‘Sex Education’ star Aimee Lou Wood on personal growth through acting, alongside her character’s own evolution
David Hawkins/Frank Agency
From Saved by the Bell and Beverly Hills, 90210 in the late-80s/early-90s; to Dawson’s Creek, The O.C and One Tree Hill in the early 2000s; Glee and Gossip Girl in the late-2000s; to Riverdale in the more current late-2010s — there has been a generation or two that grew up with a very familiar blueprint, when it comes to teenage drama series. One after another, they try to outdo the other, as they endeavor to outdo the other with timely storylines on diversity and inclusivity that are beyond mere adolescence sex, love and relationship.
So, when Sex Education premiered on Netflix in 2019, you could say that the British teen series was an anomaly of sorts, shattering the three-decade long formula in television series for the young adults, and presenting to us witty and in-your-face narratives that we never knew we needed in the first place. The show garnered over 40 million viewers after its debut, and Aimee Lou Wood went on to win a BAFTA for Best Female Comedy Performance, particularly after the second season, when her character Aimee Gibbs was put through the wringer — very much her debut role in television, or ever, besides the handful of stage roles upon graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
We chat with Aimee — about Aimee, and how her career in Sex Education has helped her grow as a person, alongside her character’s own evolution.
“Not everyone’s going to like you all the time, but sometimes, you’ve got to just express your truth. It might upset people, but you’ve got to be the full version of yourself.”
Hey, Aimee! How are you doing there?
I’m good, how are you?
Not too bad! I’d think it’s been quite busy for you there, what with the interviews and photoshoots for the new season of Sex Education?
Yeah, it is quite busy. We did all the press junkets on Zoom this year, so we were just sitting in the same place for the whole day, and it’s just the next person, and the next, and the next… from all over the world. It’s amazing, but also, it’s quite tiring. I’m slightly running on autopilot a bit, and when it all stops, I’ll probably be exhausted. You just don’t have time to process it, and then when it’s done, you’ll probably be like, oh God, that was a lot!
Well, I hope you’re getting enough rest in between!
Yeah, I’m trying (laughs).
Have you seen the new episodes by any chance?
Yeah, I’ve watched all of them, and I think they’re brilliant! I was quite nervous, especially when everyone’s so eager for it, because of the big delay before this. Now that I’ve seen the episodes, it’s just pure excitement for people to see the new season.
What do you hope the audience will take away from this new season of Sex Education?
Well, I hope that they feel like they’ve been reunited with their friends. That’s what we’ve always wanted the show to feel like: a very lovable, safe and comforting show, which also deals with some big issues. The main thing this year has to do with shame; how toxic shame can be, and how people use shame as a way to control, to divide, and to manipulate other people. Because of Maeve and Otis’ sex clinic (since the first season), it’s permeated into the whole school, and it’s made it a place, where everyone is very much celebrated for their individuality; a place, where people embrace embarrassment, and grow from it. It’s become a very positive and expressive place for people to feel seen and represented. However, this season, this new head teacher (played by Jemima Kirke) personifies and embodies the opposite of what Moordale has become. She wants to stifle individuality; you know, mute people, and shame people. So, the characters, when they’re faced with this person, they really grow a lot: they figure out what they believe in, and how important it is to stand up for each other.
How do you think your character, Aimee Gibbs, is different in this season, compared to the previous two?
She’s really coming into her own this season. I think she’s growing up quite a lot, you know, realizing that she is so much stronger than she thinks she is, and so much more resilient. What’s so interesting about Aimee this season is that she’s in a bit of a tug of war internally, between who she used to be, and who she is now. There’s a part of her that wants to go back, and wants to retreat to who she used to be, because that’s the most familiar thing. But, because of everything that’s happened to her, she can’t do that. She feels very changed, and she’s struggling with that change — which is why she starts going to therapy with Jean (played by Gillian Anderson). It’s been such a treat to play her, because she’s growing up, and she’s figuring out who she really is, and who she really wants to be; who she is through her own eyes, and not through other people’s eyes.
“That’s one of the things about her: she really, really gives people the benefit of the doubt, and she’s very trusting of people. It’s something that’s so lovely and wonderful about her, but it’s also a dangerous thing. It’s something that she’s really trying to work out in season three: how do I maintain that about myself; but also, stay safe in this world, and stay myself?”
When you first read about Aimee Gibbs, and said yes to playing her, were there any initial indications that she will grow into something more in the coming seasons?
I don’t think I realized how much Aimee was going to evolve. When I first got the part, I’d only seen a couple of scenes, like that big sex scene at the very beginning, and some of the funny ones with Maeve (played by Emma Mackey). There wasn’t actually the stuff to do with her going to see Otis (played by Asa Butterfield), and him giving her the advice to — have a wank, basically (laughs).
That was a wonderful scene, by the way!
