'Sex Education' Actor Dua Saleh On 'Revolutionary' Representation Of Non-Binary Identities

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Photo credit: Sam Taylor/Netflix - Netflix
Photo credit: Sam Taylor/Netflix - Netflix

Summer may be on its way out, but praise be, we have the series of the season to binge on as we cosy up indoors…

BAFTA-winning series Sex Education is back and, unsurprisingly, it’s as boundary-breaking as ever. Following the unfiltered lives of Sixth Formers from Moordale High, including fan favourites Aimee Lou Wood as Aimee and Ncuti Gatwa as Eric, this season welcomes its first non-binary character, Cal.

Played by 25-year-old Sudanese-American musician Dua Saleh, Cal is a free-spirited skater and stoner who clashes with the school’s new headmistress, Hope (Girls’ Jemima Kirke). They are also the love interest to former star athlete Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling).

‘I’ve rarely seen a show represent the non-binary identity, ever,’ says Saleh. ‘So what it's doing is revolutionary.’

Photo credit: Erik Carter
Photo credit: Erik Carter

As Cal navigates stressful situations like being forced to wear the girls school uniform and asking classmates to use their correct they/them pronouns, they become the catalyst for the season’s insightful exploration of gender identity and expression.

‘What the Sex Education writers do so brilliantly is not over explain or preach anything about identities,’ says Saleh. ‘They subtly educate by letting you get to know Cal as a person.’

For Minneapolis native Saleh, shooting Sex Education was their first time in the UK and their acting debut.

Born in Sudan, Saleh moved to the US aged five after their family fled their homeland’s civil war. That’s when Saleh first started writing poetry. They moved cities ‘around 17 times’ before finally settling in Minneapolis and at 18, they began performing in poetry slams. At university, their theatre and opera studies opened the musical floodgates and they went onto release their debut EP Nūr in 2019, swiftly followed up with ROSETTA in 2020.

Photo credit: Erik Carter
Photo credit: Erik Carter

Next, Saleh releases their new EP, CROSSOVER, but has hopes to continue acting long into the future: ‘I've gained so much respect for the craft.’

To mark the release of Sex Education, out now on Netflix, ELLE UK discussed all things film, music, TV and books with Saleh for our series, My Life In Culture.

Sex Education is a must-watch because…

It’s remarkable and revolutionary. You only have to look at how broad the fan base is to see the impact it’s had. When we were shooting, people in their sixties and forties would come up to us saying how much they love the show. The fact that this new season brings a non-binary character into the mainstream culture and conversation is so moving. I've never really seen one on a show outside of animated shows like on Shira.

Working with Girls' Jemima Kirk taught me…

So much about character development. She’s so experienced and made sure to try and distance herself from the rest of the cast while filming to stay in the body of her character. Observing this and talking to her about her process taught me that acting is so much more of a disciplined craft than people may expect.

Living in Wales I discovered that…

Wales reminds me of Narnia, I’m truly astounded by the different wildlife there, but I’m also really scared of the bugs. They’re much more alien like than where I’m from. I also will never get used to beans in the morning in the classic full Welsh breakfast; beans on toast is very peculiar to me. And don’t get me started on adding chips to your breakfast.

Photo credit: Erik Carter
Photo credit: Erik Carter

What I’ve been listening to recently…

Amaarae’s debut album has been my on-the-road soundtrack. It’s an incredible fusion of afrobeats and punk. I’ve also been playing Velvet Negroni on repeat. He’s from near where I grew up and creates experimental R&B with futuristic synths. But don’t get me wrong, I also listen to a lot of Beyoncé and old school throwbacks.

What TV shows I’ve been watching recently…

I love anything animated or sci-fi. Netflix series Shira is my go-to for every plane journey, alongside any anime I can find. I’ve always been into reading manga, the book version, and then was introduced to anime in university. I've been obsessed with it ever since, it's my escape.

The last book I read was…

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. She’s one of my favourite afro-futuristic writers. It’s an apocalypse sci-fi story about climate change and social inequality. I started it nearly a year ago but had to take breaks because it’s so terrifying – it genuinely gives me nightmares.

My favourite podcast is…

I’ve only just started getting into podcasts, but on the set of Sex Education I was introduced to Kid Fury and Crissle’s The Read by our hairstylist, Alicia. The hosts basically slate hip-hop and pop culture stars and it’s hilarious, it changed the game for me.

Sex Education is out on Netflix now.


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