Within the first minute of our chat, we talk about happiness and purpose. The big stuff. I lean back and brace myself, knowing that this conversation is going somewhere really interesting. Sebastian is bursting with passion and energy, all those fun things I too had in my twenties, and it's wonderfully infectious. This passion for telling important stories, for Heartstopper and for life itself. We deep-dive into Heartstopper, an 8-part LGBTQ+ romance drama releasing on Netflix in just a few days. Sebastian plays Ben Hope in the highly anticipated series based on the graphic novels by Alice Oseman
We're still on a journey of queer storytelling, and each well-made series or film has an important role to play in driving change. Whilst a lot of LGBTQ+ material in the past has often been depressing stories, quite sexualized or stories of struggle, Heartstopper is a really sweet story that, in Sebastian's view, feels like it's stepping into a world of an honest representation of being a young, queer person. It is part of driving change in terms of expanding the viewpoint into the queer world. So this role becomes meaningful and close to his heart.
It's beautiful to see someone so young with such a clear sense of purpose - Sebastian's is to be a part of telling stories he feels matter. He embodies a beautiful, raw honesty, and I, for one, can't wait to see what he will deliver in this show and beyond.
'Heartstopper' releases on Netflix on 22nd April.
Are you happy? I'd like to start there, with the important things.
A big question. I am happy, especially at the moment. There are so many exciting things happening. From a young age, all I wanted to do is act and perform, so any opportunity to do that is genuinely where I'm at my happiest. I've had some amazing opportunities and worked with some great people recently, which has been incredibly fulfilling - not only as an artist but expanding to the people you get to know and places you get to go.
I saw a great video a little while back with a lead singer of a band. He was talking about happiness, and how he tends not to focus on whether he's happy or not, but on whether he has a purpose. Often part of life's purpose brings a sense of happiness, and I really resonated with that. I think happiness can sometimes come and go. Sometimes you're happy and sometimes you're not happy. I don't think we're necessarily doing it wrong, if we're not happy, it's just like an extension of the experience of living. For me, my happiness definitely comes from purpose, and that purpose is telling stories.
Then you and I have a lot in common and this is going to be a great interview! Purpose is such a great word and I like that you bring it up so early.
The times when I felt most lost or furthest away from my happiness, are the times I felt like I didn't have a purpose. One time like this was a few years during school before I was able to act full time. I'm very dyslexic and always felt a bit lost at school and didn't have many things I could connect with in the classroom.
If you had to describe to someone who doesn't know much about you, how would you paint a picture of yourself?
I think I'm slightly too energetic sometimes. I'm very enthusiastic and positive about the things I'm doing. I like to throw myself in, and hopefully, I'm someone people feel relaxed around and can be themselves around. Maybe quite an artistic person, but also someone who just kind of goes with the flow of life.
You started very young on stage. What was it that originally inspired you to be on stage?
That's a question I've thought about a lot. I don't think I had a concept of what an actor was. It wasn't like I had this idea of a movie star or anything like that, I just found this thing, and that was entertaining people. It felt really easy, but also fulfilling and exciting, so I explored lots of ways to entertain people. I got quite into magic when I was younger, and I used to put on plays in our living room. My siblings would have to get involved in these made-up, improvised shows. Slowly, the living room became my local theatre and my local theatre became a London theatre, which then became films. It was never a conscious thing, I just followed this feeling.
When you finally got to be on a 'real' stage, outside of your living room, how did that feel?
It definitely felt different but in a good way, very exciting. I remember when I first was in Oliver, the music would start for Food, Glorious Food. This was before I got to play the role of Oliver, and I was boy number three and didn't have any speaking lines. There are 15 seconds of music before the show starts, and I'm standing there with my bowl. Until Oliver's first line, which is at the end of the song, there are all these orphan boys, and I loved the idea that someone in the audience would be looking at me and thinking that I might be Oliver. When I finally got to play Oliver, I remember the feeling of the excitement of a show about to begin. I think it's a bit like a drug. Once you get it, it's hard not to chase.
Later on, you then stepped into starring in TV Shows like Game of Thrones and Penny Dreadful. How did you find the transition?
