“Sorry about that weird fart noise, it was my fridge, I promise.” There are very few celebrities you’d feel comfortable even saying those words aloud to. But Aimee Lou Wood is different.
“I did think it sounded like an animal,” the Sex Education star replies, unfazed by the prolonged groaning noises emitted by my fridge during our phone call, and deeply unbothered by the myriad technical difficulties that befall us as we try and fail to talk over Zoom.
Finally up and running, Wood and I chat about both of our experiences navigating virtual therapy sessions during the pandemic. Lockdown has, for her, been revelatory in many respects — not least because it’s offered her the chance to sit back and take stock. “When I was going to therapy back in the real world, I would go in and have an amazing session and I’d think: ‘Wow, we really got somewhere there,'” she tells me. “But then everything would be slightly undone when I left and went straight into going to do my play.” At the time lockdown was announced, Wood was starring in Uncle Vanya at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End. “I’d just distract myself and I wouldn’t really let things sit and percolate and sit with them.”
“Whereas in lockdown, there’s no other option but to sit with things and really kind of reflect, and absorb, and process. So I’ve definitely been catching up on a lot of processing that probably needed to be done many years ago. I haven’t actually had time to, to kind of just have a pause and I think,” she adds.
As for the pressure of using the pandemic to be productive, Wood doesn’t plan to emerge from lockdown with a novel or play under her belt. “This isn’t a writer’s retreat,” she says. “My friends were like, ‘I feel so shit about myself because I haven’t written a one-man show,'” she tells me. “Well, guys, you know, we are living in a bloody pandemic. We don’t know what the hell that means because we’ve never experienced anything like it before.” Wise words that, frankly, many of us should pay attention to. “We’re stuck inside and it’s stressful and scary and new, so kind of just be nicer and kinder to yourself,” she adds.
It’s this compassion for herself and for others that really shines through onscreen in her Emmy-worthy portrayal of Aimee Gibbs in Sex Education, poignantly depicting the isolation of many young women’s private realities. In Season 2, Aimee’s sexual assault storyline was deeply moving and depressingly relatable to watch. Aimee gets on the bus with a homemade birthday cake she’s made for her best mate Maeve when she becomes aware of a presence behind her. “He’s wanking on me,” she yells out to a bus that’s packed full of people. Not a single person intervenes. It is utterly heartbreaking to watch.
Wood tells me the scene was more traumatic to film than she initially imagined when she first read the script. The way in which that scene is written speaks volumes about how women are conditioned to react to everyday violations.
“The fact that she puts on that brave face and goes on with this cake and says ‘Happy Birthday’ to Maeve, I just thought it was such good storytelling because it’s what so many of us do in those situations,” she says. “And actually, not even just put on a brave face, but don’t even allow yourself to go there, don’t even allow yourself to believe that what just happened to you even happened, you just sweep under the carpet.
“It’s just a kind of part of being a woman. ‘Boys will be boys’ kind of thing. And I think that’s what we really need to change is actually, no we need to talk about it more,” she adds. The fact that her storyline was able to elicit such productive conversations has been a tonic for Wood. She’s had conversations in the street and the shops about it, and scores of young people have messaged her on Instagram, including young men, who have reached out saying they “didn’t realise it was this bad” and apologising to her as if she’s the character. “We live in the same world but a very different world to our male friends,” she says. “Still, the thought is lovely. It’s kind of like, oh, you’re actually waking up to it.”
The storyline also led to constructive conversations with Wood and her own male friends, too. At the end of nights out when male friends have told her they’re scared or uneasy, she has talked to them about the fear women experience when going about their daily business in public places. “I always say to my male friends when they notice that feeling kind of uncomfortable or if it’s late at night and feeling a little bit scared, and they’ll be on guard if we’re on the way back from a night out or something and they’re kind of a little bit nervous,” she said.
“I’ll say that it’s literally how we feel all the time as women walking down the street,” she said. “No matter even if it’s broad daylight, we will be in fight or flight because we’ve been consistently taught through people’s behaviour that we’re not safe, even on a bus or walking down the street without someone shouting at us or following us.”
“I think what’s happening is that we’re reflecting real life a lot more onscreen.”
This awakening to the uncomfortable reality of women’s experience is no coincidence. With the arrival of Michaela Coel’s groundbreaking BBC series I May Destroy You, along with the BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, and, of course, Sex Education, mainstream pop culture is bringing powerful renderings of sexual violence, unpleasant sexual experiences, and conversations about consent to our living rooms. Are we entering a new age of television when it comes to portraying the reality of women’s sex lives, I asked Wood? “I really think we are. It feels very, very powerful right now,” she tells me. “I think that it’s shifting massively … I think what’s happening is that we’re reflecting real life a lot more onscreen.”
When she first got the scripts for Sex Education, Wood says she was like, “Oh my god, I’ve never seen that on TV.” It’s a feeling that’s shared, I’m sure, by many fans of the show. “This is real, rather than the sex scenes that we’ve been shown in the past. Like rough sex, there are so many sex scenes that you watched when you were younger and when you rewatch them as a grown-up and you go, ‘What the hell? This is dodgy as fuck.'”
Prior to Aimee Gibbs’s powerful Season 2 storyline, she made waves in the show’s radically realistic portrayal of female masturbation in Season 1. Wood also loves the way her character captures the way in which people re-enact in real life the acts they see in pornography — a phenomenon psychologists call sexual script theory. “What I loved about Aimee’s first ever scene is that she’s obviously gone and watched some porn, and she’s gone, ‘Right, I’ll pretend like I’m having an absolutely great time right now,’ even though she’s never masturbated, she doesn’t actually know what she wants,” says Wood.
“She doesn’t know her own body or own vagina, at all. But she’s just going, ‘Do you like my tits,’ she’s just repeating what she’s seen,” she adds. “And it’s not connected to any of her own desires, or what she actually wants. What she wants is validation and approval from the guy that she’s with.”
Talking to Wood, it’s plain to see her understanding of the gender dynamic at play both in her characterisation and her desire to portray young women’s realities. Wood tells me that the reason she thinks Aimee is so beloved is that her character is a kind of Everywoman. Aimee epitomises the universal state of being young and not-quite-sure-of-oneself, or not being the Cool Girl.