Will Gao on Heartstopper season 2, touring with Wasia Project and East Asian representation
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Will Gao on Heartstopper season 2, touring with Wasia Project and East Asian representation

Jun 23, 2023

By Xuanlin Tham

“I just worry about the rust,” William Gao says.

We’re standing in front of a table that looks like it’s been ripped from the pages of a Bauhaus furniture catalogue. The whole thing is walnut wood: panels form an open shelf in the centre, dividing the tabletop into three sections. Its maker’s name is carved subtly into the dark grain: W.H.G., the actor’s initials. “The stereo is gonna be here. Then, speaker, speaker, turntable in there,” Gao says, pointing to the different compartments. “And I can turn it into a studio setup, if I want.”

I meet Gao – who plays Tao Xu on the mega-hit queer coming-of-age Netflix series Heartstopper – in a London basement that feels unfixed in time. We venture into a dimly lit cornucopia of reclaimed wood, piled high with ornate bookcases, antique chairs mourning for missing legs, and an organ so battered its exposed hammers curl outwards like a steampunk flower in bloom. Church pews stand tall on their sides, a postmodern forest of dead trees.

Coat, £6,490, sweater, £1,450 and trousers, £890, Valentino. Boots, £1,180, Valentino Garavani.

“I’ve been away for a few weeks, but I was like, let’s do the interview here, so I get to come back to the workshop,” Gao says, ducking beneath beams as we return to his workstation. For about five months, Gao has been taking classes here, a community interest company in Highgate that teaches carpentry to all, but especially welcomes the young or disenfranchised. His woodwork group includes an Afghanistan veteran sniper, but otherwise, no one really talks about what they do – just what they’re making.

By Douglas Greenwood

“You know we’re right next to Karl Marx’s grave?” Gao asks. I tell him you have to pay to enter, and we stare out at the cemetery, contemplating the ironic posthumous fate of private property’s greatest enemy. Gao says he likes to think he’s looking out at Karl Marx while he’s sanding wood.

People come to wood for the solace that only working steadily with your hands will grant you: not so much an emptiness or a silence, but a fullness chosen on your own terms. For the two hours a week he spends here, Gao – thrust into the kind of dizzying fame few other 20-year-olds can relate to – can “leave everything at the door,” he says. “Zone out, and zone into something else.”

Gao’s table is infuriatingly impressive for a maiden project. Once he brings it home, he “might not be able to move around the apartment, but this is the sexy thing,” he says, gesturing. The whole gorgeous affair rests on hairpin legs: sleek, U-shaped bends of metal, which, alas, are rusty.

“It’s all fun meeting for a coffee, but it’s a bit generic,” Gao says, turning back to look at me with a conspiratorial smile. “And I need your help.”

Jacket, £1,840 and trousers, £1,070, Prada.

Critically acclaimed for its joyous, sensitively told story, Heartstopper is based on the bestselling graphic novels by Alice Oseman, and follows the romance between two students at an all-boys’ school. Gao’s character Tao Xu is the stubborn “token straight friend” among its close-knit gang of queer misfits; the actor recalls feeling like a misfit at school, too. Raised in South London, he detested the old-fashioned prep school he attended until the age of 13. Its expectations of boyhood and masculinity were “distorted”, he says, built around sport, never the arts. His closest friends growing up were those he sang alongside as part of a professional boys’ choir, with whom he toured China and Japan.

By Jack King

Heartstopper’s new season, like the graphic novels, begins to explore darker emotional territory: grief, eating disorders, painful fallouts between friends. “Season one was beautiful, but life comes with a mix of joy and deep tragedy, and it’s important to show that,” Gao says, as we scour the rust off his table’s legs with steel wool. “It’s not all fluffy-duffy.” He cites a scene in the season’s final episode, where Tao reckons with familial grief, as his favourite.

