Sex Education's Tanya Reynolds: 'I'm working on not needing validation from other people'

Sex Education’s Tanya Reynolds on female friendships, imposter syndrome and why she’s glad she didn’t get into drama school the first time round…

Tanya Reynolds

Sex Education’s Tanya Reynolds on female friendships, imposter syndrome and why she’s glad she didn’t get into drama school the first time round…

As Sex Education’s sci-fi-loving Lily Iglehart she’s used to raising a few eyebrows, but this time around it’s Tanya Reynold’s latest play that’s got people talking – and for all the right reasons. Making her theatre debut at London’s Royal Court Theatre to rave reviews, Tanya, 28, is (temporarily) leaving the world of alien erotica behind to play Tosh in Scenes With Girls. Clearly, it’s her year. With Sex Education’s second series now available on Netflix (a third series has already been confirmed) this month saw Tanya making her first major film appearance, playing the much-loved Mrs Elton in this year’s big-screen adaptation of Emma. Here, Tanya fills us in on the journey…

Scenes With Girls explores the complicated world of female friendships. Do you think the way female friendships are portrayed is changing?

Yes, one of the things I love about this play is that it’s about friendship. When I first read it, I thought it was going to be romantic. There’s a point halfway through where you think, ‘Hang on, is she in love with her?’. You don’t expect stories just be about friends – often that’s the subplot to a romantic plot and friendship is just in the background. Whereas the whole narrative here is about friendship and just how important, messy and ugly it is. But ultimately how beautiful and worth it is, too.  

Presumably that’s something you have experience of?

Yeah, a few of my friendships have been holding me for the last couple of years and plays like this make you really appreciate them and think about them in a different way. We can collide and be angry and fall out, but when you do fall out with a best friend it’s so much harder than breaking up with someone.

How terrifying is it appearing on stage compared to Sex Education?

There’s something about being on stage that’s obviously terrifying because it’s so immediate. If you forget your lines or something terrible happens, people are watching you! But actually, I’m more nervous behind a camera. I think on stage it’s survival – you just have to get through it. Whereas on set, you do something funny and there’s silence. I adore both of them, they’re equally terrifying and delicious in completely different ways.

Were you worried about tackling the topic of sex on screen?

I actually wasn’t, I had so much faith in the script – you could tell it was such a well-crafted piece. They run things past you, asking if you’d be OK with scenes of a certain nature – like a masturbation scene – and I didn’t question any of it. I love Ben Taylor as a director and knowing his previous work, you know it’s going to be handled well. And it really was.

How was your first day on set? 

I found out I got the job on Thursday and my first day was Monday. There was a moment I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do it because there was a chance it clashed with another job. On my first day I went to Wales to have a costume fitting and met the cast who were already filming but I couldn’t allow myself to get too excited – thankfully it worked out. I spent the whole weekend bingeing BattleStar Galactica because in an early draft that Lily was really into it.

Were you nervous at all?

I was so excited and nervous. I’d auditioned for it four times, it was a long process. The night before I called my best mate like, ‘What if they sack me? What if I’m shit?’ I was freaking out because I wanted it so much. My friend wisely said, ‘For there to be a reality where you fuck up and they sack you, there also has to be a reality in which the opposite happens and you do a really good job. So which reality would you rather live in?’ I was like, ‘That’s fucking genius!’ My first day on set was with Ncuti [Gatwa] where I flash my boobs and try and get him to have sex with me...

How did you feel about friends and family watching those scenes?

I did warn them about my nudity in the first series but my parents love this show – and not just because I’m in it. They’re incredibly supportive but it boggles their minds a bit as they’re not the kind of people to do anything like this. They sent me to after-school drama club and came to all my plays. I think they always wished they could have done more and perhaps felt a bit impotent because it wasn’t a world they knew. It wasn’t like they had any contacts.

I read you got a scholarship to drama school [Oxford School of Drama]?

Yeah, it was great because I went to university first and Oxford was the only drama school that offered scholarships to postgraduate students. It was quite overwhelming I managed to go – I didn’t think I’d be able to afford it. Studying drama at university is very different to actor training. I loved my uni course because it was very focused on theatre-making and playwriting. I originally auditioned for drama school when I left but didn’t get in anywhere.

Tanya Reynolds

Photo Credit: Netflix

Considering your success now, it’s quite amazing you didn’t get in?

To be fair, I’m glad I didn’t because a lot of my feedback was, ‘You’re too young, go and have a bit of a life’. And it’s true – when I think back to auditioning, I was 21 having just left university and had no idea about anything, or who I was. I would have been a really boring actor, I wasn’t ready for it. Although I only went a year later, that year made a fucking mountain of difference. I think when I first auditioned there was a bit of desperation, like, ‘Validate me! Tell me I’m good!’ But getting into drama school isn’t about how good you are, it’s about how much you’re willing to learn.

Do you read reviews?

At first I was like, ‘I’m not going to read reviews because I believe in it’. That lasted all of 20 minutes! I didn’t want to be thrown off by them but maybe I was lucky because the reviews have been really nice. There were only two that weren’t four or five stars, and I understood what they were saying.

Reviews are subjective, anyway…

Yeah. As an actor, we’re all incredibly insecure human beings and I’m maybe one of the most insecure. I’m working on developing, and not needing validation from other people. But it’s a work in progress.

Working in such a demanding industry, how do you stay sane?

I have timers on my social media apps so I don’t spend too long on them. I read a lot and I like doing things creatively that don’t necessarily have an end goal, like taking photos. As actors you often tie your work and identity to each other, which can be painful because if you’re not working you lose your identity. Just before I got Sex Education, I was working as front of house at Secret Cinema, after I’d done two seasons of Delicious [with Dawn French]. You can’t associate your worth with whether you’re working, or what you’re working on.

I read you journal sometimes. Do you look back on what you’ve written?

Yes, I find it really helpful. If I’m going through something difficult I’ll think back to a time that was also difficult and see how I dealt with it. It’s reassuring to see yourself come out the other side. For me, writing is the best form of therapy, apart from actual therapy. There’s something about it that’s so untangling. I’m quite a self-conscious person, but when I’m writing it’s the one place I’m not.

Does that mean we can expect scripts from you in the future?

100%. In the last couple of years I’ve realised it’s something I really want to do. I need to be proactive about because I have that thing where you’re searching for something that isn’t there…because it doesn’t exist yet.

Specific roles, you mean?

Yeah, specific roles and stories. But they can’t exist because they’re solely in your head. So you’re like, ‘Oh OK, I have to make them for myself’. There are so many stories I want to tell that I haven’t seen much of and I want to go about telling them.

Sex Education series 2 is available on Netflix; Emma is released on February 14; Scenes with Girls, Royal Court, London SW1, until February 22.

Sophie Goddard is the Entertainment Editor of Marie Claire UK, as well as working across other titles in a freelance capacity. She has over 10 years journalism experience working on both digital and print platforms and prior to Marie Claire, worked at Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazine. Sophie writes about a number of topics, specialising in celebrity interviews and features. At Marie Claire, she is responsible for booking and interviewing cover stars and other celebrity interviews and is always open to pitches from publicists (she is always open to discussing sausage dogs, too).