Shadowhunters Executive Producer Michael Reisz On “Malec” and Writing Authentic LGBT Characters

In a medium that’s steadily diversifying, it’s not surprising the TV adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments prominently features LGBT characters. What is surprising is how fantasy-based teen drama Shadowhunters is doing more than the bare minimum with these characters—specifically, shadowhunter Alec Lightwood and warlock Magnus Bane. The epitome of a masculine warrior, Alec is an elite member of the show’s half-human, half-angel race. Driven by the notions of honor, loyalty and an unflinching sense of purpose in a homophobic culture, he spent most of the season in the closet. Meanwhile, Magnus Bane—the 400-year-old enigmatic, bisexual high warlock of Brooklyn—is both immensely powerful and romantically numbed. Upon meeting, Alec and Magnus have an insta-connection.

In an episode coincidentally titled after their budding relationship’s fan-dubbed nickname, “Malec” gave these two characters the type of epic romantic treatment we rarely see for same-sex couples. In the midst of marrying a woman, a plan Alec concocted himself to restore his family’s name, the shadowhunter owned a moment straight out of the The Graduate. Striding down the church aisle, Alec grabs Magnus by the lapels and passionately kisses him in front of his own wedding attendees. Upon seeing it, fans erupted. From gifsets to vines, in a matter of three minutes, the Malec kiss broke a good portion of the Internet. The nature of the heart-melting kiss and Alec’s coming out were a slight divergence from the books, but the moment seemed to be, in the end, a change most fans liked. For many of the show’s LGBTQ viewers, it also offered a positive reprieve amid a storm of small screen stories enacting the “bury your gays” trope, a storytelling device that leaves its non-straight characters miserable or dead.

Paste sat down with Michael Reisz, Shadowhunters executive producer and “Malec” episode writer, to discuss the jaw-dropping scene’s inspiration, his effort to write authentic characters, and the pressure of bringing new life to an already popular LGBT romance amid controversy.

Paste Magazine: Let’s start with an easy question. Why did you name the episode after the ship? That’s a really fan-oriented thing to do.
Michael Reisz: For a few reasons, actually. In talking to Cassie [Clare] at the very beginning as we started thinking about the series, she and I bonded pretty closely over the relationship of Magnus and Alec. It was so very, very important to me, and so very, very important to Cassie. It became clear to us just how massively important that ship was to the fans as well. The fans are everything. While not giving away what would happen in episode 12, we wanted to let the fans know we hear them, we think about them and we care just as much about the relationship as they do. And so we thought it was a deserving tribute.

Paste: People still can’t stop talking about how good that kiss was, but a scene can only be performed as well as it’s written. What inspired your writing of that sequence?
Reisz: First of all, thank you. Second of all, credit to everyone involved. To our directors, to our entire crew. As for the inspiration for that kiss and how it was done, there was a very public kiss between Magnus and Alec in City of Glass in Idris during the fight. So Alec coming out was always a very public thing. He was doing it for himself. He’s claiming the authenticity of his life. As we worked with the Lydia storyline and all that it brought up—as we were allowed to expand on Alec, Magnus and their backstories and what their personal struggles are—I really wanted Alec to make the definitive statement ‘I’m going to live authentically, this is what I’m choosing, even with everybody in my ear 24/7.’ Just as Cassie so beautifully did in the books with the public kiss on the battlefield, I wanted to honor that here.

Paste: Alec doesn’t come out until the third book in the series, but you’ve had him come out in the show at the end of the first season. Why did you choose to deviate from the source material in this case?
Reisz: What Cassie does in the books is absolutely beautiful. You have Clary, and her perspective is the main thrust of the books, so the time spent with Alec and the time spent with Magnus was not as much as we were offered the opportunity to do in the television series. With that ability to explore the nuances of their relationship, having Alec come out at the end of Season One is truly just a beginning for both Alec and Magnus, in terms of where they both individually will go, and where they will go potentially as a couple. It was a natural progression of where the story was being told in our television series.

The journey of Alec in Season One is of him owning his power and his authenticity. The journey for Magnus is of him breaking down his walls and giving himself up to love. But that doesn’t mean everything always works out. You never know where things are going to go, and so we have seasons worth of stories planned for them that will both honor and surprise the fans and the characters. Having him come out at the end of Season One gives us an opportunity to launch into the stories we have planned for the future.

This interview first appeared at Paste Magazine on April 11, 2016

EXTRAS: Included below are excerpts from the interview with Michael Reisz that did not make it into the official published version.

Paste: In “Malec” we get very intimate scenes between Alec and Jace, and then Magnus and Ragnor. They were genuine and emotional, but stuffed in an already busy episode. Why did you include those scenes in 12 instead of before it?

Reisz: It’s a combo of things. Organically, that’s how the story’s laid out, but also personally, because these were all such big moments. It’s everybody letting down their guard and opening up to the person that they love. It’s being vulnerable that allows people to heal. I wanted that between Jace and Alec because they’re both growing, they’re both dealing with shocking surprises in their lives and the relationship between the two of them is evolving. So the idea of Izzy facilitating this reconciliation between Jace and Alec at the bachelor party really helps move that story along.

A lot of the time Magnus is this larger than life character, but he’s gotta be grounded and gotta be based in something that’s true and honest. This is a man who has experienced things that Alec has no idea about. Magnus’ character is informed by those experiences and feelings, that hurt he is going through and that loss. All of that we had not yet had an opportunity to portray within his backstory. This provided a perfect opportunity to say, you know what, this isn’t just some flashy warlock that comes in and does nifty things. This is a full-fledged character that hurts, loves and cares and is powerful–and sometimes may pull back and other times may fight for what he really wants. So in those moments with Ragnor, it helps him over his walls. It gives him the impotence to say ‘I’m gonna fight. If I lose, I lose, but at least I lost deeply and loved deeply.’

Paste: So we have seen a lot of Alec’s close and intimate relationships and we got a taste of what kind of relationship Magnus had with Ragnor. Can fans expect to see any more of Magnus’ relationships, past or present, in the upcoming season?

Reisz: We want to. It’s one of the things that we are going to discuss within the writers room because we want to explore every single one of our regular characters, we want to make their histories and their futures fully fleshed out. So it’s one of the things we are going to examine in the writers room in the upcoming seasons for Magnus, specifically, in terms of his past. But we will definitely be exploring everybody’s past, present and futures.

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