Connor Swindells: “The older I get, the more I cling onto life”

In his latest role, the Sex Education actor plays an eccentric young officer looking to upend the conventions of warfare; here, he talks about his own extremism…

There’s an early scene in SAS Rogue Heroes — the six-part BBC drama that recounts the origins of the covert special forces unit — that perhaps best illustrates, even if in an understated way, the regiment’s leftfield, thumb-in-the-eye-of-convention ethos, whereby its founder, David Stirling, played by Connor Swindells, leaves a conversation, steps outside into the beginnings of a sandstorm, unzips his fly and relieves himself, spending a penny into the aggressive winds. 

“I think David Stirling is, in many respects, an extremist,” says Swindells of the WWII ringleader he portrays. “He has kind of an all-or-nothing personality and flies into everything full throttle, often to his own detriment. He [also has this sort of ] Napoleonic ambition… He’s really caged by it. And, ultimately, that is what kickstarts this whole military campaign — but it’s also caused a lot of people pain.” 

The series, made by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight and directed by Tom Shankland (“His approach is just pure optimism… I leaned on him heavily throughout the process, because I felt completely out of my depth,” says Swindells) is a brash, bold adaptation of Ben Macintyre’s 2016 book of the same name. It details a handpicked cadre of soldiers, hardwired to the insanity of war, carrying out radical guerrilla tactics to stop the advancement of fascism across Africa.

As the spiritual guide of the unit, Swindells, 26, who plays his character with equal parts pull-up-your-bootstraps charm and the complete abandon of regimented military norms, finds himself at the forefront of a major cast for the first time, following the two roles that gave him his initial burst of fame — Adam Groff, Sex Education’s badboy bully with a redemptive arc, and Lieutenant Simon Hadlow in another BBC production, Vigil. “It was definitely a challenge I was anticipating,” he says of the undertaking. “I thought this was going to be full on, especially with Steven Knight dialogue. It’s pretty heavy, in an amazing way.” 

Swindells, even though a self-labelled “homebody”, did, at times, find similarities with his own persona and Stirling ’s eccentric, defiant mindset. “I can be very ambitious. And when I set my mind on something, there’s little that can really throw me off, for better or worse. I’m sort of extremist in that regard; that’s one of my flaws.” 

“I definitely am attracted to rebel characters,” he adds. When prepping for the role, the actor would watch old videos of Oliver Reed, Peter O’Toole and “all those old hellraisers”, and he’s a fan of chef-turned-travelling-maverick Anthony Bourdain, too. Over lockdown he watched Parts Unknown: “I would fantasise about getting back out in the world and experiencing all of these great things.” But, he also happily admits, “I think I find it very easy to do very little.” 

Filming Rogue Heroes in the Sahara Desert, with 47-degree heat and sandstorms an almost daily occurrence, did, however, provide Swindells with that otherworldly experience. “The desert does a strange thing to you,” he recalls. “The first week and a half, two weeks, it’s very enchanting. After the second week, it starts to play with your mind. It’s like being stranded; just completely endless rolling hills of sand with nothing else around… Sometimes, when I’m home, I’ll sit and I’ll think it’s weird that that great expanse of desert is there now, but no one’s watching. The sand is just rolling around.” 

When asked whether he has any rituals that make him feel alive (Stirling, it is said, used to occasionally walk into traffic with his eyes closed, such was his preference to live on the edge), Swindells replies: “Not really — I think as the older I get, the more I cling onto life.” 

With Swindells now fresh from his lead, it appears he wants to choose his next steps carefully – Season four of Sex Education is in the works, and he’s due to feature in Greta Gerwig ’s Barbie next summer – but self-fulfilment is at the forefront, prioritising collaborators rather than a certain genre or character. “I never really [think] about roles. I think more about the people that I want to work with.” 

“I love doing comedy,” he continues. “Then I like doing the flip side, and I think if I can make a career where I’m flipping between the two, then I’ll be happy, regardless of whatever place I reach, so long as I get to just do it. Have fun, meet people, travel a bit. As Anthony Bourdain said, ‘Enjoy the ride.’ That’s my meaning of it all.” 

Want more interviews? We catch up with Erling Haaland to talk about the worst thing he could do on the pitch… 

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