Nobody causes internet hysteria quite like British actor Kit Connor. The very modern teen idol talks to Chris Godfrey about sudden fame, working out, and the return of the Netflix sensation.
Nothing could have readied Kit Connor for his newfound teen idol status. Sure, the His Dark Materials star had done his first red carpet interviews aged 10 and worked with Steven Spielberg before he’d even done his GCSEs. But the kind of exposure that came with playing a lead in Netflix’s megahit Heartstopper? “I don’t think anyone’s ever really prepared for it,” says Connor. “Suddenly you feel like there are a lot more eyes on you.”
The first season, launched in relative obscurity in April last year, transformed the up–and–comer into an immediate superstar – the kind of hot young thing who sits front row at Loewe and JW Anderson shows, whom paparazzi wait for outside industry parties and whose presence at fan meet–and–greets causes total chaos. With season two launching next month, Connor is poised for another wave of hysteria.
“It’s scary and it’s overwhelming,” he says. But if Connor is intimidated by his breakneck rise to fame he doesn’t show it today. Sitting opposite me at teatime – between a video shoot and red carpet event later – among the tropical foliage and gold–trimmed, plush furnishings of London’s The Trafalgar St James hotel bar, wearing a white henley shirt, grey jeans and Reebok trainers, the only Connor I get a glimpse of is the precocious leading man in the making. That he’s only 19 years old is almost alarming. “Yeah, I always get told people think I’m older than I am,” he replies, despite the teen–idol face. But there’s a quiet confidence there too: he nonchalantly dispenses with his publicist before we sit down and his answers come in thoughtful, considered bursts, delivered in the crisp neutral accent of a south Londoner who happened to go to an independent school. “I think because I was working from quite a young age, it meant I matured a little bit faster than I would have. So that’s helped a lot.”
Based on Alice Oseman’s YA webcomic and graphic novels of the same name, Heartstopper tells a tale of teen love between schoolboys Nick Nelson (Connor), a popular rugby player coming to terms with being bisexual, and the recently outed Charlie Spring (Joe Locke). It’s a balmy, rose–tinted exploration of sexuality (think Ted Lasso for queer teens) and was considered a rare celebratory moment for LGBTQ+ representation on–screen – the wholesome Yin to Euphoria’s gritty Yang.
By all metrics the show was a triumph. Seasons two and three were swiftly greenlit and Oseman is now believed to have sold more than six million copies of her Heartstopper books. On TikTok the #Heartstopper hashtag has more than 10 billion views, while Locke and Connor have each picked up millions of new followers on their personal Instagrams, their comments now heaving with declarations of love and lust from their army of stans.
Through it all, Connor has seemingly remained grounded, self–aware and modest, often leaning into self–deprecation – something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by his co–stars, such as Olivia Colman, his on–screen mother, who describes him as “funny and kind”. “Kit has got it all,” she tells Vogue. “Talent, humility and he’s clearly beautiful, not that that matters, but he’s beautiful on the inside too. And that’s the most impressive thing about him.”
And Connor is consistently on–message about his love for Heartstopper. I bet Netflix can’t believe their luck. “As an actor, you’re not always so lucky to be able to do a project you feel actually has an impact on people. I feel super lucky to have been able to do it,” he says. When the show first aired, fans would regularly stop him in the street, often young queer teenagers keen to tell him the show gave them the confidence to come out to their parents. “The idea that you’re having an impact on anyone’s life, especially a stranger, it’s really special.”
But it’s come with a steep learning curve. “You feel a bit watched,” he says. “I’m still in my formative years, so things I wouldn’t want to be watched doing are.” He explains it feels particularly invasive when fans dig into the lives of his family, looking them up on social media. “They didn’t sign up for it,” he says. As for his own privacy, he accepts he’ll have to work harder to maintain it. “I haven’t had a huge problem,” he says. “I think I’ve still been pretty lucky in a lot of ways.”
“Lucky” is a surprising word to hear, given his experiences last autumn. Social media was rife with speculation about Connor’s sexuality, after he was pictured holding hands with Maia Reficco, his co–star in the upcoming adaptation of YA novel A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow. Playing a bisexual teen, and frequently appearing at Pride events in his own life, some accused Connor of “queerbaiting”, a term used to describe a celebrity capitalising on speculation they’re not straight (usually for the sake of publicity). The online harassment intensified; Connor left Twitter. He planned to ignore the noise (“I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business and I’m super young”), but returned in October with a tweet: “I’m bi. Congrats for forcing an 18–year–old to out himself. I think some of you missed the point of the show. Bye.” (The tweet garnered one million likes on the platform.)
It was, obviously, not an easy period. “I’m a young man, so I’m already kind of going through certain things, in terms of just life and mental health.” His tweet was a build–up of emotion. “I just needed to let that energy out.”
