Joe Locke had no idea Netflix’s Heartstopper would be such an instant hit. (It’s always hard to know how exactly many people are watching Netflix shows since the streamer doesn’t release audience numbers, but Heartstopper topped Variety’s “Trending TV” chart by a wide margin, has near-perfect Rotten Tomatoes scores, and it’s huge on gay Twitter.) Locke, who plays the lead role in the queer teen coming-of-age story, always saw it as a “little show” with “a small budget,” he explains. But “when all the buzz started coming, we’re like, ‘Whoa, we did not expect this.'” The series, based on a graphic novel by the British author Alice Oseman, follows the romance between Charlie Spring (Locke), who is shy and comfortable with his queer identity, and Nick Nelson (Kit Connor), a popular, straight-passing rugby player. “It’s just so great that a show based on queer people, made by queer people, and has mostly queer characters has made it into the mainstream,” Locke says.
Heartstopper is mostly lighthearted, celebrating the fluidity of sexuality, love, and coming of age with nuance and joy. It’s also Locke’s acting debut after he was plucked from 10,000 other hopefuls in an open casting call. The 18-year-old is still finishing his studies at Ballakermeen High School on the Isle of Man (population: 85,000) off the northwest coast of England, and between finals, he talked to GQ about Heartstopper, queer representation, and falling in love.
GQ: What specifically drew you to the script when you read it for the first time?
Joe Locke: Alice [Oseman] has such a wonderful way of creating rich, complex characters that mean so much to people. Charlie’s story is relatable for so many queer people. The second I read the script, I saw Charlie as a more introverted version of me. When I read it, I was like, “Oh my God, it’s me. That’s really weird.”
I love how the script talks about queer love, which a lot of people still don’t write about. I love how unapologetic the queer love is in Heartstopper. The characters are never sorry about who they are, and they’re never ashamed to be themselves. It’s so empowering to see! The atmosphere on set was always happy and upbeat, and just really excited to be creating a queer story with nuance. It was such a supportive environment that shines through in the show.