Doctor Who’s Yasmin Finney: ‘As a trans teenage girl, I never saw myself represented anywhere on TV’

The new star of ‘Doctor Who’, who plays trans teenager Rose in the 60th anniversary specials, talks to Kate Solomon about being bullied at school, dealing with hate crime from ‘Doctor Who’ fans, and why the Netflix teen drama ‘Heartstopper’ is so important

Saturday 09 December 2023 06:30 GMT
Yasmin Finney: ‘I think Heartstopper has struck a chord because of the simple fact that trans people didn’t have representation growing up'
Yasmin Finney: ‘I think Heartstopper has struck a chord because of the simple fact that trans people didn’t have representation growing up' (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Gay Times)

When Yasmin Finney was cast in Doctor Who, the producers gave her a list of words she might find being used against her online. “I looked at them and thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s so many words that I was basically called in high school’. Words that make you think, ‘This is ridiculous, who would call someone this?’” She painstakingly entered them – more than 100 hateful slurs – into the muted words features on her Twitter/X and Instagram accounts. “I’m very used to online bigotry and vile comments,” she says. “But [the producers] were saying, ‘You would be surprised what can be said about you, especially in this universe’.”

In the three 60th anniversary Doctor Who specials, the last of which is broadcast tonight on BBC1, Finney plays Rose, the daughter of one time Doctor Who companion Donna (played by Catherine Tate). Rose is a teenage trans girl, just as Finney was when they filmed the episode last year – she has since turned 20.

In the Russel T Davies-written episode “The Star Beast”, which was screened in November, Rose stumbles across a cute, fluffy alien and is pivotal in preventing The Meep from carrying out its ultimately dastardly plan to destroy London. The episode includes instances of Rose being deadnamed by bullies from school and discussion of The Meep’s pronouns, and its denouement hinges on Rose’s gender status: for a certain kind of online bigot, it was a field day.

It’s a lot to put on anyone, let alone a 20-year-old woman who has spent most of her life dealing with transphobic abuse. “It’s such a difficult conversation to have,” Finney sighs. “Because, when you’re 20, you don’t really want to be thinking about your identity and what other people think about you so strongly, and why they think you shouldn’t even exist.” 

She found filming scenes that closely echo painful experiences from her own life, such as the deadnaming scene, traumatic too. It’s unfair, I suggest, that she has to deal with reliving that. But Finney sees it as a necessary sacrifice. She believes that taking roles that allow her to be visible as a trans woman is vitally important for the next generation, and showing the reality of life for many trans people is part of breaking those discriminatory structures down. “All sorts of matters of representation, whether I’m walking down the street with my mom and getting hate-crimed by boys from school, or whether it’s not a big deal that the character I play in a Netflix series is trans [she plays the trans teenage girl Elle in beloved teen drama Heartstopper]: both are so helpful and so important,” she says. “And, you know,” she adds. “It was acting!”

She does her best to be unfazed by the bigotry – indeed, when she appears on my laptop screen a few days after the Doctor Who special airs, she is all summer and smiles. Wearing a spaghetti-strapped vest top and throwing her long hair around expressively, she sits in front of the Christmas tree in her living room and chats easily, openly and warmly. Her natural charisma is partly what has won her a huge fanbase.

She first found a community on Tiktok (she currently has 1.9 million followers) where she posted about her experiences as a trans teenager growing up in Manchester; then as Elle, to whom she lends a sweet, tentative confidence as Elle moves to an all-girls school after coming out as trans. Seconds into our conversation she starts to say, “I’ve just finished filming...” then stops herself. “Actually, I’m not allowed to say what.” Before she got the role in Heartstopper in 2021, she hadn’t even been to London – the table read was her first trip; now she’s booked and busy.

For a long time, Finney wasn’t sure she could be an actor. She grew up in Manchester, where she, her mother and half-sister lived in a council flat.  She knew she had something, given her Tiktok following, but it didn’t feel like it could ever translate into anything solid. “I was studying acting in school – I didn’t used to take it seriously though. I didn’t see anybody that was like me doing it.”

While her classmates at secondary school were obsessed with creating GCSE drama pieces about knife crime, she found herself unable to engage: none of it felt relevant or interesting to her. She had been bullied for being “camp and flamboyant” before transitioning around year 10 – the bullying continued after that too. It felt as though there was a gulf between her and the other kids. “I just didn’t really fit in. I got bullied by all my classmates. I had a really difficult time.”

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The day she saw the open casting call for Heartstopper is seared in her memory – “I just saw somebody who was very similar to me at that time – who was 16, I was 16, she was a trans girl who moved to a different high school and so was I... it’s just something you don’t see every day. I was completely flabbergasted to see all the similarities to my life.”

