Joe Locke | In One’s Element is Where the Flourish Really Goes Down

Via Issue 191, Fresh Cuts

Written by

Michael Cuby

Photographed by

Hadar Pitchon

Styled by

Michael Andrew

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LOUIS VUITTON MEN’S jacket and pants and CARTIER bracelet.

The common sense advice is to never meet your idols. But when Joe Locke, the charismatic lead of Netflix’s critically acclaimed teen drama Heartstopper, met his lifelong hero, Patti LuPone, while on set for the upcoming WandaVision spinoff Agatha: Darkhold Diaries, he was relieved to find that the Tony-winning Broadway legend was as much a delight in person as she is on stage. “She came in and gave me a big hug,” the budding star tells FLAUNT about their first interaction. “She’d seen [Heartstopper], which was really cool, and we just hit it off straight away. I was terrified to meet her... but she’s the most amazing woman ever.”

At only 20 years old, Locke is still adjusting to this new life where meeting his idols is even a possibility in the first place. After all, just three years ago, the Isle of Man native was still a normal high school student, worrying about normal teen things like homework and extracurriculars, not about learning his lines for a scene opposite Oscar winner Olivia Colman, or about picking which Valentino suit he’d wear to sit front row. But in the two years since Heartstopper debuted on Netflix, Locke has ascended to a new realm of celebrity—and in the process, has become something of an idol himself.

ORGANIC BY JOHN PATRICK tank top, stylist’s own pants and belt, and CARTIER watch.

It’s easy to understand why. In Heartstopper, the actor brings a lovable shyness and gentle inquisitiveness to central character Charlie Spring, a high school student who, as one of the only out gay people on campus, is no stranger to social ostracization. And when Charlie falls for Nick Nelson (Kit Connor), a gentle giant rugby star navigating the contours of his own burgeoning bisexuality, Locke seamlessly captures the giddily excited highs and sometimes soul-crushing lows that typically accompany young puppy love. The series offers one of the most uplifting and comforting portrayals of teen queer romance on television. In turn, it’s inspired a passionate fanbase of young viewers who have been starving for more hopeful LGBTQ+ themed content.

The Netflix hit has already filmed its third season, and with six books in the Alice Oseman series the show is based on, it’s likely that Heartstopper will keep Locke employed for at least a couple more years. But the performer isn’t content to simply sit around in his off-time. After spending the holidays in Australia with his family, Locke recently relocated to New York to make his Broadway debut as the doomed Tobias Ragg in Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical Sweeney Todd.

And while the actor is predictably tight-lipped about Agatha (“My character’s name is ‘Teen’ and he is a teenager,” is all he’d say about his role), history suggests that his participation in a hotly- anticipated Marvel series will only add more to his plate. At least its release this fall will remove some of the burdens of secrecy. He’s never had to keep quiet this long and it hasn’t been easy.

Today, we chat about the terrifying thrill that is Broadway, the satisfaction in confronting gritty subject matter, and the imperative of modernizing queer narratives for today’s eager audiences.

LOEWE sweater and pants and CARTIER bracelet and ring. 

You kicked off 2024 by joining your first Broadway musical, Sweeney Todd. How has that been?

It’s been amazing, but I underestimated how tiring theater would be. On a film set, you work probably four times as long—it’s long hours everyday. But [on Broadway], because it’s like four hours nonstop, I’ve never been so tired in my life. But in the best way!

Were you a musical theater fan growing up?

I was the classic musical theater kid when I was growing up. I really loved Sweeney. I just love [Stephen] Sondheim. He’s the most genius, clever, incredible songwriter.

Do you have a favorite Sondheim production?

Either Company or Sweeney

I know you’re a Patti LuPone fan. Did you see Company when she was in it?

I didn’t! I actually haven’t ever seen Patti on stage other than bootlegs. I’ve seen her perform in concert. But I wish I’d gotten to see her in Company. I keep trying to persuade her to do another musical, but she’s adamant she doesn’t want to do one. I’m just like, ‘No, Patti! Please! Just do it for me. I just want to see you perform.’

How has the transition been from screen to stage?

Stage is terrifying. With screen, you can do a take, it can be bad, and you just do another one and another one until you’ve got it. Whereas on stage, you just have to go for it.

PRADA coats.

Let’s talk about Heartstopper. What drew you most to the character of Charlie Spring?

I mean, the story of Heartstopper is so great, and especially at that age, I related so much to Charlie as a character. I’d say I relate to him less now as I’ve gotten older, but at that time in my life, I had a lot of similarities with him. Also, I just wanted to be an actor.

Why do you relate to him less now?

I’ve done a lot of growing up in the last two years since the show came out. I think this industry can mature you very quickly. It’s done it with me. Maybe I’m just an old cynic now! But I still relate to Charlie in many ways. I just now feel more grown-up than he is as a character.

The show became this massive hit almost overnight. Has that felt strange?

The first few weeks, [I felt] the weirdest, strangest out-of-body experience that I think anyone can ever feel. I don’t think any of us were expecting the show to reach such a wide audience so quickly or [that we would] be thrown into the spotlight so quickly. 

But the most amazing thing was going through that experience with the rest of the cast. There aren’t many people in the world who can really relate to something like that, but all of them can relate so much to it. So rather than being stressed out by it, we all just were able to enjoy the fact that our show was reaching so many people and having an impact on the world.

KYLE’LYK jacket, shirt, and pants, BRUNO MAGLI shoes, and CARTIER bracelet.

Part of that success has involved you personally becoming a role model for many, even though, with you only being 20 (and 18 when it came out), I’m sure you were still seeking out your own role models. How have you dealt with that newfound responsibility?

