Words: Alastair James; Photography: Jordan Rossi; Fashion: Joseph Kocharian; Illustrations: Ross Ingielewicz
Walking onto the school grounds of what was once an Academy in Slough, I’m instantly transported back to my own secondary school days in what feels like a cinematic flashback. The resemblance of where I spent some of my formative years is striking, and certainly brings back memories. Good and bad.
The 60s architecture, the lockers, and the sounds of shoes screeching and echoing against the sports hall floor are all too familiar. I’m not sure if the reason I’m sweating is that it’s a very hot day in June (2021) or if those school memories are coming back to haunt me. My iced coffee offers some release.
Abandoned in 2019, this site is currently alive with activity, having been transformed into Truham Grammar School for Boys, the primary setting of Netflix’s adaptation of the popular webcomic, Heartstopper.
Attitude has been invited for an exclusive on-set visit of what is one of the streaming network’s key releases of 2022. After meeting my guide for the day, I’m introduced to lead actor Kit Connor, who plays rugby lad Nick Nelson, and looks remarkably like his comic-book counterpart.
Joe wears denim jacket and jeans, both by Fiorucci, tank top, by Dsquared2, rings and necklace, all by Pawnshop Kit wears jacket, by Abercrombie & Fitch, tank top, by Dsquared2, necklace, by Pawnshop, jeans, by ASOS; Will wears denim jacket and jeans, both by Calvin Klein Jeans, tank top, by Dsquared2 Yasmin wears denim jacket and jeans, both by Calvin Klein Jeans, bra, by Calvin Klein underwear, necklace, by Pawnshop
He marvels at being in the unique position of having a visual reference for his character, rather than just a written description. “I had drawings of this character; we’ve seen him from every angle. I definitely had something to base it off.”
Inside the sports hall, I meet Heartstopper creator Alice Oseman. In hushed tones in between takes, we discuss how filming — now in its final days — has gone and the journey from the webcomic’s humble origins in 2016.
“When it started it was literally just a passion project,” Alice says, somewhat incredulously. “I didn’t make any money out of it; I was just uploading it for free online and it’s grown so much since then, and now it’s a TV show. It’s really weird.”
Heartstopper tells the story of Charlie Spring, played by Joe Locke, and Nick Nelson as they become friends and an unexpected relationship blossoms between them. Interestingly, Charlie and Nick actually began life as secondary characters in another of Alice’s works, Solitaire, which is set after Heartstopper.
Alice explains the Star Wars approach to the chronology: “We don’t really learn much about their lives outside of the scope of the narrator, who is Charlie’s sister [Tori]. I just really loved them as characters, and I felt like there was a story there.”
From the very beginning, that affection Alice has felt for her characters has also been shared by an army of fans, and their dedication to the world she has created is what’s brought Attitude here today.
As we navigate the blissfully cool hallways, I begin to get a sense of just how much this site has been used throughout the shoot. Peering into what was once the main school assembly hall, I spy the remains of a bedroom, which is now being taken apart as filming wraps on the series’ first season.
Further along the corridor are art rooms that look as if they have only just been vacated by students. Props to the prop department (pun intended) for filling out every space with detail. Paintings hang around the room and folders of ‘coursework’ are piled high.
There are more surprises and details in the costume department, housed in another classroom. The themes of growth and the ebb and flow of relationships have been sewn — both literally and generally speaking — into everything, not just the plot. Viewers will have to pay very close attention to spot details that have been carefully considered and lovingly included in the costumes, wall art, and design. My tip: look out for the school badges.
Fast-forward eight months and Kit and Joe, along with co-stars Yasmin Finney and Will Gao (who play Charlie’s best friends Elle Argent and Tao Xu respectively) are gathered in an east-London studio ready for their first-ever editorial cover shoot.
