Joe Locke on ‘Heartstopper’, and navigating being a role model: “I still find it weird that people give a shit about me”

A year on from his overnight success, Joe Locke reflects on the impact of Heartstopper and breaking into the mainstream with Marvel.

It’s a Friday afternoon in early July, and at Soho Theatre Bar in London’s West End, tiny twinkling disco balls are being hung from the ceiling, vibrant Pride flags are being strung across the walls and pop bangers are bellowing from the overhead speakers. Buzzing with anticipation, the venue will soon be awash with people coming together to celebrate Pride.

It’s the perfect time and location to meet the actor Joe Locke, who, thanks to his Netflix show Heartstopper, has become a role model for young LGBTQIA+ people across the world. The show’s second series dropped shortly after this interview and expands on the hugely successful first season, it explores the relationship between schoolboys Nick Nelson and Charlie Spring, the latter of whom is played by Locke. “I think for the second series, we all felt there was an extra level of responsibility. When we were making season one, there was no pressure, we were just making this thing that maybe people would watch, but we didn’t know,” he says. “Whereas for season two, we were aware of the responsibility of living up to the first, and I’m sure there will be people who don’t think it does. I think it does. I think it’s a very strong season. The show is growing up with the characters.”

The second series touches upon darker themes, including Charlie’s disorderedeating. The storyline was one that Locke had to approach with sensitivity, opting to speak to people who have experienced it in order to accurately portray the experience. “I was very aware going into this season that I was going to be tackling a topic that was difficult to do right and in a way that is tasteful while also reflective of what the true lived experience is,” he says. “My thinking is that if  I walk away from a scene and feel I’ve done it in the most true way, that is all that I can do. I think I was ready and knowledgeable enough about the subject matter to do that, from personal experience of life relating to Charlie in lots of ways, and from speaking to people.”

Much to the delight of fans, production moved to Paris for me that on a typical production schedule you would shoot five minutes a day but while working in Paris they shot an hour of footage in a week. “[That’s] because Netflix doesn’t give the show the money that it deserves!” he says, before adding defiantly, “and that can go into print, I don’t care!” Despite the tough workload, he admits that shooting in Paris was a dream. “We’d be watching the sunrise from the Eiffel Tower before it opened and freezing our tits off because it was October and we were in shorts pretending it was June! It was the most whirlwind, incredible experience to get to do that, and to get to shoot the show with the people I love the most in the world, in the most beautiful city in the world. You have to pinch yourself.”

The series has been a huge hit for Netflix, and as such it was awarded a rare two-season renewal after the first had aired. A side-effect of the show’s success is overnight fame. Locke amassed some 3.5 million Instagram followers in a matter of weeks and became the subject of thousands of tweet per day. Understandably the impact has taken its toll, and the 19-year-old is now taking steps to reclaim his privacy and set firm boundaries between himself and fans.

“[The show’s success] is a blessing and a curse. It’s all of my dreams come true but also it’s weird that that comes with  the rescinding of your privacy. I still find it weird that people give a shit about me and what I do or who I’m dating, who I’m friends with, who I’m seen with in public, what events I go to, what I’m wearing. Why do you care? I don’t!” he says. “At the start of Heartstopper I replied to every direct message I got, and would interact with people in a way that I think was giving too much. That is a lot for a teenager to take on, so I think for my own health I had to distance myself from that side.”

He tells me that he now knows how much of himself he  wants to give away. Part of that process has included deleting his Twitter account. “Social media is just gross. [Twitter] wasn’t giving me any joy or happiness. I would go out of my way to find things that would upset me. And we were in the middle of shooting season two, I was so tired and I was just like, ‘You know what, fuck this! I don’t need this. It isn’t benefiting me,’ and so I deleted it and it’s great. I haven’t regretted that decision once.”

While you could argue that Locke has amassed a niche, predominantly queer following due to the success of Heartstopper, he’s on the brink of breaking into the mainstream thanks to his casting in the forthcoming Marvel series Agatha: Coven of Chaos. It’s a spin-off of the acclaimed series WandaVision, which enticed people to join Disney+ at the height of the pandemic, and Locke found himself filming in Atlanta for six months after a rigorous audition process. Starring alongside acting heavyweights Kathryn Hahn, Aubrey Plaza and Patti LuPone, he’s tight-
lipped about the plot, but there’s no hiding his excitement about the role.

“I’m so excited for the Marvel show to come out. I know that is going to be a beast of its own, which I’m excited for, nervous for, terrified for! I think Agatha is a very important show in a different way to Heartstopper. It has themes that I really hope people resonate with.” He chooses his words carefully so as not to give away any spoilers. “It’s a very cool part. I resonated a lot with it and I loved WandaVision so much. I had an audition with Kathryn Hahn, and I get so nervous before auditions, but I remember walking into the room and all of my nerves just left my body. It was a weird, out-of-body experience, which I think was partly due to determination, but also Kathryn is so warm and amazing and just made me feel so at ease straight away.”

Shooting in Atlanta and living alone for six months offered the opportunity for Locke to reflect on how much his life has changed in the past year. There’s no denying that the level of attention and hysteria around him has been nothing short of overwhelming, but being in a different time zone
allowed him to decompress. “It was a real learning experience. Being alone in an apartment in a country you don’t know for six months gives a lot of time to think about things and I did a lot of growing as a person.” He nods. “Being with my own thoughts, it was the first time that I’d been able to think about the craziness of the past year. I learnt a lot about myself and what I want.”

When I attempt to quiz him further on what it exactly is that he’s learnt, he says he would rather keep that to himself. It’s interesting to see someone so young and new to the industry so firm in setting boundaries, and he is achieving it with ease. It feels like he’s already established practices for what is going to be a long and enduring career. His discomfort at going deeper also offers an air of mystery, which only adds to his magnetism. I commend him on his ability to be so assured in his approach.

As we start to wrap up – disco balls all in place and pop bangers cranked to the next level – I ask him what it means for him to be part of something as colossal and all-consuming as a Marvel project that is undoubtedly going to send his career to new heights. “Agatha is a very special and different Marvel project. I’m very proud of it and I think it’s going to be really fucking good,” he replies. “I’ve spent the past six months with the most incredible group of women who taught
me so much about industry, how I want to live my life, about acting and storytelling. I’ve grown up with a lot of incredible women in my life, so I felt very at home in that space. I think I feel very proud of myself because Marvel is a huge machine and also a piece of the industry that unites everyone in the world. Everyone knows about the new Marvel film.” He pauses and takes a deep breath. “I think it’s really important and amazing that Marvel isn’t shying away from telling stories about people that don’t necessarily fit the superhero norm… I just really hope they don’t kill me for
saying that!”

WriterRyan Cahill
Fashion and Beauty DirectorMarco Antonio using Augustinus Bader
Art DirectorKat Beckwith
Hair EditorNick Irwin using Schwarzkopf Professional
Session Label and WAHL professional styling tools
Photography AssistantsOlly Du ndas, Marcus Lister, Chelsea Nawanga
ProducerKay Riley
Digital ArtworkTrue Black Studio