I think it’s about finding that balance of being able to be that person for people and also remembering that you don’t actually owe that to anyone, and that you have to put yourself first. It’s a double-edged sword. I’m very grateful that people look up to me and look up to the show and look up to the things we’ve done for the world. But also, I’m just 20 and I’m still making mistakes and figuring out who I am. People are, in the majority, quite good [about] cutting us some slack for our age, and I think that once you set boundaries, people, on most occasions, respect them.

In season two, Heartstopper explored darker territory, touching on mental health issues and disordered eating. How does it feel to return to this world, year after year, and be faced with increasingly heavier topics?

We always say it’s like going back to school when we start filming Heartstopper, because we’re all back together, it’s in the same building, and it’s all the same. But when the show gets darker, I think we, as actors, have quite enjoyed that... in a slightly sadistic way. [laughs] You can sink your teeth into it. Obviously, all the sweet stuff is great too, but it’s nice to be able to grow up with the characters and do more mature themes as the characters get older. 

DIOR MEN top and CARTIER necklace and bracelet.

You’ve already filmed season three. Do the themes continue to mature?

Me and Kit ended up doing a kissing scene almost every day for this season, so it’s definitely a bit raunchier. And in the same way that we delved into Charlie’s mental health in season two, we delve into it way more this season. It was hard but great to be able to act that out.

I’ve also got some great scenes with Georgina Rich, who plays my mom. We get to scream at each other a few times, which is so much fun to do. It’s always fun to just like... scream at someone. And you’re allowed to because it’s your job. I never really had the opportunity to be a bratty teenager with my mum. Well, I did a few times, but not to the extent that Charlie does. 

You said returning to the Heartstopper set feels like going back to school. Given that you graduated after the show premiered, has returning to set ever felt cognitively dissonant?

Because it’s not school and because it’s on a film set, they’re very different things. But after we finished filming the first season, going back to [real] school was a hard adjustment to make. I was getting in trouble for the first time ever! I had never really gotten in trouble at school, but now I’d have to ask to go to the toilet or get told off for wearing the wrong jumper. I just couldn’t adjust to being back in a kids-centric world where I wasn’t being treated like an adult.

Speaking of a “kids-centric world,” was there any difference between working with your peers on Heartstopper and with adults like Kathryn Hahn, Aubrey Plaza, and Patti LuPone on Agatha? 

It was obviously a different dynamic on [the Agatha] set because it wasn’t a bunch of teenagers. But I never felt any less than them. They were all so amazing, making me feel like an equal. I learned so much from all of them. Just the most amazing women in that show. Growing up, I was surrounded by a lot of women and not really many men, so that’s where I feel most comfortable, is in a room full of women. So I was in my element! I remember a few times when they kept being like, ‘Oh, poor Joe! Being stuck with all these women!’ And I was like, ‘No, this is my dream!’ Every aspect was so incredible. I feel very honored to have been a part of it. 


Miles Gutierrez-Riley, who’s in his 20s, is also in the cast. As two of the youngest people on set, did you bond?

Yeah, me and Miles bonded really well. He’s an amazing actor and a really funny guy. There was a day when we were pretending that we were both really straight and making jokes about our girlfriends while it was like 3AM during a night shoot. Looking back, it makes no sense. But at the time, it was really funny and we were having a great time.

Agatha is a spinoff of WandaVision—were you a fan?

I remember watching WandaVision when it came out. I loved it. I thought it was so clever. Jac Schaeffer and Mary Livanos, who are the creators of WandaVision and also the creators of my show, are just geniuses. They’re able to craft characters in ways I don’t think many people can, with care and love, which I think really pushes the narrative of what a Marvel TV series or superhero character can be. I think they’ve done that again with my show, which I’m very excited to come out—mainly, just so I can talk about it. I’ve been keeping all these secrets for almost two years now! There are so many secrets I need to tell people! 

When you auditioned to play Charlie, you beat 10,000 other hopefuls for the part. That seems like an intense audition process, but how does it compare to Marvel auditions?

Heartstopper was a breeze compared to Marvel. I did, like, nine auditions for Marvel. I did a self-tape, another self-tape, a Zoom call, another Zoom call. I went to LA and did a chemistry read with Kathryn Hahn, and then I did like four more Zoom calls with Sarah Finn, the casting director. She’s such a wonderful woman. I’ll always be eternally grateful for her.

Stylist’s own cardigan, pants, and belt, ORGANIC BY JOHN PATRICK tank top, and CARTIER watch

Just a few years into your professional career, you’ve already done a teen drama, a splashy Marvel series, and a Broadway musical. Is there anything else you’d like to do?

I’d love to do a more gritty part. A darker, more serious part. I think the eternal fear of actors is being typecast as one thing, and though I’ve loved the parts I’ve played, I’d love to show the world I can do other things as well.

You once said that you had hopes to play the first queer Disney prince. If Disney ever asked which of their existing princess stories they should make queer, which would you choose?

You know, I haven’t ever thought about that. I feel like Mulan is definitely queer. I mean, I wouldn’t be in it because...obviously. But I feel like Mulan?

Is there any Disney story you feel like you could do?

I feel like Cinderella has got quite queer underlying themes: being hidden away, having to be in a disguise to kiss someone and then running away...

And would you want to play the Prince or…

No, I want to be Cinderella! 

Photographed by Hadar Pitchon

Styled by Michael Andrew

Written by Michael Cuby

Production: Gorge Studios

Flaunt Film Editor: Camryn Spratt

Stylist Assistant: Joe Prezpadlo

Guard: Charlie Staiano

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Flaunt Magazine, Issue 191, Fresh Cuts, Joe Locke, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Loewe, Heartstopper, Agatha: Darkhold Diaries, Sweeney Todd, Michael Cuby,