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Heartstopper Interview: Director Euros Lyn On Bringing Alice Oseman’s Queer Story To Life

“One of the most amazing things about Heartstopper is how excited people are, to the point where they want to go out and stand on the rooftops to cheer about the show,” director Euros Lyn tells me after its debut.

Since arriving on Netflix in late April, this adorably wholesome adaptation of Alice Oseman’s webcomic has taken the world by storm, attracting audiences young and old to a story of queer love all about acceptance and rejoicing in the truth of who you are. It’s almost been two weeks and I’m still unable to scroll through my social media feed without seeing compilations of the show’s cutest moments or excerpts from the graphic novels all designed to worship this story and these characters. It struck a nerve in the most wonderful way.

“It’s so exciting to see the show having an emotional impact on people,” Lyn says. “Countless stories of people feeling empowered to come out to their parents as a consequence of having seen the show, or older generations of queer people watching the show and feeling slightly overwhelmed by the emotion of what might have been their memories, or what could have been, or what they once had. It’s also getting an amazingly positive response from a wider audience saying that there’s something about this show and its chronicle of falling in love, and the purity and overwhelming loveliness of falling in love for the first time. I’m utterly over the moon.”

Lyn’s career is an extensive one, having directed portions of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant’s tenures as Doctor Who while also working on its adult spin-off Torchwood alongside Russell T. Davies. He’s dabbled in Daredevil, Broadchurch, Sherlock, Black Mirror, His Dark Materials, and is now the sole director for Heartstopper. As a gay man and a strong progressive voice he carries the perfect pedigree to bring this show to life on screen for the very first time.

“I hadn’t come across the graphic novel and the first thing I read of Heartstopper was the script for episode one,” Lyn admits. “I went through [the script] in a page-turner kinda way because they were so captivating and magnetic, and then I read the graphic novel and realised how loved and celebrated and passionate the fans already were about them. I had to marry my first response to the script which was to fall in love with these characters and think about what fans might want to see, but also how you find drama in a romantic relationship and bring it to the screen.”

Heartstopper has been so well received because it isn’t afraid to present itself as a saccharine exploration of LGBTQ+ themes and relationships, making it clear how identities should be valued instead of seen as something to be ashamed of.

“It’s a proud celebration of how wholesome and pure-hearted queer love can be, and how love can be, because love is love across any sexuality,” Lyn says. “It’s really uplifting to work on a show like this, but that’s not to negate the fact that lots of queer stories have complexity in them and have nuance and are about transgression. Lots of the complicated experiences of being queer are equally valid. It’s just wonderful to have something like [Heartstopper] as part of our canon of queer stories that is just a positive, wholesome celebration. Even in this show we don’t shy away from the darker side of homophobic bullying in school, and Charlie has his own demons that he’s dealing with alongside problems with self-worth. Nick has to come out and discover that he’s a person who is different to the world around him, and then Darcy and Tara have their own challenges. All our characters have obstacles they need to overcome and not everything is utopian and perfect. And yet, beneath it all is this overwhelming sense of hope and joy.”

Heartstopper is a story about teenagers. Young people across the queer spectrum discovering themselves for the first time as they build friendships, romances, and learn lessons about life that all queer individuals will stumble upon when growing up. So casting the likes of Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson was always going to be hard, especially in a media landscape where teenagers are so often portrayed by adults who don’t always have the agency to pull off whatever stories or characters they’re expected to inhabit.

“I was on board from the first moment when we decided how we were going to go about finding them,” Lyn tells me about the casting process. “It was really important to me and the whole team that we found actors who are genuinely in their teens to play these teenagers. So often they’re played by actors who are much older, I think in Grease, Stockard Channing who played Rizzo was in her thirties, playing a teenager, which is hilarious. But actors in their teens often don’t have agents because they haven’t been to acting school, they haven’t had jobs that allowed them to do so, which meant we needed a new way of finding them.”

Lyn and casting director Daniel Edwards put out an open casting call for the entire cast, inviting potential actors to record a tape of themselves auditioning for a certain character alongside a bit of improvisation. 10,000 tapes were turned in, all of which were watched before the list was reduced down to just a dozen or so names for each character. Joe Locke, who plays Charlie Spring, seemingly caught the production’s attention in mere moments.

“Seeing Joe’s tape was one of those bolts from the blue moments,” Lyn remembers. “It was instantly obvious to all of us, to me and to Alice and to Daniel that there was something special in Joe’s performance. I guess his inexperience was a bit scary because you only see them do a couple of scenes, we recalled them but it was through Zoom in the middle of lockdown. By that time we had found Kit so he and Kit did an audition together and we were like, ‘Oh yeah, do they have chemistry?’ It's hard to tell because it’s on a screen and we were all separated in different parts of the country watching.

“It wasn’t until we did a recall with both of them together in the same room that it was obvious we’d found our Nick and Charlie and the chemistry between them really is electric. The source material is amazing and Alice’s scripts are a fantastic interpretation of that, but the two of them have got so much chemistry and charge and you can’t help but root for them, which is the essential dramatic motor for the entire story. What we want is for these two characters to be together, and we’re so lucky, I’m so thrilled we found them.”

