What a wonderful experience speaking with one of the stars of Sex Education, Aimee Lou Wood. She is quarantined out in the country with very little wi-fi (as I later find out, on a public phone), so we spoke first on a conference line and then later on WhatsApp, which makes this a kind of hybrid interview, but really, quite delightful.
This is because Aimee Lou Wood is a really down-to-earth person, and spoke plainly and honestly about her role as Aimee Gibbs (yes, the character and the actress have the same first name) on the wildly popular Netflix series Sex Education, which Brief Take has been championing since Day 1, but incredibly, Aimee was the first cast member of the show with whom we have spoken. It felt like a refreshing experience because it was humble, free of pretence and she spoke about her arc in Season 2 of Sex Education, her work in the play Uncle Vanya, her upcoming Amazon Studios movie Louis Wain and lot more.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our interview with the upbeat Mancunian talent from Sex Education, Aimee Lou Wood.
Brief Take: What was it like to play both seasons of Sex Education? Season 2 felt different, but still hit really hard.
Aimee Lou Wood: Yeah, they were quite different experiences. The first season a lot of the time it would either be to do a kind of outrageous sex scene or a funny, kind of silly thing. The second season, I spent a lot more time by myself. I wasn’t with everyone as much and obviously the content was a lot more serious. It was definitely more challenging, the second season. I think that what was so great was that all of us as actors had the opportunity to obviously deepen into our characters in Season 2, but it also meant that we were kind of quite separate a lot of the time. Whereas Season 1 was honestly like summer camp. We were just together constantly. Season 2, I think that we grew a lot as actors. It wasn’t as heavenly [laughs], but for all of us, I think that it was a lot more of a serious and challenging time.
BT: Season 2 plays a serious subject for laughs, but does so quite successfully. On top of it, you’re always really, really funny. How do you find and achieve that balance?
ALW: Well I think that life is that, isn’t it? Even in the shittiest times, it’s human nature to find something within those times that will give you a little bit of hope and little bit of…no matter what, I’m still going to laugh when I do a fart at the police station with friends. And what I think that what Sex Education gets so beautifully is that balance between tragedy and comedy and the fact that they’re both so present all the time in life. Both of those things are this because of each other. We know happiness because we know sadness and I think the show senses that really well. I also think that for some reason, my whole life, people have kind of—I don’t know what it is—but people have, they think I am a silly character as a person. I think that I have always been confused, like: “Why are people laughing at me?”. I think that Aimee’s got that kind of thing in which as soon as I was auditioning for her, I found that she was resonating with me so much because she doesn’t understand that she’s being amusing. She’s being herself and I think that is—for Aimee—what I think is so important is that when she says anything ridiculous or silly, it isn’t ridiculous to her.
Because I think that when you kind of start enjoying her ridiculousness a little bit too much, it actually becomes less funny. What is most funny about her is that when she says: “The walk was so evaporating”, (which is a line Aimee says in Season 2), she means that it was evaporating. When Steve (her boyfriend) says: “You mean ‘invigorating”’, and she says: “That’s what I said”, she truly thinks that it is what she said. I think that with Aimee, she’s really meaning what she says. She doesn’t really…she’s just herself. She’s very authentic. I think that authenticity is funny and some of it is moving and that’s what I love so much about her, is that she isn’t trying to be—well, she’s trying to be something in the first season, when she’s hanging around with that crowd that she doesn’t align with at all. But to fit in, she’s trying to be something. Yet when she’s with Maeve, for example, she’s just wholeheartedly herself. Whatever happens there—whether it’s funny, sad or it’s just Aimee, that’s what I love about her.
BT: What are the chances that Aimee is playing a character called Aimee? How much of Aimee is in Aimee?
ALW: Yeah! I will have to say, I spent my whole life…when I was little, when you get all of those personalized pens and stuff that had your names on them in gift shops. And it would always be A-M-Y. Always. And I’d think: “Oh my God, why didn’t my spelling ever..” And then! And I know that my spelling is the French way and that people always spell it A-M-Y. Then I auditioned for Lily, at first, and then I went in and read three times for her and then I got sent Aimee, the Aimee sides, and it was spelled my way. I was thinking: “Oh my God! This is kind of…this is a little bit like the universe is talking to me.” Then I read some of her lines and I called my friends and I said: “Have I not said this verbatim?” This is weird.” And I saw it, I saw a lot of myself in her.
