Joe Locke

Netflix’s Heartstopper might be Joe Locke’s debut project, but his performance will solidify him as one of TV & film’s brightest talents. 

Some actors seem to be able to keep their characters at arm’s length, keeping a distance between the source material and who they are. When watching Joe Locke make his debut performance as Charlie, the introspective schoolboy who falls in love with the popular rugby player Nick in Heartstopper, the ease in which he embraces every characteristic almost seems as if he’s acting purely from muscle memory. It’s why it feels wrong to call Joe Locke a “rising star” when this performance of the lovesick, anxiety-ridden, and eager to please schoolboy will be a role that many will recall for years to come. To put it bluntly: Joe Locke approaches Charlie with such a degree of empathy and understanding that some actors far beyond Locke’s years would be desperate to tap into. 

Adapted from the graphic novel by author Alice Oseman, Heartstopper has a simple premise: boy meets boy and, while dealing with being students at a British all-boys grammar school, both explore and grapple with their feelings when things turn from platonic to romantic. For too long there has been an empty void in youth-centric TV, desperate to be filled by something exactly like Heartstopper. It’s a show that has queer teens at the focus and depicts the characters, plots, and themes in a light that differs from other shows marketed to similar audiences. Where Euphoria and Gossip Girl rely on the gritty and the glam, Heartstopper thrives on the smaller, intimate moments. The issues the characters grapple with—homophobia, toxic masculinity, and the like—are depicted in a way that shows that, despite their existence, there are ways to overcome them with the help of your friends and loved ones. At its core, it’s showing queer youth that they, above everything else, deserve happiness. 

1883 Magazine’s Editor Kelsey Barnes chats with Joe Locke about making his debut performance as Charlie in Heartstopper, what he hopes this show will do for queer youth representation, and more.

Usually, I like to start interviews by asking actors how they feel they’ve grown between their first role to now, but Heartstopper is your debut performance. What a performance to start your career. Was acting always your dream career path?

I’ve always been interested in acting and drama while I was growing up. I always did local amateur theatre and, at one point, I made my mum sign me up for 5 different acting lessons at once. She’d say, “Joe, I really need you to pick just one or two because you have zero free time!” It’s always been my ambition, but I never ever thought that it would become my profession or career that I could pursue. When Heartstopper happened, I was like, this is literally all of my dreams coming true at once. I’m living my dream.

You were selected out of 10,000 other potential actors that were up for the role of Charlie. That must’ve been something that was quite solidifying for you.
I mean, when I found out I had the role I was in isolation, on my own, in my house. I couldn’t even celebrate with anyone! It didn’t actually feel real until I was on the plane walking onto set and thinking, “oh my god, this is this is actually happening! This is actually a real thing that is happening!” I still don’t think it has fully settled in because it’s just so out of my frame of reference.

It’s been a year since Alice Oseman, the author of Heartstopper, announced you and Kit would be playing Charlie and Nick, respectively. Now, we’re a few weeks away from the release. Between booking your first job, going to set to film for the first time, and everything else, how has the past year been for you? 

Yeah, I think it’s been a lot in the best way possible. We have such a great support network around us, but it’s been zero to 100 in regards to pace. I had 1000 Instagram followers last year and now I have 100,000 which is just insane. It’s not even out yet! It’s been the heartbeat of the fandom that has made it for us. They are such a lovely group of people that it doesn’t feel as big as it might’ve been if it was another project. The cast is a close-knit group and we’ve been able to navigate it all together. 

I wasn’t familiar with the graphic novel prior and it wasn’t really until the teaser trailer dropped that I started to investigate the world of Heartstopper and I was blown away by the fandom! They’re so supportive, they’re so excited. How has it been to see their reactions?

It’s been great. I think it comes with a bit of pressure sometimes to try and live up to the expectations of these characters, but I think the Heartstopper fandom is so supportive of everything that Alice does and trusts her vision so much that they put that trust in us, too. It’s a really nice feeling. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with the pressure of living up to something, but I think we’ve been able to make the characters our own while also feeling like we’ve got Alice’s blessing. 

What attracted you to the role of Charlie?

Charlie is just such a lovable character. I see a lot of myself in him. I always describe Charlie as me if I was 10 times more introverted. He’s just so much so full of love and so complex because he has his issues that he’s dealing with, but he’s just such an interesting and lovely person. 

He’s so sweet. There were so many times when I was watching it where he would be apologizing for being clingy or annoying and I just wanted to hug him!

He’s so lovely, right? He’s going through a lot. Not that I can say I’ve played any other characters but I think a lot of the time you don’t get to play a lovely character like him. Usually, you have some tragic backstory which, don’t get me wrong, Charlie has his issues and he has the things that he’s dealing with. But, outside of that, he’s just a really lovely character. It was just so much fun to delve into that and play a better version of myself.

