Aimee Lou Wood: ‘It can start to feel a bit like everyone owns a part of you’

As Sex Education returns to our screens, star Aimee Lou Wood talks to Shannon Mahanty about fame, heartbreak and letting yourself feel everything

Aimee Lou Wood

by Shannon Mahanty |

One of the last times Sex Education’s Aimee Gibbs (played by Aimee Lou Wood) appeared on our screens, she was surrounded by her girlfriends on the back of a school bus. It was the same bus she’d been too afraid to get on alone for weeks, after she was sexually assaulted on it earlier in the season. But, in sharing her story with her classmates, Aimee found a sense of strength and solidarity.

It was a real tear-jerker moment. A powerful demonstration of friendship that brilliantly ended the season last January. ‘But she didn’t just get on a fucking bus and feel fine,’ points out Aimee Lou Wood. ‘I knew that they wouldn't just drop [that storyline] in season three because Sex Education is so great at all that stuff. The assault was a part of her.’

For those who haven’t watched the Netflix teen drama, (and really, where have you been?) ‘all that stuff’ covers every formative sexual experience - good or bad - that a young person might go through. Set in an idyllic rural high school, students take their sexual concerns to an unofficial clinic run by classmates Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Maeve (Emma Mackey).

Aimee Lou Wood

Aimee opened season one with a no-holds-barred sex scene, though we later realise the character often faked orgasms and didn’t particularly enjoy sex. In season two, following the advice of Otis, she goes on a real journey of self-love, discovering the joys of masturbation. Then the bus incident happens, and her world is shattered.

‘I would say the new season is all about shame,’ says Aimee, ‘overcoming it, how it’s used as a tool to have control’. She can’t go into much detail, but the arrival of a new headmistress played by Jemima Kirke, best known as Jessa in Girls, sparks a huge shift within the school. Kirke’s character bans makeup and jewellery, enforces a strict uniform and makes students silently walk single-file down corridors. It’s worlds away from the Moordale School that fans know and love - one which its teenage students use as a playground to experiment and express themselves. ‘I think shame exists a lot within the schooling system,’ explains Aimee. ‘A lot of the time, teachers tell people that they're wrong, when actually they’re just being themselves.’

It can start to feel a bit like everyone owns a part of you

Back in 2019, Aimee’s character started off as an insecure hanger-on to the popular clique, but over two seasons she’s grown in confidence, focussing less on how to fit in, and more on how to be herself. It’s a powerful transformation, and the real Aimee won a BAFTA for her performance in season two. Lauded for its refreshing, frank approach to sex and the rich diversity of its cast, Sex Education has rapidly become one of Netflix’s most watched shows.

Like many of the cast, it was Aimee’s first on-screen role, and one that catapulted her to fame virtually overnight when premiered two years ago. ‘I think at first, I didn’t deal with that very well,’ she says. ‘I never thought that I was going to be in a show as big as Sex Education. It was quite a shock.’ She gets recognised a lot, and though most interactions are well-meaning, ‘it can start to feel a bit like everyone owns a part of you.’

Being recognised can be especially daunting given the intimate scenes that take place on the show. ‘I was at the pub once with Simone [Ashley] who plays Olivia and these guys on another table were shouting, "I've seen your tits!" Simone’s not a shrinking violet, if she thinks that someone is taking the piss out of her friend, she will go for you, she really inspires me in that way. So she called them out, she turned round and said, “How pathetic are you?” It was so withering, it was the perfect way to deal with them.’

Aimee Lou Wood

The cast clearly have a very tight bond, and Aimee was relieved to start resuming filming last August after the first lockdown. She says prior to social distancing rules and strict bubbles, she and castmate Ncuti Gatwa, who plays Eric, would stay up till the early hours of the morning talking; she also counts Emma Mackey as one of her best friends. ‘I love to be around people who make me feel like myself, which is really rare to find. I'm realising why, as people get older, their friendship group gets smaller and smaller; because you get pickier. I can't be sitting with a group of people that I'm not actually myself around; your time is the one thing you can't get back.’

