Aimee Lou Wood and I are bonding over ear wax.
Having apologised for my hearing being off thanks to a blocked ear, she looks me straight on with those recognisable wide eyes and says she understands. She too is prone to ear wax build ups. We think it’s genetic.
The sort of bonding is evidence of Wood's ability to make you feel like you’ve known her five years, rather than five minutes. She is just as familiar, whimsical and charming as her beloved Sex Education character of the same name (though Wood likes to think she’s slightly ‘sharper').
We meet at ELLE HQ, just over a week after the hugely-anticipated second series of the hit show arrived on Netflix. Its return dominates headlines, social media and, if we’re going by the rare viewing figures Netflix released last year for season one, TV screens across the world.
The second series is, thankfully, just as good – if not a bit better and bolder – than its debut, continuing with themes of humour, inclusivity and realistically portraying young people’s sex lives and relationships in all their messy and awkward glory.
One of the starkest storylines centres around Aimee who, after being sexually assaulted on her bus ride to school, struggles to cope. The show’s creator Laurie Nunn later revealed that the plot was based on her own experience.
‘When I found that out, I really wanted to make sure I was doing it justice,’ Wood says. ‘I took it really seriously. I felt quite isolated on set sometimes, not from what anyone else did, but because a lot of my scenes were by myself.’
The most difficult part, she says, was keeping Aimee’s character authentic. Fans will recall that even though the man on the bus had masturbated onto her, Aimee is most annoyed that her favourite jeans are soiled and excuses the ‘probably lonely’ perpetrator rather than being immediately outraged like her best friend Maeve Wiley (played by Emma Mackey).
'There was a temptation to just be really emotional and sad, but actually Aimee doesn't process it until later. It's delayed. So, I tried to honour that fact, not forgetting who Aimee was in season one, and who she is to her core.
‘It shakes her whole identity and she doesn't know who she is for a while. She changes how she dresses and how she acts. But it’s also finding the comedy in certain things. Like when Aimee farts in the police station, I love that bit because even in the worst times you can still have a laugh with your best friend who is there to support you. It was so real, nuanced and delicately done. I felt very privileged to have that storyline.’
The 25-year-old actress remembers responding similarly to Aimee, during moments when experiencing harassment.
‘I had so many, some incredibly similar, experiences. I look back and can’t believe I didn't used to get angry about stuff. I was so numb to it. Sometimes you would react Maeve did, but then sometimes you would just go “ugh, d*ckhead” and then you were over it. It was so ingrained within me to think it was normal. It made me really reflect on how I just thought it was part of being a woman.’
The storyline - which culminated with Wood's schoolmates joining her on the bus out of solidarity - resonated with so many viewers that Wood has been inundated with messages since it aired.
‘You have to remember that you’re an actor and I find it quite hard to do that,’ Wood considers. ‘Of course, I want to help every single person that messages me but it would be a full time job which is horrendous to say…. But the number of messages I get saying, “this happened to me”, just proves how much of a f*cking problem it is and how much things need to change.’
It’s hard to believe Wood wasn’t always lined up to play Aimee, but she actually auditioned for the part of Lily, believing that a 'geeky' role could be her route into TV as she ‘didn’t look like girls on TV’.
‘I thought the casting directors were just being nice,’ she says modestly of being asked to audition for Aimee. ‘I wasn’t going to get cast as the popular girl because I’m not conventional looking.’
Much of Wood’s negative self-esteem was formed at school, where she was tormented by a bully who called her ‘Bug’s bunny’. Wood tried her hardest to make the boy like her and remembers offering him her bake sale cakes for free. But right before the first season of Sex Education, something switched and Wood drunkenly messaged her bully to thank him for giving her ‘thick skin to prepare me for the acting world’. To her shock, he responded with the ‘loveliest message’ expressing his guilt and explaining the personal difficulties that he had been up against at the time.
Low self-esteem manifested itself differently later, when Wood's sixth form classmates commented on her similarity to model-of-the-moment Georgia Jagger.
‘Everyone started thinking [the way I looked] was cool, so I’d really overdo it. I was like, “yeah I’m a model” and swung the other way. I became obsessed with how I looked. It was one extreme to another. I became really fixated on it and that’s when the body dysmorphia and eating stuff happened.’
Though Wood's eating disorder stabilised - during which time she finished school and graduated from the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) - she was expecting to have to battle again when she realised that the opening scene of Sex Education season one required her to be partially naked.
To combat old behaviours, Wood has made a point of discussing disordered thinking and eating with with all the important people in her life, from her therapist, friends and family, through to boyfriend Connor Swindells (who plays Adam Groff, in the show). The old compulsions haven't come back and Wood is grateful to have discovered good coping mechanisms.
‘All the bad times are good really, aren’t they?’ she smiles.
Adapting to life rapidly changing after the show’s release at the same time as her partner has definitely helped too.
‘It's so helpful, the best thing,' she says. 'We can talk about it all the time or we can talk about it never if we want. If I say, “Actually, I do not want to speak about anything to do with our job”. He's like, “Great, me neither. We won't.”
When the second season was released, news outlets picked up on Wood’s relationship with Swindells, causing excited comments on Instagram and 'clicky' headlines online. This sudden gossip around her relationship of two years is something Wood doesn’t pay much attention to.
‘It always makes me laugh when I put a picture up and someone comments: “Oh my god, are you guys dating?” Even Ncuti [Gatwa, who plays Eric] writes it,’ she laughs. ‘Come on guys, this is old news! It was weird when it resurfaced with season two but I think we're so numb to it now.
‘I posted loads of stuff of me and him before Sex Education came out not really thinking. He was just my boyfriend, so I posted it. Then when it came out people were commenting and examining my old quotes. At first, I was like, "Oh this kind of horrible” because a relationship is your most private, vulnerable, special thing. But then nowadays, I'm just so used to it.'
The couple are so popular though, that when they go out together they are never not recognised. I get the impression that Swindells finds their new found fame a bit more daunting.
‘He’ll always say thanks and is so polite, takes a picture, whereas I'm going, “and what does your mum do for a living? Lovely.” We’re very different, but that's why it's a great balance,’ she smiles.
Wood has to dash off as she’s in the midst of a West End theatre run of Checkhov’s Uncle Vanya round the corner. A woman of many talents, Wood hopes to direct one day and regards fellow RADA alumni Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the ‘dream,’ having written and starred in her own show.
She gives me a big hug and even though we've since covered a number of other topics quickly remembers, 'I hope your ears clear up,' she smiles.
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