A love letter to the heart-stopping Yasmin Finney
Whether it’s her nuanced on-screen portrayal of queer identity or her IRL fight for trans life, the young actor is inspiring change
Wednesday 2 November 2022 By David Levesley Photography by James D. Kelly Illustration by Giovanni Simoncell
The real beauty of Yasmin Finney’s performance in Heartstopper is not what she brings to the screen (which is a lot) – it’s what she doesn’t. The fact that her character Elle is trans is, largely, never mentioned in the show besides one early reference to her formerly attending an all-boys school. Instead, her experience of finding who she is as a woman is a much subtler story than others that have come before. It is beautiful to watch, masterful in execution and would be impossible if it weren’t for Finney’s matter-of-fact yet empathetic performance. That’s why she’s Soho House’s Breakthrough Actor.
If Netflix’s Heartstopper had been made by a more condescending – and indeed, less queer – team, it might have been a show that beat us round the head with the politics of queer lives a bit more. There were times, as a queer cis man, that I was terrified that we were about to get ‘a very special episode’ in which we would all learn a valuable lesson, like this was Saved By The Bell. While we can argue about queer people playing queer roles for the rest of human time, Heartstopper is a great example of one of the boons of casting people who identify with the lives of the characters they play – the shorthand makes for a gentler show that is no less accurate to the discomforts of being queer and hormonal.
Hence the awkward jigsaw of Tao Xu (played by William Gao) and Elle’s budding relationship is much more nuanced than it might have been in others’ hands. You can feel how timid and confused these two old best friends are as they learn what they feel for each other, but at no point do they belabour the point. Neither the script, nor Finney, wastes time on giving context: both let us know that these characters feel the complexities of who they are, letting the tension ripple beneath the surface.
While the show is powerful in its subtlety, Finney is an inspiration because of her boldness: at Trans Pride this year she took to the mic in London’s Soho Square and told tens of thousands of trans Brits and their allies that ‘if the government is trying to eradicate us, we’re all here and we’re just duplicating’. It is clear that Finney – like the rest of the Heartstopper cast – know that there are still points that must be made to win the wider fight of queer and trans liberation. Finney has already perfected the art of blending her artistry with her activism, a move that celebrities three times her age simply cannot fathom how to do.
It’s why I’m so excited to see what she brings to the BBC’s Doctor Who under the guidance of Russell T Davies. Davies understood that a show about people meeting and confronting strange creatures from outer space was a fantastic prism through which to refract the way we interact with different types of humans on earth. With her predecessors on the show, whether that was Rose Tyler and class, Jack Harkness and pansexuality or Martha Jones and race, Davies painted in broad strokes and made bold points. To see Finney alongside Ncuti Gatwa, roaring through space and time on some grand queer night out, has me excited for what this show could continue to be.
Most of all, I’m excited to see how much fun Finney gets to have as her star continues to rise. She stepped into a beloved book series, known for its cis male romance, and made it an ensemble show that gave a different LGBTQIA+ narrative equal weight. Now she’s out there, speaking at Trans Pride, wearing designer clothing, about to appear in British TV’s most hallowed franchise. Yasmin Finney isn’t just an important step for representation – she is as bold, fun and talented as any of her contemporaries, if not more so. That’s a really exciting place for the UK’s most interesting young actor to be in.