Especially in Season 2, because I was going through my own traumatic time in my own personal life, it kind of…there were a lot of parallels in the show and it felt like I started to forget where Aimee finished and I started. [laughs] It became kind of a very much an amalgamation of the two of us, but I think that where we’re different is especially with the age. I’m about ten years older than the character that I’m playing. And I think that the biggest difference between the two of us is where she’s at in life. She’s still very much within that bubble of school and having to kind of dilute herself and protect herself because it’s such a scary time, and it sounds so cheesy, but she is on a journey of self-discovery. She’s very much an unfinished product. In fact, you get to grow with her. But I really do think that we are very similar. I would like to say that I am not as much of a space cadet as Aimee. I think that I am a lot more on Planet Earth than she is. She definitely operates on her own plane. I mean there are a couple of similarities, the chronic people-pleasing, I definitely have that.
BT: Your arc in Season 2 kind simmers and bubbles before playing out with a sense of catharsis. How did it feel like to play it?
ALW: Yeah! What I loved about that was there was really kind of these…she starts editing herself. I loved the little scenes, such as when she is in her bedroom and the fact that she is searching through her wardrobe and finds trainers, flat shoes, she would start to edit even what she wears. Though it is a kind of subtle hum, it’s kind of underneath everything for her all the time. She’s trying to push it down and ignore it but it’s manifesting in ways, because she is changing how she does her hair, changing what she wears. She’s having to wear trainers because she’s walking to school now, she can’t get on the bus. What I love about it is that it’s such a slow burn and then that for me is such realistic real-life trauma. It can take weeks, months, years, to process something that you may not understand that something was so bad until a long time after it has happened. And I think that’s what I really loved about that scene was that kind of delayed catharsis that you’re talking about, which actually, it did feel like that. I was quite lucky in Season 2 in that a lot of it is obviously random in the order in which we film it, but a lot of scenes here were fairly chronological, so by the time that it got to the detention scene, it really did feel like…we’d been in that library all day and we were doing that scene over and over in which Aimee finally erupts and it really did feel like, I was ready myself to just fucking say it, you know, to kind of release this thing. I really did feel like a huge amount of relief because I was going through some stuff that as we were filming it, and the girls that day were helping me through my own personal shit that was going on. Then it really did feel that day like life was imitating art. It was such a cathartic day, really, all of us sat around helping each other and that’s what we were doing as well in real life when the cameras weren’t rolling. It was an amazing thing to do and it did feel very cathartic.
BT: Where does the personal start and end when you’re playing Aimee?
ALW: I think that naturally, because it’s so well-written and it’s so accessible and relatable and human, you do start to imbue a lot of your own personal self into it. And what’s good is that it’s important I think that we have an intimacy coordinator who choreographs all the sex scenes and safeguards them and makes sure that we’re not putting too much personal, because I think a distance is vital. You don’t want to watch something back and feel like you’ve exposed too much of yourself or you think that too much of yourself is in it.
The sex scene in Season 1, it was important when I watched it back that it was Aimee the character, rather than me. Because that can be very, very, very vulnerable and you get this kind of vulnerability hangover, and I think having such as Ita (O’Brien), she’s the intimacy coordinator, check in a day or a couple of days afterward to see how you are feeling. She gives us hope, she’ll reach out and be like: “Be more horse from the side”, because we watched animal mating videos, and she’s making us go about it in quite unusual ways, but ways that basically protect you from putting too much of yourself into something say that is this personal. And when it came to the assault stuff, she called me and she said: “If you have any thoughts about stuff” and make sure that you brush it off at the end of the day, to do whatever it is that you need to do to make sure that you’re leaving Aimee’s story there, just to protect real-life Aimee, because otherwise it can become, even like what you were saying earlier, it can become very, very, very close. And I think that it’s important to keep a little bit of distance between us and the characters, especially because for most of us, it was our first big tv job, too.
We were cast very to type, I think. All of us are pretty close to our characters, we have a strong similarity, and I think that it’s important to keep some distance between us and the characters in some way or another. I think it’s very easy to just go: “I’m just going to be me!”. This character is a vessel for me and actually, it is important that she is a character. She is a character, she’s not me. But it does encourage a lot of personal reflection. Especially because the storylines are…they feel so present and so real, it is extremely easy for a plot line to fall into being very, very, very deep and personal.
BT: What was your favourite moment of filming Season 2 or do you say Series 2?
ALW: I do say Series 2, but sometimes season, if I’m feeling a little American. My favourite moment to film was when all the gals get on the bus. It was beautiful and stirring seeing all their gorgeous faces waiting at the bus stop. My favourite bit to watch was Otis (Asa Butterfield) going wild at his party. Hilarious.
BT: How about the aesthetic of the show, like the lighting is almost too bright and the colours too colourful, which works to great effect. Does this resonate in the filming, or in watching it primarily?
ALW: We were blessed with an amazing summer filming the first season and that definitely helped with that recognizable, vivid aesthetic. People couldn’t believe we filmed it in Wales. During filming for the second series, it was a lot cloudier and we were all a bit worried that it wouldn’t have the same pop as the year before. We think that the brightness has become such a part of the show. The costumes, too, are very bright and technicolour. In British shows that are set in schools, there are always kind of grey uniforms and rain and drizzle and I think deciding to make the visuals so sunny makes it a bit dreamy and playful and joyful—subverting what we see when we think of British television.
