Blood, sweat and tears have always been the stuff of love on “Grey’s Anatomy,” the record-smashing medical drama that blends ambulance-chasing with swoonworthy, if tumultuous, romance.
The show’s 15th season, which wrapped last week, introduced fans to one of its most buzzed-about pairings in recent years: Dr. Levi Schmitt (Jake Borelli) and Dr. Nico Kim (Alex Landi), who represent the series’ first-ever relationship between two gay male doctors.
Over the course of the season, Levi and Nico — nicknamed “Schmico” by the show’s cultlike fanbase — enjoyed elevator smooches and a windstorm hookup at Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital while weathering their share of hardships. The journey has been a professional whirlwind for Landi, who has become a globally recognized sex symbol as a result. But the 26-year-old New York native would like fans to interpret his breakout success as less about his chiseled physique and more of a boon for intersectional representation — specifically, for both the LGBTQ and Asian American communities — on the small screen.
“They told me they wanted this guy to be a strong character — I believe the character description was ‘a masculine bro type,’ but openly gay,” Landi, who boasted only a handful of on-screen credits before landing the role, told HuffPost. “I feel like those are the types of roles I’m attracted to — the more powerful characters who are confident but not necessarily arrogant.”
Unlike his co-star Borelli, Landi identifies as straight. Noting that his on-screen love interest was initially conceived of as a heterosexual character, he sees their respective roles as an example of how the industry should be able to “go both ways” as far as casting actors in roles regardless of how they identify off-screen.
Still, he saw playing the stout-hearted Nico as an opportunity to dismantle stereotypes, specifically about Asian men of all sexualities not being perceived as masculine. But he leaned in to his character’s softer side by the end of the season, too, specifically after his relationship with Levi hit a roadblock.
“That may be surprising if you’re not used to seeing a traditionally masculine character break down mentally and physically,” he said.
Landi’s “Grey’s Anatomy” casting comes at a time when Asian characters remain underrepresented in the entertainment landscape, in spite of boosts from TV series like “Fresh Off the Boat” and last year’s big screen smash, “Crazy Rich Asians.” A 2017 study, “Tokens On The Small Screen: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Prime Time and Streaming Television,” found that actors of single or multiple Asian or Pacific Islander heritage made up just 4.3% of series regulars, while those who were multiracial (Asian or Pacific Islander heritage and non-Asian heritage) accounted for 2.6%.
That lack of on-screen representation may have been one reason that Landi, whose father is Italian and mother is Korean, didn’t initially see himself pursuing the performing arts, even as he idolized the likes of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. After opting against a career in professional tennis, however, he enrolled at New York’s Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute at this suggestion of an aunt and uncle, an experience he now describes as “transformative.”
Still, he’s aware his mixed heritage makes him “ethnically ambiguous” to casting agents and, as such, may land him auditions not offered to actors who may be solely of Asian descent.
“There are rarely ever breakdowns specified for Asian Americans,” he said. “No one asks you what you are, specifically, because they’re not allowed [but] I feel like being half-Asian is somewhat of an advantage, though I look fully Asian. I think I can fit into the mold of various roles or ethnicities that they’re calling from. I don’t look half white at all.”
With his “Grey’s Anatomy” stint secure for Season 16, Landi will expand his repertoire with a recurring role on Netflix’s “Insatiable.” He’ll play Henry Lee, a Season 2 character he promises will be a “pleasant and sexy surprise” for fans of his “Grey’s Anatomy” work, though he’s required to stay mum on specifics.
The series, which stars Debby Ryan, courted controversy early on. When its first trailer debuted last year, it sparked accusations of “fat-shaming” given Ryan’s portrayal of Patty Bladell, an overweight teen who is forced to go on a liquid diet after an accident and, after losing weight, seeks revenge on classmates who had bullied her for years.
Landi, however, sees “Insatiable” as “accurate of what people actually go through” when dealing with “real-life problems.”
“Every character has their own issue, whether it’s alcoholism, body image issues, eating disorders,” he said. “A lot of other TV shows and movies tend to exaggerate those types of problems, or depict them in a way that’s not what they are in real life. And ‘Insatiable,’ as controversial as it may have been, is accurate when it comes to the thought process of those deeper rooted issues.”
He’s also got his eye on “Shang-Chi,” which will be Marvel’s first superhero film (and prospective franchise) to feature an Asian protagonist. Director Destin Daniel Cretton, who is half Japanese, has said he plans to draw primarily from Asian and Asian American talent in casting the film, based on a Marvel comic book character from 1973.
“The first Asian superhero for Marvel, that would be dope,” he said, noting that his own background in martial arts would come in handy for the film. “That’s my dream role right there. Any role in that movie, I think, would be great.”
Between the early buzz on “Shang-Chi” and the fact that this year’s pilot season was his “busiest” ever, Landi is hopeful Hollywood “is starting to realize that there’s genuine interest in seeing Asians at the forefront.”
“I feel like that’s the most important for us as people,” he said