Yasmin wears jacket by Moschino, choker, earrings,and rings stylist’s own; Kit wears shirt by MCQ, tank top by DSquared2; Will wears leather jacket and tank top by DSquared2; Joe wears blazer and shirt all by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello (Photography: Jordan Rossi; Fashion: Joseph Kocharian; Yasmin’s hair by Silas Maiden; Yasmin’s makeup by Emily Wood at A-Frame Agency using Danessa Myricks; Hair and Make up for Joe, Kit, and Will by Sven Bayerbach at Carole Hayes using M.A.C. Cosmetics and Bumble And Bumble; Grooming Assistant: Vivi Melo; Fashion Assistants: Sacha Dance, Bella Azura Dupee)
Their excitement is palpable as the young actors are taken through their various wardrobe choices. Kit, perhaps appropriately, chooses a comic-strip printed look from Moschino. Fresh out of hair and makeup, Joe teeters around in some high-heeled boots, which he admits are the highest he’s ever worn.
Meanwhile, Will, dressed in some red latex-style trousers and a black overshirt, steps in front of the camera. Playfully, he jumps around as he relaxes into the shoot. In the room next door, Yasmin is having her hair done before she makes her jaw-dropping entrance in a pastel-checked Moschino suit.
Unlike Glee, where actors in their 20s and 30s were cast as high-schoolers or, more recently, Euphoria, which uses actors in their early to mid-20s, the cast members of Heartstopper are fresh out of school. By the time you read this, all four actors will be 18 or over. School is not the distant memory for them that it is for me.
The youngest, Kit, 18, from London, was still at school during filming. Juggling this with schoolwork was a challenge, he admits. “We were working long hours, you know? Twelve hours a day. So, it meant that I did have some work to do to try and keep up.”
Kit wears jacket and trousers both by Moschino, shirt by Muubaa at ASOS and trainers by Adidas (Photography: Jordan Rossi; Fashion: Joseph Kocharian; Hair and Make up for Joe, Kit, and Will by Sven Bayerbach at Carole Hayes using M.A.C. Cosmetics and Bumble And Bumble; Grooming Assistant: Vivi Melo; Fashion Assistants: Sacha Dance, Bella Azura Dupee)
Yet, as the most experienced actor in the lead cast, with 10 years experience on film sets, it’s a balancing act he’s had to master before. His previous credits include portraying a young Sir Elton John in 2019’s Rocketman, and providing the voice of Lyra Belacqua’s dæmon Pantalaimon in the BBC’s Philip Pullman adaptation, His Dark Materials.
Despite the hard work, though, he wouldn’t change a thing. “I don’t regret it at all, to be honest, because I think that doing Heartstopper was one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever done,” he shares.
Meanwhile, his fellow cast member, Will, 19, also from London, describes how hours before we met during Attitude’s set visit, he’d been taking a three-hour Chinese writing exam.
“It was absolute chaos,” he laughs, agreeing that it was quite a shift going from school work to acting. “Looking back, it was a really crazy, intense time. I think I dealt with it OK. And I was happy with my results.”
Will wears shirt by Nanushka (Photography: Jordan Rossi; Fashion: Joseph Kocharian; Hair and Make up for Joe, Kit, and Will by Sven Bayerbach at Carole Hayes using M.A.C. Cosmetics and Bumble And Bumble; Grooming Assistant: Vivi Melo; Fashion Assistants: Sacha Dance, Bella Azura Dupee)
The conversation then turns to how the actors relate to their characters. As a young gay man, Joe, who is 18 and from the Isle of Man, compares his schooldays with what Charlie goes through.
“I think that with queer people there’s a universal experience of school that everyone sort of relates to, but then there are differences,” he says.
He expands on the topic, “I never would say I was bullied. There was only a handful of people I can think of who ever said anything bad to me. Charlie really struggles with that. I think going to an all-boys school probably comes with its differences. I went to a co-ed state school, and I had more friends who were girls than boys. I think it would have been difficult for Charlie, especially in that situation.”
This isn’t to say that Charlie is weak. There’s an inherent strength to him that queer people of all ages will identify with.
