A role on one of Netflix’s hottest teen shows put him on the express train from obscurity to stardom, a journey he continues to process to this day. Now, the 20-year- old English actor is preparing for the release of Heartstopper’s highly anticipated second season, performing with his sister in their band Wasia Project, and managing to still find time for life’s simpler pleasures.
GEN V: How’d you get cast in your role for Heartstopper?
WILLIAM GAO: One day during lockdown, I was studying for my A-levels and my exams. I wasn’t doing any drama or any performing [because of the pandemic]—I was doing as much music as I could—but I looked at the National Youth Theatre casting board and I saw a call for Heartstopper, a new TV show. I thought, “Oh, this looks really fun.” There was a casting brief, so I auditioned.
I sent in a tape and about four weeks later I had the part. I was planning to go to drama school or to university to study music and to continue my education, but I was like, “Wow, I’ve got this job that could go on for three or four years. I’m just gonna go for it.” It introduced me to the world of screen acting, which at first felt a bit daunting, but I really got into it.
GEN V: Can you tell me about filming the second season, this time knowing that there are millions of fans waiting to see it?
WG: I think the pressure really surrounds the screenings, the premiere, and its coming out. There’s a pressure in those moments and in anticipation of the “after effects” of the work we did. I find things like being in the public eye, or some realm of the public eye, quite strange. It’s something that you can never really get used to.
GEN V: How do you relieve some of these pressures?
WG: It’s easy to get caught up in work-related things, so spending time alone in nature is important for me. I’ve always loved nature. Nature’s the best thing that I can have access to on a day-to-day basis. I enjoy my walks and going swimming, doing other things and living my life—doing all the things I really want to do, not just the work things.
GEN V: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with fashion? WG: One designer who I have deep respect for is Nigö, what he does with Kenzo, and how his journey and career have developed to this point. I also have real respect for other artists and designers who I love, like Steven Stokey-Daley. I’m a really big fan of what Daniel W. Fletcher has been doing. I have a pair of his trousers and I just can’t stop wearing them.
GEN V: You flew to the U.S. and came to the GEN V photo shoot without anyone from your team, which is quite brave. Do you not get nervous?
WG: I need to preach this, because I used to get really frustrated when other people said, “Oh, I don’t get nervous. I never get nervous. I can just go on stage.” Every time I go on stage, before every time the camera rolls, I’m really nervous. I’m even nervous right now, because next week my band, Wasia Project, is playing three festivals and I really wanna make them the best shows. Managing the nerves is a big skill. It’s a skill of the mind and I’m still constantly working at it. I work on it every day.
Photography Jack Bridgland
Fashion Nicola Formichetti
Creative Director Stephen Gan
Editor-In-Chief Mathias Rosenzweig
DP Mynxii White
Makeup Sarah Tanno (Forward Artists)
Hair Bobby Eliot (The Wall Group)
Manicure Jolene Brodeur (The Wall Group) using APRÉS NAIL
Executive producer Dana Brockman (viewfinders)
Production manager Frank DeCaro (viewfinders)
Producers Robbi Chong, Din Morris (viewfinders)
Digital technician DJ Dohar
Lighting technician Ryan Hackett
Photo assistants Adam Matijasevic, Ricky Steel
Stylist assistant Brianna Dooley
Makeup assistants Phuong Tran, Ghost
Hair assistant Arbana Dollani