They Put the Heart in ‘Heartstopper’

Kit Connor and Joe Locke sat on a plump bordello-red couch at the Manhattan headquarters of Netflix. It was June, and they were in town to talk about their roles as the leading sweeties on “Heartstopper,” Alice Oseman’s romantic dramedy series about queer British high schoolers that begins its sophomore season on Netflix on Aug. 3.

When “Heartstopper” debuted in April 2022, its fate was anybody’s guess. “Euphoria,” “Elite” and other shows with teen queer characters lured eyeballs with sex and bad behavior. “Heartstopper” offered its audience mellow dramatics and an understanding that puppy love is universal. “Just queer people being,” as Connor put it.

It paid off. “Heartstopper” made the Netflix Top 10 — a list of the service’s most-watched shows in a given week — in 54 countries, and its first-season numbers were good enough to get the show renewed for two more. To date on TikTok, #heartstopper has 10.7 billion views and counting. Readers also gobbled up the source material: Oseman’s best-selling graphic novels and original webcomic, which now has over 124 million views. In April, Oseman announced that a fifth graphic novel was set to publish in November, with a sixth in the works.

So my first question was: How has the “Heartstopper” phenomenon changed the lives of the two actors at its center?

“The easier question is how hasn’t this changed our life?” Locke said.

He wore a cream-colored cardigan with elegant vertical caviar beading plus skinny jeans and black sneakers, looking a lot like how his character, the misfit naïf Charlie, might dress if he were on a class trip to New York. Connor wore a blousy turquoise top and wide-legged black pants over what looked like flamenco heels — an elegant ensemble that his character, Nick, who is Charlie’s anxious jock boyfriend, would be aghast to find in his closet.

Now 19, as is Connor, Locke said he’s had to grow up fast but in exchange got a platform to “normalize queerness.” Example: Days after our interview, Locke posted on Instagram a photo of himself wearing a “Trans Rights Are Human Rights” T-shirt on a float in D.C.’s Pride parade, an image that his 3.5 million followers have showered with over a million likes.

“There’s a big push in our world at the moment to take away young queer people’s autonomy,” Locke said. “It’s beautiful to be part of a show that really pushes and loves that young queer people can be in charge of their own fates.”

And Connor?

“I’m a bit more confident in myself in a very open sense, about who I am, what I can do, the way that I hold myself and the people I spend my time with,” he said. “I have a lot more pride.”

But then we started talking about coming out, and the mood in the room shifted, fast. Last year, Connor came out on Twitter as bisexual, saying he felt forced to do so after some fans accused him of queer-baiting.

“Telling someone you’re gay or bi or part of the queer community, there’s a thing where you feel like they might see you differently or think that it would change who you are,” he said. “For me, it’s just who I am. Coming out didn’t change me.”

He’s cool with being called queer, he said, explaining that it is “more freeing in a way, less about labels.”

Locke, who also identifies as queer, jumped in: “I think coming out is stupid, that it’s still a thing that people have to do.” He said he briefly came out at 12 on Instagram before reconsidering.

“I had just told my mum, and I was on top of the world,” he said. “I quickly realized I was ready to tell my mum but I was not ready to tell the world. So I quickly deleted it and said my Instagram had been hacked. I went back in the closet for three years. I retold all my friends and they’re like, ‘Yeah, you told us two years ago.’”

And now that he’s out-out and playing gay on “Heartstopper”? Locke glanced down and fingered his rings.

“Twelve-year-old me would be very proud, and terrified,” he said.

He paused to let tears collect in his eyes. “I’m getting emotional,” he whispered. Connor watched him. The room was still. “I’ve never thought about it in that sense before,” Locke continued, “which is weird because I’ve thought about the show a lot.”

After a few seconds, he said softly: “It’s great.” He wore a teeny grin.

Queer pride, quick-fire emotions, happy tears, supportive mums: It’s like these guys are on “Heartstopper” or something. Thea Glassman, the author of “Freaks, Gleeks and Dawson’s Creek: How 7 Teen Shows Transformed Television,” said the series is rich in a rare commodity for contemporary teen television: “unapologetic sweetness.”

“It’s about kindness and positivity and acceptance, and as teens, that’s all you’re looking for,” she told me. “As adults, that’s all you’re looking for.”

The new season focuses on Nick and Charlie’s couple stuff: sharing a bed during a class trip to Paris, navigating hickey shame, coming out about their relationship. There is still no sex or even under the shirt stuff, though — there is no second base in “Heartstopper.”

There is also a character who is asexual (as is Oseman) and new transgender characters that Locke said he hopes will help transgender kids understand “that there are still people in the world who have their backs.”

Locke and Connor were very aware that expectations from fans, Netflix and industry watchers are considerable now that the show is a global hit. The pressure, Locke said, is “terrifying.”

But if they were antsy about it, it didn’t show in their relaxed rapport and modest demeanors. Connor, who grew up in Croydon in South London, comes across as grounded and affable, and he speaks with considered thoughtfulness, like he actually took notes during media training.

Locke has Charlie’s gentle deportment but with the soft edge of a cool-kid wise guy. As our conversation turned to their own education, Connor mentioned that he “wasn’t one of those people who thrived at school,” and sheepishly said he got a B in drama. When he finished, Locke leaned over, cracked himself up and said into my recorder: “You don’t need school, kids. He got a B in drama.”

Locke said a sharp tongue is one way he protected himself while growing up on the Isle of Man. “People knew not to give me [expletive],” he said.

As for what’s next, Connor is set to star in a new horror-thriller, “One of Us,” and Locke recently shot “Agatha: Coven of Chaos,” Marvel’s “WandaVision” spinoff. The stage beckons: Locke wants to be in a Broadway musical, Connor would do Shakespeare in London. If they had free time, Connor would hang with friends in a park. Locke wants someone to make him brunch.

As our conversation ended, I asked both men where they’d like their characters to be in 20 years.

“The hope would certainly be that they’re still together,” Connor said softly, looking at Locke as if to get approval.

“I think they would be,” Locke replied, glancing back.

“They’re meant for each other,” Connor said.

“They’d have some children, a family,” Locke said.

“Happy would be nice,” Connor said.

“Yeah,” Locke said, again with that grin. “Just happy.”

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