As Beyoncé’s Progress pride-referencing ‘Cozy’, a standout track from her latest album, Renaissance, fills the air, stage and screen star Layton Williams is striking pose after pose, throwing shapes with his body that defy comprehension. The thundering beat reverberates through the photographer’s studio in the former Whitechapel Bell Foundry — you can almost hear Big Ben clang in time with the music.
The song’s description of dramatic highs and lows seem tailor-made for Layton’s showbiz story and potent brand of unapologetic confidence. Although meeting him today, it’s difficult to believe he’s ever been anything less than upbeat. He’s smiley, bouncy and generous with his energy: as his self-assuredness spreads around the room, this writer starts to doubt his own dull-AF sartorial selections in favour of gluing gems to his face and strutting down imaginary catwalks…
“You’ve got one life — it’s not a dress rehearsal,” says Bury-born Layton, in his delicious northern drawl, when Attitude praises his dazzling personal style: everything from feathered gowns on the red carpet to deconstructed blazer-dresses at star-studded parties. “It’s fun to be glam — and I feel better when I’ve got that armour on,” he shares.
Layton’s innate sense of showmanship is a through-line in his career, beginning with his West End debut as the first Black actor to play Billy Elliot in 2007 aged just 12. Then, the following year, at 14, he appeared on our screens in BBC comedy series Beautiful People, alongside future Oscar-winner Olivia Colman. (“I’m obsessed — but I’ve not seen her for years!”) Two subsequent roles now define him, making him a shoo-in for The Culture Award, supported by Jaguar.
The first is the one LGBTQ+ audiences know him best for — as the first Black actor to play the lead in the London stage production of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie in 2019. He reprised the part this year in a five-week-long run in Los Angeles opposite drag royalty and “dear friend” Bianca Del Rio. (“A really fucking lovely guy.”)
The second is as sassy schoolboy Stephen in Bad Education, the riotous BBC comedy created and written by Jack Whitehall, which ran from 2012-2014. For three seasons, Layton offered salt-of-the-earth contrast to Whitehall’s character, the posh teacher Alfie. A 2015 movie saw the first ‘school reunion’ of sorts, but a special is due this Christmas and a six-episode revival drops next year. So, what’s on the cards for the divatastic, if not exactly academically gifted, Stephen? Is he still resitting year 11?
“He’s back at the school teaching,” smirks Layton. “And he’s not a very good teacher, I’m not going to lie! I think I only teach one class the whole season… I’m literally running around causing havoc!” Still, Stephen’s providing an education in other ways. “Serving it up: full looks, all day, every day, opening the students’ little minds. He’s tried being an actor and performer and nothing’s quite worked for him. I do think he’s talented, but not as talented as he thinks he is!”
For Layton, though, the upcoming series of Bad Education has seen him break new creative ground on the other side of the camera. “I’ve co-written an episode. It’s the first time I’ve written for TV! I was like, ‘Great, I guess I’ll open with a monologue! About me!’ I’m also a social producer on an episode. I’m also the choreographer on the show — I have so many hats. It’s been the best experience ever.”
Jack, on the other hand, is stepping down from season four. (He’s staying on as a producer.) Some fans are dismayed. “People on social media have said, ‘It’s not going to be the same without Jack!’” laughs Layton, rolling his eyes. “That’s the fucking point! It’s a new vibe 10 years later.” That’s not to say Layton isn’t full of praise for his friend and colleague, as is evident when he effuses over Jack’s much-discussed turn as a whimsical gay dandy in Disney’s Jungle Cruise.
“I enjoyed him in it,” he offers of the 2021 blockbuster. “I know he got a lot of stick for it, but I thought his performance was beautiful. He’s one of the most effeminate straight men I know. He was just being him!” He adds, unprompted, that he “can’t even be arsed to talk about” the straight actors playing LGBTQ+ roles debate “and the queerbaiting thing. It’s causing way more noise than I think is necessary.”
Layton’s own journey with schooling was an interesting one. He was initially state school-educated up north, but then moved to the Billy Elliot Academy in Leeds. After landing his debut role he pirouetted his way to London where he lived “for a year or two in ‘Billy House’” alongside Billy Elliot cast members including Spider-Man’s Tom Holland. (“I’ve always had time for him.”) When he wasn’t performing, he attended Sylvia Young Theatre School, for which he won a scholarship. He also filmed the first season of Beautiful People.
Then came his first bump in the road. Not only did his stint as Billy Elliot come to an end, but an unexpected turn of events meant he had to leave London.
“I thought I was that bitch,” Layton says of his Billy era. “I’d spread my wings, come out, was on the West End and in TV shows, living my best life… and the bubble burst. I’m not going to sugar-coat it: I actually got expelled from my first theatre school, which was Sylvia Young. I can talk about it now because I’ve had closure. But you take a boy from where I was from; a kid from an estate… I wouldn’t necessarily say I was that naughty, but I was a bit of a clown. When you stick someone like this into a private theatre school where there are lots of rules and regulations… It just wasn’t working. I was also spending most of my time doing shows and was only there part-time. I was causing too much havoc. I had an amazing time at Sylvia’s, but I was definitely too much. I completely understand their decision.”