It’s a much bigger role now, and Gao’s a full-fledged romantic lead. As the dynamic between Tao and Elle (played by Yasmin Finney) teeters dramatically between platonic and romantic, Gao had fun going for “that awkward Englishness, that excruciating flirting.” He slips into character: “Hi, uh, you look nice,” he says, stumbling impressively over a five-syllable sentence. “But in the background, he’s like, Kill me now.”

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Jumper, £1,000, trousers, £1,360, shoes, £810 and bag, £1,230, Gucci.

Gao’s life can be cleaved into “before Heartstopper” and “after” – recent exploits include jet-setting off to Paris Fashion Week to sit in the front row at Kenzo, and launching the show’s season two trailer in front of thousands at London Pride – but he speaks about the turbulence of the past three years with serenity. When I remark on how measured he seems about it all, Gao laughs. “You’ve entered a space of my actual existence,” he says. “Woodwork reminds me of just living life, and it doesn’t need to be in front of a crowd.”

I ask a question that feels inadequate: what did it feel like? That sudden, tectonic shift into being watched by millions of people overnight?

“It was a lot more overwhelming than we thought it was at the time,” Gao says, slowly. “I was very excited. But I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t think it was gonna be as big as it was. I didn’t know it was going to be a culture shift.”

It only properly hit Gao last August. Alongside Heartstopper castmate Joe Locke, he was at the Donmar Warehouse in London performing a play called The Trials, about a jury of young people sentencing their elders to execution for the climate crisis. Gao loved the “brutal” script. “I was almost putting myself on trial while doing it. It was an angry play, radical.” But people weren’t coming to see the play so much as they were coming to see Gao and Locke. Security measures were put in place, because “it was so intense – not in a bad way, just in a way,” Gao says.

Shirt, £695, trousers, £695 and beaded scarf, £1,195, Simone Rocha.

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“The impact it was having on me was slightly negative,” he admits. He experienced spiralling anxiety going straight from the play into filming Heartstopper season two. “I had a bit of a moment in September.”

Gao confided in his castmates: Locke, Tobie Donovan, and Kit Connor. (Last year, Connor’s own claustrophobic experience of post-Heartstopper fame involved him being pressured to come out as bisexual after being accused of “queerbaiting”.) “They got me through,” Gao says. “Kit and Tobie came up to me every day and were like, ‘You good? If you need to step out, step out.’”

Gao is conscious that the Heartstopper cast have become generational role models of some kind, but he’s also acutely aware that it’s a lot for a group of young people to bear. “I’m not shrugging it off, but I’m also not taking it too seriously,” he says. “That’s really important for me. It’s a big, big show, and it’s doing really well, but all of us, we’re just such children, you know.” He smiles, shaking his head. “So childish.”

By Zak Maoui

So while filming season two was difficult, “moments of joy did prevail,” Gao tells me. One morning on set, Gao, Locke, Connor, and Donovan were filming the scene where Tao reveals that he and Elle have kissed, to the homies’ raucous delight. “I don’t know what it was, but we just could not stop laughing,” Gao recalls. “It was three hours of bloopers in every shot. On my close-up, I’d look over at Kit, and Kit would be fully crying. The DOP was pissed.” He smiles, quietly revelling in the memory. “She was pissed.”

What he loves most about his role on Heartstopper is its playfulness. “I think the character invites that,” he says. “I have the freedom to bring the goofy side of him out.” His performance is full of physical comedy, something Gao attributes to his love of Rowan Atkinson. Perhaps it’s the infamous hair, too, which was “absolutely slandered online” when the show came out.

“What did you think of the hair?” Gao shoots at me when I bring up the makeover Tao finally – thankfully – receives in season two. I say it reminded me of Pleakley from Lilo & Stitch. “I see that,” he says, thoughtful. “But I’ve also heard Amélie.”

Jacket, £2,900, trousers, £1,735 and skateboard, £1,720, Louis Vuitton.

