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'Red, White & Royal Blue' is a modern-day fairy tale — with a queer twist

Tony-winning playwright Matthew López adapted Casey McQuiston’s bestselling novel about a romance between a British prince and the son of a U.S. president.
Nicholas Galitzine as Prince Henry and Taylor Zakhar Perez as Alex Claremont-Diaz in Prime Video's Red, White & Royal Blue.
Nicholas Galitzine as Prince Henry and Taylor Zakhar Perez as Alex Claremont-Diaz in Prime Video's "Red, White & Royal Blue," a new film adapted from Casey McQuiston’s bestselling debut novel of the same name.Amazon Prime Video

What would happen if the prince of England fell in love with the first son of the United States? That is the question at the heart of Casey McQuiston’s bestselling debut novel, “Red, White & Royal Blue,” which has been adapted into a highly anticipated feature film that premiered Friday on Prime Video.

Directed by the Tony Award-winning playwright Matthew López, the new romantic comedy tells the love story of Prince Henry (Nicholas Galitzine) and Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez), two public figures whose deep-seated animosity belies a mutual attraction that neither is willing to articulate until an infamous cake-toppling incident at a royal wedding forces them to stage a fake friendship in the media. Uma Thurman stars as Ellen Claremont, who plays America's first female president who is running for re-election, while Stephen Fry makes an appearance as the hard-bitten British monarch.

In early 2020, shortly after his award-winning play “The Inheritance” opened on Broadway, López was looking for his next project when his agent sent him a copy of “Red, White & Royal Blue,” which he said was the first time he had personally encountered a story that centered on a young, queer Latino man. By the time he got to page 50, López said, he knew he wanted to spearhead the adaptation. After discovering that Greg Berlanti, one of the most prolific producers in Hollywood, who was also an early investor in “The Inheritance,” had acquired the rights with his producing partner, López made a strong case for his retelling of the book and was officially tapped to co-write and direct the film in the fall of 2021.

Taylor Zakhar Perez as Alex Claremont-Diaz and Nicholas Galitzine as Prince Henry in Prime Video's Red, White & Royal Blue.
Taylor Zakhar Perez, left, and Nicholas Galitzine in "Red, White & Royal Blue."Amazon Prime Video

For Henry, the “spare” to the throne who was born into a life of privilege and service but has been powerless to determine his own fate, López wanted to find an actor who could “protect” and “take care of” the fragile and brooding character. Galitzine, who was cast early on, “was very different from Henry, but he knew implicitly how to protect this character’s dignity and his heart,” López told NBC News in an interview ahead of a fan screening in New York City.

The filmmakers spent five months auditioning hundreds of Latino actors for the role of Alex — a biracial, working-class Texan and law student who suddenly found himself living at the White House — before settling on Perez, who López said was able to disappear into the character and transform himself in the two-hour run of the film.

Taking inspiration from classic rom-coms, such as “Bringing Up Baby,” “Moonstruck,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “Broadcast News,” López knew the success of his directorial debut would largely hinge on the chemistry between his leading men, who met for the first time during a Zoom chemistry read. Although Galitzine was in Los Angeles and Perez was in New Orleans, “they just instantly started playing together, teasing each other, goofing off, being funny together and making each other laugh,” López recalled. “In an instant, we saw the chemistry between them, which was real, instantaneous and unfailing throughout the entire filming process.”

López, Galitzine and Perez spent two weeks before the start of principal photography last summer in the U.K. rehearsing and workshopping the script — an invaluable time that the writer-director said was designed to help him learn how to work and communicate with his leads.

“But what it really did was give them an opportunity to work as a team and to problem-solve together as a team,” López said. “I think that you see that trust and great affection that those two people have for one another in real life onscreen."

That trust became particularly important when shooting the intimate scenes between Alex and Henry, which were apparently enough to earn “Red, White & Royal Blue” an R-rating for sexual content and partial nudity.

“Everybody has access to more porn than at any point in human history, so I wasn’t necessarily interested in doing anything that you couldn’t get elsewhere,” López noted. “What you can’t get in most places is queer intimacy between two young men in which the sex that they have is incredibly emotionally connected."

