Joe Locke: ‘I’d love to play the first queer Disney prince or Marvel superhero’

Joe Locke | Soho House

The star of Netflix’s smash hit ‘Heartstopper’ talks awkward Zoom snogs, managing fame alongside A-Levels, and why he was forced to unfollow his friends and family on Instagram

Friday 3 June 2022   By David Levesley   Photography by Tung Walsh   Styling by Holly White   Styling Assisting by Eoin Higgins   Grooming by Sven Bayerbach

No matter what you were like at 18, you weren’t as cool as Joe Locke. Even if you strip back the chic clothes, the even chicer hotels, and his lead role in Netflix’s latest queer smash Heartstopper, it’s doubtful you knew how to articulate yourself the way he does. It’s clear he’s still settling into fame and adulthood but, if you’d shot into the spotlight at the same time as being able to drink legally, you wouldn’t wear it half as well. 
 
Our interview takes place on the same day as Brighton Beach House’s opening, an almost cartoonishly perfect summer day without a cloud in the sky. He is thoughtful and self-deprecating, funny and arch, and is currently very excited for an evening of drinking Picantes. When I was 18, getting drunk by the beach meant White Lightning and someone’s stomach getting pumped, so I’m thrilled the youth of today have learnt better than we did.
 
But Locke has not lived a cosmopolitan life. He grew up on the Isle of Man (though Douglas, the island’s hub, was just made a city this year). Life as a Manx boy, says Joe, was ‘incredibly safe and sheltered’. His mum would never worry if he was out late at night, and he spent most of his time ‘with friends, making dens, being in nature’. 

Joe Locke | Soho House

Top, Paul Smith; jewellery, Chrome Hearts, Serge DeNimes, Completedworks

Joe Locke | Soho House

While his generation are universally well equipped on navigating sexuality thanks to social media, and growing up gay, he says, wasn’t too big a deal at school, the Isle of Man’s policies on it have not always been as forward-thinking. ‘Whenever you order something from Amazon [to the Isle of Man], you always add an extra day on for delivery,’ explains Locke. ‘It’s like that, but with society as well.’ The island only legalised homosexuality in 1992, after the British government insisted or else be taken to the EU court of human rights. While things have improved – they legalised gay marriage not long after the rest of Britain – there is still not full parity: The Isle of Man has not repealed the ban on gay men donating blood the way the mainland has, something Joe fought for passionately during a recent junior parliament day at school. 
 
Before Heartstopper, the biggest role Locke had was playing Oliver for two weeks at Douglas’s beautiful old Victorian theatre, The Gaiety. Then, in 2021, a family friend flagged that Heartstopper was casting. Locke had friends who loved the books, ‘so I read them all in one night and I was like... I need this part. I will pay anyone off to get this.’ (He didn’t, he asked me to clarify). So, he sent off his headshot and got asked to attend the first of a series of Zoom auditions.
 
After meetings with the director and casting director, Locke was asked to do a ‘chemistry read’ with Kit Connor, who went on to play Nick to Locke’s Charlie. How, I had to ask, does a chemistry read – designed to see how people mesh together – work over Zoom? Locke has no idea, especially because ‘it was the episode three scene when they kiss for the first time’, which involves the deeply Zoom-antagonistic combination of a kiss, followed by a silence, followed by a kiss. As weird as it may have been, they smashed it, and he was flown over to Windsor for an in-person audition. 

Joe Locke | Soho House

Jacket, trousers and shoes, all Alexander McQueen 

Joe Locke | Soho House

'I had to unfollow my friends and family on Instagram, because one had received 6,000 friend requests. I’m putting myself out into the world, but my friends aren’t'

Because it was during lockdown, the cost of doing so was his parents moving out of their house so Locke could isolate with their dog. His audition was on Wednesday, and by Friday he got a call from his agent. He re-enacts the deep breathing he did when he saw the phone buzz, knowing ‘this is the phone call that might change my life’. Luckily, it did: he celebrated, alone, with a Domino’s pizza (dropped off at the end of the driveway, of course).
 
Filming then took place between April and June 2021. While school was still being conducted remotely – and therefore his absences were less conspicuous – Locke was now having to explain why Big Ben was appearing in his Snapchats to classmates who thought he was still at home. He told a couple of close friends that he had booked ‘an acting job’, but otherwise told nobody. 
 
At first, the cast ‘felt like when you start a new school: there’s that awkward few days where you’re finding the dynamics, but then as soon as that ice is broken we all got on so well.’ It was, Locke says, like a long school trip: not only did they film together 12 hours a day, but they also spent most of their weekends with each other. ‘It was lockdown, and so Netflix said “we’re not saying you can’t see your friends, but think of the production”,’ so the cast would go on trips to Camden and Shoreditch – days spent with a new diverse group of friends who Locke can now turn to, and who ‘completely get it’. 

