Yasmin Finney is not at home. Instead, the 18-year-old Mancunian is holed up in a drab-looking hotel room. Is she in London for Tardis-related reasons, perhaps? “Well,” says Finney, stifling a smile and looking around with a sense of mild desperation. “Yes, that’s something that came out this week,” she finally replies, with the care of somebody who has likely signed an exceptionally rigorous confidentiality agreement or two.
It’s been a big week for the teenager, who only recently made her screen debut as trans schoolgirl Elle Argent in Netflix’s very sweet – and very popular – romcom Heartstopper. That show came with its own ardent fan following but, in the days before we speak, Finney ascended to a new level in the world of cult British TV. She is set to join Russell T Davies’ re-rebooted Doctor Who, starring Sex Education’s Ncuti Gatwa as the first black Doctor.
Finney’s character is called Rose, which was also the name of the companion famously played by Billie Piper in the mid-00s. The relevance of this is currently unknown. What we do know is that Finney was recently spotted filming scenes alongside David Tennant, AKA the Tenth Doctor, and Catherine Tate, AKA the Tenth Doctor’s companion, Donna Noble. In other words, there are more than enough cryptic developments to keep Whoniverse obsessives in a tizzy until the end product finally airs in 2023.
Finney squirms at the mere mention of Doctor Who – and what little she has to say about her casting only confuses matters further. “I didn’t know for a long time,” she says over Zoom, through curtains of sleek blond hair, “but I did know. I don’t want to give too much away.” My chances of gleaning anything meaningful seem practically zero. Was it mere coincidence that Davies’ mid-00s Doctor Who collaborator Euros Lyn also directed Heartstopper? “That was a huge coincidence!” exclaims Finney, before admitting that, actually, Lyn did recommend her to producers who were “looking for a trans girl”. But she doubts Lyn knew the precise nature of the project under discussion.
Regardless of how she got there, Finney is clearly in her element. She loved watching Tennant and Tate as a child – she was one when the former took over as the Timelord – and is finding it “a bit surreal to be acting with them. It’s insane and I’m learning so much.” She’s also very excited to be involved with this thrillingly progressive new Doctor Who era alongside Gatwa and, of course, returning showrunner Davies, the writer who has almost single-handedly made British TV a more queer-friendly (and straightforwardly better) place, with such shows as It’s a Sin, Years & Years and Queer As Folk.
Finney fully appreciates Davies’ significance: “I am in awe of the fact that I’ve been seen by such a legend.” In fact, her only source of stress has been a very pleasant one: “I was worried about having two huge fanbases following me and whether they’d get along. But I think it’s going pretty well so far!”
Reckoning with internet fanbases is nothing new for Finney: she had one before she was famous, thanks to a popular TikTok account she started in school and used to document her trans experience. Now, thanks to Heartstopper – a hit for Netflix, which last week commissioned two further seasons – her following is gargantuan and intensely communicative (she has 1.7m followers on TikTok and 1.3m on Instagram). The series is based on Alice Oseman’s cult internet comics, first published in 2016, about two schoolboys who fall in love. Fans follow the show’s stars forensically on social media, just as invested in their real-life friendships as their fictional ones. So have the actors really remained close mates since filming wrapped? Finney looks at me with horror-tinged disbelief. “Of course we’re really friends! We’ve got a group chat we message on every day.”
Most of the Heartstopper team were acting novices, cast via open auditions on Zoom. Finney was alerted to a call for a trans girl of colour by her TikTok followers. Although she had never heard of the comics, she says: “I just knew I would get it – it was a calling. There was no way anybody else could play this character.” She identified strongly with Elle, who transfers from an all-boys grammar to the girls’ school next door, and has a budding romance with close pal Tao. So strong was her connection, in fact, that the role – her first proper acting job – didn’t actually involve much acting, “because Elle literally is me”.
At the time of her audition Finney was studying drama at college, but had little hope of making it. “I was like, ‘There’s no trans roles, there’s nothing. I’m basically setting myself up to fail.’ I didn’t see myself reflected in the UK media anywhere.” Instead, she intended to “just do TikTok for the rest of my life”. That said, TikTok was not an entirely pleasant experience. Although Finney had a supportive fanbase, the response from strangers was brutal. “For the most part, it was hate back then. I can’t lie.” But she does see a silver lining, should mainstream success bring any unpleasantness. “It gave me a thick skin. I’ve had all the hate in the world through TikTok.”
That online barrage was accompanied by real-life abuse too. At her first school, Finney was “bullied left, right and centre. People didn’t like how camp and flamboyant I was – but of course that’s on them not me.” She then transferred to a “posher” school and “ended up transitioning towards year 10. And of course I got bullied for that.”
She was also mocked for making TikToks. “Cut to two years later, people [from school] are on TikTok doing the same thing I was doing. And people who didn’t have very nice things to say about me are watching Heartstopper and congratulating me.” Finney is magnanimous about this turnaround. “I don’t want to blame them fully because I know that when you’re in high school, you just want to fit in.”
As Heartstopper fans will have gleaned, Finney’s experience differed from Elle’s. There is some homophobia in the Heartstopper universe but it’s generally a sunny and accepting place where Elle’s trans identity is largely unremarked upon. “It’s such a breath of fresh air,” says Finney. “Elle’s isn’t like any other trans story we’ve seen before – because it’s not focused on gender dysphoria or bullying. It’s something the little Yasmins can watch and think, ‘If Elle can do it, I can do it.’”
How might seeing Elle on screen in her early teens have changed Finney’s own experience? “I would think there’s hope – a black trans person on the screen, so young, so authentic and so natural.” She cannot stress the importance of this kind of visibility enough. “You do not understand: the amount of time I’ve spent searching for representation, clawing for it, and trying to find somebody I could look up to as an idol, somebody that is a reflection of me.”
While playing aspirational trans characters is a boon, Finney is hoping that won’t be all her career is limited to. “I think we’ll really [have] change when I can play a character whose gender identity or sexuality isn’t specified. That’s when the industry will start to see trans actors as normal actors like everybody else, and we can play any role that we want to. When I can play a cis role, it will be sunshine and rainbows.”
Finney knows the complexities of identity-conscious casting, though. After all, if a trans actor can play a cis character, why not vice versa? The answer is two-fold. Firstly, there’s already a dearth of opportunities for trans actors. Secondly, when a cis actor plays a trans character, far more is at stake. Finney cites the example of Eddie Redmayne, who played a trans woman in The Danish Girl. “He gave such a great performance. I don’t have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is when people search up the cast for The Danish Girl and they see Eddie Redmayne isn’t trans and it was all a lie. Sadly, it creates this image for trans people that we aren’t actually what we say we are.”
Still, Finney is not complaining about her trajectory. On the one hand, she’s determined to dream big; on the other, her ambitions seem rather modest. “For the most part, I’m just happy to be seen,” she says. “And I will play trans roles for the rest of my life if I have to because I think every trans story is valid. But bring on the next role: trans, cis, alien – whatever!”