Fans will know that for the first two seasons of Sex Education, Aimee was in a real-life relationship with her brief on-screen boyfriend Adam Gross, played by Connor Swindells. Last year they broke up, much to the dismay of fans. ‘I remember my friend saying the most helpful thing to me once about relationships. It was about how we often try to find out, “Who's the goodie and who's the baddie?” Sometimes it's just the combination of the two of you creating some unhealthy themes. We’d had some time apart because of work, and then we realised that maybe the relationship wasn’t serving us both. We still really love each other and respect each other. It was an okay breakup, it wasn’t dramatic.’

She’s enjoying being single. ‘I felt like a dam burst, then all of a sudden I was hurting, but I needed to be there, because I'd become a bit numb and it was nice to suddenly feel everything again. I find it hard when I'm in relationships to maintain my sense of who I am. I'm very independent, but I'm also quite impressionable. I can be taken away from myself quite easily, I kind of start betraying myself and compromising my integrity, to keep someone else happy. That's why it's really important for me to have time alone’.

At the time of her breakup, Aimee was starring in the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya. The run was cut short due to the pandemic, but after the first lockdown, the cast reunited a final time to record a filmed version of the show. The play ends with a powerful monologue delivered by Aimee’s character Sonya, and the sense of isolation that came from the lockdown, having no audience members and from her recent spell of heartbreak, helped her deliver her best rendition ever.

‘It annoyed me, because I hate it when people go, “Art is pain and you've got to be in pain.” I don't believe that's true. I don't think you should ever put yourself through heartache or stress because you think it's going to make you a better actor. However, it's what Glennon Doyle talks about in [her book] Untamed; I had "the Ache". We're all quite afraid of the Ache but it's always there. We distract ourselves from it, we go about our business and we don’t look into that Ache part of our lives, which is where all the deep stuff is; our emotion and our yearnings and all of that stuff. But then when you do go in, you realize there's nothing to be afraid of, because even though you might sob, it might hurt really bad, you still need to go there!’

Aimee may only be 26, but she’s full of wisdom and honesty, which she credits to spending time with people who make her feel good, therapy (‘It's like playing emotional detective and understanding why we are the way we are’) and never ‘compromising my integrity or stifling my own expression’. ‘We all need to express ourselves, but a lot of the time, you know, you turn inward, and you actually implode rather than explode,’ she says. ‘Some people explode, some people implode; I'm such a little masochistic imploder!’ Nowadays, she makes looking after herself a priority. ‘I think you can look at the past and know why something happened, but you can't change any of that; it’s how the story’s been written. What you can do is continue to write it, and so I always ask myself, how do you want to write the rest of your story?’

Next up, she has a small part in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain with Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy, before she plays the lead in Living, an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Ikiru, alongside Bill Nighy. ‘It was amazing’ she says, ‘it was so nice to have time. Because with TV, there’s so much adrenaline, you’ve got to get the scene done in five minutes, whereas there were times on Living where me and Bill would do a scene 19 times. I love that, because it's more like theatre; you’re going deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper.’

When it comes to Aimee’s story, there's still a lot to be written, but from where we’re sitting, it’s certainly shaping up to be a real page-turner.

Photo credits Photography: Dan Smith; Stylist: Michelle Duguid; Hair: Patrick Wilson; Makeup: Naoko Scintu; Styling Assistants: Remy Farrell; Creative Director: Carolyn Roberts; Shoot Producer: Anna Dewhurst

Image 1: Jacket, £1,420, shorts, £850, and loafers, £595, all Tod’s; T-shirt, £55, Toast; socks, £3.99, Calzedonia

Image 2: Blazer, £1,220, trousers, £720, navy body, £620, loafers, £595, and bag, £2,150, all Tod’s

Image 3: Dress, £4,650, Tod’s

Season three of Sex Education launches on Netflix on 17 September

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us