The Observer – Sex Education’s Aimee Lou Wood’s emotions simmer just below the surface.

15 February 2023

12 Feb 2023

Be here, Aimee!’ Aimee Lou Wood said to herself, “Soak it in!” She was sitting with her hero Bill Nighy late last year, eating penne all’arrabbiata, and she was trying, really trying to be in the moment. She’d just won a Bafta, she was nearing the end of a life-changing project, acting in her first lead film role opposite Nighy in the Oscar-nominated Living, and her career was exploding, and she was 28, and she should have been high-fiving everybody she met, alive with gratitude and appreciation and champagne. But Nighy knew her by then, and knew what she was like. “And Bill said, ‘Don’t go into the hostile parallel world.’”

This, she explains, is where all your trauma is stored, and when you’re there – when she’s there – she reacts in ways that have helped her survive in the past, like, dissociating. “And I’m trying! But the present can be scary. I’m a wrecking ball of feeling.” She says all this – how she is training herself now to breathe, to “be present” – with the same grinning brightness one might expect from a person explaining what they had for tea, and I realise with a thrill that this is how our meeting will go. It’s this openness, in part, that makes her so luminous on screen, this grand vulnerability. And today she will dive straight into the dark meat of a conversation, our only small talk being her insistence that I read German spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle and calculate my astrological Saturn return.

Wood grew up in Stockport, Manchester, with a car-dealer dad and a mum works for ChildLine. After graduating from Rada, she became famous as Aimee Gibbs in the smash Netflix show, Sex Education. Plotlines revolved around her character discovering liberation through masturbation, being sexually assaulted and then, in season three, dealing with the emotional fallout. She’s currently filming season four in Wales, while also rehearsing Cabaret in London, so much of her time is spent in motion, bustling between stations and cities for a 5am call time, smiling.


She’ll play Sally Bowles in the radical West End revival, which is perfect, not just because she very much has the air of Liza Minnelli, her dizzy, enthusiastic beauty, but because this has long been her dream role. “I relate to Sally so much,” she says over toast at a south London diner. “I’m an Aquarius, I don’t set goals in my life. I just go with it. But the only two things I’ve ever said I wanted were to be a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race and play Sally Bowles in Cabaret.” Rehearsals are going well – the acting, great, the singing, fabulous, but – the dancing took a little longer to click. “I was so embarrassed. At drama school I was being told consistently that I was moving my body in the wrong way. So when I walked into a rehearsal, where I have to express myself through my body, I felt like I was going to burst into tears. I hate feeling awkward in my own body,” she says.

It’s not a new feeling. “It’s definitely tied into having had eating disorders. Your body becomes like an enemy. I was so detached from my body when I was in the eating disorders, it was like I was outside it, scrutinising it. I am very gradually getting over that. Sorry, I’m getting upset.” Wood cries as if the tears are just punctuation, commas; there’s a sophisticated inevitability to it. “It’s the therapy finally actually sinking in,” she explains. “For years, I could understand the things I was talking about to my therapist. But I didn’t actually feel it. And the other day – I did! I started laughing because I was thinking about all the awkward moments I’d had that day. You know, where like, I’d waved at someone and they hadn’t seen me. And instead of cringing at the memory, I was like, “Ah, bless you, you’re trying!” She laughs again.

“There are things around the acting,” she says slowly, “that I have found in the past quite hard. And I’m finding them easier the more loving I am to myself.” On set, she’s been bruised by comments that crew members have made about her body, which triggered bulimic impulses. “I’d thought it was the comments that were making me have those relapses. But now I realise it wasn’t the comments – it was because I was laughing them off. I wasn’t telling people to stop talking to me like that. I was saying it later, through the sideways expression of the eating disorder. I wanted to be liked. I wanted them to think I was a legend!”

In Living, working with Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, she suddenly felt, she says, “empowered. She had agreed costumes for my character, Margaret. And then I walked in and didn’t suit them, so she just scrapped them, because I wasn’t an idea, or a sketch any more – I was a real person. Whereas in the past, I’ve been made to feel like you had to change to fit into these roles and clothes. And if you didn’t, it was some kind of failing.” Today, she tells the crew: she doesn’t want any comments made about her body, and she asks them to write her measurements down silently, rather than call numbers across the room. “Sometimes a person is so desensitised to people’s bodies that they forget that the actor is standing there, in the hands of a stranger. You become an object, you become a mannequin.”

That’s one of the adjustments she’s learned to make in the four years she’s been working on screen. Another is how to be her own intimacy coordinator. A large part of Sex Education involved navigating sex scenes; in Cabaret “I learned, you can actually do these things yourself. It’s just about being brave enough to go, ‘Are we going to actually kiss in this rehearsal?’ You have the conversation. ‘We’re going to agree touch? We’re agreeing touch now.’” We practise over our little coffees. “We’re agreeing touch now.”

