Sex Education director on ‘beautiful’ trans sex scenes and giving hope to LGBTQ+ fans

Sex Education director Alyssa McClelland talks LGBTQ+ storylines in Sex Education. (Netflix)

Sex Education director Alyssa McClelland has spoken to PinkNews exclusively about Ncuti Gatwa’s “phenomenal” acting and nailing the T4T [trans for trans] sex scene, Plus, she has a touching message for LGBTQ+ viewers.

The fourth and final season of Netflix’s envelope-pushing teen series has dropped to rave reviews and the eight-episode swan song is packed with more LGBTQ+ representation than ever.

Returning fan-favourite gay character Eric Effiong – Otis’ right hand man and all around fashion icon – undergoes a religious crisis in the lead up to his baptism. As he struggles to face up to the homophobia still prevalent within the congregation, God (in the form of Jodie Turner-Smith) is there to lend him a helping hand.

Eric’s ex-boyfriend Adam Groff (Connor Swindells), now working with horses, also learns to accept his identity as a bisexual man and finds the strength to finally move on from the past.

Elsewhere, the new season is rich with transgender representation. As transmasc student Cal (Dua Saleh) struggles with gender dysphoria and without gender-affirming healthcare, their mental health spirals and they isolate themselves from family and friends.

Meanwhile, Cavendish Sixth Form College’s trans power couple Abbi (Anthony Lexa) and Roman (Felix Mufti) learn to confront the choppy waters of sexual intimacy.

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McClelland, who directed the final three episodes, discusses all these storylines and more.

Ncuti Gatwa as Eric in Sex Education. (Samuel Taylor/Netflix)
Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) gets a powerful helping hand as he faces up to homophobia. (Samuel Taylor/Netflix)

What was it like working with Ncuti Gatwa and Jodie Turner-Smith on Eric’s plot line this season, especially the powerful final cliff-side scene where he realises he wants to be a pastor?

I get goosebumps even when talking about it, because it was very, very special. Jodie and Ncuti knew each other outside the show but they had the most phenomenal connection through their characters on set. Watching them was electric.

It’s a big call to cast God. And as soon as Jodie came up, it was like there was no one else, and it all worked out beautifully. She’s so powerful, so good. She’s so in her body and in her skin and in her power. They really had a special connection.

Obviously Ncuti tapped into a lot of things personally in those moments, and it was really emotional.  They are such troopers. It undoes you, watching them in that scene together on the cliff.

The baptism is also huge. That was such an emotional day to shoot. [Gatwa’s] performance is just phenomenal. Coming out of that baptism, then going into the woods and feeling super lost, then seeing God. It felt like there was electricity in the air, it was a really special thing to do.

How did you approach bringing out the nuances of that experience – a young person who feels rejected from their faith due to their sexuality?

[Creator Laurie Nunn] did a lot of research and there were a lot of consultants and people in the writers’ room who are Christian. Like everything in Sex Education, it’s about creating discussion and opening up this world to shine a light on something, then to have people go and talk about it.

We all rose to the occasion, and I knew that we were carrying something precious and weighty. It was just about honouring the story as best we could, by being authentic. That came out of the performances. Ncuti is so authentic in that speech he does at the baptism, it’s just phenomenal.

There are struggles for Cal Bowman (Dua Saleh) in the final season of Sex Education. (Samuel Taylor/Netflix)

Another major LGBTQ+ plotline this season focused on Cal’s gender identity and dysphoria. How did you approach tackling this sensitive topic?

Laurie shines a light on a lot of different versions of mental health [this season]. Cal’s storyline is delicate, and it was just about being authentic to that and giving Dua the space to do it. 

It was very isolating to do this storyline because a lot of the other characters were around [one another]. As the season goes on [however], Cal becomes more isolated from everybody. So, it was about working closely with the actor to make sure they felt held and supported and nurtured so they could their best work on screen, which was intense. 

Season four introduces trans couple Abbi and Roman, who have a sex scene in the final episode. What was it like working with the intimacy co-ordinator to film that?

That was a really exciting scene to be a part of and, I guess, it’s quite revolutionary. It came out of a discussion between me, Anthony and Felix. We were talking about how we haven’t really seen raw, intimate trans sex on screen before. 

After that, I spoke with Laurie about how it would be a beautiful culmination of their storyline if we could be one of the first television shows to go there and show that. That’s what Sex Education has done the previous three seasons, be bold and proactive, by making sex part of every-day discussions.

Sex Education‘s Roman (Felix Mufti) and Abbi (Anthony Felix) share a sex scene rarely seen on TV. (Samuel Taylor/Netflix)

Laurie was immediately on board and crafted this beautiful scene. Then we went away and worked on the choreography very closely together. [We discussed] how it was going to look, how comfortable they [were] to show their bodies. 

I wanted to keep it quite simple but raw and they were rock stars and threw themselves in. They are so open and brave and trusting. We were all immersed in the process and it did everything we wanted it to do as a T4T sex scene. 

In episode six, fans finally see a reunion between Adam and Eric during the funeral for Maeve’s mother. Was there a lot of pressure to get it just right?

That was a really important moment. Episode six was a combination of characters who haven’t all been in the same room together for a long time, especially because Adam is very much separate from the Moordale gang now. 

That episode was special and really poignant. The moment when Jim Howard is singing “With or Without You”, and they have a little moment where Eric puts his hand on Adam. It’s so powerful. Connor Swindells is the master of doing so much with the smallest movement of his eye. We knew how much that whole moment pivoted him to where he goes from there.

Eric’s like: “You’ve got to live in your truth,” and it’s a beautiful takeaway for every human.

Do you have a message for LGBTQ+ viewers who will be tuning into this season looking for some hope?

It comes back to all the speeches Eric gives. It’s all about living your true self, living your power. It’s about being yourself. What’s so incredible about all the cast and the characters of the show is that they are all authentically themselves. 

Over four seasons, we’ve seen them grow into themselves more and more. Even though it was the final chapter, we know they’re all going to be OK and there is a great gift in that for all viewers: be authentic to yourself, [and] you will always be OK.

Sex Education season four is streaming on Netflix now.