Joe wears blazer, shirt, trousers and shoes all by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello (Photography: Jordan Rossi; Fashion: Joseph Kocharian; Hair and Make up for Joe, Kit, and Will by Sven Bayerbach at Carole Hayes using M.A.C. Cosmetics and Bumble And Bumble; Grooming Assistant: Vivi Melo; Fashion Assistants: Sacha Dance, Bella Azura Dupee)
“I would say I’m more of a confident person than Charlie is,” observes Joe. “But Charlie has this confidence inside him that others may not see and it really underpins him as a person,” Joe continues.
In the first couple of volumes from the Heartstopper webcomic series, we meet Charlie after he has come out and is at ease with that element of his identity. It’s meeting Charlie that prompts Nick to embark on his own journey of self-discovery.
Kit offers his perspective of the role he plays. “I think the beauty of the way that Nick is written is that the inner conflict in Nick’s mind is, I think, present in everyone’s life at some point,” he says. “Everyone has experienced a point where they’re not really sure what they’re expected to be and what they’re meant to be. And that is one of the biggest things about his story arc: overcoming the expectations within himself, that he thinks people have of him, and that others do have of him. His friends assume he’s straight and there’s no way that he could be anything else. I think everyone can relate to that. I certainly can.”
Kit also compares Nick’s popularity as a rugby boy with his own popularity at school as a young actor who would occasionally go off for months at a time to film. “We both had these things that made certain people like us — and some people not like us.”
As the shoot continues, in the next studio, 18-year-old Yasmin and I are sat in two large chairs living out our Oprah Winfrey-Meghan Markle interview fantasy (“Were you silent or were you silenced?”). Manchester-born Yasmin probably relates to her character more than anyone else because both are trans people of colour.
“When does that ever happen?” she asks, indirectly commenting on the state of LGBTQ+ representation in the media, before listing her favourite things about Elle.
Yasmin wears jacket top, skirt, and earrings all by Moschino, necklace, stylist’s own and ring by Christian Dior, shoes by Schuh (Photography: Jordan Rossi; Fashion: Joseph Kocharian; Yasmin’s hair by Silas Maiden; Yasmin’s makeup by Emily Wood at A-Frame Agency using Danessa Myricks; Fashion Assistants: Sacha Dance, Bella Azura Dupee)
“I liked her vulnerability, her shyness, her confidence, and her ability to be unapologetically herself,” she says. “We both moved schools, although she went to an all-girls school and I just went to another [mixed] school. I don’t think I would be as confident to move to an all-girls school, so I have to give it to her. She’s got the confidence, honey, she’s such a bodacious, strong, empowering character. And I hope that when the audience sees her on screen, they’ll see themselves represented, and they’ll see someone they can look up to.”
For Will, Tao’s fear of change was something he could easily tap into. “I’ve had that numerous times in my life where, even now, with this show coming out, this time last year I thought I was just going to go to drama school and figure things out, maybe go travelling. But it has been a big change. And it’s going to be a big change in my life. And in aspects like that I really relate to Tao.”
Further to this, a set of scenes which see Tao grow wary of a widening gap between him and Charlie as the latter moves closer to Nick — who unsurprisingly Tao shows little fondness for — reminds Will of being separated from his own school friends.
“I remember being in the same class with my close friend, and then the next year we weren’t in any classes together. So, I think moments like that I kind of tried to pinpoint to different scenes from my life and different bits in Tao’s life.”
Unlike his character, however, Will professes that he is not very confrontational or opinionated. His younger brother, on the other hand, according to Will, is just that, and so provided a great reference for him to draw from. “He’s got a fire to him and an energy that’s great. But it can be fiery,” he confides.