BT: Who are your some of the scene partners with whom you have most enjoyed working? Would you enjoy getting to work more with Gillian Anderson on the show?
ALW: I love working with Emma (Mackey) very much. We imbue Aimee’s and Maeve’s friendship with a lot of our own real-life connection and jokes and love. She’s an angel and such a generous actor. Chris Jenks, who plays Steve, is an absolute delight, open and playful and supportive. It was such an incredible experience to play across from Susan Lynch who played my mum. I’ve always admired her work and was a real moment for me. I really wish that I had scenes with Gillian, and I don’t want to give too much away about Season 3, but my wish may be granted!
BT: When the pandemic hit you were performing in Uncle Vanya. Why was playing Sonya the ideal role and how did it relate to when you doing Downstate in Chicago and what did that mean to you?
ALW: I felt quite daunted when I first got Sonya. It’s a part that is spoken of a lot in drama school as being a “dream” role. A lot of people wanted to play those Chekhovian heroines, but I always had a mental block when it came to Chekhov. I thought it was for people who had RP (Received Pronounciation) voices and were extremely polished, which isn’t me. But Chekhov is actually all about love and pain and depression and yearning and regret and wanting to escape, to which everyone can relate. Sonya was the perfect role because she’s all about unrequited love and feeling torn between her own needs and those of her family, with which I can greatly identify.
Downstate meant a huge amount to me as I absolutely loved Chicago as a city and I learnt so much from the incredible American actors with whom I worked, such as K. Todd Freeman. These Steppenwolf actors are so talented and know all about being ensemble team players. On the day of the read through, I couldn’t believe how magnetic and authentic and natural they all were. I think that American actors have such a beautiful directness and realism to them.
BT: You’ve shared a little bit about your experience of going to therapy during the pandemic. What is it like and how does your mental health play a significant role in your acting journey?
ALW: I think that I started acting because of my struggle with anxiety. I always felt nervous and misplaced and strange, and drama gave me a sense of belonging. When I was making people laugh with a funny character, I felt like I could make sense of myself. I had a purpose and a focus and this soothed me. But it can also exacerbate it. Being known and recognized can worsen some of my feelings of paranoia and self-criticism and self-judgment. My eating disorder always flares up when I’m feeling out of control of my life, and this is how I felt when Sex Education came out because it was watched by many people. I knew that I needed therapy to prevent myself from once again going down that path. It is a way of taking control that’s positive, rather than by getting tunnel vision and obsessing over food and my weight. I think because of my struggles with it, I have a fascination with exploring why I am the way I am and why other people are the way they are and that helps when it comes to having compassion and intrigue for a character that I’m playing. I’ll always be endlessly interested in humans. I love analyzing characters.
BT: What will we see in Louis Wain? What is your role and what was your experience like working on that film?
ALW: It was amazing filming Louis Wain. I learnt so much from the super experienced film actors with whom I was working. I play Claire, one of Louis’ sisters. The Wains were a fascinating family, they were magnificently artistic and eccentric and effectively changed how Britain viewed cats. Through his art, Louis turned cats into cute pets, rather than nuisances. Louis and one of his other sister Marie struggled with mental health problems. His story is both heartwarmingly unique and tragic, both funny and deeply moving.
BT: What are some of your favourite quaranstreams?
ALW: I love watching films and shows with complicated characters who challenge me. Like Succession—that was one of my quaranstreams. It’s Shakespearean and epic and exciting. At first I didn’t think I was going to get into it because the characters were so unlikeable, but that’s the fun of it, which constantly changing for whom you’re rooting out of this bunch of arseholes that who you both love and hate in equal measure, I was shouting at the tv by the end. I’m also watching a lot of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on Netflix. I think he was such an incredible human—the way that he was always so interested in people and inquisitive and open and non-judgmental and honest, he’s actually become a bit of a role model during this time of quarantine.
BT: Have you had a favourite fan interaction?
ALW: I think that the artwork the fans make is incredible. I’m constantly amazed by the creativity and talent that’s out there and I love seeing it all on Instagram. I’ve had so many beautiful interactions with fans. I met a young woman and we were both waiting to get our ears pierced. She had listened to a podcast I had done called Gurls Talk and we had the most honest chat, because a lot of what I said resonated with her about my mental health journey. That one really stuck with me. I like it when people are bold and strike up a conversation with me rather than whispering and pointing and taking photos on the sly. This can make me super nervous and self-conscious, but I love it when people come up and chat.
Sex Education seasons one and two are currently streaming on Netflix