They last because they are built to last. Moonstruck. When Harry Met Sally. One of the great ones that we really used a lot as a reference point of this film was Bringing Up Baby. They stand the test of time because they are built to last and what marks them special—and what I hope marks this film is special—is A) the characters and B) the actors playing them.
How much pressure was there to get this casting right?
So much pressure that I actually told the producers that I wouldn’t make the film if we didn’t find the right Alex. It wasn’t enough to find the almost right Alex. I had to find the perfect Alex. I think that Taylor is pretty much anybody’s idea of a perfect Alex Claremont Diaz. We saw quite literally hundreds and hundreds of young actors for the role of Alex alone, over the course of about five months. I spent Christmas 2021 looking at audition tapes. Then I met Taylor, first from his audition tape, and then on a series of Zooms I did with him, auditioning him once while I had a really bad case of COVID. He kept reemerging. He wouldn’t be denied. It became very undeniable that it was going to be Taylor.
Did you cast the role of Alex before you cast Henry?
We were running the casting process simultaneously. The cast is pretty much split between Americans and Brits, so the first decision I made was a British casting director for the British roles and an American casting director for the American roles. Bit of a divide and conquer. So they were they were happening simultaneously. Nick was very much in the mix around the same time that Taylor became in the mix.
I had photos of all candidates up on a big wall. You want to pair them up and you look at the pictures together, which is the most rudimentary form of a chemistry read. Nick and Taylor visually made sense to me right on the big board. Once we got them on a Zoom together, they were undeniable. It was incredibly important that we find the right people and I wasn’t at all certain we would. Once we found two leads who were stunningly perfect, not just individually but together, I knew we had a movie and it was only up to me to screw it up, which I hope I didn’t.
Hollywood has a tendency to shy away from gay sex onscreen. But this movie goes all in. Did you get any pushback about that?
When I was pitching myself for the job, this was part of my pitch. Basically, “If you hire me, you’re getting this.” I let it be known from the get-go that this was going to be in the film. And, of course, there were negotiations throughout the process of what exactly it would be. But I was adamant from the start that this film honor what’s in the book, which is that these two characters have a very healthy sex life. They are very, very into each other, they have great sex, and a lot of it. So that was important to me.
It was really important to me as well in a mainstream love story. We talked about this as a rom-com and there other times we talked about it as a love story. As a love story, it was really important to me that the audience understand that these two young men are deeply connected—emotionally, intellectually and physically. Their physical connection is a huge part of what binds them. It would have been absolutely the decision I would make if it was a man and a woman. So I was going apply the same storytelling and requirements on my queer film that I think anybody would on a on a heterosexual film.
I will say Amazon didn’t give me a hard time on these scenes. I got support. I got notes, of course. But that’s what happens when you don’t have final cut. There was a lot of support for this story being told as we all knew it needed to be told.
Was there something cathartic about getting to portray a female president onscreen?
Yeah, of course! I have to believe that, in part, Casey wrote the character in response to Hillary Clinton’s loss. There’s a would have, should have quality to it. But what I love about it, too, is that Casey created, and then we got to really chase after, this newly imagined, fictional female president that it isn’t Hillary. Ellen is her own wonderful thing. She was her own wonderful thing in the book, and then, as played by Uma, I think she’s really come into this vibrant life in the world.
We really wanted to explore the idea that Ellen is a female politician. She’s a woman with power who has not felt the need to relinquish her sense of femininity in order to achieve or hold on to power. She is the President of the United States and she’s a mother. That came down to costume design, that came down to production design and how her Oval Office looked and how she dressed. I said, “I don’t want to see her in Hillary or Nancy or Kamala pantsuits.” I wanted her to have her own sense of style. I wanted Ellen to communicate power through her own personal sense of femininity.
I would definitely vote for her.
I would vote for her too. At the risk of losing Uma Thurman from the acting profession, I think she might have a career in politics now.
Did you come out of this experience feeling like you’d learned something about yourself as a director?
Yeah, absolutely, across the board as an artist and as a craftsman and as a person. The learning curve on your first film is pretty steep. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t anticipate this would be my first movie when I think about what that first movie would look like. And I certainly didn’t think about my first movie in the terms of the scale of this. I did not think that my first movie would be as large as this! But you’re tossed in the deep end and learn how to swim. It makes me hungry to make another film for sure.
And the reason I could do it was that I surrounded myself with incredibly accomplished, talented people. I had a deep well of knowledge surrounding me when I was making this film. One of my favorite things I learned from Stephen Daldry, who is one of my mentors in this business, is so unafraid to say in front of people as a director, “I don’t know.” There’s something really powerful about saying “I don’t know.” I learned you better have answers soon thereafter. But it’s okay to start with “I don’t know.”
Has your life changed a lot since The Inheritance?
Almost overnight. After the very first performance at the Young Vic my life changed. It was really instantaneous. There was a before and after that night in early March 2018. At the end of that first show, I knew. And I was then informed by Steven Daltry, “This is a new chapter of your life starting.” It is a stark before and after. I’m still figuring out what that means to me. Because in addition to my life changing, I also spent another two and a half years working on the play and then went from that instantaneously into this. So it kept me busy, for sure. It very much changed my life.
What are you working on next?
Getting a fair deal from the studios and ending the strike on terms that are favorable to the writers and hopefully to the actors as well.