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Heartstopper, Netflix’s adaptation of Alice Oseman’s graphic novels about a pair of teenage boys falling for each another while at school, quickly became a word-of-mouth hit for the streamer when it premiered in April. Its sweet-natured storytelling, where whimsical animations are sprinkled amid hallway meet-cutes and swoon-worthy meet-ups, captured the hearts of viewers all over the world. They saw in popular rugby player Nick and quiet drummer Charlie the kind of will-they-or-won’t-they couple that has littered many a (straight) rom-com for decades on screens both big and small.
There’s no discussing Heartstopper without talking about its charming leads. As Charlie and Nick, Joe Locke and Kit Connor, respectively, light up the screen. With stolen glances and furtive smiles, the actors capture a specific kind of teenage longing that remains all too rare in contemporary LGBTQ+ media. Indeed, Locke’s kinship with Charlie handily exceeded the frame of the screen. As a young out gay actor, he knows this show has been more than a job. “Heartstopper told me to be proud of who I was,” he shares, voicing what many fans have in turn echoed his way. (Connor, after this interview, publicly came out as bisexual on Oct. 31.)
The actors, who are still processing the runaway success of the series, tell The Hollywood Reporter why they were drawn to their characters, how they worked on crafting the effortless chemistry between two boys who at times struggle to put into words how they feel, and why the show is rightfully built on classic Hollywood romance movie tropes.
What was your first encounter with Alice Oseman’s books? Did you feel an instant kinship with Nick and Charlie?
KIT CONNOR I think my first experience of actually reading Heartstopper was just before I did my self-tape. I was originally auditioning for Charlie. And I was like, this is never gonna happen, but I’m still going to try. But I do think the character of Nick is so relatable to so many people in so many different ways; I can relate to him in so many ways. There’s that general kind of surface-level popularity that he experiences at school, which seems like it kind of gives him value. And then, obviously, throughout season one of the show, he starts to reevaluate whether it’s what he really cares about. That’s something I really found very interesting about his storyline. But they’re also really sweet characters. And they both just care about each other so much, which is so much fun to play.
JOE LOCKE Yeah, I think me and Charlie have so many similarities. He’s very … I was gonna say the word “intelligent,” but I don’t want to use that word to describe myself. (Laughs.) He’s very nerdy — that’s the word. He’s very nerdy, and I’m quite nerdy. He’s quite introverted. I instantly saw myself in him. But he also has this really cool, quiet confidence within him that I don’t think I have. I could never have joined a rugby team for some boy I liked. Or told someone I liked them. He knows what he wants in life and knows himself so well. I really admire that in him as a character.
Alice’s books are quite minimalist, with very little dialogue. There’s an inwardness to the way these boys express themselves, especially in regard to each another. How did you bring that into the series, which also makes their dynamic rely on a warm, quiet physicality?
CONNOR For me, a big part of acting is reacting and just that kind of internal journey that characters go through, whether it be through a scene or through an entire season of a show. I think there are loads of points in the show where you could just pause and see Joe or myself, and, if you just look at it, you could see what we’re thinking in that moment. Because there are so many points where they don’t say much.
LOCKE Yeah. And I think in the season-one scripts there were whole page-long scenes of no dialogue. It might be a two-second moment in the show, but it was a whole crafted moment of feeling and thinking for these characters that Alice had written. And, especially for Charlie as a character, the lines on the page … I just want to color the moment. But what really matters is you knowing the character and knowing what they’re feeling and thinking about so that if the lines were removed, the scene would still be the same. I think that definitely applies to Nick and Charlie. They don’t say much. I mean, they do say much.
CONNOR But they communicate with their minds.
LOCKE Telepathically, yes.
The two of you clearly have a playful dynamic onscreen and off. How much work did that take?
CONNOR It’s one of those things where we were very much thrown into the deep end when we made it. We had two weeks of rehearsal. And then suddenly we started shooting. But we were quite lucky in that we tried to film it in chronological order, which was perfect.
LOCKE Chemistry is something you can’t fake. You can’t craft that — you can’t learn chemistry. It’s just there or it isn’t. I think that’s what has happened. Which is why I think it was so great they chose to film season one in sequence. That meant the awkward “hi’s” at the start of the series were equally as awkward between Kit and me as between Charlie and Nick. And as the season went on, our relationship grew.
Kit, you have a particularly touching coming-out scene opposite Olivia Colman, who plays your mother. How helpful was having her as a scene partner?
CONNOR The funny thing about it is we had only two days together. Because — what is it that they call her in [Netflix’s film] Do Revenge? “Oscar winner Olivia Colman.” So, we spent the first day doing the slightly lighter scenes. And then the second day, we did the more important scenes for Nick’s development, his sort of arc. That final scene in episode eight was the most important thing for me in the whole show. I was like, “OK, we’re going to get it right.” We didn’t have much prep for it. But I’m so glad that I was able to do it with Oscar winner Olivia Colman because we were able to get that immediate sense of believability. Here is a son who is able to be so vulnerable and honest with his mother. Yeah, I think if she were a lesser actor, then it would have been a lot harder. But thank God we had Olivia Colman to help us through.
This is a show that clearly has struck a chord with viewers all over the world. Why do you think this love story has spoken to audiences far and wide?
LOCKE I think we all expected it to have this quite young Gen Z audience. What we weren’t expecting was the millennial-age people who watched the show and saw what they didn’t have when they were growing up. I think we’d especially overlooked that sort of person who would watch it. Mainly because Heartstopper is so rare and so new. I don’t think Heartstopper would have been made even five years ago, let alone 15 or 20 years ago.
CONNOR Yeah, I think also one of the things that Heartstopper has going for it in general is that so much queer media is overwhelmingly negative. And sort of dark and gritty. There’s something extremely powerful about just being able to watch queer people — whether they be queer teens or queer adults — being happy. Being able to express themselves. Being able to be in love and not be judged for it. That’s beautiful. And I think one of the most underrated things about Heartstopper, one of the things that’s less mentioned, is that Heartstopper, in many ways, follows the tropes of an old, classic Hollywood romance. We have so many little references and allusions to those. And, you know, the queer community never really got a classic Hollywood romance. So, it’s nice to have that kind of thing where it’s a kiss and then one person is up on their heels. Like, there’s that moment in episode eight where we kiss in the corridor after the sports day. Our main direction was that it was gonna be like a proper Hollywood romance kiss with, like, slow motion. Very romanticized.
That speaks to the earnestness that’s central to the show, which seems to also be teaching queer audiences, in particular, a lot about themselves. What have Nick and Charlie taught you through this entire process?
CONNOR Making Heartstopper was an extraordinarily important thing for me, in terms of my life and my identity. Being surrounded by strong, confident queer people — I can’t tell you how empowering it is.
LOCKE I think I always knew who I was. But Heartstopper told me to be proud of who I was and to not care as much [what people think]. I used to care a lot about what people and the world thought of me as a person, who I was, and how I lived my life. But having Heartstopper has just taught me not to care so much. To just be unapologetically who I am. I don’t think I would know who I am if I hadn’t gone through Heartstopper. I will always be grateful for that.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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Robert De Niro