There was a little stepping stone between that, as I did a Shakespeare play called King John at the Rose Theatre directed by Trevor Nunn. That was an important stepping stone in terms of stepping into a full and intense, grown-up acting piece. I learned a lot in that job that helped me with film and TV. First of all, working with Trevor Nunn, who is a titan within the theatre world and a living legend. I was only in rehearsals for 30% of the overall rehearsal period, but I asked if I could go in and just watch. I would sit and watch some of the actors and try to soak up as much as possible. That was the first time I fell in love with Shakespeare.
I remember in English at school, not getting it and thinking it was so dull, to then realise it's about love and in some ways people struggling with mental health or these current emotions and topics that are bundled up in this beautiful poetry. So seeing that come alive and getting to perform in that way, I think, not only did I learn a lot as an actor, but it also unlocked a confidence in me.
And then came Game of Thrones, which was insane. After the audition, I was in school when my agent called to tell me, and I remember sitting in French class with the knowledge that I was going to be in this big TV show and I couldn't tell anyone. The night before my first day of filming, we rehearsed with the director and Isaac Hempstead-Wright in one of the sets that weren't being used that day, a big room in King's Landing. All the lights were off and it was just six people doing a scene. There was something about the juxtaposition between this huge show they create, but ultimately, it's just about characters, conflicts and the truth of the dynamics of power. It was quite calming to rehearse in such an intimate way and very similar to what we had been doing in the theatre, just a different version. When it got known that I was going to play young Ned Stark, this was the first time where my peers and siblings saw me as something more than just the kid who would go off and do some musical theatre. Like: "Oh, he's in Game of Thrones, that's cool"! So that was nice as well because it was the first time I felt like what I was doing was accepted and cool.
Let's fast-forward to today. You are now starring as Ben Hope in Heartstopper, an LGBTQ+ Netflix romance drama.
It was about a year and a half ago when the audition came in. It's based on graphic novels by Alice Oseman, and they are the sweetest most wonderful things of simple and true love. There are drawings of leaves and little things, and you step into a world where it's an honest representation of being a young, queer person. It's not depressing, it's not sad, it's just uplifting, warm and lovely. And it celebrates love. It doesn't ignore that there is hate and there are bad people in the world, but that's very much the minority, and it doesn't feel overwhelming that those things exist in the world in order for you to be yourself, which I think is so unique about it.
It's a really cool, young ensemble of people who I would have loved my sixth form experience at school to have been. We had an amazing time making it, and this was one of those ones where it wasn't just a job, it felt really important for the soul. It also felt like I grew as a person as well as an actor. Honestly, you should check out the graphic novels. I'm super dyslexic and I read the first one in like an hour. They're very enjoyable.
Within this beautiful, sweet world, I play Ben Hope, who is not lovely. Very horrible, actually. I think, in the books, in Charlie's story, he's the antagonist. But I felt very strongly that he's the antagonist in his own story - he's suffering. [Spoiler coming up, so skip to the next paragraph if you haven't seen Episode 1 yet.] Charlie and Ben start off seeing each other, and then Charlie decides that he doesn't want to see Ben anymore. By the end of episode one, Ben basically forces himself on Charlie and sexually assaults him. This is the darkest bit of the show, the rest of it is very lovely and it's about Charlie and Nick falling in love. But Ben is very much one of the antagonists, so it was finding a balance between not justifying what Ben does but also making him a 3-dimensional person who exists and is suffering in their own right.
Does Ben go through a bit of a journey?
It's definitely not a 180, and I don't think it's anything close to, nor are we likely to ever see anything close to a full redemption arc, but I think Charlie gets his moment of closure and puts up a boundary between him and Ben and kind of says: "you don't get to treat me bad just because you hate yourself", you know? Ben's change in season one is very small, but you get the sense that maybe he's starting to head in a new direction because of it. Throughout the series, Ben wants to be with Charlie, but because of his hatred and fear of who he is, he can't accept that, so he gets very possessive over him and wants Charlie to be in this box where only Ben can access him. I like the idea that Ben is jealous and maybe even a bit inspired by Charlie's strength in being himself. I think it was important that Ben wasn't just this outsider who was horrible for no reason, but that in some ways, a bit of Ben's journey represents what a lot of queer people go through. Ben makes awful decisions and ends up doing nasty things, but without justifying them, hopefully, it adds a bit more colour and explains a bit where it's coming from. If the bits of Ben we see through Charlie's lens are the darkest bits of him, there has to be light somewhere.
