Over the past decade, Matthew López has debuted shows Off-Broadway and on Broadway, as well as across the pond at London's Young Vic and on the West End. But Red, White & Royal Blue marks his film debut, and López admits, "You still have the same nerves and butterflies, and the hope that they like it and hope it goes well."
In 2020, López became the first Latine playwright to win the Tony Award for Best Play with The Inheritance, his reimagining of Howards End centered around three generations of gay men in New York City. His directorial debut is just as unabashedly queer: A romantic comedy about an affair between the president's son and a British prince.
An adaptation of Casey McQuiston's viral novel — which Lopéz also scripted with Ted Malawer — Red, White & Royal Blue revolves around the transcontinental romance between Alex Claremont-Diaz (Taylor Zakhar Perez) — first son to Uma Thurman's Commander in Chief — and Prince Henry Fox-Mountchristen-Windsor (Nicholas Galitzine); a long-simmering feud gives way to an unexpected connection which then leads to steamy rendezvouses during polo matches and political conventions. The movie, which landed an R-rating, is streaming on Prime Video starting Friday.
"The one thing that is really easier for me is that unlike in theater, the movie's done by the time everybody sees it," López explains. "With theater, we're not necessarily done. On opening night, you never know if everybody's going to have a good night, or if there are going to be technical errors. At the very least, with the movie, it's going to be the same thing that you saw last week and the same thing that you saw last month. It still always feels very personal. So, the only thing that changes is what the outcome is going to be every time you show it."
A.frame: Was Red, White & Royal Blue a book that you'd read in the wild? Or did it come to you via the opportunity to make this movie?
I basically read it in the wild. One of my agents sent it to me in early 2020 and was like, "I just read this book. I think it's delightful. Maybe there's a musical in it — I don't know — but I think you'd really like it." And I read it over the weekend, and I just fell in love with it. I called him on Monday and I said, "Maybe it's a musical, but I am really interested in the movie. Let's talk about the movie." That was the spark for me. So, I put my hand up with Greg [Berlanti] and Sarah [Schechter] and said, "I really want to make this movie," and then time passed and that happened.
In making the movie, what was most important for you to keep from the book? And the flip side to that, what were some of the biggest changes you knew you needed to make in adapting it?
I'm going to answer a slightly different way. In respect to my fellow writers who are on strike and in solidarity with my union, I'm not going to talk about my writing process. But what I will say as a filmmaker is that it was always about Alex and Henry, first and foremost. It had to be. In the book, Casey was not constrained by budget or runtime. When you think about it, the movie is 118 minutes and the audiobook is something like 12 hours, so take the runtime of the audiobook and subtract it by two hours, and that's what's not in the movie.
Sure, there had to be nuts and bolts decisions about this and not that and why, but ultimately it was about Alex and Henry. A lot of scenes that we filmed didn't make it into the movie because for one reason or another, it didn't feed into the story of Alex and Henry. When I saw the first assembly, I learned very quickly that if it's not about them, it doesn't belong in the film. As a matter of fact, I think there's less than 20 seconds of the movie in which either one of them doesn't appear.
One of the changes I do think is very fun is that in the book, there's a Queen of England, and in the movie, it's the King of England, played by none other than Stephen Fry.
I know! It's crazy...
What that gender-swapping made in the casting, or was it something you knew you wanted to do before then?
I had been working on another project that I thought I was going to make, that didn't come together as quickly as we'd hoped, and word had gotten around to Stephen that I might be doing this other movie. He had been seen The Inheritance when it was in the West End and was a big fan of the play. And word got to me that if there's a part for Stephen in this other movie, he would love to play it. I'm still hoping to make that movie, but it hasn't happened yet.
I was interested in trying to differentiate between Her Majesty and this fictional monarch. The Queen passed when we were in the editing phase of the movie, but I kind of knew that most of the audience who sees this movie for the next hundred years — if the movie's lucky enough to survive that long — will likely know a King of England and not a Queen of England. That's how it all transpired. And then I was like, "Well, if Stephen Fry wanted to do that other thing, let's see if he'll do this thing." We sent the script to him while it was still a queen, and I said, "Just imagine a king." And he absolutely loved it and wanted to be in it. We had him for a day and he was king for a day, and I think we all had a lot of fun with him.