Once Nick Nelson and Charlie Spring were finally cast, a lot of pressure sat on the opening scene. While in the webcomic it is little more than two teenage boys being asked to sit together in morning registration, the show was able to turn the images and words on the page into a heartfelt moment of emotional honesty. But it wasn’t easy.

“What’s interesting about that scene is that we actually shot it twice,” Lyn tells me. “The first time we shot it I’d put in a lot of camera moves, and we’ve got this expensive piece of equipment called a Contrazoom which pushed in on Nick and changed the depth of field so he was suddenly the only one in the shot. When we cut it together we realised it was overdone and that it needed to be simpler. Thanks to our producer, we managed to find time to reshoot it and that’s what you see on screen. It lands the romance without overplaying it, which I think is the story’s strength.”

Heartstopper is an interesting adaptation largely because Alice Oseman is adapting her existing characters and story into scripts for the show, with many lines of dialogue and specific moments being translated to screen almost verbatim. I was curious if as a director this presented any unique challenges, but it turns out the exact opposite was true.

“Alice is such a visual writer, and often a writer will write lines of dialogue but they won’t be thinking about the pictures at the same time,” he explains. “But when Alice writes the script, she’s seeing pictures in her head, and when I direct or read a script I can see those pictures. There were often scenes that I’d blocked, plotted where the shots were, and when I went back to the graphic novel and checked they were shot for shot, which is amazing. Alice and I worked very hard to be in sync and always try to bring Alice’s style into the composition.”

Lyn would often ask Alice for advice when shooting a scene, using her illustrative eye to plot out moments that perhaps weren’t in the graphic novels, or needed an additional element of flair to really sell the emotion of certain characters. Nick Nelson – who exudes true golden retriever energy – is a character I had to dig into during our interview, especially in regard to scenes shot alongside Olivia Colman as Nick’s mother. His coming out scene is so true to life, and was challenging for all involved according to the director.

“It’s such an important scene and the dramatic peak of eight episodes of season one, and so the actors, director, and everybody on the crew felt a huge pressure to deliver both dramatically and emotionally,” he tells me. “One of the things I tried really hard on doing was to not try and get rid of all that pressure so it was just another scene. I try to make every day on the set about enjoying ourselves and getting to the truth and having fun while doing so. With an actor like Olivia, she’s so instinctive, and such a warm person in real life, and that warmth comes through in all her performances no matter who she plays and there’s very little direction I need to give because she’s so astonishing. Kit more than matches her which is astonishing given his youth and comparative inexperience.”

Colman is the biggest name attached to Heartstopper, and her involvement in the show was kept a secret from the public right up until its release. Given her relatively minor role with only a handful of spoken lines it feels beautifully understated, and she’s near pitch perfect casting for a soft, caring parental figure that doesn’t blink once at Nick’s bisexuality. The show also delves further into this aspect of his character with new challenges and foils.

“It was about understanding Nick’s bisexuality as a discovery to be celebrated, because there’s another version of this story where it could have been used as a threat to Charlie,” Lyn says. “But actually, what’s unexpected is how Charlie embraces this new discovery from Nick and is utterly celebratory that the guy he’s falling in love with is discovering himself and Charlie has nothing but warmth and joy in response to that. Then there’s Imogen who is such a fun character. She’s kind of annoying, but like almost all characters in the show she’s so pure of heart. She falls in love with Nick and of course she does, we all do, and she’s blind to his reluctance and pursues him no matter what. But she’s rejected which is incredibly painful for her and that journey was really great to go on with Rhea Norwood and I love that she gets a little moment of redemption at the very end of sports day when she sees Nick go off with Charlie and of course by then the penny has dropped. She understands who Nick is and she can wistfully, painfully, celebrate the fact that Nick has found joy with someone.”

As for his perspective as a director, Lyn looks back on the past and how much things have changed, and how as an older member of the LGBTQ+ community it’s important to embrace these positive steps to a better world.

“I was a teenager growing up in the 1980s which was a time when the government introduced a law called Section 28 which banned the promotion of homosexuality in education or public life, and it really set the tone for those years,” Lyn recalls. “I remember feeling very ashamed of being gay, and I didn’t come out until I was in my 20s, so I didn’t have what Nick and Charlie had until I was a little older. Watching the show or reading the script I didn’t feel sad, I didn’t feel grief for what I didn’t have, I just felt joy for them. It really makes me happy that there are teenagers now who can be out in school, who can fall in love, and whose traumas are normal teenage traumas like, ‘Will that person fancy me back? Oh my god do they think I’m ugly? Do they think I’m beautiful?’ and just the normal traumas of being a teenager, rather than the trauma of suppressing your sexuality or not."

Lyn closes our chat with another declaration of queer positivity, and how he hopes stories like this can continue to be told without compromise: “It’s about having a broad representation of what queer people look like and how they are, we are different shapes, we are different colours, some of us are trans, and there’s a huge breadth of identities under the queer umbrella. One of the things Heartstopper aims to do is show that you’re all welcome, and you all deserve to get to be the people you feel like you are on the inside. One of the things we talked about with Netflix from the very start was wanting this to be a show that can be watched by young teens, can be watched by the whole family and I can’t think of any other show that’s done that before.”

Heartstopper is now streaming on Netflix.

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