Joe Locke doesn’t do nonchalance. When the lead star of Netflix’s fizzing new hit drama, Heartstopper, discovered he had been selected out of 10,000 teenagers to play schoolboy Charlie Spring, he let out a high-pitched yelp. “I had a phone call from my agent,” Locke tells me. “He goes, ‘Are you sat down?’ And I just screamed. I knew he wouldn’t have asked if I was sitting down if I hadn’t got it. Then he was like, ‘You got it.’ And I just screamed again.” A few months later, during filming, Locke discovered that Olivia Colman was the mystery star who’d joined the cast of mostly newcomers. “They kept her a secret for ages. Then we were on set one day and Kit [Connor, co-lead] whispered it to me and I started screaming.” On the day his own casting was announced in the press, Locke went from 1,000 Instagram followers to 15,000. He probably squealed then, too.
It’s not typical for an unknown actor to gain so much attention before their show has even aired (the day before Heartstopper is out, Locke has 188,000 followers). But long before Heartstopper came to Netflix, it already had hundreds of thousands of adoring fans. The show – about two schoolboys, Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson (Connor), who fall in love – is based on a young-adult web comic created by Alice Oseman, who has adapted her stories for television. Masses of teens already know Charlie and Nick inside-out. They have shared their heartache, their joy. Luckily, the casting went down well. In a viral tweet earlier this month, one fan posted pictures of Locke and Connor next to their illustrated characters, writing: “Heartstopper casting department definitely understood the assignment.”
Heartstopper bursts with butterflies-in-the-tummy optimism. It is, as Locke puts it, “a beautiful story of acceptance and love and friendship and happiness”. It’s already been dubbed the “anti-Euphoria”, swapping drugs and sex for milkshakes and snow angels. “There are opposites in our story,” says 18-year-old Locke over video call from a friend’s house in London. Wearing an appropriately wholesome patterned woolly jumper, he has a shock of black curly hair and a powerful pair of eyebrows. “Our story is not so based on sex, because our characters are turning 15 and 16 in the series, so it’s more about relationships and love. It’s a more optimistic piece. It shows the really nice things about being queer. I think a lot of queer people growing up feel like they don’t deserve love, because they don’t have access to the same dating pool or support as straight people do. And so Heartstopper is so lovely in that it gives that to queer characters."
The show doesn’t shy away from the painful experiences many queer teenagers have – Charlie both hooks up with and is bullied by Ben Hope (Sebastian Croft), a popular boy who has a girlfriend and refuses to acknowledge Charlie in public. But it also explores the fizzing excitement you feel when a person you fancy DMs you, the electric rush that zings through you when your crush’s hand brushes your own. In Heartstopper, illustrations of flowers, stars, lighting bolts and fireworks whizz around the screen when Charlie and Nick touch.
Locke deftly offsets Charlie’s puppyish hopefulness with vulnerability. His whole face lights up when he sees Nick. And his fidgety awkwardness on the sports field seeps through the screen. Oseman was determined to lend the show an air of verisimilitude, with each casting call restricted to the exact sexual identity and ethnicity of the characters in her web comic. Locke – who grew up in the Isle of Man, the son of a schoolteacher mother and newsagent father – doesn’t like to think about the fact he beat 10,000 people to the role “because that seems really scary”. “It was an open casting call so I didn’t have an agent or anything and I hadn’t done anything professional before,” he says. “I sent in a self-tape and got a Zoom recall, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s strange.’ I did another Zoom recall and then another, and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe this might actually happen.’ I’d always wanted to be an actor but, being from the Isle of Man, it’s even harder when you don’t have access to the same sort of generic route lots of young actors would have in the UK: going to acting schools where they bring in agents or doing theatre auditions at the weekend for the West End.” Instead, Locke was a big part of the local amateur dramatics scene, and would spend most of his summers performing in the “really lovely old Victorian theatre” in his town.
Locke, who’s got his first A-level exam two weeks after the show comes out, says 27-year-old Oseman – who oversaw every detail in the show, down to the costumes – has “perfectly encapsulated the British school experience”, conceding that real UK schools might need a fresh lick of paint to live up to the one in Heartstopper. “Even the uniforms are similar to my school’s and the form groups and every maths class looking the same,” he says.
He can relate to Charlie, too. “I was never bullied in school but I was a little bit different and I went through phases of being a bit quieter than I’d have liked…” he says. “Teenage years are really hard, I think, and when you grow up, you forget that being a teenager is actually really a bit s*** sometimes. When you’re that age, all that matters is school. It’s your whole life. And your whole life is what people think about you and if you’re ever going to find someone who likes you. Part of me is still there, I’m still at school. School can be a wonderful place but it can also be a not so wonderful place if you don’t happen to fit in properly.”
In one scene, Nick, confused about his feelings for Charlie, does an internet quiz to try to find out what his sexuality is. “The classic Buzzfeed ‘Are you gay?’ quiz was genuinely a popular trend at my school,” says Locke. “It was like, if you got above a certain amount of points, then maybe you’re gay.”
Older viewers might presume that the school playground is a place of acceptance and inclusivity in 2022, but Locke says otherwise. The word “gay” is still used as an insult. “A lot has changed in recent years but there’s still a long way to go,” he says. “Difference is seen as a bad thing in a lot of schools and to other teenagers because you don’t fit in with a certain norm that’s seen to be acceptable. I know from my own experience that that makes some things a bit difficult. I’d hope that as millennials are starting to have children and bring their children up, that will start to change things. But I think we’re on the tail end of the generation before, which wasn’t necessarily as accepting. There were definitely people who said things to people in my year who were different. And part of that is because, when you’re a teenager, you don’t know yourself, and a way of covering that is to attack other people. That may not change. But we can learn ways of trying to make it better.”
He hopes “people will see themselves” in Heartstopper. “I want it to say to young queer people: ‘You deserve to have this story. This happiness is not out of your reach. You don’t not deserve the things in a classic heterosexual love story because you happen to be queer.’”
For Locke, he hopes Heartstopper will be renewed for a second series and lead him onto more projects that “mean something”. “I would love to play the first gay Disney prince,” he says. “That would be a dream.”
‘Heartstopper’ is out now on Netflix
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