I also want to talk about casting the first woman President of the United States. Casting that role is literally like a queer dream come true. How did you get to Uma?
Uma was always at the very top of every list that we have for this role. My casting director sent us a very simple metric for figuring out who we wanted, which was, "Would you vote for her?" That dwindled the list pretty substantially. But Uma was always at the top, and Uma remained at the top. We met on Zoom and discovered that we had a lot of the same goals for the character and a lot of same interests in bringing her on to screen. One of the things that Uma and I both shared a very strong desire to investigate with Ellen is, so often women in politics in America are asked to sacrifice their femininity in order to attain power. It's in their demeanor that they have to adopt and in the clothes that they choose to wear, and Uma and I were really adamant that Ellen maintains a firm grasp on her femininity as she defines it for herself and on her power.
We really wanted to expand the idea of what a woman in power would look like. That applied to her costume design, the production design around the Oval Office, and I kept Uma involved in those conversations. So, I found in Uma someone who was incredibly game and who was really willing to jump in. In addition to playing the president, which I'm sure is fun for any actor, she also hasn't been asked to play a mother much in her career. She hasn't. And I don't know if that's a function of the choices that she's made or the things that she's offered, but she is a mother of three. And knowing Uma now as I do, I know that that is a very important part of her life. I think this was a really great opportunity for her to play that role on screen as well.
When did you first hear her do the accent? It's so delicious.
She and I got on a Zoom and said, "I have one of the best dialect coaches in the business," and she tried it out for me. It was pretty much there from the get go. And it was very funny because having watched Uma in so many things throughout my life, but never having known Uma, I almost forgot that she didn't have that accent. Because on set, between takes, she just maintained that accent. Whenever she was in her trailer, she sounded like Uma, but on set, it helped her not lose it. And I am an incredibly unconscious mimic and I'm from the South — I'm from Panama City, Florida, which is about as Southern as it gets — so I found myself slipping into a Southern accent when I was talking to her. It was the most bizarre thing, because Uma Thurman and I would be in the corner going over a scene together and people were looking at us like we were bananas. But we were just these two southern belles in the corner of a soundstage in London.
The movie is rated R. Was that important to you?
No. What was important to me was that to the extent that I was allowed to, without having final cut, I made the movie that I set out to make, across the board and in an all ways. I wanted to make sure that as many people as possible got to see the film, and I didn't want to limit who could see the film. But I also didn't want to limit how we understood Alex and Henry's relationship in its entirety. So, I hedged my bets and decided that for language and certainly violence, that we'd give the MPAA no cause to give us an R-rating and we would roll the dice on the sexuality. When we got the R-rating— Look, I grew up in an age where the MPAA had a lot of influence. It influenced what movies I got to see as a kid. And I don't know if the MPAA has as much influence anymore as it used to.
So, on the one hand, and especially on a streamer, does the rating actually matter? I don't know. But as a symbol, I think the R-rating, whatever, I think it made the fans really happy to know that we didn't pull any punches. I certainly was never asked to pull any punches. But I also question whether or not we would've gotten an R-rating if it had been a man and a woman in those scenes. And second, more broadly, I question the MAPA's values. I question the MPAA's giving a pass to violence and not sex. I love The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight is one of my favorite movies. The Dark Knight is a very violent film. A very violent film. And The Dark Knight is rated PG-13. And Red, White & Royal Blue is rated R, and I question the MPAA's values.
You're right that the nice thing about being on a streamer is that little queer boys, little queer girls, little queer anyone, if they see a billboard or know about the movie, they'll find a way to see it.
They'll find the movie. I mean, my parents back in the day, if we'd had streaming, they would not know how to use parental controls. So, I don't think that anybody is going to be kept away from this movie as a result of its rating. And I'm happy that the R-rating communicated to the fans that we were going to bring to life all of Henry and Alex's relationship, not just some of it. Contractually, Amazon did not require that I deliver a PG-13 film. I had the ability to deliver an R-rated movie, so it is the movie I intended to make.
By John Boone