Nicholas Galitzine as Prince Henry and Taylor Zakhar Perez as Alex Claremont-Diaz in Prime Video's Red, White & Royal Blue.
Nicholas Galitzine, right, and Taylor Zakhar Perez in "Red, White & Royal Blue."Amazon Prime Video

When he was working out how to shoot those pivotal moments in the development of Alex and Henry’s relationship, such as the first time they have sex in Paris, “it was very important to me that we literally never lose sight of their faces,” López explained. The actors never shot a version of that scene “where it was just a wide shot with their bodies in the bed, because we all know exactly what’s happening. What we don’t know yet is how they’re feeling about what’s happening, so that was a decision that I made to be really tight on their faces while also giving the audience a sense of where their bodies are in relation to each other.”

López said his favorite scenes — both to shoot and to watch — depict Alex and Henry opening up to each other about their backgrounds and upbringings and realizing they share more in common than they once thought. For instance, there’s a scene in which Alex and Henry, wearing nothing but bathrobes, are eating chocolate mousse while Alex asks if Henry has ever tried to cook for himself or use the gay dating app Grindr. (“Once, unsuccessfully” is Henry’s answer to both questions.)

There’s another scene in Alex’s bedroom after they hook up for the first time, in which Alex reveals he is bisexual and Henry says he is “as gay as a maypole.”

“When we were editing it, I was getting notes: ‘Can we pare it down? Can we trim it? Can it be faster?’ I tested shorter versions of that scene for audiences,” López revealed, “and I kept getting the same note back from the audiences: ‘We just want more of Alex and Henry talking to each other.’ And I was like, ‘I knew it!’ So I went back to my producers and the studio: ‘Respectfully, I’m no longer taking these notes. If it’s Alex and Henry together onscreen, it makes us happy.’ That is the full unedited scene without any trims — it’s exactly the scene we shot.”

Since the full ensemble cast was announced in June 2022, there has been social media chatter about López’s creative decisions that deviate from McQuiston’s novel: Alex’s parents, Ellen and Oscar (Clifton Collins Jr.), are still married instead of divorced; Alex’s sister, June, and family friend, Rafael Luna, who plays a senator, have been scrapped; Henry’s mother doesn’t appear; and Alex reveals that he once hooked up with Miguel Ramos (Juan Castano), a White House reporter for Politico.

Some of those changes were personal: “As a Latino filmmaker, it was important to me to show to a broader audience a Latino who is still with his family,” López said. “I made [Alex] an immigrant because in the book, he’s second generation. I was like, ‘I want a man born in Mexico who is still with his family.’”

It was never easy to cut existing characters or leave scenes on the cutting room floor, “but it was very clear what belonged in the film and what didn’t,” added López, who reiterated that, because a movie is meant to be watched in one sitting, he had significantly less real estate to work with than McQuiston’s book.

“What belonged in the film was anything that helped us understand these two young men’s hearts, fears, desires and love for one another," López said. "I wanted audiences at the end of the film to feel exactly how they felt at the end of the book, and if I could achieve that, then I knew that I would have succeeded in adapting this novel.”

Although one may interpret “Red, White & Royal Blue” as a kind of antidote to the darker queer narratives in today’s media landscape, López doesn’t “in any way intend” for the film to be “a rejection of anything that’s come before” him.

“We have moved past the need to only examine our traumas and our tragedies," he said. "It doesn’t mean we should ignore them, that we’re done with them, that we should put them away, but we all know we are more than just one thing."

Just as heterosexual-centered movies run the gamut "from tragedy to farce, to romance, to war, to espionage, to space," López said, queer storytelling should be able to do the same.

"There are queer astronauts, there are queer spies, there are queer cowboys — you name it, we are there," he said. "I want people to start thinking about queer storytelling as being able to do anything that straight storytelling has done in the past.”

As for the potential of a “Red, White & Royal Blue” sequel, the writer-director said, with a glint in his eye, “If Casey wants to do it, if Taylor and Nick want to do it, then why not?”