Leo Woodall Isn’t Afraid of Being Vulnerable

Words by Max Gao

The actor has won over audiences for his role in Netflix’s bittersweet love story “One Day”

ROBERT VIGLASKY/NETFLIX

Leo Woodall’s first experience with One Day was unconventional for an actor. Busy shooting his star-making turn as Essex bad boy Jack in season two of HBO’s The White Lotus, he did not have time to read David Nicholls’s award-winning, best-selling 2009 novel. So, in preparation for his first self-tape audition for the new Netflix series based on the book, the English actor carved out enough time to watch the 2011 film adaptation starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess as Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew—star-crossed best friends who weave in and out of each other’s lives after meeting by chance on the night of their college graduation.

“I was instantly drawn to how fun [Dexter] is at the beginning, but also how things go very wrong for him in his personal life, his family, and how there’s an ambitious part of him,” Woodall tells Harper’s Bazaar on a recent call from his home in London. “It’s only people like Emma who could cut through his bullshit. I found that very interesting, and I wanted to explore what it would be like for him as a confident young, privileged golden boy who’s actually deeply vulnerable.”

That same “innate vulnerability” eventually won Woodall the role, after many callbacks. “He was so far from the English posh boy archetype—he was doing his own thing, and his own thing was absolutely compelling,” says Nicole Taylor, creator of the TV adaptation, via email. “He can convey so much with his face and body, without a single word. We all knew we wanted to watch this guy for all the hours it took to tell this story.”

More than a decade after the first iterations were released, Woodall and costar Ambika Mod have reimagined One Day for a new generation. Now streaming on Netflix, each of the 14 half-hour episodes checks in with his Dexter and her Emma on the same day—July 15—each year from 1988 to 2007. What has happened on all the days in between is slowly revealed through careful and deliberate exposition, with many key moments left to the viewer’s imagination. These annual vignettes are gradually woven together in a rich tapestry of experiences surrounding Dexter and Emma’s enduring love story, which comes to a tragic end just as they begin to find their footing as a married couple.

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“Emma, unlike a lot of people in his life, takes a piss out of him, pokes fun at him, and wants to get to know him more than other people may have done in the past,” Woodall says, explaining what draws Dexter to her. “[Others] just take him at face value, or if they know of him, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s Dexter Mayhew!’ whereas she doesn’t really care about that. She chooses to get to know him more, and I think that’s different for him. I think over time, they rely on each other for honesty and all the great aspects of friendship, but they realize that they are [the ideal] people for each other.”

In the limited series, Dexter starts out as a posh and privileged young brat, who uses his boyish good looks to become a television presenter, in pursuit of fame and fortune. But he eventually gives up on that career to follow his own dream to open his own café, and becoming a devoted father and husband. Although the producers chose not to use makeup to age up the characters in later episodes, Woodall initially chose to play the older Dexter with more gravitas. (It didn’t work.)

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“I tried to incorporate a bit of an older sense very early on, because we were shooting some of the last bits of the story very early in the schedule, but I tried having just a bit more of an age when we played that. And [the producers] were very much like, ‘You don’t need to do that. It’ll play anyway. I don’t know why you’re suddenly posher or you are holding yourself differently,’” he recalls with a laugh. “So, actually, I let a lot of the story do the work for me, if that makes sense. And if you wanted to play everything as truthfully as I could, you can’t always control what naturally happens.”

Playing each moment truthfully meant Woodall couldn’t shy away from throwing himself into Dexter’s cycles of self-destructive behavior. For instance: “Episode seven, where they go for dinner and he’s just absent and unpleasant [to Emma], was horrible,” he says. “It was fun to film because, I think, the episode was written so well, and [director] John Hardwick was so brilliant at getting the best out of us, and it felt almost like a piece of theater, but it wasn’t fun to be that unpleasant. I’ve had a few people who have seen that and gone, ‘I can’t look at you the same way after that.’ And I agree! That was a tough one.”

That episode, in particular, marks a clear shift in Dexter and Emma’s relationship. It leads them to falling out for a few years, until they cross paths at the wedding of Emma’s college roommate and best friend, Tilly (Amber Grappy). “I think the moment at the wedding where they haven’t seen each other for a while and then they come back together and they decide that, ‘No, we’ve been through a lot now. We actually are going to be friends,’ is a defining moment in their relationship,” Woodall says. “He’s changed a lot. He’s not lost in his own world. He’s got his family and whatever, but he’s a bit more grounded, and they’re able after that moment to really be friends, and everything is kind of normal.”

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“I think the one thing that is constant—and sometimes it may fade into the background more in his mind when he starts to get famous—is the love he has for the people in his life and also the amount of necessity that those people have to him,” the actor says. “Even if he’s out there living his life, he knows that he really still needs Emma and will always rely on Emma.”