When Cabaret was first performed in 1966, it was designed to shock: its original director described it as “a parable of contemporary morality”. This production leans into its darkness – Weimar decadence, sexuality, Jewish pain and the rise of Nazism. “I used to think history was linear,” Wood says. “I used to think things just got progressively better. That’s what we were taught, right? But really, I can see now, it goes up and down.” To learn more about Sally Bowles, she’s been learning about sin. “People really fucked up that word. In its original sense, it means ‘to miss the point of human existence’. Like you’ve forgotten what life is about, like empathy, compassion, love. But egos took the word over and used it as a way to shame people, so they’re robbed of their power, like: ‘It’s a sin to be gay.’ They just make it fucking up!” She shakes her head, a little camply.

The other night she missed her train. It was one of those grim late-night commutes between Newport and London, and Wood was stuck, and “tired, and frazzled”. While she was waiting near the station in an empty restaurant, a waiter looked after her in a way that, she realised later, she felt was profound. It wasn’t what he did, so much, “though he did fill up my water bottle and charge my phone. And lit a little candle on my table,” as the way he did it, as if he’d “seen me”. “Sometimes it’s just being present with someone, isn’t it? Things don’t need to be said.” She mentions this because, “As an actor, you get looked at a lot. But you don’t actually get seen a lot. And that’s fine: a stranger who watches you on TV is going to project what they need on to you. They’re going to see what they need to see.” But that relationship has been a tricky one for Wood to navigate.

For a while, she wouldn’t leave her house. “If you’ve been bullied as a kid, like I was at school, the feeling of being noticed wherever you go… it was not healthy for me.” Sometimes fans would want selfies, other times they’d secretly record her on the tube, and then after season two of Sex Education (which Netflix reported was watched by more than 40m a month), some would want to talk, really talk, about their experiences of sexual assault. “When you’re in fight-or-flight mode, you can’t really differentiate. So I stayed at home for a long time. A long time.”

Friends would come round sometimes in the evenings, and early in the mornings she’d go to work, but she would feel anxious about going to the shops, or walking down the street. “I felt like I was failing. Constantly letting these people down, like I didn’t give them enough. But,” she gestures towards the ghost of therapy, hovering above her shoulder, “of course I didn’t, because I was just trying to go about my day! And I’m not a guru – I’m just a normal person.” She grins, apologetically. “It’s funny, people like me get into acting because it helps them in some way. It helps you express yourself, or gives you a shield from ‘bad things’.” When she was a child, her father struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. Her parents split up, and her stepfather paid for her to start at a private school, where she was bullied, and crushingly unhappy. Then, “I can remember the day where I made the strategic choice, in year seven, to change.” In a drama class, while she was playing freeze tag, a teacher nodded at her, “Do it.” “And I remember thinking, I’m at a crossroads. I can either carry on how I am and be really miserable or I can get up and do a funny character that might make people laugh.” It worked. It worked really well, maybe too well.

In her 20s, as she started to find success, odd things started happening. She describes it as if the paper screen between her two selves started ripping. She went into an audition, “Doing this quite sad scene. But… I was inconsolable, to the point where the casting director turned off the camera, and was like, ‘Aimee, what is going on?’ I couldn’t get through the scene. I was just sobbing.” It happened again, when she sat down with a director she was excited to work with: she cried through the entire meeting. “The dissonance… all day I was presenting a character that was happy, easy, breezy and I’d only let myself show sadness when I was ‘acting’. Which is why, now,” she sighs, as if at the end of a film, “I let myself cry whenever I need to.”

It always feels like an awkward privilege, meeting someone at this cracked open moment in their lives, when they will cry freely and talk about love. “It’s helpful to identify your story, but then,” she says, “the next thing is learning how to let it go. I’ve realised, in my childhood there were great things, among the shit. When my mum and dad were getting divorced it was very turbulent. But I got to live with my nana and grandad for a year, and it was the best time. And even with my dad, there are moments that were kind of beautiful in what was quite an extreme situation. Like, it was chaos when he was living at his friend’s house, but we’d stay up watching brilliant movies until 4am. All these things that maybe pushed me into negative behaviours, I’m now looking back at with a lot more… softness.”

For all the trickiness that fame has brought to her life, the work itself continues to thrill and shape her. She takes her characters home and nurses them like little birds and by the time the job is finished she’s always changed by them. “I love them. And by loving things about them, you start being like, ‘Oh, maybe I can get permission to love that about myself, too.’” Her character in Sex Education allowed Wood to laugh at herself. Her character in Living helped her “seize the day”. “And playing Sally Bowles is good for me because her relationships are, well, the judgmental way to see it is dysfunctional, but they’re also fucking beautiful. It’s made me want to take a step back and now I see my family as people, instead of like, ‘Mum and Dad’, which are words that have so much weight to them.”

In past interviews she’s avoided talking about “family stuff”. I wonder how she’s felt talking about it today. She winces. “I regret talking about it in the past, because I didn’t have a filter. But,” she’s realised recently, “just because something’s complicated doesn’t mean it’s bad.” She takes a long breath. We’ve been sitting in this diner through two lunch services: couples have come and gone, behind her I was dimly aware of a Hollywood actor finishing a burger, and then it was just us, and two waiters politely cleaning. “A lot of my pain was appropriate. But I can’t spend my whole life feeling like it wasn’t fair, because then I won’t have a relationship with people who I love. If we’re fixed in that story, then we’re just stuck. So at the moment I’m like: let’s make new stories.”

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