I made a playlist for when I went to set, which had songs that were very angsty and frustrated. From Ben's point of view, I think he feels frustrated that Charlie is taking something away from him, but he goes about it the completely wrong way. I hope he learns, accepts and acknowledges that what he is doing is wrong and harmful to someone else. We all stand in front of choices, and Ben makes the wrong ones. For me, I see Ben as the darkened version of Nick's journey. It's also important to point out that just because you're afraid of something, it doesn't give you a licence to be horrible.
In the last few years, we have seen quite a development in queer film and TV. What do you think Heartstopper offers to that journey?
I think it's incredibly rare and fresh that such a young but sweet story about queer love is able to exist on a big platform like Netflix. It's sad that it's a fresh thing because I think there needs to be way more in terms of representation, but this is a really exciting show. It's not just a gay love story, it's all the colours of what it is to be young and queer, and it's important for young kids at school to have people they can look at and watch that aren't about gay people getting AIDS and dying. A lot of the material in the past is quite depressing or very sexualized, and a really sweet story that feels close to what it is to be a queer person at school is incredibly new.
We're still very early on the journey. In many places, it's easy to be young and queer - in others, young people still struggle to freely be themselves and being gay is not accepted.
It's amazing that a show like this gets to live on a big platform like Netflix, where more people get to see it. I think it's really important in terms of building acceptance and normalising what it means to be gay. Because yeah, it is still a big issue. And even in the heart of London, where it's about as liberal and accepting as you could possibly hope, it's still really hard. So, if it's hard in London, you can't imagine what it's like for people who are living in an environment where they're told they're wrong or that loving someone is illegal, you know?
What does this story mean to you personally?
One of the reasons I was so excited and felt like I had to be a part of it is because it's a very liberating story and it shows what it means to be in love. It's simply a story about love. The show doesn't have that Hollywood sheen of a perfect school with perfect kids, it's a bit more honest and truthful about what it's like to be a young person.
English shows these days are great at feeling much more authentic.
Definitely, and even the way it was shot is so beautiful. They've really incorporated the graphic novel into the show. The fact that Alice Oseman was on set every day and was so involved with the making of the show meant that it kept that authenticity. You feel like these characters have stepped out of this world that you read about and popped onto the screen.
I'm loving your outfit today, by the way. Are those ducks on your top?
There are ducks and flowers. I feel like it's pushing spring on one jumper at a time.
Haha, very nice!
It's Zara womenswear. Fun fact.
That is so cool, I love it. You mentioned that through being on this show you had grown as a person. How did you grow as a person, Sebastian?
I think I let go a lot of who I am able to be. Part of the experience that was so unique was being surrounded by people my age on a film set because I've done lots of things in the past where I was playing the younger version of someone and working with adults, so being surrounded by young people, who for a lot of them it was their first job, there was this excitement on set and we would all hang out on the weekends and go to the theatre or markets together. I saw all these people who inspired me in lots of ways and built friendships with people who I never would have met otherwise. All of that gave me a sense of discovering more of who I am, who I want to be and what I'm afraid of. I felt like a weight had been lifted in a lot of ways. With these incredible, fearless people around me, who were unlike a lot of people I have met before. It's very infectious and liberating.
You also mentioned earlier that you like throwing yourself fully into things. Have you ever made any mistakes, throwing yourself very quickly into things?
Definitely. In terms of throwing myself full-heartedly into friendships and relationships, knowing that can sometimes be risky. With every risk in life, there is a chance of getting hurt. I genuinely feel like everything that has happened, has been either a great learning experience or a sense of growth. I believe in the butterfly effect of everything happening for a reason, so there's nothing I regret in terms of mistakes. I mean, I've made hundreds of billions of mistakes, but in terms of acting, it's something I'm still finding my feet with in terms of finding honesty and the moment. In the theatre, the lights go down and you've rehearsed for months and you know what you're doing. Whereas on a film set, you're stood in a field and then it's 'action' and you have 15 seconds. The next scene might be two weeks later or four months later, so trusting yourself to be present for all of that and know that when it's all put together it makes sense on a wider scale, is something I'm still finding my feet with.
