In a media landscape that remains largely populated by darker queer narratives, “Heartstopper” — the charming, coming-of-age Netflix drama that premiered on April 22 — has emerged as a beacon of light and provided a safe haven for LGBTQ viewers of different identities and generations.
Based on Alice Oseman’s graphic novels of the same name, “Heartstopper” tells the endearing love story of Charlie Spring (Joe Locke) and Nicholas “Nick” Nelson (Kit Connor), two teens at an all-boys school in the U.K. who are told to sit next to each other one day in homeroom. An introverted, highly strung overthinker who has been bullied since coming out as gay, Charlie immediately takes a special liking to Nick, the cheerful, kind-hearted star of the school’s rugby team. After becoming fast friends, Charlie begins to fall hard for Nick, while Nick begins to question his own sexuality and choice of friends — the same peers who bullied Charlie in the first place.
The eight-episode first season also introduces Tao Xu (William Gao), Charlie’s straight, protective close friend; Elle Argent (Yasmin Finney), Charlie’s close friend who recently came out as trans and has transferred to the local girls’ school; and Darcy Olsson (Kizzy Edgell) and Tara Jones (Corinna Brown), a lesbian couple at Elle’s new school.
The production company See-Saw Films optioned the rights to “Heartstopper,” which was originally launched as a webcomic on Tumblr and Tapas, in the summer of 2019. But it took another 18 months for the TV adaptation to land at Netflix, with Oseman attached as a first-time screenwriter and Euros Lyn (“Doctor Who,” “Sherlock”) as the director. In an exhaustive, monthslong audition process, the executive producers and casting director Daniel Edwards saw over 10,000 young actors before eventually settling on Locke, a fresh-faced debutant from the Isle of Man, and Connor, best known for playing the adolescent version of Elton John in “Rocketman,” as the two leads. It’s a responsibility that Locke and Connor — who had both heard of the comics but didn’t begin to read them until early on in the audition process — have not taken lightly.
“A lot of queer representation over time and currently, it’s very dark and gritty and just an overwhelmingly pessimistic view,” Connor, 18, told NBC News in a joint interview with Locke. “So to have a show where it’s just very positive, [with] a generally positive outlook on life and being a queer teen, I think that’s an extremely important thing. … It’s a show that younger audiences can watch with their family and their parents and that can lead to very important conversations between parents and their children. I think that it just basically brings societies steps closer to normalizing being queer.”
The show picks up when Charlie, who has been secretly seeing a closeted student named Ben Hope (Sebastian Croft) between classes, meets Nick on the first day back from winter break. The first time Charlie sees Nick, “he’s got a bit of a crush on him straight away,” Locke, 18, said. “I think Charlie’s intimidated by a lot of Nick’s friends and Nick is immediately nice to him, and so Charlie starts to reevaluate his view of Nick from that. I think for Charlie, it’s very much a love-at-first-sight sort of thing.”
Connor said that Charlie stands out to Nick initially because he’s so different from the rest of Nick’s friends. “He’s very much more introverted and a lot more genuine in a lot of ways and genuinely truthful to himself and confident in himself,” Connor said. “Even just aside from his sexuality, Charlie is more confident in his own personality than a lot of the others.”
And while there is an immediate spark, Charlie and Nick’s connection only begins to deepen after Charlie decides to join the rugby team and Nick comes to Charlie’s defense in an after-school scuffle with Ben. The turning point in their relationship, Locke and Connor agreed, comes in the final minutes of the second episode, when Nick resists the urge to hold a sleeping Charlie’s hand and begins to question his own feelings.
“I think there are several points where Nick sort of starts to realize that it might be something more than just a friendship,” Connor said. “There’s the moment on the sofa where he’s seeing Charlie’s hand and sort of covering it and you see the sparks; there’s the moment where they obviously hug right after that. I think that was a big moment for both of them where they kind of realize, ‘OK, this is maybe something more than what we thought it was.’”
Locke added: “For Charlie, he likes Nick right away, he knows what that feeling is, he’s already gone on the journey that Nick goes through. But the hug is definitely the first time where he thinks, ‘Maybe this might actually be a thing?!’”
Part of the show’s appeal to younger and older viewers alike lies in its ability to capture the universal angst and jubilation of falling in love for the first time, with the help of instant messaging and simple animations taken from the comics. By the time Charlie and Nick kiss for the first time, their relationship as friends has made them feel comfortable enough to explore that attraction and laid the foundation for a blossoming romance.