Oh, thank you so much! Yeah, that actually happened way later on. That was when I was like, oh my God, she’s got such a good arc! She goes from being this girl, who performed for boys sexually, to discovering what she actually likes, by taking her pleasure into her own hands, as it were. I feel like everything unlocked from there. Then, when I saw the scripts in season two, and everything with the bus scene, and how much she changes after that — I really didn’t expect her to go on such a journey. I think the writers weren’t 100% on who Aimee was at the very beginning, and it has felt like such a collaboration. I feel like I have such a big part to play in who Aimee ends up being; it was a blank canvas, and it felt so exciting that I could really bring her to life.
That’s the nice thing about Sex Education: the characters, they evolve through each season. The writing brings out the different challenges for each character, and makes them grow from there.
Yeah! Sex Education introduced us to these characters, who were kind of familiar — the jock, the popular girl, the rebel girl, the geeky guy… Then, you realize actually, they’re so much deeper than that, and there’s so much going on for them. I was thinking how different Jackson (played by Kedar Williams-Stirling) is in season three, compared to who he was in season one; he has gone on this massive, massive journey. Eric (played by Ncuti Gatwa) and Aimee are so similar in a lot of ways: they’ve been the best friend, and they’ve always wanted to be liked. They both go on this journey of actually realizing that not everyone’s going to like you all the time, but sometimes, you’ve got to just express your truth. It might upset people, but you’ve got to be the full version of yourself. Evolution is just such a great thing to play. It’s really gorgeous playing a character, who’s just grown more, and more, and more, and more, and more.
Did you feel any pressure, when you first read the script for that episode in season two, knowing that you’ll have to play out that challenge for Aimee’s storyline, in this time and age when sexual harassment has been a rather prominent global topic?
Yeah, I did feel that. I mean, I knew that it was a really important storyline, and I knew it was going to mean so much to so many people. When we were filming the bus scene, it was already quite overwhelming in an amazing way. When all the girls were getting on the bus with Aimee, we all felt very emotional; we all knew that this scene was going to be really impactful, and it’s going to mean a lot to a lot of people. I wanted to do this very important storyline justice; it was Laurie (Nunn, the Sex Education showrunner)’s personal story, and I did feel very honored that she trusted me with it. At the same time, I did also want to maintain Aimee’s personality and her nature — I didn’t want to lose her during this part of her story. She’s got a very unique way of looking at the world: another person might be quicker to realize what happened to them; whereas, for Aimee, she took a while to even know that that was sexual assault.
Yeah, it’s like what Viv (played by Chinenye Ezeudu) mentioned in the series, that there’s a certain percentage of women, who didn’t realize that they were sexually assaulted.
I remember Laurie saying that the reason why she gave that storyline to Aimee, was because she thought she was the perfect character to tell the story. Aimee is, in many ways, the most relatable for lots of women. She’s still trying to figure it all out; she’s still growing, and she’s still learning. So, her not knowing that she’s been sexually assaulted is such a common thing for lots and lots of people. If something’s not violent, then they don’t think that it’s assault. You know, these more everyday occurrences that happen on public transport and places like that. Sometimes, they don’t realize, ever. They have the feeling that something horrible happened, but they don’t ever name it as assault.
I think it’s genius that Laurie chose Aimee to tell this story, because she’s the nice one, the quiet one. When something happens, she won’t think that it’s assault. When Aimee made up excuses on why the guy wanked on her, the fact that she put a stranger’s well-being before hers — a stranger who assaulted her, no less; that’s really heartbreaking.
That’s one of the things about her: she really, really gives people the benefit of the doubt, and she’s very trusting of people. It’s something that’s so lovely and wonderful about her, but it’s also a dangerous thing. It’s something that she’s really trying to work out in season three: how do I maintain that about myself; but also, stay safe in this world, and stay myself? That was really relatable, it just spoke to a lot of people. I just didn’t think I realized how big the reaction was going to be.
“That what’s so amazing about Sex Education: it celebrates friendship love. It says that friendship love is just as important as romantic love. It’s so important to celebrate platonic love, and how beautiful it can be.”
One of the big reactions was you winning a BAFTA for that — congratulations!
Thank you so much!
How did it feel to hit the nail clean on the head on practically your debut role for a series?
Yeah, I couldn’t believe it! It was so unexpected, I really didn’t think that was going to happen. I was backstage, laughing my head off, because I just thought this is so ridiculous — and then, I just burst into tears (laughs); I was all over the place. I love it when I watch actors, and they’re revealing some of their own selves, and some part of their soul through a character that they’re playing. I always want to be the kind of actor that just tries to be as honest and truthful as possible. So, getting the BAFTA was just really nice recognition — but also, just totally ridiculous (laughs)!
Is there a part of you though, that’s afraid it’s all just going to go downhill from here, because you’ve pretty much achieved the best, so quickly and so early in your career?
