Written by Naomi May
From relationships to fame, Sex Education star Aimee Lou Wood has a few things she’d like to advise her younger self about.
When Aimee Lou Wood, Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) alumna and breakout star of Sex Education’s trio of hit seasons, was three, she kept singing Toni Braxton’s Un-Break My Heart to her dad’s friend, Kit.
“I’d add his name in and sing ‘Un-break my heart, Kit’ and would perform it in front of him,” she laughs over Zoom in her characteristically northern drawl. “I was a weird little kid who just had this wild overactive imagination. I don’t even think I realised that I loved performing.”
What started as a writing bug – Wood’s childhood in Stockport was populated with her writing plays and stories – soon matured into an adoration of performing. A move to London at 17 to pursue acting at RADA led to her falling in love with theatre, which, upon graduation, segued nicely into her audition for the role of Lily in Sex Education. It was at her third audition that the show’s casting directors told her they saw her more as Aimee.
“I initially thought, ‘I can’t be Aimee – she’s described as pretty and popular’ and I wasn’t sure that felt right,” Wood explains. “But as soon as I read the script, I got it. I mean, it’s literally me.”
Filming is underway for the highly anticipated fourth season of Sex Education, which sees Wood reprise her role of Aimee and Schitt’s Creek’s Dan Levy join the cast. For the third season alone, 55 million people tuned in to watch the show on Netflix.
Its success isn’t a surprise to Wood. “There’s a lot of catharsis to be found in Sex Education, and that’s the point – you know watching it that whatever you’re going through, it is all going to be OK. At the heart of the show is talking, it genuinely believes in therapy and healing and I think that makes people feel safe when they’re watching it,” she says.
Thanks to the success of the show, it’s not just TV roles that are coming her way. Her first lead film role in Living, with Bill Nighy, is set for release this year and is adapted from the 1952 Japanese film Ikiru, with a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go). There’s also another smaller role in The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy. Fashion brands are similarly clamouring for a piece of Wood’s ascending star.
She’s been the face of Levi’s and heads up Swarovski’s Note To Self campaign, a content series that features Wood expressing herself dressed in the brand’s jewels. In celebration of Wood’s candour and honesty, Stylist asked the actor what advice she would give to her younger self.
A note on… mental health
“Little Aimee had a bit of an issue with worrying about everyone else’s feelings and everyone else’s experiences over her own. So in a room of people the last person she would be thinking about would be herself, and I think she thought that was how she was going to keep everyone happy. She thought if she was constantly doing damage control and diffusing arguments and peace-keeping then everyone will be OK and then I’ll be OK.
“But actually what I’ve learned in life is that doing that made me disassociate, you know? I didn’t know what I felt, I actually didn’t have a clue. I used to find it so hard when people would ask, ‘How are you?’ because I would be like ‘Erm’ because I genuinely would not know how I was. I was so out of touch and out of the practice of checking in with myself.
“The film that I’m in, Living, is about being here, in life, and actually my character is so good at doing that and asking herself how she’s doing. And it’s not that she doesn’t care about the other people around her – she really does – but she always cares about herself equally. That’s what inspired me to take on this part, the fact that I have found that difficult. My character’s very kind, but it’s about being not just kind but kind to yourself and thinking about your own needs and if you’re not thinking about those, you can’t actually do it. You just exhaust yourself.
“I remember my friend said to me once – and it was a little bit harsh, but I needed to hear it – ‘You’re so concerned with pleasing everyone that you end up pleasing no one.’ It was so true and it was a hard thing to hear, but I spread myself so thin. So I’d say to little Aimee, go and sit by yourself and ask yourself how you’re feeling. Check in with yourself. And be here, in the now, because I didn’t do that for years. I didn’t have a clue how I felt at any moment in time and then obviously it all comes out sideways, doesn’t it? You act out those unfelt feelings, you act out in sideways manners. So yes – figure out how you actually feel.”
A note on… relationships
“Don’t be so afraid of losing relationships that you lose yourself. I think that’s the key thing. Lots of people can identify with a fear of abandonment because of childhood stuff. They say you’re either afraid of abandonment or engulfment in relationships; most people are fearful of both, but you tend to be more of one of them.
