Available on demand June 2 (to kick off Pride month!) is writer and director Doug Spearman’s sleek Philly-set romantic drama “From Zero to I Love You.” The film concerns Jack (Scott Bailey), a white, married (to a woman) father of two who unexpectedly falls for Pete Logsdon (Darryl Stephens), a gay Black man. Their affair consists of secret — and sometimes missed — meetings as well as promises by Jack that he will leave his wife Karla (Keili Lefkovitz) for Pete.
Spearman depicts the ebbs and flows of the relationship and features scenes with each man’s friends, families and lovers to show what makes Jack and Pete not just tick but possibly click.
As Pete, out gay actor Darryl Stephens delivers a thoughtful performance, playing a fictionalized version of Spearman — a man who has a penchant for married guys and a fear of commitment. In a recent Zoom interview, Stephens talked about playing a younger version of his friend Spearman, who co-starred with Stephens on the groundbreaking series, “Noah’s Arc.”
“Our personalities are nothing alike, so it was a really daunting task. What I ultimately had to do was to remove that pressure and allow myself to figure out who Pete is. Pete’s habit of pursuing unavailable men is, in some ways, a reflection of his own feeling of not being worthy of love.”
Pete’s low self-esteem may be why his father, Ron (Richard Lawson) chastises his son about his relationships, hoping that Pete will break his toxic dating cycle. However, Pete sometimes doubles down on his choices, and Stephens conveys that conflict well. The actor acknowledged, “At one point we see Pete, who has heard his dad, deciding to change his ways. But for whatever reason, the way he feels about Jack doesn’t allow him to do that. That’s what a love story is. You are not in your right mind when you’re caught up in the moment.”
The comment about losing one’s head in love prompts the question: In real life, does Stephens fall in love quickly and perhaps recklessly like Pete, or is he more of a slow-burn romantic? The actor demurs, “I’ve been in situations in the past where I met someone and there’s a click, but I found myself justifying things that don’t work because of what does work. The relationship I’m in now is different because I have a level of comfort, ease and honesty that required no masks or walls. I am not making excuses for myself in the way that Pete does. Pete sees and feels these things, but he makes excuses for himself because he feels it is what he deserves.”
“From Zero to I Love You” is built on its two protagonists denying their authentic selves. It is liberating for Jack when he admits out loud that he is gay. For Pete, however, there is a pivotal moment where he asks his lover John (Adam Klesh), “Why don’t we have any Black friends?” The issue of race is addressed indirectly in the film, by positioning the Black characters in white male spaces. This extends to a moment where Ron talks candidly about Pamela (Leslie Zemeckis), his white fiancé. Spearman is asking questions about the dynamics of interracial relationships here, and Stephens applauds the director’s bravery in raising these themes in a film that’s semi-autobiographical.
As for his own trajectory, the actor, who has published a terrific novel (“Shortcomings”) and a motivational memoir (“Required Reading”) — and is currently shopping around a screenplay he co-wrote — has been taking on roles that are different from the role he is most identified with, Noah. He divulged, “I love Noah for being a champion for people who weren’t embraced because of their self-expression. He was a hero for people who never saw themselves on screen. Noah was a romantic. Pete is not a romantic. There’s a jadedness with him that is interesting to play. I had opinions on how Pete was dealing with things. He’s the victim of everyone else’s desire.”
As the romantic drama unfolds, Philly provides the backdrop, with scenes shot in the gayborhood, outside City Hall and on the Parkway. Stephens was charmed by the city, claiming, “Philly was a fun place to shoot. With its cobblestone streets and brick houses, statues and old buildings, it has history that Los Angeles doesn’t have. That [environment] gave the story a timeless feel.”
He added, “We felt like movie stars shooting there. We were doing something that had some weight to it.”
“From Zero to I Love You” tackles some weighty issues — about love, self-worth, and identity politics with passion. It is a crazy quilt of themes, characters and relationships that provides interesting observations about how to navigate relationships, especially when one has less power or limited control.