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Thomas Duke | Coming Out and Stepping Through

Since university, Tom’s love of film has led him to hunt down filming locations and photograph scenes from the screen against their original backdrop; what began as a hobby has led to collaborations with industry giants such as Netflix and Disney to promote their latest releases.

His journey with film took a further personal step when, in 2018, he was inspired by Love, Simon to come out to the world.

In the following interview, we hear about his experience of coming out, the importance of representation in mainstream media, and his journey of stepping through film.


What was your experience of coming to terms with your sexuality?

I was always shy, so I thought I was just a quiet person, but I guess there was something more to it. There wasn’t one moment, it was just a slow realization – as I grew up, watched more films and TV, and met new people – that maybe I was gay.

I was quite lucky, because when I was younger I didn’t understand everything that was happening in culture; I wasn’t thinking, oh no, I can’t be gay! I just carried on with life and didn’t think much of it. But of course I was still scared beforehand and wary of what people would think. That’s why I came out online first; it was easier to type it out and post it on social media than speak to someone face-to-face. I sometimes look back and think I was a bit of a coward for doing that, but at the same time it’s fine however you choose to come out! It wasn’t until after coming out that I learned about what was going on around me, how far we’ve come and how much further we still have to go.

I didn’t have a major moment of coming out in person. In films you have those big moments, but that’s Hollywood, and while of course some people do have those experiences, mine was just quite boring really! Okay, lovely, nothing’s changed. There was no hate in my family or friendship groups, there was just love. People were accepting and loving and we carried as normal.

Was there anything in pop culture at the time which you particularly related to on your journey?

Love, Simon was the perfect film for the coming out moment in my life, but before that, one film that springs to mind is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Logan Lerman’s character is shy and reserved and doesn’t quite know how to fit in, then people bring him into their friendship group and open up his world. I saw myself in that character: trundling through life on the sidelines and wanting to be happy but not really knowing where to go. That whole character arc is very personal. It’s not even directly about sexuality – although there’s a bit about that in there – it was just a very nice coming-of-age film that made me realise that you can be what you want to be.

I can’t think of many others, and that’s probably why Love, Simon was such a big thing; it was one of the first mainstream coming-of-age teen dramas for this community. There were lots of coming out stories in real life around that time because of how many people saw themselves in the film.

“If I see all these people being shown on screen, but I don’t see myself, you wonder, am I not supposed to be like this?”

Why do you think representation in mainstream media is so important?

It’s such a simple thing to say, but it helps people; it makes you feel like it’s okay to be you. As a younger person growing up, if I see all these people being shown on screen, but I don’t see myself, you wonder, am I not supposed to be like this? Without representation, you might not know where you fit in.

It’s strange to think that, before May last year, we didn’t have Heartstopper as a TV show. It’s become such a part of our community’s energy. The final season of Love, Victor was released around the same time and fell under the radar, I think because while it was very dramatic – perhaps too dramatic – Heartstopper was just wholesome. It didn’t shy away from the bullying and negative aspects of coming out, but it remained a lovely comfort show that made people want to be in that world and with those characters . Even down to the soundtrack and the little whimsical cartoons, it had an energy that made you want to watch it again and was a perfect encapsulation of what you wished life would be like when you were in school. It’s nice that young people have that representation now.

What got you into exploring film and TV locations?

It was just something fun and an excuse to travel! I didn’t like going out to parties at university, so I had to find something else to do. I went out to filming locations that were nearby in London and then started going further afield. I like to explore beautiful stories; it’s nice to talk about film and locations, but it’s much more significant when the story means something, like with Heartstopper: it’s great to see the location but it’s even more special because of what it means to me.

“I guess that’s why we love movies, because we can escape into them. It feels like there’s another world and it’s fun to photograph and celebrate that.”

The main location that’s stuck out as a highlight was Luca and the Italian Riviera, that’s still the best one ever. It was a big experiment to match up the locations with the animation. The director grew up in the Genoa region, so the Pixar team used Vernazza in the Cinque Terra as their main inspiration. The whole area felt like the film and you can see how they translated it onto screen from the little streets right down to the details of the doors and the shutters. The colours and the people and the buildings and everything are just magical. I’d printed off hundreds of photos and was walking around for ages trying to match them up to different places. It was a lot of fun to try.

I guess that’s why we love movies, because we can escape into them. It feels like there’s another world and it’s fun to photograph and celebrate that. That’s particularly why I love animation, because it feels like you’re really escaping. As well as Luca, Wall-E is another significant one. I think that’s my favourite film because it’s just two robots falling in love and that’s fine: they can do that. The ending feels like a fresh start for everyone. Awesome, I love it. Animated movies are the perfect blend of mixing the real world with what you want it to be, making it something magical.

What’s coming up that you’re excited to be working on?

I’ve done a number of the Mission: Impossible interviews which are coming soon, and I got to speak to Simon Pegg. I love all his work; the Cornetto Trilogy was filmed around here so that’s always been a real gem to watch and explore. Meeting him was very bizarre, I can’t even remember what I said but I wish I could just chat to him for half an hour! The new Mission: Impossible is an amazing film, they’ve just been getting better and better.

I’m also very excited for Heartstopper season two. I remember running around to all the houses and the little tree in the show after the first one came out, and now there will be another whole season to explore. Sometimes it’s all quite last minute with press junkets and you’ll be told a week before the release of something, but that’s exciting. I’m just seeing what else there is to explore and enjoying it!


For more on Tom’s work, visit his website here.

He can also be found on Instagram @steppingthroughfilm and Twitter @thomasduke98


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