So, what is the biggest thing that changes about Dexter in One Day? “His priorities,” Woodall responds. “I think he realizes that when he was younger, the things that mattered to him most were fame and fortune and fun, and just all the stuff that he gets. But then the biggest change is him realizing that none of that really means anything if he can’t share it with the right person, and Emma is that thing in his life that matters most.”

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A lot has been said and written about the importance of chemistry—that ineffable, unpredictable, undeniable quality sometimes present when two people are put in a room together—but it is not an exaggeration to say the success of One Day hinged on the connection between the leads. Woodall and Mod both recall reading with different Dexters and Emmas during a particularly grueling and nerve-racking day at a casting office in Leicester Square, but it soon became clear to them and to the show’s producers that they shared a charm and a playfulness that could sustain this decades-spanning romance.

“I remember we both, and so did production, felt like there was a chemistry between our Emma and Dexter. When we both got the roles, I think we bonded very early. We met up before we started preproduction and just kind of shot the shit, and we were friends very early, so that helped,” says Woodall, who remembers ordering his signature gin and tonic during his first meeting outside of work with Mod. “I think we were both playing our characters as truthfully as we could, and I’m sure you know that a lot of the time on set is just waiting around, so we had a lot of time to just chat, and I think it wasn’t [difficult] to get to know each other and get close.”

“I think he was being really lovely and friendly, and he really liked my trainers, and we struck up a conversation about my trainers,” Mod recalls of her chemistry read with Woodall with a laugh. “Apparently, he was told he needed to focus more, which I wasn’t there for, but I thought it was very funny, because he was just doing what any actor would do in that situation, which is trying to form some sort of rapport outside of the scenes so that you can better make your case [for the role]. Everything else is just sort of out of your control, but I’m really glad things turned out how they did.”

Woodall and Mod leaned on each other heavily during the seven-month shoot. As they’d both come off of supporting roles in big projects (Woodall in White Lotus and Mod in BBC One’s This Is Going to Hurt), Mod likens the experience of One Day to a musician attempting to follow up a successful debut—and the first-time lead actors were both attempting to avoid the sophomore slump.

“We were the only people who knew what the other person was going through. But Leo’s much more chill than I am,” Mod says. “I’d be stressing all day every day about everything, and he is very much focused on the task at hand, and he’ll focus on that and then he’ll move into the next thing. So I would definitely love to have some of his chill and some of his steadfastness on set, especially when things were getting hard.”

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Woodall, who has also played supporting characters in Peacock’s Vampire Academy and Prime Video’s Citadel, admits he didn’t quite understand what it meant to lead a set as the lead actor until he was thrown straight into the deep end of a massive production.

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“I think there was maybe more of a toughness, maybe a kind of greater sense of what that responsibility means,” he says. “It also really helped me to really understand everyone’s roles in the show, like in production. You are around everyone all the time, and you get to know what everyone’s responsibility is in making this show happen, and I learned a lot about how much you really need those people around you. The actors get treated like we are some of the most important people, but without everyone else, you’re pretty stuffed.”

Although he spent the better part of a year figuring out how to embody Dexter and has now found himself reflecting on the whirlwind experience of playing him over a long press tour, Woodall says he doesn’t feel like he has had to grieve the loss of the most compelling character he’s played so far. “I love Dexter, but I felt like I gave a lot of myself to really honor his story. And it was all the things—it was fun, it was filling, it was heartbreaking. So with everything done and dusted, I think me and him can amicably part ways as distant friends,” he says with a smile.

In conversation, Woodall is thoughtful about what he says. In the last 15 months, the 27-year-old actor has dealt with a new level of visibility—and has become more guarded about which parts of his life he is willing to share with the public. For instance, he has been romantically linked to his White Lotus costar Meghann Fahy, but they have played coy when asked about their relationship. “I hang tight to the best people in my life, and I don’t get too attached to the hoo-ha of the business,” Woodall says, choosing his words carefully. “I think the work is the reason why we do this, and aside from that, there’s some fun to be had. But apart from that, it’s pretty much just family and the cozy parts of life that are the things that I cherish most.”

With his scene-stealing turn in The White Lotus and now his buzzy lead performance in One Day under his belt, Woodall could realistically have the pick of the litter of roles and auditions being sent his way, but the actor seems remarkably laid-back about what is next for him, insisting he does not have a dream role, per se, that he wants to play next.

He recently signed with a new U.K. agency and has begun production on the historical drama film Nuremberg, headlined by Russell Crowe, Rami Malek, and Michael Shannon. He has also been tapped to play the lead opposite Quintessa Swindell in the Apple TV+ conspiracy thriller series Prime Target. He hopes to one day—no pun intended—work with writers-directors such as Martin McDonagh, Christopher Nolan, and Greta Gerwig. “One of the exciting parts about being an actor,” he says, “is you don’t really know what’s coming next.”

This article originally appeared in harpersbazaar.com