Entertainment15 September 2021
Three seasons in, and Sex Education is still finding new terrain to explore. This year, that includes introducing a non-binary student, Cal. “In the writers’ room, we discussed what parts of the LGBTQ spectrum we hadn’t addressed in the show yet, and Cal’s character was a natural extension of that discussion,” says series creator Laurie Nunn. “We knew they’d bring a new perspective to the show, and we worked very closely with non-binary consultants to make sure we were approaching that narrative with authenticity.”
That included casting a non-binary actor, newcomer Dua Saleh, in the role. Ahead of the series’ return on September 17, we spoke with Saleh about being cast in the drama, finding Cal’s specific sense of style and what they hope viewers take away from this season.
How did you end up taking on this new role? Were you a big fan of the first two seasons of Sex Education?
I found out about the show through friends. I hadn't watched it previously because I thought it was for teenagers, but when the show reached out to me about casting, I watched all of it. I can honestly say that it's one of the best shows I've ever watched. Sex Education has some of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking, funny, and playful work. I auditioned for Cal and sent in a tape, then I did a chemistry read with Kedar Williams-Stirling, who plays Jackson. When I found out I got the role, I freaked out, obviously. It’s changed my life and challenged me. This is my first major acting role. I’m a musician and I was making music way before acting came along. I’ve learned a lot through this experience and am so thankful.
How would you describe your character, and what about them appealed to you as an actor?
Cal is a non-binary student at Moordale who’s very laidback. They're a skater, a stoner, a lover; they're very free-spirited. They bring me a lot of joy. I think they're a very well-thought-out character in the way that they talk to people, the way that they approach challenges, the way that they always meet people with softness. I think they're also just a teenager trying to figure things out. I think the biggest appeal in playing Cal was that their journey isn’t all about trauma. That’s not something that a lot of non-binary people can say about the characters they’re given the opportunity to play. I had a lot of conversations with Laurie Nunn, with the writers, with the non-binary consultants they hired, about how to portray a non-binary person in the best way possible. I felt really held throughout that entire process, and everyone was attentive to my needs and level of comfort.
Cal isn’t the only non-binary student at Moordale who we meet this season, correct?A remarkable thing that they did this season was include another non-binary character named Layla. We see the differences between Cal and Layla, in their personalities and their journeys with their identities. We see how they each deal with binding, dealing with school, navigating conflicts — they’re very different. I think it's beautiful that they portrayed non-binary characters in a way that shows they’re not a monolith.
Can you talk a bit about Cal’s costuming and overall look this season? What does it visually communicate about them?
The way that Cal dressed was very important, and the creative team was very particular about the way that they depicted Cal. Their hair is braided intricately in a way that’s true to Cal's gender fluidity. And they styled Cal in baggier, more free-form clothing, comfortable clothing. They were always thinking about gender, and were intentional about how to allow Cal to feel more free and liberated. I think they did a remarkable job.
How do you hope fans will feel at the end of this season?
I want people to feel validated. Cal is a non-binary, Black character, and I want people to think, "Oh, my gosh, I can believe I've seen myself on this series. I can believe I've seen myself represented in mainstream media." That’s what I want the most.
Sex Education Season 3 debuts September 17 on Netflix.