Joe Locke | Soho House

'A stranger told me her daughter came out to her because of the show. She felt so connected to her now. That’s why it’s so important to make shows like this'

Top and boots, both vintage; jeans, Gucci; jewellery, as before

 

The cast have been amazed by the show’s crossover appeal, which has helped the relatives of queer people better adjust to the lived experiences of their loved ones. The day before we met, he says, a woman came up to him ‘and was getting emotional because her daughter came out to her because of the show. She felt so connected to her daughter now because of it. That’s why it’s so important to make shows like this.’ He’s also glad that Netflix has fought to make Heartstopper available in queer-antagonistic places like Saudi Arabia. ‘I think a lot of countries that aren’t as accepting make people feel they’re the ones in the wrong,’ says Locke. ‘The show is very clear from the off that you’re not wrong.’
 
All of these people finding solace in this show, however, must be intense: it is a tale as old as time that marginalised artists, making work about the marginalised experience, often find themselves becoming activists they never expected to be, expected to speak on issues – and counsel wounded disciples – simply by virtue of being different themselves. But Locke’s approach feels much more mature, and considered, than artists I’ve interviewed twice his age. He had the benefit, he says, of the cast photos being released a year before the show. ‘We saw it as the mini tidal wave,’ says Locke, who used this time as a chance to get acquainted with recognition. If the cast announcement was a tidal wave, however, the show’s release was a tsunami: after he was announced, he gained 10,000 Instagram followers. Now it’s over two million. 

Joe Locke | Soho House

Jack, shirt and trousers, all Etro

‘I had to unfollow my friends and family on Instagram, because one of my friends from home had received 6,000 friend requests. I’m putting myself into the world, but my friends aren’t.’ Locke has had a year to figure out what to say and what not to say, which has prepared him well. ‘It’s important to create clear boundaries between your private and public life. We’ll be open about how much the show means to us without inviting the world into our bedrooms and bathrooms.’
 
Equally helpful in keeping Locke grounded is the fact he finished filming and went right back into school. ‘I was able to just sort of live my last bit of “normality” at school. It was really good,’ he pauses, ‘as much as I hated it.’ But increasingly he’s trying to balance life as an autonomous adult alongside education: for example, he’d had an A-Level exam at 9am the day before our shoot in Brighton. ‘Oh, I could not give less of a sh*t about exams,’ he laughs, before a look comes over his face that suggests this might read as more arrogant than he is. ‘But me saying I don’t give a sh*t is sort of my coping mechanism – “I don’t really care!” – then I’m up all night trying to go over all my notes.’
 
But he already knows his acting career will be more than a flash in the pan: Netflix have not only announced season two is commissioned, but season three as well. Locke couldn’t be more excited – and relieved. There are some storylines from the books he’s keen to cover with Heartstopper’s innate kindness. ‘When people are suffering from mental health or an eating disorder on screen, it’s always sad and scary. But I don’t think it’s always helpful to portray it like that. You need to portray it as a journey, and something people work through. I hope we are able to do that.

Joe Locke | Soho House

Jacket, T-shirt and jeans, all Dior; boots, vintage; jewellery, Tom Wood and Serge DeNimes

Joe Locke | Soho House

I ask Locke if he’s thinking much about what queer adulthood looks like, but he says he’s not one to dwell on the future – ‘I'm very much a “let's get to tomorrow and see what happens” kind of guy’ – but what he has thought about are the roles he wants to play. Just as his co-star Yasmin Finney is making history as the first trans companion in Doctor Who, Locke’s interests lie in queering up established franchises. ‘I'd love to play the first queer Disney prince or Marvel superhero. I’m dreaming big here. We’re in a time when this isn't something to dream of for much longer, it should be a reality quite soon.’
 
But the next big moment for Locke isn’t a dream role. Nor is it even part of the Heartstopper train. Something this summer is blacked out in his calendar because, ‘outside of meeting the President’, nothing will mean more to him: opening the second ever Manx Pride. ‘The first one was last year, but I couldn’t go because we were filming,’ he says. ‘It was such a special moment to be asked, because I felt like it was a nice full circle moment.’ He briefly slips into the memory of getting the invite, and I wish you could see how dearly he treasured the idea he was going to be heading back home once again, this time as a trailblazer for the community he loves so much.
 
Locke, however, is not unaware of the responsibility that comes with his platform. He’s ready and raring to use his appearance at Manx Pride (his first Pride ever) to fight for the change that needs to come next. Whether it’s for fans watching the show discreetly in foreign lands, or for fans having to do the same here in a nation still crippled by arcane ideas of what a queer-inclusive future looks like, Locke believes – quite rightly – that Pride is as much of a protest as it is a party. 
 
‘A party is a good part of it. Because if life is all just protesting, you would never be happy,’ Locke says with an eloquence I could have never managed at the same age. ‘But I think it’s so important that people don’t forget that the journey isn’t yet won. Until every queer child doesn’t feel like they’re the ones who are different, the protest part of Pride needs to be there.’

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