Sex education once meant an exceptionally uncomfortable experience watching a VCR from the 1970’s while pregnant women sporting butterfly prescription glasses gave birth. Putting expired condoms on hesitant bananas often followed, as instructed by the Maths teacher, who pulled the last straw in the staff room for teaching the abominable lesson. It was dated and wildly unhelpful. Luckily, sex education holds a little more gravitas in to- day’s society thanks to Netflix’s coveted and aptly named show: Sex Education. Too often on screen, teenage sex has been idealised rather than an authentic exposé of the chaotic, botched attempts of real teen arousal. Also lauded for its candour, the Netflix Original sets the bar for its portrayal of LGBTQIA+ characters on screen.
Catching up with the rising star on their debut acting role, as the first non-binary character in the hotly-anticipated show, Dua Saleh talks diversification on screen and maintaining the spirit of collective liberation throughout their work from Sudan to Cymru.
Check out the interview below…
Firstly, congratulations on your upcoming role in Netflix’s hotly anticipated show Sex Education. How are you feeling about your debut acting role?
It feels amazing to be playing the first non-binary character on the show and to have this as my first introduction to acting in general. I never envisioned myself being an actor; that wasn’t something that I had ever planned to pursue on my own. So going into it and having a character that shares a similar identity with me and being able to be authentic and portray my personal relationship with gender – even though we’re different – it just feels right, it feels transformative, and in its own way radical. [My character] Cal is a non-binary teenager who relishes in the liberty of adolescence and the freedom that a non-binary identity gives them. I think Cal is somebody that doesn’t like to be bogged down. Seeing someone who is non-binary on screen who has a story that’s not about tokenisation or ticking a box for merit is something that I’ve never really seen; honestly the only times that I see non-binary people represented are in animation.
You grew up writing and performing poetry which later led to your experience breaking into the music industry. While acting wasn’t initially on the agenda, how did the role come about?
I was in the middle of freaking out because of the pandemic and I had set up a bunch of different performances, then suddenly I couldn’t do anything. But then Sex Education reached out and I was so nervous. I had help from an acting coach for the three times I audi- tioned; they were very supportive alongside the directors, producers and Laurie Nunn the writer and creator who were all there. It all went really quickly and when I got the gig, I don’t think I had processed it. I don’t think I’ve pro- cessed it now. When I flew out there, I didn’t know what to expect, I was so baffled by the idea of coming into it and this being my debut role. But I learned so much about the technical aspects of TV. Before, I was mainly doing underground theatre, just directing and writing primarily. As a musician, I learned a lot about stage dynamics and how to move across a space but the tonal differences between this and acting were humongous.
Were you able to draw upon your own experiences growing up through the character of Cal and bring that to their personality?
As somebody who suffers with a lot of anxiety, I was very different from Cal when I was their age. I was very serious, mainly because of the dynamics of growing up and displacements. I was doing a lot of protests and walkouts and making my principle mad so I think Cal and I share similarities in understanding sys- tems of power. But I think I was more relaxed as a person and when I was a teenager I had the spirit of rebellion.
Outside of the show, and prior to breaking into this new world, music has long been your speciality and a place you feel open to create in. Was this something you always wanted to do from when you were younger
I started writing poetry when I was four- years-old. In Sudan, we have a lot of oratory art and so I formulated poems based off the Sudanese hub of poetry. Sudan is known for live musicianship and one of the biggest stars we have is Mohammed Wardi. Not many people know of him outside of Arabic speaking people and across the African diaspora that he’s a huge influence. I’ve been writing for a long time; it’s just like second nature. I then started to perform melodies which were songs coming into my head. I felt a call for it, as I was going through a lot of dysphoria and mental health issues at the time, and people responded really well and I got booked in a lot of different nightclubs and events. I then released two songs that I made on my phone with GarageBand and somehow managers and labels found out. One of my friends told the producer that I work with that I was a good singer and he reached out to me and then we just made hella music.
Referencing the influence of your Sudanese heritage, is that an important part of your creative process to draw inspiration from the places you’ve been raised and incorporate traditions in your work? How has that altered from place-to-place?
I’ve moved around 18 times in my life and I think I’ve picked up influences from each place. I think this has made me more fluid as a person – not just as a trans person – but understanding cultures and making me more of an observer, listening to the environment. I was born in Kassala in Sudan by the ports but my family got misplaced because my Dad’s heritage is from Darfur, so we were political refugees. We moved to Eritrea to the refugee camps for five years, before going to North Dakota for a little bit as we had some family there. However, we shortly moved because it was way too racist. The transition from being a displaced person in Eritrea to a displaced person in the US came to me immediately because in North Dakota, there was snow and I was like what the fuck is this? Also I was conscious of the fact I am Black and I was five-years-old and became cognitive of it. In my first two years of high school, I didn’t really talk to anybody. But I learned a lot in high school. When I started debate class, I learned a lot of theory from Black radical feminists and I became more in tune with my queerness. In my last year of school, I learned about non-binary identity from Tumblr. ‘CROSSOVER’ my upcoming EP is symbolic of that journey; a fusion of Afro-diasporic sound, different pop sounds and playful theatrics. I’m learning to musically challenge myself and be true to my musical palette. I’m thoughtful as an artist. I think I love stories more than anything. In every element of art that is out there, that’s the thing that I cling on to.