FASHION

Dua Saleh in “Sex Education”, season 3 and their new EP


Dua Saleh is an activist, writer and artist famous for turning their poetry into lavish lyricism that deals with issues such as systemic racism and LGBTQ + rights. Fortunately for us, creativity is already being spent in another environment: Saleh made his first foray into the role of Cal in Season 3 of Netflix’s teen drama Sex Education.

The U.K. series follows Moordale High student Otis (Asa Butterfield), who runs an underground sex therapy practice on campus inspired by his actual sex therapist mother Jean (Gillian Anderson). While Otis and Jean are at the heart of the show’s premise, it’s really the cast of surrounding high school misfits, teachers, and quirky parents that make Sex Education one of the most addicting, authentic, and inclusive shows on television.

Saleh’s Cal is a free-spirit skater who goes to bat with Moordale’s new headmistress Hope (Jemima Kirke) after being forced to wear a school uniform for girls. Like their character, Saleh is nonbinary. Also like their character, Saleh is intimately familiar with the frustrations that come from living in a world trying to box you in. It’s what cemented Saleh’s interest in playing the character after reading the script. “Cal is not one-dimensional, Cal is somebody that has depth and texture—someone who is layered, who has complexities,” Saleh tells ELLE.com. “I was honestly brought to tears at times on set.”

Below, the multi-hyphenate talks harnessing their personal experiences to play Cal, the impactful role fashion plays in the series, and and how Sex Education inspired their new EP, Crossover.

Sex Education marks your acting debut. What was it like being on set for the first time?

All of the producers made me feel comfortable, like making sure people knew my pronouns before I got on set. All the cast members were really welcoming and warm and sweet to me, too. Jemima Kirke was really funny. She’s a Taurus, and I’m a Scorpio, so I found that we really got along. It was nice to have somebody I could really connect with.

That’s funny especially considering how much you two clash in the show.

I’m not going to lie, my scenes with her were really difficult. At times I was scared going in, because I knew that her acting was going to be so good. The scene that got to me the most was when Hope pushed Cal into that room, which we had to redo over and over again. There’s also the scene where Hope “chains” Adam, Lily, and Cal on a stage. That was difficult for me to process, because there were supporting artists in the audience, so it felt like we were actually being laughed at.

It’s a moment earlier on in the season, but I love when Cal confronts Hope about the dress code.

It’s beautiful that Cal is so forthright about their subversion of gender depression. It felt amazing to have that narrative put in there, because I know for a lot of trans and nonbinary people, dysphoria is something that’s a huge part of their everyday life. Oftentimes, that comes into play with clothing. Cal felt gender euphoria by wearing pants and a tie, and a suit and baggy clothing. It was really beautiful that they were impacted enough to just be honest and say, “I don’t want to wear this” and “I’m not going to wear a skirt.”

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Was your time in high school at all similar to Cal’s experience?

In high school I was more of an uptight student. I went to classes and did after school programs and organizing work and urban planning with the city of St. Paul, so I was not really worried about how I dressed. I dressed really nerdy and kind of weird, because I shopped at thrift shops a lot. I grew up low-income. People would sometimes comment on the randomness of the clothes I wore. I gravitated towards a lot of different types of clothing, but one outfit that sticks in my mind is a flannel shirt with a long, tight floral skirt. People were like, “I like this. I wouldn’t ever wear it, but I like this.” That’s different from how I am now. As I got older, I learned more about gender non-conformity and about the term nonbinary and Indigenous gender expressions. So I started dressing in looser-fitted clothing. I started experimenting with makeup in ways that separate expectations of what people understand about people who are assigned female at birth. I’m probably more like Cal in my adulthood than I was when I was younger. We don’t necessarily dress exactly alike, but I wear a binder and most of the clothing that I buy is from quote, unquote, the “men’s department.”

Saleh with TKTK

Sam Taylor/Netflix

What were some of your favorites scenes to film?

There is a moment after Layla [Robyn Holdaway] he felt confirmed by Cal when Cal brought Layla a binder. Several people made DM tell me how important it is to have a non-binary character on the show and I just started crying. I was probably emotional in general because doing the show was such a big change in my life, but seeing these messages and making a scene with another trance person about transsexuality in a way that tells trance people to take care of themselves and not hurt with the commitment, just … I’m getting emotional right now, I’m just talking about it.

This moment felt so authentic.

I studied gender and sexuality studies and sociology in college. So I know there’s really no such scene anywhere else in pop culture.

One thing I felt was really important to emphasize was the story of Cal’s countries or the discussion of Cal’s sexuality in general, because I thought it would be important for a lot of non-binary people to hear – especially the people who had to have conversations with cisgender partners.

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Speaking of which, what do you think of Cal’s relationship with Jackson?

You can see the sparks initially when they had their first sweet meeting. You can say that they have an instant spark, maybe a spiritual spark, like something with a double flame. But I think it’s beautiful that they’ve been able to be vulnerable to each other and trust each other, and also to be loving enough to be honest and candid about what they both want and how they feel and both in their romantic dynamics.

Cal reinforces the fact that they are non-binary, not girls, and attaches importance to how their potential love interest would perceive them and how they would act in this dynamic. Jackson is like, “Oh, I have to work on this. So I don’t think it would be right to try to continue with that when we’re in two different places mentally in terms of gender and sexuality. “When Cedar [Williams-Stirling, who plays Jackson] and I rehearsed before the shots, our main focus was on trying to feel the tone before we entered the stage. We talked through certain things, either just to each other or to the intimacy coordinator.

sex education still

Saleh with actors Cedar Williams-Stirling and Ezeudou’s Act Sex education season 3.

Sam Taylor / Netflix

What was the process of coordinating the intimacy of the set?

Having an intimacy coordinator was good for me for many different reasons, one of which was that I was Sudanese. We really value our privacy. So our intimacy coordinator will make sure to close the kit and have as few people as possible there. He also warmed us up before scenes that made me particularly worried. We would make icebreakers and fun little games to make us feel more comfortable. We performed consent activities, asking where it was good to touch and what was convenient.

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Your new EP, Crossover, comes out on September 24. How did you balance the photos Sex education and making music?

I had a home studio and I tried to make as much music as possible, but honestly the schedule of the photos was so prevalent that I didn’t have much time to work on it. I released a song called “Signs” while I was working on the show, but many of the other songs I was working on were not released in the end. I was working on some songs that will be included Crossoverwhich is for the different transitions I’m experiencing right now – one is my transition to the mainstream with Sex education, and the supervisibility that comes with it. For me, the crossover also refers to the type of music I make. In the past, I’ve been described as a genre-bending, and in this EP, I merge a lot of different Afro-diasphoric sounds and trans-dialectical pop, influenced by artists like SOPHIE, who invented hyper-pop. The other crossover I’m experiencing is my transsexuality – it’s constant. I feel like I’m making it sound more serious than it really is. Honestly, these are just a lot of party songs, because I have the feeling that people have been in a lot of darkness because of the pandemic, and I want people to have something to vibrate, dance and feel good about.

This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.

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