Will wears denim jacket and jeans both by Calvin Klein, tank top by DSquared2, trainers by Adidas at Schuh, socks by Sockshop, and necklace by PawnShop (Photography: Jordan Rossi; Fashion: Joseph Kocharian; Hair and Make up for Joe, Kit, and Will by Sven Bayerbach at Carole Hayes using M.A.C. Cosmetics and Bumble And Bumble; Grooming Assistant: Vivi Melo; Fashion Assistants: Sacha Dance, Bella Azura Dupee)
What can Heartstopper webcomic fans expect from the TV adaptation? Having read the books and seen a preview of the series, I can assure Heartstopper stans that it is a faithful recreation of Alice’s work. In part this is no surprise as she wrote the scripts.
“It was so obvious from the very first draft that Alice could do it, and incredibly well,” Patrick Walters, one of the show’s executive producers, says over lunch when we meet on set. “I can’t imagine it working any other way.”
It’s clear that the webcomic has been closely studied, with entire panels retold on screen. Another key factor in ensuring the series accurately interpreted the comic was Alice’s presence on set. You might imagine that, for the cast, having the creator of the world you’re trying to bring to life present might be a daunting prospect.
But they assure me this wasn’t the case and are full of praise for Alice. Will calls her a “genius” and similarly, Yasmin, Joe and Nick separately recount the two weeks the cast spent rehearsing and getting in character. It was a crucial time for them to get to know not only one another but Alice, too.
Kit wears tank top by DSquared2, and necklace by PawnShop (Photography: Jordan Rossi; Fashion: Joseph Kocharian; Hair and Make up for Joe, Kit, and Will by Sven Bayerbach at Carole Hayes using M.A.C. Cosmetics and Bumble And Bumble; Grooming Assistant: Vivi Melo; Fashion Assistants: Sacha Dance, Bella Azura Dupee)
“If there were any questions about the character, we would ask Alice,” Kit says. “There were some things that Alice didn’t even know the answer to, and we could just all decide right there.”
I saw this collaboration for myself when, during a sports day scene, Will came over in between takes to ask for Alice’s opinion. “She explained what her view was, and I went from there,” Will says of the moment. On such occasions, you can’t beat having the author of your character on hand.
Joe agrees: “Alice has this really lovely way of letting us explore the characters for ourselves as well. And entrusting us with that, which I think is a really great thing for a writer because these are characters that Alice has had in her mind for years.”
Just as potentially intimidating are the webcomic’s devoted fans, who hunger for any morsel of news on the series. Their eagerness for updates was a surprise to all.
Prior to our photoshoot, Alice asked on Twitter what fans wanted to see on the show. The response blew them all away: they wanted everything.
“It took me off guard, if I’m honest,” says Will, nodding slowly. As an actor more familiar with the theatre, he’s used to people clapping and then going home. Not the 24-hour access that comes with social media.
Kit was also unprepared for the furore. “I think we had an idea that Alice’s fans would translate [to the TV series]. But it was a bit overwhelming at first. Like you say, anything that comes out about the show, like tiny pictures of mine and Joe’s heads — they’ll absolutely go nuts over which is just, like… amazing!”
It could be a lot for anyone to deal with, I suggest. “You do have to pinch yourself a little bit sometimes,” concurs Kit, “because people are literally looking at a picture of me and going crazy! I’m really appreciative of all of them and everyone who supports us as a cast. And I’m so excited for them to get the show. They’re all desperate for it to come out. And we’re desperate to give it to them.”
For him, the desire to fulfil fans’ expectations spurred him on during filming.
“It gave me a sense of motivation approaching certain scenes I really wanted to get right and [to] put extra time into scenes that a lot of the audience will also find very important. So, although it did come with a level of pressure, I tried to use it in a positive way. It felt like a real honour to be able to get that role.”