In preparation for that pivotal scene, Locke and Connor spoke with the show’s intimacy coordinator, David Thackeray, who was responsible for discussing the kissing scenes and making them both feel comfortable on set. “I think it’s the first time that Charlie is at his most confident, because it’s him who initiates the kiss and it’s him who decides to go with his gut and go for it,” Locke said.
Connor said he and Locke thought about how when Nick and Charlie first met, Nick was more confident and in control, while Charlie was more nervous. But before they kiss for the first time, that dynamic is “kind of turned on its head, and Charlie takes the lead and sort of guides Nick through, which I think is beautiful,” Connor said. “We really wanted to capture, with that scene, the feeling of the unknown. [This] is a new sensation that Nick’s never really felt before and that Charlie really hasn’t felt before. … When they go in for the first [kiss], it’s a bit more tentative, a bit more careful. And then the second one, it’s just an explosion of passion.”
While the full shoot lasted a couple of months, Connor shot all of his scenes with Olivia Colman, the Emmy and Academy Award-winning actress who plays his onscreen mother, in a couple of days — including the scene in which Nick comes out to his mother as bisexual. Connor said the experience of working with Colman, whom he describes as a “humble” and “down-to-earth” person who “immediately puts your mind at ease no matter what you’re doing in the scene,” was made even sweeter by the feedback that he has received from queer viewers, especially those who identify as bisexual.
“There was a tweet from a ‘Heartstopper’ fan, and they essentially tweeted out that they used that [scene] to come out to their parents,” Connor said. “That one scene was able to give this person the comfort and the confidence to be truthful to themselves, be honest with their parents and just be unapologetically themselves, and I think that’s a beautiful thing and a real honor, especially for someone who is 18 years old like me.”
For Locke, the fact that the cast has received “so many messages of people just feeling seen for the first time and feeling like they can see themselves on-screen” has been extremely meaningful. He was particularly struck by supportive messages from older members of the LGBTQ community, who have marveled at the significant strides in queer representation but also felt slightly “melancholic,” wishing they could have had a show like “Heartstopper” growing up.
“I think that lots of straight people don’t quite understand that it’s so difficult growing up and not seeing yourself in anyone, because then you don’t really know who you are, you can’t see people that you relate to,” he said. “So queer representation is such an important thing … and it’s so important to have queer stories told to the mainstream as well.”
Since the show’s debut last month, the popularity of “Heartstopper” has exploded on social media, with Locke and Connor both amassing over 500,000 followers on Twitter and over 1.9 million on Instagram. Last week, the show made Netflix’s top-10 list in 54 countries, topping the chart in the Czech Republic. Having risen to fame overnight, Locke and Connor, who are still studying for their college entrance exams between doing interviews, have suddenly been forced to navigate the benefits and pitfalls of using social media to connect with a fervent fan base.
“The responses have been really positive, and there have been some really powerful things that have happened that have really touched us as a cast and made us feel like we’ve made a difference a little bit. But then at the same time, it is very overwhelming,” Connor said, a day after he called out some fans on Twitter for making assumptions about his own sexuality.
“The thing that you always read about [fame] and see in movies and in the news and think, ‘Well, it seems pretty simple to me’ — but then it happens [to you personally], and honestly, there are so many things to think about," he said. "But I think what we’re all trying to do as a cast is just to enjoy it, soak it up and be happy that people like the show that we made, I suppose.”
Unlike other teen shows that might marginalize queer characters, which can be “a really dangerous narrative to push, especially to younger kids that aren’t necessarily sure of who they are and what they want from the world,” “Heartstopper” is “unapologetically loving” and “full of queer happiness and queer joy,” Locke noted. “I think it’s so great that our show is able to be optimistic for a younger queer audience, to show them that they aren’t different and they deserve happiness and love the same way that Charlie and Nick find it in each other.”
According to Locke, Netflix has helped the show reach countries “that aren’t necessarily as far along as we are” on the journey to acceptance, and places “where queer people feel repressed and aren’t able to be their true selves.”
“It’s so important to not only make this show for queer people,” the actor said, “but also make the show to normalize queer happiness, break down barriers, break down stigma and create a society that is so much more accepting.”
“Heartstopper” is now streaming on Netflix.
CORRECTION (May 6, 2022, 10:05 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Joe Locke’s age. He is 18, not 19.