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When Gao auditioned for Heartstopper in 2020, the world still shuttered by the pandemic, he had no way to grasp the magnitude of what would follow. A theatre kid who dreamed of spending his 20s doing Shakespeare, he had never intended to do screen acting. But then he came across an open call for Heartstopper on the National Youth Theatre’s website, for an East Asian actor, specifically. Gao’s general demeanour can be described by that oft-repeated word of his, “chill”, but he grows animated: “I was like, What the fuck? They never ask for an East Asian actor.”

I ask if it really is still that bad. “The industry is just shocking,” he replies. “I went to a party two months ago, and it was great: it was Vogue and BAFTA, and everyone from TV was there. But for a good part of it, I thought I was the only East Asian. It was really sobering.” Gao’s parents have been incredibly supportive of his career, but his dad harboured some anxieties. “He knew how shit representation is here. He was like, ‘I don’t want my son going in as a half-Chinese actor into an industry that won’t be very representative.’”

“Heartstopper really was a knock –” Gao stops himself. “A rock in the – the, uh. There’s a saying!” He laughs. “You have a train, and it changed tracks in a direction I wasn’t expecting. It wasn’t in a good way, or a bad way. Just a way,” he says, for the second time.

Not going to drama school meant Gao’s other artistic pursuits had time to flourish: namely Wasia Project, the band he formed with his younger sister, Olivia Hardy. He describes their music as a “lens”. “Everything we see, all these different references” – jazz, classical music, ABBA and The Beatles – “we filter it through, and beam it out as pop.” Their debut EP how can i pretend? “really kicked off” around the same time as Heartstopper – and what was initially only a creative outlet will now see the siblings go on a UK-wide tour next February.

Camera photographer's own.

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Between working on Wasia Project and shooting Heartstopper’s second season, Gao’s also wrapped two indie films: a psychological thriller set in Oxford called Breakwater, and Sunrise, starring Guy Pearce. Gao’s tepid on the latter, which had him playing “an apologetic East Asian getting beaten up at school.” The character’s mother is named Yan; Tao Xu’s mother on Heartstopper is also named Yan. “And both the characters’ dads have died,” Gao observes. “People aren’t aware of the little parallels, the little stereotypes. I was like, I’ll do the film, because it was Guy Pearce. But the script? Nah.” He clicks his tongue, makes a cut-off motion at his neck. “If you want to really start shape-shifting, you gotta write, you gotta direct. We have to work doubly as hard to get to where a Caucasian actor would get,” Gao says.

By Iana Murray

But his frustration is constructive, aimed with precision. “In the next three years, I want to write my own show that champions East Asian artists: a genuine story, not stereotypes. ‘Cause I’m kind of fed up,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m not gonna wait around. If people aren’t gonna start changing, I’m gonna initiate. I need to go into other mediums of art to get to where I want.”

We hear a voice call out. “You guys actually done any work?” It’s Honey, who runs the workshop, and who tried to convince me to take a church pew home on the train earlier (“It wouldn’t be the first time”). “William, I just found a ring in there that looks like something you would wear,” she adds. (It says “FUCK”.) Honey gives us beeswax and two frilly socks to polish the wood with.

The table’s walnut grain begins to gleam enticingly. I think about how it used to be a wardrobe somewhere in this basement, discarded by someone who had no idea what Gao would make of it. “You can just find shit here,” he said when we first met, grinning.

I ask Honey if she thinks Gao is gifted at carpentry, because I certainly do.

“I think William is gifted at anything he turns his mind to,” she replies.

“Get that on tape!” Gao whispers.

The interview and photoshoot for this story were conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Photography by Santi de HitaStyling by Angelo MitakosGrooming by Kenny Leung at Carol Hayes Management using Charlotte Tilbury and Color Wow

Salvatore Ferragamo.“I just worry about the rust,” William Gao says.Valentino.Valentino Garavani.Prada.Critically acclaimed for its joyous, sensitively told story,Gucci.Gao’s life can be cleaved into “before Heartstopper” and “after”Simone Rocha.Louis Vuitton.When Gao auditioned for Heartstopper in 2020,The interview and photoshoot for this story were conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.Santi de HitaAngelo MitakosKenny Leung