I really enjoy making a tit of myself,” says Connor Swindells, who plays bad boy Adam Groff in Sex Education. It’s a good job, too – across the past two series of the Netflix hit, Swindells’s scenes have included trying to suppress a Viagra-induced erection for several hours, eating an entire Curly Wurly in one squishy mouthful, and dropping his underwear in front of his whole school.
The 24-year-old’s nimble, expressive face makes him a casting director’s dream for comedy, from his wriggling eyebrows to the sly, slow curl of his lips. In the third series of Sex Education, he gets plenty more gags, including when he wears make-up and imitates Keira Knightley in Love Actually. There’s also the continuation of the running joke that Adam has a large penis. “It’s a ridiculous concept,” says Swindells, “this lad with a gargantuan knob. It’s so silly and over the top.” Though you do suspect he quite enjoys the speculation.
Crude jokes aside, season three is a major turning point for Adam, who has tough subject matter to deal with on his “redemption journey”, as Swindells puts it. He’s coming to terms with his sexuality (season two saw him starting a relationship with the boy he used to bully, Ncuti Gatwa’s irrepressible Eric) and he is determined to start talking about his feelings and stop messing around at school.
Swindells portrays these quieter, more fraught moments beautifully: clamming up, avoiding eye contact, his deep voice breaking slightly. At one point, Adam admits he struggles to express himself, saying: “All the words are there in my head, I just don’t know how to say them. The more I think about it, the worse it gets, and people are just looking at me, waiting… they think I’m scary or stupid.” Swindells can relate to this. “In big social situations, I get quite withdrawn and shy,” he says. “I’m only just starting to learn how to wrestle my way in and put my best foot forward.”
When we speak, Swindells has just moved into his new house in west London with his cats, John, Jasper and Sooty (he used to live with Aimee Lou Wood, his Sex Education co-star who he dated for several years). There’s nothing on the walls yet except a picture of a sailing boat his grandfather used to own, and he’s wearing a checked shirt, his hair and beard grown out. He can be quiet, but he speaks for the longest, and most comfortably, about his childhood and losing his mother to cancer when he was just seven years old.
Swindells was raised by his grandparents and father in West Sussex after his mother died. “My grandad’s retirement money started to dry up fast when we moved in,” he says. “My grandmother was now looking after two kids again, my dad and myself. We were quickly thrown from being a middle class family to being a very, very working class family. My dad, sadly, is disabled so he couldn’t work. We struggled to get by when I was nine or 10.” But the echoes of his grandparents’ former wealth was strange. “We had no money but we had a pool in the garden. It was always freezing cold and covered in s*** because we couldn’t afford to heat or clean it.”
Swindells was naughty at school, but discovered the virtues of self-discipline through boxing, which he was seriously considering as a career. “It was a rite of passage,” he says. “My mum’s side of the family have a strong traveller heritage, so I was probably trying to ascertain some sort of masculinity in my young adolescent life and attempting to make the men I looked up to proud. And it worked, they were proud of me.”
His leap into acting was unconventional. Larking about in Brighton one weekend, aged 19, he saw an audition poster for a play and cockily told his friends he thought he’d be better at acting than the rest of them. “Go on then,” they told him, and he got the lead part in the show, The Trial by Franz Kafka. “I thought, I don’t really want to get punched in the head every day for the rest of my life. What could I do? For some reason I had the audacity to believe I’d be good at acting. Luckily, when I started, things went well. Since then it’s been a bit of a whirlwind.”
A whirlwind of playing struggling young men, from volatile trainee lighthouse keeper Donald in psychological thriller The Vanishing, to Adam in the British indie film VS., a raging rapper who was put into care by his mother. “Your jobs choose you, for better or worse,” says Swindells. “Starting off in this industry, I was feeling a lot of undeclared grief I had from losing my mum at such a young age. That was obviously showing in many different ways, in all the right ways, for me to land those jobs of playing people who’ve been through a similar thing. You get back what you put out into the universe. If you’re walking around with a chip on your shoulder, things will come to you that warrant that. It just so happened that for me it was playing troubled youths.”
Out of all the troubled youths Swindells has played, Adam Groff is the one who made his name. When he was cast, Swindells had no idea how big the show would be. “The penny really dropped when it rolled into my bank account and I could finally pay for things I always wanted, like taking my friends out for dinner,” he says. The first series was hugely successful, with 40 million tuning in. People loved it for its unflinching lens on sex and sexuality. Series two was praised for a storyline centred around sexual assault on a bus, and the third season will tackle the elusive female orgasm, anxiety attacks and gender nonconformity.
There is, of course, a lot of sex and nudity. Swindells found these scenes hard at first. “There’s always going to be miscommunications when it comes to intimate scenes,” he says. “They’re always tricky and everyone’s vulnerable and embarrassed. No matter how many things you put in place to avoid that, like intimacy coordinators and big open discussions, at the end of the day you’ve got to do it and it’s going to be difficult. I like to think that, now, we’re very well-versed in the dynamics of it, and we’re good at getting creative with it.”
Swindells’s most recent role, as a Navy officer in Vigil, required an entirely different kind of creativity. The BBC detective drama was filmed in a studio that had been transformed into the bowels of a submarine. “There were these incredible full-blown engineering decks and a proper cockpit,” says Swindells, suddenly childlike. “It felt like we were on Star Trek. There were loads of lights and a massive red button.”
Now the roles are coming thick and fast. After Sex Education, he’s leading the cast of SAS: Rogue Heroes, a drama about the formation of the special forces from Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. Much of it was shot in the Sahara desert in 50-degree heat. “Sand everywhere,” says Swindells. “Sand in your ears, sand in your eyes, sand in your bum. You couldn’t escape it. I never want to go to Camber Sands ever again. It was a real endurance test, a long old slog, but fantastic. We were fighting against mother nature and she did not want us to be there.”
He’s playing the eccentric young officer, David Stirling, who founded the undercover unit in 1941, so is less likely to be making a tit of himself and inhaling a Curly Wurly. But if his portrayal of Adam Groff’s more serious side is anything to go by, his performance will be worth staying in to watch.
‘Sex Education’ returns to Netflix on 17 September and ‘Vigil’ is available in part on iPlayer now, with the series continuing on Sundays at 9pm on BBC One
Read more of The Independent’s Rising Stars interviews here.
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