“Also, listen to Esther Perel early on because she is amazing – her relationship podcast is the best thing of all time. She’s transformed how I see and feel about relationships and I wish I’d listened to her at 17. She interviews couples and you can hear that one or both of them are so in their fear about the relationship that they don’t even know who they are any more. It’s quite similar to my first bit of advice – ask yourself how you’re feeling in this relationship rather than worrying about the relationship going away from you or losing the other person in some way.
“My friends and I have been speaking a lot recently about how a lot of the time in relationships, you feel like you have to earn people’s love, like it’s a task in some way – but actually, when you think too much like that you just kind of lose yourself.”
A note on… confidence
“This is a weird one because for so much of my life everyone has always said to me, ‘You’re so confident! I love your confidence!’ And I’ve always thought, wow, I don’t feel confident at all. But it’s like this thing that people say to me a lot and I actually do think now, at this age, there was something – even if it was just the tiniest little spark.
“But my confidence came from being good at things – not even things I was good at, but things I enjoyed doing. Because I loved writing so much and I loved using that as an outlet, it gave me confidence. I read so much and watched so many films that being able to talk about that meant that a lot of my confidence actually came from being curious about things. Because I was curious and interested, I always had something to talk about. But where my confidence would fail was if I walked into a room and didn’t feel like I’d done a ‘good job’ – whether that’s conversation or making people laugh – then I always felt like a huge failure. My confidence was just so fragile. My sense of self could be shaken so easily and it was all through how other people were receiving me. I have to go back to what little Aimee was really good at, and that’s knowing herself.
“To her, I’d say remember what you’re like now because I have lost that along the way. When I was little, I really had this sense of knowing who I was and knowing what I enjoyed and knowing what made me confidence. And then life happened and I forgot that, I forgot about that robust sense of self that I really had as a kid. I’ve kind of become less and less like myself as I’ve got older. Keep that deep sense of knowing about yourself.”
A note on… fame
“I’m still figuring that one out – I’ll probably be able to come back to her about that in five years or so. But I’d advise her to focus on the people that really know her and the people that really love her and the people that she really knows and she really loves. If you’ve got that close network around you, then all the rest of it can be something that can be sort of enjoyed. It can be something that’s just a bit fun and a bit silly. Then you can step out of it and back into your actual life.
“I reached a point where there was Aimee and there was Aimee Lou Wood and, at the moment, I feel like I’m feeding Aimee Lou Wood too much and I’m forgetting about Aimee, and that is who I am at my core. Aimee Lou Wood is also me, but she’s a character. Nobody can be known by that many people, not truly known anyway. My Instagram followers don’t know me, they have their own version of me, which is fine, but I need to remember who I actually am.
“Fame’s been a tricky one to navigate. My survival brain has computed being recognised as a threat and a danger. Even if it’s the loveliest people coming over to speak to me, the way that my brain works – my amygdala, which is the part of your brain that stores stress and trauma, is very overactive, which comes from dealing with things in childhood. Mine is so overactive, which means that I can compute things that are actually just fine as the end of the world and as huge danger. It’s served me at many points in my life but I listen to [meditation teacher] Tara Brach’s podcast and she advises people with that type of trauma brain to force yourself to soak in the positives. Our brains compute the threats more than they compute the other stuff. There was one point where I felt so reclusive, I didn’t want to leave the house because I was computing everything as danger but I’m getting out of that now. It’s actually fine. But it’s a work in progress.”
A note on…fashion
“I’d tell her that she’s an Aquarius so just let yourself be. There are going to be outfits that aren’t going to work, you’re going to try some things out – and that is OK because it is just your nature. For so long, I tried to be cool and, actually, that’s not me. I was the kid at school who just wanted to put badges on everything and wear purple tights. I loved all of the 80s films like Pretty In Pink and The Breakfast Club and I just wanted to look exactly like those kids. I went through a phase of trying to look and dress like Molly Ringwald and it was not executed so well, but I look back on that and think, ‘No, that’s actually really cool. Because I knew what I liked and what I wanted and I did it.’
“This is the thing with fashion: it’s about wearing what you want and what you like because that is what makes you cool. If it makes you feel good, then nothing’s really uncool. If it’s making you feel cool, then it’s cool. That’s how style icons operate too; they’re not really into trends, they’re just into their own style. Just go for it.”
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