Yasmin wears jacket, skirt, and earrings all by Moschino, choker, earrings, and rings stylist’s own, shoes by Schuh; Kit wears shirt by MCQ, tank top by DSquared2, trousers by Moschino , and trainers by Adidas; Will wears leather jacket and tank top by DSquared2, trousers by Fiorucci, and trainers by Converse; Joe wears blazer, shirt, trousers and shoes all by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello (Photography: Jordan Rossi; Fashion: Joseph Kocharian; Yasmin’s hair by Silas Maiden; Yasmin’s makeup by Emily Wood at A-Frame Agency using Danessa Myricks; Hair and Make up for Joe, Kit, and Will by Sven Bayerbach at Carole Hayes using M.A.C. Cosmetics and Bumble And Bumble; Grooming Assistant: Vivi Melo; Fashion Assistants: Sacha Dance, Bella Azura Dupee)
As we break for lunch, the cast — who regularly hang out together — gather around a table catching up. They’ve only recently seen the finished edit of the series themselves and they’re understandably excited for its release. As they change into their second looks for the shoot, they are truly settled into their first cover moment. As Billy Porter’s ‘Children’ blares in the background, the cast enjoy a little groove while the next shot is set up.
The conversation within the entertainment industry, as well as further afield, about representation on screen is prevalent, and in this Heartstopper is leading the way.
While on set, Alice divulges that celebrating diversity has been at the centre of her stories from the beginning. “I knew that I wanted Heartstopper to have a diverse range of characters and it wasn’t just focused on these two boys. Lots of people were reading the story and I wanted people to feel they could see themselves in it.”
It’s no accident that — in this humble fan’s opinion — the casting is spot on. Even down to Nellie the dog.
Alice and Patrick Walters impressed upon me that finding actors that truly represented Alice’s characters, and, by extension, the fans, took time, but that it was worth it in the end. Patrick was all too aware of the challenges when trying to cast very specific roles.
“There was never any option but to cast authentically,” he says. “But there was also a worry if we’d find these people and we knew that if we didn’t find them, we couldn’t make the show.” It’s an interesting point. His advice to other producers is: “Don’t compromise.”
Will is confident that Heartstopper has answered the brief. “Yasmin and I, for example, we’re from completely polar opposites of this country, but we’re together and we’ve made something so special. I think it’s going to be a real change.”
Yasmin also believes conversations around diversity are important. “The more that we can open up the doors for queer people, and for people who aren’t cis[gendered] then that’s when we can have a more inclusive industry.”
With the exception of TV series Pose, Yasmin says she hasn’t had many roles to look up to where she’s felt represented as a Black trans woman. The rare opportunity afforded to her to provide that sorely needed representation here came with some pressure, but she focused on what this would mean for others.
“I am on the screen. That in itself is powerful enough. That in itself is inspiring to people. And I have to realise that and get out of my head and be like, ‘Listen, girl, you smashed it, you’re on the show, you’ve got an amazing support system around you, like, you’re doing really well.’”
Yasmin wears denim jacket and jeans both by Calvin Klein Jeans, bra by Calvin Klein Underwear (Photography: Jordan Rossi; Fashion: Joseph Kocharian; Yasmin’s hair by Silas Maiden; Yasmin’s makeup by Emily Wood at A-Frame Agency using Danessa Myricks; Hair and Make up for Joe, Kit, and Will by Sven Bayerbach at Carole Hayes using M.A.C. Cosmetics and Bumble And Bumble; Grooming Assistant: Vivi Melo; Fashion Assistants: Sacha Dance, Bella Azura Dupee)
The character of Elle is different from other trans characters in the media, who are often explored in the context of gender dysphoria or transphobia or both. Although those themes are present in Heartstopper, they’re not the primary focus.
Yasmin believes they can balance doing both. “We can have a trans story that is normalised. In season one, she’s shown as this girl who has transitioned from a boys’ school to a girls’ school — that’s the only way we know that she’s trans.”
But Yasmin doesn’t think we should compare trans narratives. “In reality, we’re all fighting for the same thing. I feel like every trans story is beautiful, whether they go into gender dysphoria or depression [or not]. I think the fact that Heartstopper doesn’t highlight those things doesn’t mean it’s any less important.
