Theatre

Bradley Riches on Heartstopper, new musical Babies and how coming out helped him embrace his autism

As Bradley Riches takes to the stage in Babies, he's found time to sit down with Big Issue to talk sexuality, neurodiversity, and how embracing both has helped him to understand himself

Bradley Riches as James in Heartstopper. Image: © 2022 Netflix Inc

Bradley Riches is excited to be back on stage in Babies, a new British coming-of-age musical, because the theatre is where he first found “my people”. The 22-year-old actor is best known for Netflix’s hit coming-of-age drama Heartstopper, in which he plays James, a character who, like him, is queer and autistic. Riches also boosted his profile with a recent reality TV stint. “I walked past some builders the other day and they were like, ‘You’re the lad from Celebrity Big Brother,'” he says, still sounding surprised.

But before that, he trained in musical theatre at Emil Dale Academy in Hitchin. “I did some stage shows when I was younger, but then my voice broke,” Riches says, speaking over Zoom from a “cubby hole” at his Buckinghamshire home. “So I had to work out my lower vocal range. Then I graduated and obviously went into TV. So this is my adult professional stage debut.”

Babies, which has just opened at London’s The Other Palace theatre, definitely presents Riches with a fresh challenge. Written by rising stars Jack Godfrey and Martha Geelan – who also directs – it follows nine Year 11 classmates who are tasked with keeping a fake baby alive for a week.

“That might sound a bit ridiculous,” Riches says with a laugh. “But the show is really about growing up and finding out who you are.” He plays Toby, a gay student who shares his simulated baby with Jacob, the school’s “typical popular boy” played by Nathan Johnston. “They go on a bit of a journey together,” Riches says teasingly.

One of Toby’s classmates is negotiating a fraught relationship with her own mother; another is grappling with their gender identity. Babies explores these multifarious teen experiences in perky original songs that draw from contemporary pop. “Some have a rocky vibe and others are sadder – a little more Olivia Rodrigo,” Riches says.

Growing up in Surrey, Bradley Riches found his own voice at after-school acting classes. He began taking them aged nine because his parents thought, correctly as it turned out, that the creative environment might boost his confidence.

“I didn’t go in thinking I wanted to act for a living – it was just a hobby,” he says. “But as I gained in confidence and started auditioning for roles, I was like: ‘This is helping me in so ways.'” At 14, Riches signed with an agent and began acting in Off West End productions including Disaster!, a musical spoof of Hollywood disaster movies.

Nine was also a milestone age for Riches because he was diagnosed with autism. “My parents were slowly understanding why I did things in certain ways, but I didn’t really understand what being autistic was,” he says. At secondary school, he only told “very close friends” he was neurodivergent.

“There’s a stigma and shame around autism,” he says. “So I would always mask it and dim myself. I was like, ‘Yeah, I know I am [autistic]. But let’s just ignore it and keep going.'”

Thankfully, as he entered his late-teens, Riches felt able to be “very open about my sexuality”. This in turn helped him to embrace his autism. “I began to understand ‘me’ with regards to being gay and being autistic. It helped me feel more confident and kind of solidified who I was,” he says.

At drama school, Riches was warned by a neurodivergent teacher that no one in the industry would “really care” about his specific needs as an autistic person. He expected to have to “grin and bear it”, but after being cast in Heartstopper in 2022, he received an email from producers asking how they could make filming easier for him. “That was incredible,” he says.

Bradley Riches (bottom left) with his Babies castmates. Image: supplied

Some of his audition experiences have been less positive. “It feels like they never want to give too much away in case it gives you the upper hand,” he says. “One time I was auditioning for an autistic role and they literally just said: ‘Meet here at 2pm.’ I had to ask for more information because often I need to get to the audition space three hours early just so I can find the door and know 100% where everything is.”

It would be relatively easy for the industry to improve, he says. “Just being sent a photo of the audition space in advance and being told who’s going to greet you are little things they could do – but generally don’t – to make it more accessible.”

Riches describes Heartstopper, which returns for its third season in October, as an “amazing first job” that gave him a gateway into advocacy work. Because Heartstopper centres on a varied array of LGBTQ+ characters, it turned Riches and castmates Joe Locke, Kit Connor and Yasmin Finney into role models. He is now an ambassador for the campaigning and research charity Autistica.

With author James A Lyons, he has co-written a children’s book, “A” Different Kind of Superpower, that reframes autism as something to be celebrated. When Riches entered the Celebrity Big Brother house in March, he was comfortable enough to show himself “stimming”: using repetitive movements to dispel anxious energy from his body.

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He also opened up to housemate Marisha Wallace, a fellow musical theatre performer, about some of the ways in which his autism shows up. “I lie there in bed and it’s like, god, how am I going to greet everyone in the morning,” Riches told her.

But after he left the house, Riches received comments from trolls who claimed his autism was somehow disingenuous. He used this as a teachable moment, writing on Instagram: “We have always been presented by stereotypes in the media telling us how autistic people are meant to look, behave and present. Just because I don’t fit into what you have seen before and fit into what you think ‘being autistic’ is, doesn’t mean I am not autistic.”

Bradley Riches says the routine of appearing in Babies suits him – he arranges his day “like a school timetable” to manage his autism. And he has straightforward advice for anyone still getting to grips with their own neurodivergence: “Give yourself time. You don’t need to learn every single thing about what it means for you straight away. Like every part of finding out who you are, it’s an ongoing process.”

Bradley Riches stars in Babies at The Other Palace, London, until 14 July.

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