How Heartstopper became one of the most important queer TV shows in a generation: ‘There was magic in the air’

Kit Connor (L) as Nick and Joe Locke (R) as Charlie in Heartstopper.

It’s been six years since Alice Oseman published the first edition of Heartstopper, her universally adored webcomic, and now the television adaptation has finally landed on Netflix.

Heartstopper tells the story of Charlie (Joe Locke), an openly gay teenager who finds himself falling in love with Nick (Kit Connor), a rugby player at his school.

It might feel like Heartstopper has become an overnight sensation, but the story had a long gestation period before it arrived on Netflix. Alice Oseman started writing her webcomic in 2016. It was another three years before there was talk of a television adaptation.

Shortly after they started work on bringing Heartstopper to television, the world descended into a pandemic, meaning fans had to wait even longer to see Charlie and Nick’s story play out on screen.

Ahead of Heartstopper‘s debut on Netflix, PinkNews spoke to Patrick Walters of See-Saw Films about what it was like bringing the story to the screen, from navigating the pandemic to finding the perfect cast.

PinkNews: What was your initial feeling when you came across Alice Oseman’s webcomic? 

Patrick: I saw it online and at that point, Alice was publishing it through a Kickstarter campaign and she was self-publishing volume one. I ordered a copy and I didn’t realise that she was just mailing them out from her house – it was all pre-official publication with Hachette. I was very excited, spoke to her agent, and scheduled a meeting with her to pitch for the option to the books. That was at the beginning of 2019.

What impact did the pandemic have on bringing Alice’s story to the screen? 

It was pre-COVID when we first met. I was just full of excitement and thought it was such a commissionable show – it was so joyful and happy and I thought Netflix would be the perfect home for it because they appeal to that younger audience on a global scale. I did a lot of promising to Alice that we would be very quick and we would move into production as soon as we could, but actually the pandemic probably delayed us maybe six months to a year.

Originally, Netflix wanted us to make the show in 2020, but then everything kicked off with COVID and we were delayed until 2021. In some ways that wasn’t too bad because we had a lot of time to perfect scripts and make them joyful and brilliant and beautiful and nuanced. Alice being a first time screenwriter as well, I think that was useful for her and for me.

Kit Connor and Joe Locke in Heartstopper.

Kit Connor and Joe Locke in Heartstopper. (Netflix)

What was the casting process like? How did you go about trying to find the right people to play these characters? 

The casting process was so fun because there was some magic in the air – I can’t describe it better than that. Our amazing casting director, Daniel Edwards, did this big open casting call – we had 10,000 applications from excited teenagers all over the country. We found them all quite easily. We were very, very worried that we wouldn’t find the right people – we weren’t so worried that they weren’t going to look like the comics, we just wanted to find the right actors and the right people to play the characters.

As soon as we found Kit, that was just a lightbulb moment because we all loved him so much – his auditions were spine-tinglingly good. And then we found Joe and he was brilliant too, and then it all just slotted into place. As a producer sometimes you worry that you won’t find the right actors and it will tarnish the project because if it’s not the right fit, it reads on screen. But all of us were so excited because we found them.

Joe and Kit have such a wonderful dynamic on screen together – what was the process behind the scenes of building that relationship?

They’re both amazingly professional and funny and sweet-natured, so they’re lovely people first off, and their skills as actors are really great as well. We had two weeks of rehearsals before we started shooting and Euros Lyn, our brilliant director, was really good at getting them to relax and open up. They told stories and did role-playing dramatic exercises. It was just a really delightful two weeks of them becoming friends and it meant when we started shooting there was already a trust building between them. I think they sort of knew what the assignment was and they accepted it, and they smashed it out of the park really. And now they’re both great friends so that’s really gratifying.

Why do you think it’s so important that we have shows like Heartstopper that show young queer people getting to experience and explore their identities?

I think it’s so vital that we reflect the young generation back to themselves in an authentic way. The fanbase for the Heartstopper comic is great young people who love the story because it resonates with them. All the way through the process, I felt like, I never had a show like that when I was growing up. And the idea that you can have 15, 16, 17 year old characters talking openly about their sexuality and going on voyages of self-discovery, it wasn’t like that when I was in school – that wasn’t so long ago. You didn’t say gay, there was no environment to come out. So it just feels so timely and also so overdue, and I think the younger generation is really going to take it to heart, but hopefully for the older generation who didn’t have a show like that, they will respond to it and sort of celebrate the changes that have happened.

The tone of the show is so heartwarming and sweet, which stands in stark contrast to some other teen-focused shows. Was that a deliberate choice? 

Totally, from the very beginning we decided we wanted the show to speak to as many different ages as possible, so we were deliberate about not having too many swear words, too many overtly adult situations, because that stuff didn’t fit the tone of the show anyway. But also in not having that, we were opening up the show for more people to see it. I really hope the younger generation, 11, 12, 13, will watch the show and get something out of it.

Yasmin Finney as Elle in Heartstopper.

Yasmin Finney as Elle in Heartstopper. (Netflix)

Yasmin Finney, who plays Elle, is one of the standouts, and it’s amazing that we’re in an era where we have authentic trans characters on screen. How did you make sure that story was told with respect? 

Alice, Euros and I took it very seriously in that we wanted to make sure we cast the right person for that role. In the comic Elle is a trans woman of colour and so we needed to find that person. We were worried we wouldn’t find the person because there aren’t that many actors of that age. But actually as soon as we found Yasmin all of the worries went away because she’s the most gifted actress, and she’s just extraordinary. You kind of go, I didn’t need to worry because that person was out there and they bring so much nuance and vitality to the role. She’s a star – you can tell.

The show also uses animation to enhance special moments – where did that idea come from? 

It was a conversation between Alice and I in that we always wanted the show to be rooted in the real world and for it to feel like a real school and for it to be very British and recognisable. But we also wanted there to be this magic that references the graphic novel, and so we thought maybe there’s a hybrid way of having some of Alice’s animations coming into the show at special moments. We sort of toyed with the idea of these “heartstopper moments”, so in the script whenever a little bit of animation is going to be on screen, we put that passage in bold and wrote “heartstopper moment” and Alice doodled into the script so everyone who read the script could see a flavour of what we intended to be on screen… I love it – hopefully it gives you goosebumps and makes you lean in when those moments happen.

The webcomic has a huge following – are you nervous about the reception from fans?

I’m really excited because it feels like it’s been a long time now that we’ve been working on it, so fans are reaching a fever pitch which I totally understand. I consider myself a fan first and foremost as well and I’m in this lucky, privileged position of being able to be part of the making of the show and getting to witness it all firsthand which is extraordinary, but with my fan hat on, I get so much out of watching it and I’ve watched it so many times. I love it and I’m so ready for people to see it.

Would you like to see the show getting a second season?

Oh yeah, we’d love a second season. I mean we have such amazing partners in Netflix and it really feels like they get the show and they understand the world we’re trying to deliver. Given there are more books in the series there’s more source material to adapt. Alice and I are getting our thinking caps on and starting to think ahead now.

What would you like viewers to take away from Heartstopper?

Lots of things, but particularly I hope that these characters are really beloved and that people see themselves in the ensemble of young characters that we’ve got in the show. I feel like there’s a character for everyone – I particularly love Charlie and always have done, I kind of see a younger version of myself in him. I think the best shows are the ones where you just fall for the characters and you still remember them years into the future after you’ve watched it. So that would be my hope really.

Heartstopper is out now on Netflix.