How ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ Reimagined a BookTok Sensation

The filmmakers didn’t want to disappoint fans of Casey McQuiston’s novel about the romance between a U.S. president’s son and a British prince.

By Ashley Spencer

On most Fridays, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London closes at 10 p.m. sharp. But one night last summer, after all of the tourists had spilled back onto the streets of South Kensington, two men slow-danced among the Berninis and Rodins until the sun rose the next morning. A cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by the indie-pop singer Perfume Genius echoed through the sculpture hall, soundtracking their tender moment.

The nocturnal scene was a scripted one from “Red, White & Royal Blue,” the film adaptation of the 2019 novel by Casey McQuiston. The two men under the dimmed lights were the actors Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine, and they swayed until the director, Matthew López, called “Cut!” around 2 a.m. for a lunch break.

“It was just the three of us and our crew,” said López, who’s also the film’s co-writer. “It made for an incredibly intimate, really special night.”

The romantic comedy follows Alex Claremont-Diaz, the bisexual son of the first female U.S. president (played by Uma Thurman, with a thick Southern drawl), and Prince Henry, the younger brother of the heir to the British throne who has known since birth that he’s “gay as a maypole.” What starts as a simmering rivalry between the impulsive American (Zakhar Perez) and the buttoned-up Brit (Galitzine) soon develops into a clandestine relationship. Neither is publicly out, and their secret love complicates things, especially for Henry.

Amazon Studios and Berlanti Productions secured the film rights to McQuiston’s novel at auction ahead of its May 2019 release, and the book has since spent more than 20 weeks as a New York Times best seller.

But best-seller lists don’t fully convey the adoration that “Red, White & Royal Blue” has garnered on BookTok — the literature-loving corner of TikTok — where fans have shared their obsession with the escapist love story en masse, and videos tagged #redwhiteandroyalblue have received more than 500 million views.

Jacob Demlow, who frequently posts about “Red, White & Royal Blue” on his “A Very Queer Book Club” account, said he flung his copy across the room in delight when he first encountered it.

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading. It was all these amazing tropes that romance lovers have loved forever, but there was a couple in it who looked like a couple I would be in,” said Demlow, who estimated that he’d read the novel at least a dozen times. “I grew up watching movies about the girl falling in love with the prince, but I’d never seen that through a queer lens before. It was kind of earth-shattering in ways I still don’t fully know if I can comprehend.”

The film, premiering on Prime Video on Friday, hopes to recreate that excitement onscreen, and represents the directorial debut of López, a Tony-winning playwright known for penning “The Inheritance,” as well as writing (with Amber Ruffin) the musical adaptation “Some Like It Hot.” López was working on those projects in 2020 when his agent first floated the idea of turning “Red, White & Royal Blue” into a stage musical.

“I read it and said, ‘Yeah, sure, maybe. But let’s talk about the movie,’” López recalled. “I knew I wanted to be the person who made this film by, like, Page 50.”

After pleading his case to the producers Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter, López signed on to direct and did a second pass on an original script by Ted Malawer. He cast two lead actors who had cut their teeth on Netflix romances: Zakhar Perez, 31, who starred as Marco in “The Kissing Booth” sequels; and Galitzine, 28, who appeared in the streamer’s military romance “Purple Hearts.” Galitzine also played the prince in Amazon’s Camila Cabello-led “Cinderella.”

For both Zakhar Perez and the director, the character Alex’s biracial identity was particularly meaningful. López grew up in Panama City, Fla., with his Puerto Rican father and Polish Russian mother, while Zakhar Perez is of Mexican, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean descent and was raised in northwest Indiana, where he said there was only one other Mexican family.

“Matthew and I talked a lot about the mestizo journey,” Zakhar Perez said in a video call before SAG-AFTRA, the actor’s union, went on strike. “Being part Mexican, part lots of other things, I don’t want to say you’re forgotten, but in today’s world, it’s like, you’re either this or you’re that. There’s nothing in between. I’m kind of a cultural chameleon.”

“As a young Latiné queer man, I never read something that centered someone like Alex,” López said, echoing his star. “If I had been presented with this character when I was in my late teens, early 20s, it may have changed how I thought about myself.”

During the audition process, Zakhar Perez and Galitzine did their chemistry reads via video and did not meet in person until rehearsals began in London. But the nature of the script meant they would need to quickly become comfortable shooting a variety of passionate scenes, which were overseen by the intimacy coordinator Robbie Taylor Hunt.

“Nick and I trusted each other quite quickly,” Zakhar Perez said of Galitzine. “We had to build a sexual tension from dislike to like to love, and we wanted to show that journey through the choreographed, intimate moments.”

In the book, McQuiston described Alex and Henry’s amorous bedroom — and tack room and hotel room — scenes in great detail, and López said he “never, ever shied away from the sexuality” onscreen.

“At times, it’s extremely hungry and at times, it’s really tender,” Galitzine said in a separate prestrike call. “Matthew was always adamant that he wanted to portray gay sex in an accurate way, which he felt maybe hadn’t been the case in other L.G.B.T.Q.+ movies.”

While the only lingering sex scene is a carefully cropped, emotional moment, and the only nudity is the flash of a naked buttocks, “Red, White & Royal Blue” received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association.

López was surprised: “If we had put six bullets into the prince, we probably would have still gotten PG-13,” he said, and added, “If it had been a man and a woman, I question whether or not it would have gotten an R rating.”

(The filmmaker Ira Sachs recently expressed similar confusion over the NC-17 rating for his new film “Passages,” which also features gay sex. The M.P.A. said in a statement to The Associated Press, “The sexual orientation of a character or characters is not considered as part of the rating process.”)

In the weeks leading up to the movie’s release, anticipation continued to build among fans, coupled with fears that it might not capture the magic of the book. Some worried about the casting choices, the elimination of several supporting characters or the switch from a fictional queen of England to a fictional king, played in a single scene by Stephen Fry.

“I was never going to entirely fulfill the image of this book that the millions of people who love it individually have in their heads,” López said. “I knew from the beginning,” he also emphasized, “that this movie would succeed or fail based in part on the fans’ belief that one of them has made this film. I am one of them.”

Broader critiques take issue with the premise of the story itself and the fact that it’s yet another queer romance that involves the distress of coming out. But Demlow of A Very Queer Book Club sees it differently.

“There are so many coming-out stories that need to be heard, and we also need more stories that aren’t coming-out stories,” he said. “It’s not that we need less of something. It’s that we need more of everything.”

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