Connor had been coming to terms with his sexuality since before Heartstopper. “It was just a very natural process for me; I didn’t really have an ‘oh, shit’ moment. It just became more and more evident.” Although his family were “super accepting and inclusive and wonderful”, his all–boys school was less so. “I was in a very heteronormative atmosphere,” he says, hesitating slightly. “It wasn’t hugely inclusive. It wasn’t really accepted in a lot of ways.”
Internally, he was conscious of the narrative around those who are bisexual. “It’s the experience of maybe you’re too straight to be gay and you’re too gay to be straight. So it’s like, ‘Where do I sit?’ But I feel much more secure in myself now.” Regardless, it didn’t make dealing with overzealous fans any easier. “I just felt like it wasn’t something I was ready to talk about,” he says. “I wasn’t angry. I was just slightly disappointed by this reaction.”
It’s indicative of how outing stories have come full circle: whereas once stars such as George Michael were outed by tabloids to shame them for being gay, here fans of Heartstopper were trying to out Connor for seemingly not being gay enough. Why does he think they thought it was OK to pressure him into revealing his sexuality?
“I think there’s almost a feeling that because I’d been in the industry for a little while, there was almost this understanding that it’s like, ‘Oh, well, he can take it.'”
And did he ultimately feel forced into it as a result? “I think ‘forced’ isn’t the right word I would use, but I would say that I would have preferred to do it another way,” he says. “I also don’t know if I would have ever done it. But at the end of the day I don’t regret it. In many ways it was really empowering.”
Connor is always careful to caveat his concerns about celebrity life with a recognition of the privileges it affords. As a child, raised in Croydon by parents who work in advertising, he longed for the sort of fame that gets you stopped in the street.
Wanting to become a film star, he’d dress up as James Bond in videos he’d make with his older brother and sister. And so, when the opportunity to star in a Sainsbury’s advert came up, Connor insisted he do it, despite his parents’ reluctance (it was long, boring work, apparently). “Thank God they let me, because here I am.” His first feature film followed soon after – the 2014 British Christmas comedy Get Santa – then came roles in Ready Player One and Rocketman, in which he played the young Elton John. Connor remained in school throughout. When Heartstopper came out, “I was completely and utterly prepared to be on the receiving end of some unpleasant jokes,” he says. “But it was really quite positive. People would be like, ‘I really love the show. I thought you were really good in it.’ I was thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really a good sign.'”
Was he like his character at school: outgoing, sporty and popular? “I was never nearly as popular as Nick was, I think. Nick is super socially comfortable and I can get quite sort of socially inept. Not socially inept, but, like, awkward,” he says. “I am a bit introverted and generally like to keep myself to myself.”
He feels working in film “stunted” him socially because he couldn’t hang out with friends as much. In Heartstopper he found the perfect remedy. “We kind of forgot people were going to watch it. It was really just this beautiful experience of being able to make the show we really enjoy, and make friends and create a family.” Other highlights include working alongside Colman, who he describes as not normal, both as an actor (“Effortlessly, unbelievably talented. Lucky her!”) and a person. “Normal people do not make you feel comfortable so quick and she will just immediately put you at ease. It really is impressive.”
Away from work, Connor loves watching the NBA and writing. “I’m really awful at poetry, but sometimes do that.” He’s always been interested in fashion, namechecking James Dean, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman as his style inspiration (although he’s also prepared to “switch up and make it a lot younger”, which to him means Carhartt WIP. One of its jackets, his go–to, is neatly folded on the seat next to him as we chat). He is also big on the gym. In March, fitness model and YouTuber Nathaniel Massiah shared a photo of them working out together, with Connor looking especially buff – a surprise for those used to the wholesome, fresh–faced teen (albeit a rugby–playing one). The internet’s reaction was predictably thirsty.
“Firstly, I don’t actually look like that!” he says. “It wasn’t photoshopped, but it’s perfect lighting, with a pump from the gym. That’s, like, the best I will ever look.” It’s also a myth, he says, that the bulk–up came post Heartstopper – there just weren’t any topless pictures out there. “I used to be super, super self–conscious about my body. But for now, at the moment, I’m pretty comfortable in myself, in the sense I don’t really care about how it looks anymore.”
His ambitions now are as you’d expect from a young actor with rapidly rising stock: move out of his parents’ house, avoid complacency, improve, “make my mark” and take on roles that stretch him. Next up, though, is a return to playing Nick Nelson for the second season of Heartstopper. Connor still loves the role, but at the same time, “I’m conscious of the fact I don’t want people to go and watch everything I’m ever in now and go, ‘Oh, it’s Nick from Heartstopper.’ I also don’t want to be labelled as anything, as a heart–throb or as the queer actor or as this or that. I want to be labelled as an actor who can do different things.”
Even if it does take a while to shake his breakout role, Connor couldn’t have asked for a more timely one. “I can’t put into words how grateful I am for Heartstopper, in the way it’s affected my life, my career, my perception of myself and my general mindset.”
So it was a formative experience? “Oh, absolutely,” he says, without skipping a beat. “It has gained me some of the best friends I’ve ever had. It gave me a lot more confidence and pride in myself.”