You have such a strong passion for acting, how did you cope with the period of lockdown the Pandemic brought?
Unlike a lot of professions, actors are used to being in and out of work and not acting all the time, as you're not always filming. So in some ways, I was used to it, but I was very fortunate that I did some voice work, like an episode of 'Love, Death + Robots', where I went into the studio at the height of lockdown and didn't see a single person. I just walked into a room and there was a person on the other side of the glass and people on Zoom, and we recorded the whole thing. So in many ways, I felt like I discovered different textures of what it is to be an actor. It was also a very creative time of doing things I wouldn't normally explore.
What would you say are some of the main challenges that young men face growing up today?
I feel like I am very addicted to my phone and that's something I'm trying to work on. It's hard because a lot of our socialising happens via social media. You end up talking via Instagram and Instant Messenger to friends who live in other countries. Your phone can suck up so much time if you're not careful.
There is this line where a lot of men feel like they're not allowed to connect with their emotions in some way. As an actor slash creative person, that's never something that I feel like I've necessarily struggled with, but for many, it can be hard to give yourself permission to be emotional or to feel things.
Do you feel like that's changing now?
I definitely think the image of the suave guy who doesn't cry, never feels anything and acts badly with no repercussions is slowly going, which is a good thing. My hope is that the conversation of gender being opened up continues, as it is really exciting and important. Even for people who are cis men, I think gender is being redefined. That's exciting for everyone. In a lot of ways, what it is to be a woman and what it is to be a man comes with a bit of baggage, and I don't think it should.
Yes, definitely. Big changes are happening right now, and the young generation is leading the older generation.
Even people I know who are at school now, the experiences they're having are very different to the experiences I had at school. And that's just a few years apart. It's really exciting to me that people's pronouns are respected and this is normalized at school to the point where people feel like they can be themselves. Whereas I don't think that would have been the case 5-10 years ago. And with content like Heartstopper opening that up and increasing the conversation, I think that it's only going to get better.
I hope so.
But then it's also hard sometimes when you see the news and I know there are countries or places where being yourself is so attacked. It's really hard to sit with that - the reality of the world versus how it can feel when you're surrounded by accepting people.
A series like Heartstopper has a part to play in driving change.
Even as an individual reading and being a part of Heartstopper, it has massively influenced my life and the people around me. I'm so excited about what it will be like for other people when they watch it and the change that may have. I remember when Sex Education came out, the impact of having gay people on a screen that everyone was watching and that they were so cool.
At the moment, if people Google 'Sebastian Croft', there is some stuff coming up. In 10 years' time, what do you want people to find when they Google your name?
Oh, that's a great question.
Thank you, I came up with it all by myself.
I hope people will see a much wider body of work in terms of films I've done. I hope that I will have been part of telling more queer stories, and I hope they'll find Heartstopper Season 14, haha.
Hopefully your character Ben would become a nice guy by then?
Oh, I don't even know whether a redemption arc is deserved for Ben after what he did to Charlie.
We talked about purpose earlier. How would you define what your purpose is?
I remember seeing Ladybird, Little Women and Call Me By Your Name at the cinema, and I remember the feeling of watching young people being so honest, so raw and so vulnerable - I felt incredibly inspired and empowered by that. That is really what I want to do. I guess my purpose is to be a part of telling stories that feel like they matter. Heartstopper feels like it matters more than just being an important story, so I want to be part of telling queer stories to entertain people and shed light in a really honest way. I think it's really important, as growing up I didn't see enough queer content, and I'd love for younger generations to experience more. The first time I saw two guys get married was in Modern Family when I was 12 or something like that. I hope there's much more nuance to come in queer stories than just coming out stories. The queer experience is so much bigger than just coming out. Telling those telling stories in a really honest and truthful way would feel like they matter more than just entertaining people.
That is a very nice answer. You talked about going with the flow of life. Where do you think the flow of life will take you?
In terms of the flow of life, I'd love to travel more. The last few years of lockdown have made me feel there is so much of the world I want to see and experience. I hope I get to carry stories and play a real variety of characters, and I hope I get to meet lots of amazing people. Three years ago, I couldn't have imagined the friends I have now and all the people I've met, so I'm very excited to see what things will be like in three years' time. Yeah, I'm just excited for what the future brings. So far, it's been pretty good.