Do you know what, I remember saying it to Bill Nighy — I just did Living with him, and it was amazing: sometimes, I do think that I want it all to slow down a little bit. I just had an image of what my career was going to be like. It was very much a slow burning career that was going to take a long time to get to the point that I’m at now. Sometimes, I feel like I’m not quite ready, that my mind isn’t mature enough to deal with some of it. Because, I find a lot of it very overwhelming, and quite anxiety inducing. I’m really trying to enjoy and celebrate it all, and be happy, but it can be a bit scary, because it just happened so quickly! There are times that I think if I was older, and this had taken longer, and I’ve had a bigger gap between leaving drama school, and getting Sex Education — I might have been more prepared. But then, at the same time, I don’t think you can ever really be prepared. If you get into a big show like this, it’s always going to be strange.
Do you have a favorite scene from Sex Education?
I have so, so many! I mean, the bus scene in season two, when the girls get on the bus with Aimee, that will always be the most special to me. I love watching all the friendship scenes; whenever friends are really turning up for each other, it just makes me want to cry. I love all my scenes with Maeve, and I love Otis and Eric’s friendship so much. Just seeing Ncuti and Asa improvise, and make up all the funny stuff — they’ve just got such good chemistry. I love watching Viv and Jackson’s friendship. There was such a beautiful scene in season two, when Jackson was having his panic attack upstairs in the party, and Viv came to talk to him and hug him — I just find that so moving. That what’s so amazing about Sex Education: it celebrates friendship love. It says that friendship love is just as important as romantic love. It’s so important to celebrate platonic love, and how beautiful it can be.
Speaking of that, personally, what kind of qualities do you look for in a friend?
Oh, that’s such a good one. When I was younger, I just wanted to be with people that made me laugh. That’s still really important, however, I do think that kindness, generosity and authenticity — it’s the nicest thing in the world. There’s that phrase: show me your five closest friends, and I’ll show you who you are. It’s so important to be surrounded by people, who are really authentic and honest, and who are courageous enough to be themselves. You end up just being your complete self as well. All my friends are so courageous, they’re really brave people; they are so totally themselves, and they’re not in any way, you know, fake. It’s hard to really be yourself in the world — it’s scary. So, I like being around people who are brave enough to do that.
Were there anything that Sex Education has brought up so far that you wish you’d known about when you were in high school?
One thing that really stuck with me was when Otis spoke to Lily (played by Tanya Reynolds) in season one, after they’d just gone down the hill on their bikes. She was talking about how she needs to have sex, and Otis told to her: take your time, it’s not a race — that really resonated with me. I definitely rushed certain things, in order to be accepted and to seem normal. I think it was so easy at school to fall into the belief that you have to be at the same stage as your friends. Like, you get to a certain age, and you should want to be going to parties, and snogging people, and all that stuff; I had no interest in doing that, and I always felt weird for that. That’s what I really wish I would have known at high school. It’s invaluable to know that that’s not true; you absolutely run your own race, and you could go at whatever pace you want to go at.
“All my friends are so courageous, they’re really brave people; they are so totally themselves, and they’re not in any way, you know, fake. It’s hard to really be yourself in the world — it’s scary. So, I like being around people who are brave enough to do that.”
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Emily Wood/Creatives Agency using Danessa Myricks
Public Eye Communications
What do you think Amy Gibbs as a person has taught you, Aimee Lou Wood, about life?
I was such a people pleaser in school, like Aimee. I’ve always thought that I was very much myself, and had a really strong sense of self, when actually, I’m really impressionable. I can lose myself through trying to please other people. She’s definitely taught me that perfection is just a myth, and it’s overrated anyway. At the beginning, she tried so hard to be the perfect version of herself, and tick all the boxes, when actually, the perfect version of yourself is just being your full, authentic self. The more she comes into her own in the show, and the more honest and genuine she becomes, so have I.
If you could go back in time, and meet your 16-year-old self in high school, what would you say to her?
I would say you’re enough exactly the way you are. You don’t need to embellish, you don’t need to add anything — you are enough. I would also definitely say, don’t look in the mirror so much, because it’s not helping; I was going through body dysmorphia and eating disorders. I would say go to therapy as well, probably. I’m so glad that I did it, when I did it, which was 23 or 24. But, I do think it would have been amazing, if I’d have gone a bit younger. Then again, you have to be ready for it, don’t you? It’s that weird thing with therapy: you won’t go to therapy when you need it most. When you’re really in the throes of something, you can’t see that you need therapy. When I was at school, and I wasn’t eating, I didn’t know that there was anything wrong with my head. Now, I know where they all grew from, and that was a symptom of something deeper.
We do need someone like Aimee Gibbs in our lives to keep us going in these difficult times. You know, this ray of sunshine in a person’s life. We’re definitely grateful to have someone like you play her in Sex Education — and play her so well! We look forward to your future roles, namely Living and The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.
Aww! That is so, so kind, it makes me want to cry! Thank you so much.
Thank you again for calling in. Have a good one the rest of your day!
You too. It’s been such a nice chat. Bye!
All Season 3 episodes of Sex Education now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below: