It’s Aimee Lou Wood’s moment, and we are living in it. After her breakout and BAFTA award–winning performance as her namesake character in Netflix’s Sex Education, the 27-year-old is now making her big-screen debut opposite Bill Nighy in Living, which is being dubbed an Oscar-tipped performance for the lead actor.
Set in the 1950s, the movie follows an unlikely friendship that blossoms when Nighy’s Mr. Williams, a veteran civil servant, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and is inspired by his young co-worker Margaret, played by Wood, to take life by the horns in his final days. Cut to Mr. Williams swapping the 9-to-5 for getting drunk in Brighton and blowing his life savings dining at Fortnum & Mason. This unlikely friendship transcended into the off-screen world, too, thanks to Wood’s ability to suppress her inner fangirl during her encounters with the Love Actually legend, someone she has admired since childhood.
“I could keep it together when it came to acting because his performance was so transformative, but when he said ‘Should we have pasta?’ and we’d be hanging out, I’d think, ‘He’s talking to you. Just stay cool—stay cool! That’s Bill Nighy. That's Bill Nighy,’” she confesses whilst calling me from Wales, where she is filming season four of Sex Education.
Photo:Laura McCluskey; STYLING: Victoria Beckham shirt; Wolford bodysuit; 7 for All Mankind jeans; Daphine earrings
It’s not hard to see why Nighy would be so keen to go for pasta with Wood. Her warmth and vulnerability both on- and off-screen are extraordinary. Her storylines as Aimee Gibbs in Sex Education have helped to normalize conversations around female masturbation and given space to survivors of sexual assault. In Living, she reminds us all what is truly important. This is the fifth time I have interviewed Wood, and each chat provides something new. She has introduced me to useful terms such as “a vulnerability hangover”—used to describe the anxiety that crept in after her first-ever on-screen performance involving a sex scene—and shared deeply honest discussions about her journey with body dysmorphia, mental health, and anxiety. The hundreds of Instagram messages I received after my last interview with the actress showed the true power of Wood’s nature. She has the ability to make everyone feel a little less alone in their struggles, and her 2.3 million Instagram followers and I can attest to that.
That quality is rare, and it has been honed through self-work and therapy. Now, Wood is learning to embrace the concept of thriving rather than existing. She is inspired by Living, where the vital message is to live the life you want, not the one that is thrust upon you by your own or society’s restrictions. “Mr. Williams lives his life by the rules that he’s made up. He’s followed them to absolute precision, and it has not made him happy. Only when he gets the diagnosis does he go, ‘Fuck it!’” Wood says. “I think people are scared when they say ‘fuck it’ that it’s going to go to shit. We are scared it is going to invite laziness or lethargy. Actually, it can invite in life itself, and we can get so much more done by being a bit more ‘fuck it’ because we’re not so drained by thinking about being perfect and being right.”
Photo:Laura McCluskey; STYLING: Givenchy blazer and skirt; Casadei shoes; Daphine earrings; Orelia necklace
For Wood, that less rigid way of life is deployed to tell the negative voice in her head to sling its hook too. “My negative inner voice is like Captain von Trapp before he’s softened … like a really horribly perfectionist, weird, strict parent,” she says. “But when you learn to tell your thoughts to fuck off, you can let yourself in. In the past, I used to tell myself off, but I needed to tell the bad thoughts off. I got it wrong. I was shouting at the wrong person. With my therapist, a lot of her advice is to say, ‘Fuck off.’”
Building boundaries and enjoying the moment have been hard for Wood to navigate in the aftermath of overnight fame. She went from being a young born-and-bred Stockport girl to graduating from the prestigious drama school RADA to starring in one of Netflix’s biggest shows. She admits it’s been difficult to “process the extreme nature of everything.”
“I’m trying to escape the clutches of taking myself too seriously, which people never thought was a problem for me because I seem very silly,” she adds. “But I’m actually taking myself incredibly seriously and holding myself to the most ridiculously high standards because I’ve done a lot of mining for truth, meaning, the reasons why I am the way I am and the reasons why I have done certain things. And I am a perfectionist. Now, I need to live. But when you’ve been in survival mode for a lot of your life and you are coming out of it, it can be really exhausting.”
Photo:Laura McCluskey; STYLING: Gucci suit, shirt and tie; For Art's Sake glasses
Recently, listening to meditation coach Tara Brach as well as Esther Perel’s podcast Where Should We Begin?—which is basically a chance to eavesdrop on other people’s therapy sessions—has helped Wood to find perspective and be truly present in every moment. “If you are hanging out with a friend, you actually have to train your brain to soak in those moments [and] go, ‘I’m going to sit in this goodness.’ It’s scary for me to do so because my habit is to go straight to ‘Okay, but what do I need to worry about next? What do I need to obsess over next?’ It’s almost like the more good things that happen, the more extreme it feels, the more that amygdala [the brain’s centre for emotional behaviour] goes, ‘Threat, threat, threat.’ … Everything is heightened, and I just want to just be reclusive and not do anything,” she says.
Equally, whilst Wood has learnt the power of talking and sharing, she also recognises that she doesn’t have to talk about her innermost thoughts all the time or be everything to everyone. “Sometimes, I talk to avoid feeling the feelings, but actually, sometimes, I just need to sob or laugh. I don’t need to talk about myself all the time,” she says. This is where another prime piece of advice from her therapist rings true: “My therapist keeps saying, ‘Keep it pithy in your responses to things. Try and only say one sentence. If someone asks you to do something and you start overexplaining, delete that whole text, and say what you want to say in a sentence. Get to the core of what you’re actually saying.’ For me, keeping it pithy has really helped.”
So keeping it pithy and present could well be a new daily mantra for Wood. “I really tried to be present for the press tour of Living. I really just tried to enjoy it,” she says. “There were points where I was honestly shouting at myself in my hotel room when I started to get a thought that could turn into an obsessive one. I was literally shouting ‘Fuck off’ at myself. I sounded mad, but it actually helped because I was physicalising it and verbalising the fuck off [and saying,] ‘You know what? No, I am not in danger here. This is really to be enjoyed.’”
Photo:Laura McCluskey; STYLING: Stella McCartney coat; Russell & Bromley boots
Wood has certainly enjoyed “playing a bit of a character” on the Living worldwide press tour, which has seen her walk the red carpets of the film festivals in Salt Lake City, Venice, Toronto and London. She has picked up rave reviews along the way, and styled by Leith Clark—who helped turn Keira Knightley and Lucy Boynton into fashion darlings—Wood has served us cuteness in Celine and even a custom bejeweled Miu Miu moment too. Would teenage Aimee recognize her now? “Do you know what? I really admire young Aquarius Aimee for just trying shit out. I used to cringe over it,” she says. “The worst one was when I gave in to a ‘Frankie Says Relax T-shirt and purple skinny jeans’ stage. I also had a denim jacket that was covered in loads of badges. I used to go to Afflecks Palace in Manchester and get Blondie badges and The Ramones badges. Those are the [fashion moments] that really cringe me out—it was me trying to be someone else because I fancied the indie boys. Whenever I tried to impress someone else, I really messed up, because I’m not good at imitating things.”
It’s been a winding road to finding confidence for Wood, and imitation has given way to Wood harnessing the power of her uniqueness. Notable early performances include reciting a self-penned song called “Egg,” where she just sang the title word over and over, and becoming a 6-year-old playwright. “I remember writing a play and having my PE kit on. I was the narrator, and I performed it for family and friends, but I was very, very shy,” she says.
“It’s weird because I used to do all this stuff at home, and then I would go to this youth theatre, and I could never audition for the parts. I remember we were going to do Annie,” she continues. “I practiced my audition at home, and mum was like, ‘If you could get up and do it the way you’ve been doing it here in the theatre, you’ll get that part.’ On the day, everyone was singing. Everyone was auditioning, and I was thinking, ‘I could get this part.’ And then I couldn’t stand up. I got the worst stage fright. The teacher was really mean, and she was like, ‘Come on, Aimee. Are you going to do it? Is she going to do it? Are we finally going to hear her speak?’ I stood up. I just shook my head and sat down. She was doing a kind of ‘Oh, I knew it’ vibe. I remember feeling this feeling of it—like an injustice.”
Laura McCluskey; STYLING: Jil Sander dress, skirt and boots; Susan Caplan necklace
Further down the line, Wood managed to dig deep and excel in an improvised drama exercise during an English lesson at secondary school. “I did this funny Father Christmas character. Everyone was laughing, and it felt so good,” she recalls. “Everyone was shocked because they were like, ‘This kid does not speak!’ From then on, I had completely broken the seal, and you could not shut me up in lessons. You could not stop me from interrupting the class. It was like a lot of things in my life—me going from one extreme to the other and then finding a balance.”
What would that unconfident Aimee who was too scared to audition for Annie say to her now? “I think she’d be like, ‘What? I thought we were going to be a novelist! What have you done? You’re supposed to be Virginia Woolf! You’re definitely supposed to be behind the scenes.’ … She was the girl who loved getting a dictionary out, going through every word, and putting every word into context in a sentence. But I mean, I think she would find it pretty bloody cool, to be honest,” she says.
As our time wraps up and she heads back to filming Sex Education, I ask about what’s in store for season four. “What I love about Aimee this season is that she hasn’t got any other comfort blankets around at the start. Maeve is in America. She hasn’t got Steve anymore. She’s starting a new school, so she’s very much on her own. Although I feel sorry for her in that way, it also makes her go, ‘Okay, who am I without being the best friend or being the girlfriend?’ What she discovers is actually really interesting and unexpected,” she says. “A lot of this series is about her discovering she is clever, and she’s been made to feel like she isn’t because her brain works in a different way. She’s always been the ongoing joke because she says the wrong word and she’s got her head in the clouds, and this season, she goes, ‘Actually, it does make me feel a bit shit that people don’t think I have things to offer.’ It’s really gorgeous that she’s being vulnerable about that, figuring out she’s got so much to say and so much to offer.”
Aimee Lou Wood is certainly someone who has a lot to offer.
Living is in cinemas from 23 December.
Stylist: Remy Farrell
Styling Assistant: Florrie Alexander
Makeup Artist: Emily Wood at Creatives Agency
Manicurist: Ami Streets
Creative Director: Alexa Wiley
Editor in Chief: Hannah Almassi
Producer: Samantha Obalim