Nevertheless, “when that happened, the world closed down. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I had to leave London, my best friends and go back to the state school I used to go to. I was a different person by then. I almost had to go back into the closet. I was completely miserable. It was the toughest point of my life. My mum and I were at loggerheads. I couldn’t understand why nobody could help me get back to where I needed to be.”
Salvation arrived in the form of a London-based TV producer and her partner, who offered Layton a place to stay in the capital so he could get his life and career back on track. He quite literally never left.
“I have to say a massive thank you to, basically, my guardians Maria and Val, who took me in when I was 14 years old after we all met up with my mum and grandad,” he remembers. “Two lesbians in their 50s. We’re this beautiful, dysfunctional family and queer household. I’ve lived there ever since — half of my life — and am moving out at the end of this month as I’ve just exchanged on my own flat! They’re the ones that showed me the value in saving your money and putting it into property.”
The show was back on the road. His return meant he could film the second season of Beautiful People and begin a three-year scholarship at the prestigious Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts for his final years of high school.
The thought of baby gay Layton in the Big Smoke during this time is a little anxiety-inducing, of course. After all, what LGBTQ+ 20-something doesn’t hit the capital and promptly enter an epic vodka and Red Bull-drenched chapter entitled ‘Messy’? Imagine adding fame, adolescence, and a little money in your pocket to the equation. How did teenage Layton stay on the straight and narrow? “I wasn’t going to fuck it up the second time round,” is the short answer; the long one is a valuable lesson in drive, focus and ambition that Layton learned the hard way.
As it turns out, it’s been a similar story with life’s other ups and downs. When I ask if he is moving in with his actor boyfriend Michael Craig Dawson, he clarifies: “I don’t have a boyfriend any more… I was house-hunting with him… Not to speak too much about it, as it’s both of our [stories], but I’ve never felt heartbreak like it. My year of being 27 was the most insane career-wise — playing Jamie in LA; filming the biggest TV show I’ve done — but of course, something had to fucking give. And that was my heart. It clearly wasn’t meant to be. But it’s all love and respect. I’ve never had messy breakups; it’s always mature.”
At least he’s free to embrace all the fantastic opportunities that are coming his way, I venture. “I literally said to my therapist today, ‘I don’t know how I’d have had a boyfriend while being this busy!’ It’s been full, 12-hour days on set for the new season of Bad Education. If I’m getting picked up at 6am, I’m not getting home until gone 8pm. But it’s everything I’ve ever dreamt of.”
Ironically enough, Layton is now something of a teacher himself off-screen, having founded his Pros From The Shows company, which offers expert-led dance workshops.
As for the future, his ambitions include originating a West End role, and lots more writing. Perhaps something about a glittering West End star returning to his former school? “There’s definitely a story there!” he admits. “Now I’ve had this experience of creating myself, I think, ‘Maybe I’ll put pen to paper.’ Write what you know!”
Such a show would certainly be in good company. In an era where LGBTQ-inclusive education is constantly derided in the right-wing press and legally challenged in territories like Russia and Florida, programmes like Bad Education, Sex Education, and Heartstopper are “a bright light”.
So what’s his advice to young kids who look up to him — perhaps a little mixed-race boy in the north who already knows he’s gay, knows his best angles, and dreams of starring in a TV show one day? “You never know what something’s going to evolve into,” he says. “Luckily, I was a lovely person, got on with everyone, and created good vibes. And I really put myself in my character. Lo and behold, seven years later, I’m fronting the show.”
One final lesson from this cracking actor and performer is about diversity and inclusion. Namely: “More is more.”
“We’re pushing in the right direction — I’m seeing a lot of amazing casting,” Layton observes. “For example, Ncuti Gatwa and Yasmin Finney being cast in Doctor Who. It’s [does a chef’s kiss] — perfection. We. Love. To. See. It. Even the casting in Bad Education is diverse, which I’m so proud of. It’s important that people see themselves represented. When I saw the TikTok video of the little Black kids reacting to the new movie of The Little Mermaid [starring Halle Bailey]… If any of you reading this are wondering why people like us need representation, watch those videos and tell me that’s not important.”
He then shares a recent memory of stumbling across an open call of boys auditioning to play Jamie in central London. “The line of boys was so diverse,” he recalls. “I happened to walk past the Apollo, and they were queuing around the block. My heart melted. I was like, ‘Good luck, everyone — break a nail!’”
Watch Layton’s acceptance speech from the 2022 Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards below:
Bad Education returns to BBC Three this Christmas
Photography Dean Ryan McDaid Fashion Joseph Kocharian, Hair and makeup Jackie Saundercock Fashion Assistant Bethan Dadson
The Attitude Awards issue is out now