The opening scene of hit Netflix series Sex Education leaves you in no doubt about the show’s subject matter. The first two minutes are, shall we say, full-on. For Connor Swindells, who spends the opening scene on his back, the only way to get through it was to imagine that his character was a dog who needed to be tamed. “It sounds so ridiculous but it’s true,” explains Swindells, who plays high school bully Adam Groff in the new show, a kind of 2019 version of a John Hughes film — all double denim, big hair and 80s decor. “The idea behind it is to not take anything from your own personal life when you’re doing a sex scene. You don’t want to show people how you have sex, so you think about what animal your character would be.”
It’s a technique which was honed in the intimacy workshop the cast were all contractually obliged to take part in – par for the course in a brave new post #MeToo world. An intimacy director was also on hand at all times on set to choreograph every thrust. “That way it’s like you’re not taking anything from your own life,” says Swindells. “When you do that, you get home at the end of the day and you’re depressed and you feel vulnerable, because you’ve just shown people what you do in the most personal, vulnerable situation.”
It’s particularly pertinent for Swindells, whose girlfriend in the show, Aimee (played by Aimee Lou Wood), also happens to be his girlfriend in real life. He is quick to assure me that they only got together towards the end of filming, and were consummate professionals on set. “There is no confusion to be had between our sex scenes on the show and our own personal life,” he stresses.
A fortnight ago, nobody knew who the 22-year-old Sussex boy was, but in the brief hour we spend chatting in a bustling Islington cafe, a steady stream of excitable 20-somethings come over to tell him how brilliant he is. “It’s been really weird, this was not happening two weeks ago,” he says sheepishly, as two girls ask him for a selfie. “Aimee and I have been approached together a lot. People see her and then me and there’s no doubt we’re ‘that couple off Sex Education’.” It’s no wonder he is getting so much attention — he seems to inhabit the role of the aggressive, deeply troubled Adam with unusual ease for a young actor who until very recently hadn’t performed since a small part in his school production of the Wizard of Oz at 13.
He has poured himself into the role; one that came easily, given his own tumultuous adolescence. Swindells was just seven when his mother Phoebe died of bowel cancer, and he went to live with his grandparents and his dad, Ian: this paved the way for teenage years spent in constant trouble (though he admits he was as good at getting himself out of mischief as he was at getting himself into it). “I hated school and school hated me,” he says. “From all the trauma that had happened as a child, I was just naturally rebelling in any way I could, for attention or whatever it was. I was just horrendous at school. I didn’t see the point in trying.”
By 15, boxing had become his sole motivation; the one means of releasing anger and coping with his mum’s death. “I had a lot of male role models there, people who I wanted to be like who were successful in my eyes, who even in a boxing gym weren’t afraid to be emotional, which was shocking to me. It was the perfect environment to find out that it’s OK to be emotional.”
But he paid a high price for his hobby, becoming so obsessed with keeping his weight down between fights that he developed an eating disorder. “I thought it would be easier if I stayed at my fight weight year round, which was just unattainable. It will kill you.
“It means you’re not eating, you’re running every morning before school, you’re just using your muscle and your body as fuel. I wasn’t eating anything.”
It wasn’t until Swindells was injured at 17 and forced to take a couple of weeks off that he realised how malnourished he had become. “I think I saw a picture of myself and thought ‘f***’, but I had to stop boxing in order to see that picture for what it was. It made me realise this isn’t what I want to do at all.” Overnight, he stopped boxing completely and, with little in the way of school accolades behind him, went to work with his half-brothers on a building site. But that brief stint in the school play at 13 had planted a seed which was beginning to grow. “I think I always knew [I wanted to act] but I was always afraid of rejection,” he says. “I always thought I can take all this s*** that’s happened to me and use it, otherwise it’s just wasted.
“I remember my teacher said to me after the play, ‘I’m going to see you in TV and film one day’, and I just laughed it off. No teacher had ever said to me ‘this is something you could do’, so it always stuck with me.” He was bolstered further by his brothers’ belief: “they wanted me to do bigger and better things so they were pushing me to do something.”
Swindells eventually plucked up the courage to ask a cousin who is a casting director if she would see him for an audition. “It was probably one of the best auditions I’ve ever done,” he recalls. She sent the tape to several agents without telling them he was related so that they didn’t feel the need to “do her a favour”: offers quickly flew in and before long, he had an agent, parts in two films (highly anticipated ‘The Vanishing’, starring Gerard Butler and Peter Mullan, comes out later this year) and a major Netflix series in the pipeline.
If boxing helped him leak out some pent up emotion, acting turned the tap on full blast. The only problem, he says, it that he finds trauma “easy to access, and ridiculously hard to get out of”. Shooting tense scenes between Adam and his dad on the show was particularly close to the bone. “When I do something which is really emotionally hard [on set] I have times where I think, is this what I want to do?”
Shooting one scene between them resulted in him “weeping and crying hysterically. I walked out of the building and had to go off and sit by myself.”
His relationship with his own dad is stronger than ever, he says, though things have “been rocky in the past. If you have a rough relationship with a parent one of the best things you can do is separate yourself. Moving away a couple of years ago has definitely helped our relationship.
“But we’re in a good place now and all that stuff we went through I’ve taken and put into this TV show.”
Fanfare is such that another series of Sex Education beckons and, as with any other good looking 22-year-old actor, you’d expect to see him reappear as the hero in the next period drama. But Swindells has no Downton-esque ambitions. “I just don’t gel well with those roles at all. I can’t be truthful in them. I think they’ll always hire some kid out of drama school.”
He is grateful to be without the hangups of his formally trained peers, and remains “thankful for all the s*** that’s happened to me. I would never take any of it back.” It has, after all, provided the raw honesty that has made Swindells an instant small screen success.
Sex Education is available to watch on Netflix now