She remembers screaming with excitement when she saw the advert, the whirlwind unreality of sitting in her mum’s council flat holding her hand as they met agents after she’d been offered the part; the magical trip to Windsor where she met the rest of the Heartstopper cast for the first time – it sounds like the start of a Hallmark movie, pure wish fulfilment.

Watching Heartstopper, in which a group of queer teens find love and acceptance amid the trenches of adolescence, you could be forgiven for thinking that life is a breeze. The unfortunate reality is that growing up as a trans teenager in Manchester was a struggle for Finney beyond drama class: she had hate speech hurled at her as she transitioned. Some family members also found it difficult, although her mum and her close friends are supportive. The Netflix series, which started life as a webcomic in 2016 by the YA author Alice Oseman, isn’t all sunshine and rainbows but it is warm-hearted and optimistic.

“I think Heartstopper has struck a chord because of the simple fact that trans people didn’t have representation growing up,” Finney says. “And even if you’re not queer, it’s just nice to be able to see some positive, youthful, wholesome content. Whether you’re queer or not, it’s a world of positivity and escapism, which I think a lot of people need – especially with the tough time that we’re in.”

Her characters so far have both been very “good” – both Rose and Elle are sweet, kind teenagers who rarely put a foot out of line. Though she would relish the chance to play, for example, a villain or a non-trans character, being able to “resonate with roles” has been a clear driver for Finney so far. Growing up she idolised Naomi Campbell and watched the 2007 drag queen documentary Paris Is Burning on repeat, but never felt represented in pop culture. “I guess the representation I had was mostly through American eyes – there wasn’t really anything in the UK that I could resonate with. Which is kind of sad. And if I did, it would be gay representation, it wouldn’t necessarily be black trans representation. Representation is just so important. It’s obviously a huge factor in the work that I do. Because I simply didn’t have that.”

Time traveller: Yasmin Finney as Rose in ‘Doctor Who’ (Alistair Heap/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios)

Times are changing, albeit slowly. Finney’s work aside, trans artists are becoming more visible. Among other rising stars, Euphoria’s Hunter Schafer had a major role in the recent Hunger Games prequel, Hari Nef was Doctor Barbie in Greta Gerwig’s summer blockbuster Barbie, while shows such as Pose, a particular favourite of Finney’s, have shone a light on the New York ballroom scene. There’s a long way to go – trans men are less visible in popular culture – but there is a definite sense that the tide is turning.

As well as blazing a trail for others to follow, Finney has also found a kind of catharsis. In Heartstopper, Elle finds loving and open acceptance among friends, in Doctor Who, Rose’s family are fiercely supportive. “It’s given me a sort of closure – to be able to relive my high school experience as a trans person, as a proud trans girl, which I didn’t necessarily have throughout my high school years as Yasmin. And Doctor Who has given me the opportunity to be in a family – a very crazy family, but a family nonetheless. And I kind of lacked that with my family, we kind of parted ways once I transitioned: things got really complicated. So to be able to relive my family experience, especially with these amazing actors – it was a pinch-me moment.”

When you put yourself first, any other comment made by a relative or a family member or a friend, best friend, complete stranger off the streets – you really won’t care

Yasmin Finney

It’s hard to square this very positive, confident woman with the ire that’s been directed at her in the wake of “The Star Beast” on social media and by “review-bombing” on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. Although Heartstopper has found a large and engaged audience, Doctor Who is an enormous institution that has put her in front of a vastly different crowd of viewers.

“I think obviously people will have their opinions,” Finney says diplomatically when I ask how she’s doing with all that. She’s not offended by people critiquing her performance – “there’s more work to do and room to grow” she says, of her acting skills – “but I was getting judged because of the fact that I am trans. When I read comments saying, “Oh you were terrible and also you’re a man”, it just makes me realise that they don’t actually care about the show. There’s always been queer characters throughout the universe.”

Finney is in no doubt that being a trans woman in the public eye is always going to draw comments. “If people have such a strong view on my identity now when I play a trans role, what are people going to be saying in a few years when I play a non-trans role and it’s on their best show ever? I’ve got to have tough skin to face that.”

It’s something she’s working on all the time. “There is always space for acceptance within yourself,” she says. “When you put yourself first, any other comment made by a relative or a family member or a friend, best friend, complete stranger off the streets – you really won’t care.” She shrugs. “I’ve been working on that. Trying to better my mind.” Yasmin Finney has found herself: and you better believe that she’s sticking around.

The Doctor Who 60th anniversary special airs on BBC1 at 8pm on Saturday 9 December

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