What I love about this coming-of-age story is that it’s so true to real life. The Guardian said Heartstopper is “the anti-Euphoria” and, as much as I like Euphoria, it’s true. I know for me, a lot of the shows I grew up on—Skins, Gossip Girl, and shows like that—never really represented my real life. Heartstopper explores themes—coming out and acceptance—in a way that is equal parts powerful and quiet in an authentic way. It feels like an actual lived experience. Did it seem like that when you got the script and you were filming?

Definitely. I think that Alice, since she’s only 27, the British High School experience hasn’t changed much in the last 10 years. The script is so authentic to that. I read the script and I can see bits from my school. Euphoria is a great show for certain things, but it’s good to have the opposite end of the spectrum which is a show that depicts real things through an optimistic lens. We show bullying, we show the things teenagers face today, but it’s sort of through an optimistic lens. You can always see the light at the end of the tunnel. Whereas in some of the other shows, the tunnel is suddenly curved and you can’t see the light anymore. Our show is about knowing that it’s all going to be okay in the end. 

I think, especially with queer shows, we have a lot about the bad things that happen to queer people. We do need those shows, but on the other side of the spectrum, we also need the queer shows that depict to younger kids that they deserve happiness. You deserve love. You deserve all these great things that are going to happen to you. I feel like that’s more what our show portrays. 

One of my favourite scenes in the show is in the party episode where Nick sees Tara and her girlfriend kiss and he sees how free they look and when Charlie stands up to Ben. Is there a scene or moment from the show that resonates with you?

So many! I mean, the scene with Tara and Darcy—Nick seeing queer couples just openly love for the first time—is so beautiful. On the day we were filming it I was lurking in the background, as I do in the scene. Everyone felt like it was going to be the big moment of the show. I don’t want to spoil episode 8, but one of the very last scenes made me cry when we were reading through. Then watching them film it made me cry and then watching it on screen made me cry, too. It’s so touching. It’s going to mean a lot to young queer kids. 

I think, especially with queer shows, we have a lot about the bad things that happen to queer people. We do need those shows, but on the other side of the spectrum, we also need the queer shows that depict to younger kids that they deserve happiness. You deserve love. You deserve all these great things that are going to happen to you. I feel like that’s more what our show portrays. 

There are so many intricate details in this show that give so much, like the Brideshead Revisited poster in Charlie’s room and the music that plays throughout the entire series. Did you do anything specific to prep for the role — were there specific books you read outside of Heartstopper or did you make a playlist of songs to get into Charlie’s mindset?

When I read the books four different times I highlighted and circled bits that gave Charlie more context. I also learned how to play the drums for the show. Yes, Netflix sent me a drumkit! [Laughs] Since I’m from the Isle of Man, I had to go to the UK for my audition and go home and isolate on my own for two weeks. I was just in my house playing the drums while having zoom lessons. It’s so cool that I got to learn drums for a part. I haven’t thought about it in ages but I actually did make a playlist for Charlie before I got the part. Looking back now I’m wondering why I did that! What if I didn’t get the part? Alice made her own playlist though, I listen to that non-stop. I have a few songs that are very ‘Charlie’ to me that I love.

I’ve been reading the fan reaction and it seems like everyone is already really excited because Alice has been heavily involved, between the writing, costumes, casting, and every other detail. I know sometimes with TV adaptations of books, things that fans love can be left out, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with this! What was it like to have Alice’s involvement while filming? 

It’s been great having her because sometimes in other adaptations the original writer gets pushed to the side and the vision is lost. With it already being a graphic novel, it was already basically a script. Alice wrote it and Netflix really, really wanted to have her be on board and make it the way she wanted to make it, so she was there every day to answer questions and every single decision went through her. 

Did you refer to her about certain things relative to Charlie?

I can’t think of any that come to my mind, but I definitely knew she was there. She was always sitting in her little chair all day, every day. That brought us all a lot of peace. When we ever had any questions or anything, I’d always just go straight up to her and ask her, “Do you think Charlie would do this? Or do you think you’d do this?” Most of the time, I think she trusted us to make the characters. She gave us the freedom to explore as actors to make decisions which I think was lovely. We felt we had the trust of the person who is creating all of this and that means the world.

Knowing what you know about Charlie’s arc over the season, what advice would you give to him?

Oh, that’s a really good question. I’d tell him not to blame himself for everything. Not everything is your fault, Charlie. Keep your head up because you don’t know that happiness is just around the corner.

Lastly, if you could manifest something for yourself this year, what would it be?

That we get a Season Two? [Laughs]

I feel like that’s in the bag. I don’t even think we need to even talk about that.

I hope so. 

I’m quite confident given what I’ve seen and given what I feel like the fans are passionate about and I think they’re going to be very happy. 

I’m glad you think that. I really hope it happens. Fingers crossed.

Heartstopper is streaming on Netflix on April 22nd with bonus buy slots. Follow Joe Locke at @joelocke03.

Interview by Kelsey Barnes

Photography by Joseph Sinclair

Styling by Holly White

Grooming by Petra Sellge

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