All trans stories are important. And even though Elle is portrayed to be this beautiful, confident girl, of course she’s gonna have gender dysphoria. She’s trans, at the end of the day. We all have it.”
She adds that in a very much unconfirmed, in no way guaranteed, purely hypothetical season two, “I wouldn’t be mad if we went into a little bit of gender dysphoria, because it’s normal. I’m just hoping that we really delve into trans-ness a bit more. But yeah, there’s a lot of very exciting things coming to season two. If it’s possible!”
The role has certainly been empowering for Yasmin. Sometimes, she shares, it doesn’t even feel real. The significance of a British TV show having a Black trans lead is certainly not lost on her. “It’s really going to be a moment. And I know that for the young Yasmin watching, this would be like, ‘Girl, I see myself on screen.’ The fact that Heartstopper has given me the platform and also opened the door for other Black queers to come out here and be put in front of casting directors: it’s just everything. And the young Yasmins, and LGBTQs out there that will watch Heartstopper and feel normal, that’s all I could ever ask for,” she says.
“I just love showing people that you can do it. Even though I was bullied, and even though I have been through a lot, you can always come out the other end. That’s the most empowering thing for me. And especially Elle, she’s just such a queen.”
Another discussion that’s been ongoing for some time is that LGBTQ+ narratives in the media are often played as tragic or traumatic. One argument that I have heard expressed is gay characters in shows or films either get beaten up or diagnosed with HIV and then die.
There’s no denying that these are very real issues for the LGBTQ+ community. With homophobic and transphobic hate crimes rising in the UK, and globally, and an increasing amount of anti-trans legislation in the United States, highlighting such stories showcases what the community has gone — and continues to go — through.
Heartstopper recognises some of these issues. Charlie is bullied, as is Yasmin. Mental health is another big topic that the series covers. But while it doesn’t shy away from the negative sides of queer life, it puts an emphasis on telling positive and uplifting LGBTQ+ stories instead. These are also a very real experience.
Back in June on our set visit, Alice said, “We also need stories that are happy and spread joy. It’s just so uplifting to watch [the show] and it will spread a lot of joy.”
Will is keen to emphasise that the show is being realistic about issues like homophobia, while also looking at the world with rose-tinted glasses. It’s a balance he’s “blessed” to be a part of.
After watching something like It’s a Sin, Joe thinks it’s key to show young LGBTQ+ people that “you can have happiness and you deserve happiness. I think it’s really important to push the idea that no matter who you are, or what you identify as, or your sexuality, you’re allowed happiness.”
Joe wears denim jacket and jeans, both by Fiorucci tank top by DSquared2, rings and necklace all by Pawnshop, and trainers by Adidas. (Photography: Jordan Rossi; Fashion: Joseph Kocharian; Yasmin’s hair by Silas Maiden; Yasmin’s makeup by Emily Wood at A-Frame Agency using Danessa Myricks; Hair and Make up for Joe, Kit, and Will by Sven Bayerbach at Carole Hayes using M.A.C. Cosmetics and Bumble And Bumble; Grooming Assistant: Vivi Melo; Fashion Assistants: Sacha Dance, Bella Azura Dupee)
Kit is also aware of what it can mean for LGBTQ+ people to watch a show that depicts a more idealised version of the world, while also covering issues everyone can identify with.
“It’s a real honour,” he says. “Sebastian Croft, who plays Ben, one of the bad guys, said to me after we watched the show the other day that one of the scenes [is one] that people might show to their parents to come out. I was humbled by that, because that’s such an honour for any actor to be able to create a scene like that, that could really change a person’s life. That’s an honour that I am so grateful to have been given. I don’t think I’ll ever really forget that.”
Yasmin affirms that Heartstopper is here to take LGBTQ+ stories to the next level: “Listen, honey. If you’ve seen the comics, the show does not disappoint. And let me tell you that it really doesn’t.”
Heartstopper premieres on Netflix on 22 April 2022. The Attitude May/June issue featuring the cast of Heartstopper is out now.