Some people are noisy. We all know one, or a few. Inane babblers, frequent moaners, heavy stompers, constant ramblers, messy slurpers. But when actor Connor Swindells walks into an east London studio for our shoot, it’s taken a few minutes for the room to clock the fact our 23-year-old star is here. Light on his toes despite the 6 foot (albeit wiry) frame – a remnant from his former life as a boxer – and with a reserved, clear and impressively precise way of talking, he’s the sort of rising star who prefers to let the work do the talking.
Look back at Swindells’s relatively short acting journey to date and there’s plenty for him to shout about though. Raised in a Sussex village, Swindells didn’t even study drama at secondary school. His first foray came at 19 when he bagged the lead role in a local am-dram play after making a bet with a friend. Two years later, he was cast as one of the film’s leads in The Vanishing alongside Hollywood A-lister Gerard Butler.
The big break came in January of last year. To the naysayers, Sex Education was meant to be just another teen-bait Netflix series to soon fade into obscurity alongside its largely unknown cast.
OUTFIT CREDITS | Denim shirt: Acne, Rollneck: Reiss
40 million subscribers watched it in the first month, putting it in the top ten most-watched Netflix shows in the UK in 2019. With those figures, Netflix was never going to let the series get away from them. And so exactly a year later, Swindells, one of the leads from the first season, is promoting the second with us.
Sex Education’s irreverent, nostalgic take on teenagers coming to terms with their sexuality became a hit with the critics. Social media took the show to its heart, especially the young, relatable cast. The Instagram follower counts exploded. Swindells has half a million. Random people started coming up to him within the first week.
OUTFIT CREDITS | Jumper: Richard James, Trousers: DAKS, Shoes: Crockett & Jones
“I remember the first person that recognised me in the street was a 50-year-old guy,” reveals Swindells. “Then I realised this was going to be big. This isn’t just going to be 16-year-old kids.”
Despite the monumental following, Swindells isn’t much of a poster compared to his fellow male co-stars, Asa Butterfield, who plays Otis, the lead of the show if there really is one, and Ncuti Gatwa who plays Eric, one of the victims of Swindells’s high school bully Adam and an unlikely romantic interest by the end of the first series.
“I mainly just use Instagram to promote my work and things I care about. It’s less about my personal life like it would be [for] other people. I’ve shared personal things on Instagram but it’s always with a cause behind it. If I’m talking about a charity, Cancer UK especially, something I care about then I’ll post about it.”
Swindells lost his mother to cancer when he was 7. “It’s a nice thing to give back. It’s something I think she’d be proud of.” His father was then forced to move back in with his parents, Swindells in tow and with all the struggles the loss of a spouse can bring.
“It must have been really tough for my dad. He was in his late 30s at the time my mum died. We moved in with my grandparents, which was a weird dynamic. He did an amazing job. I’m really lucky he was there for me. I’m saying that with perspective though. When I was growing up I was a little shit.”
OUTFIT CREDITS | (LEFT) Sunglasses: Cutler & Gross, Blazer: DAKS, OUTFIT CREDITS | (RIGHT) Jacket: DAKS, T-shirt: Uniqlo, Sunglasses: Cutler & Gross
Much like his character Adam, school didn’t come easily for Swindells. Coming from a working-class background of labourers and farmers, Swindells assumed he’d follow that well-trodden path. “I was terrible at school. I just didn’t feel like I was on a progressive path.”
The lightbulb moment came not from acting, but from boxing.
“It kept me on the straight and narrow when I was navigating my adolescent years. I think martial arts, in general, are perfect for young people to get to grips with. There are things that I learned in that gym that I’ll hold for the rest of my life.
“When you’re doing martial arts or boxing, you’re forced to be in the moment. You can’t think about anything else, because if you do, you get hurt. You can’t focus on anything but the situation you’re faced with and how to overcome that.
“I’ve just started Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, and the big takeaway I’ve had from that is you learn to apply pressure that’s needed in certain situations. And that can be anything. It’s about learning to control your energy in a way that’s beneficial for everyone. It’s more of a mental discipline than it is a physical one.”
OUTFIT CREDITS | Shirt: DAKS, Trousers: Richard James, Shoes: Crockett & Jones
That path has led Swindells away from the remote, “barren” village where he grew up to the leafy district of Islington in north London, sharing a flat with his partner, fellow actress Aimee Lou Wood and her sister. Wood is also in the cast of Sex Education, playing Aimee Gibbs, the initial love interest to Swindells’s character.
Interest around their IRL relationship is high among the show’s young fans on social media. Swindells is reluctant to fan the flames. Any questions about the relationship are met with one of his characteristic stares. The sharp-as-a-dagger jawline stiffens. The dark brown eyes start to pierce.
“Yeah, we met on the show,” he says unnerving glare failing to falter. Is their relationship anything like it is on the show? “When people come up to us and meet us they see I’m nothing like Adam and Aimee is nothing like Aimee at all.”
Jacket: DAKS, T-shirt: Uniqlo, Sunglasses: Cutler & Gross
The message is clear. Luckily, he’s a lot more forthcoming about his bromance with other show love interest, Gatwa.
“We had quite an odd relationship at the start because he thought I hated him at the beginning, but I was just really nervous about starting and I’m very quiet. When he gets nervous he gets louder, and when I get nervous I get quieter. He did not get me whatsoever and he was very anxious about doing intimate scenes with someone who wasn’t putting themselves out there.
“That left really quickly though, and we became very close. He’s just a great guy. An amazing actor. I love knowing that he’s a good friend and I can rely on him and he’ll always come through. I like to think he thinks the same of me.”
And will Adam and Eric’s relationship blossom in the second series? “There’s potentially a lot of scenes with him in the next series too,” says Swindells, letting out a wry smile. “Can’t say much more than that.”
OUTFIT CREDITS | Sunglasses: Cutler & Gross, Blazer: DAKS, Vest: Uniqlo, Shoes: Crockett & Jones
Despite only being in his early-20s and with only a small back catalogue of roles behind him, he’s alarmingly calculated in what he says, always without fail, pausing to think about what he says before speaking. It’s something the secretive execs at Netflix are surely thankful for in this moment. And it gives the impression of a man in control. Disciplined from a childhood of daily combat training. Strengthened by the tragedy of his mother’s passing.
With some young actors who blow up stratospherically, especially in this 24-hour age of non-stop social media alerts, you worry about the mental repercussions. The elated highs of being on one of the most anticipated Netflix shows of 2020. The subsequent disappointments – lost roles, show cancellations, award season snubs – that every acting talent must endure.
Can they cope with the rollercoaster? With Swindells, you can’t help feeling everything is taken imperiously in his near-silent stride. He’s so sure of who he is and who he wants to be. He’s just going to roll with every punch.
Sex Education available on Netflix from 17 January
Photographer: Will Bremridge
Creative Direction & Styling: Luke Sampson
Styling Assistant: Andrew Burling
Hair & Make-Up: Bobbie Ross