Raw and gripping, new ITVX drama 'Tell Me Everything' is Gen Z's answer to Skins. For our digital cover, the stars sit down to discuss creating a show for teens in the age of a digital generation.
When Skins first hit our screens in the early 2000s, it quickly became a cultural touchstone for a generation of teens. Praised for its unflinchingly gritty portrayal of adolescence, the show managed to do what few shows before it ever had – capturing both the light and dark sides of growing up at the turn of the century.
ITVX‘s first drama series in 10 years is a new miniseries from creator Mark O’Sullivan. Tell Me Everything is loosely based on O’Sullivan’s years as a teenager in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. With the help of his teenage children, the story has been updated for a modern 2020s audience. While Skins offered a raw glimpse into the lives of millennial teens, Tell Me Everything promises to do the same for Gen Z.
The show revolves around a group of 16-year-old friends trying to balance the pressures of school, their increasingly complex relationships, and the strains of life in the digital age. The six teens are thrown together when they all meet at the town’s infamous funfair on the last day of summer holidays. There’s Jonny (Eden H Davies), loosely based on O’Sullivan, alongside his two best friends: the quiet, awkward Louis (Spike Fearn) and the high-spirited party girl Neve (Lauryn Ajufo). The three are joined by the uncompromising, neon eyeliner-wearing Regan (Tessa Lucille), the up-and-coming influencer Zia (Carla Woodcock), and the mysterious, fiercely independent Mei (Callina Liang).
Instead of throwing the six actors together on set, O’Sullivan and Richard Senior, the show’s director, gave them time to rehearse before filming began. “It kind of felt like we were workshopping it, and really playing around with the scenes,” says Carla, recalling early rehearsals, “which is quite rare these days.”
The cast did in-character interviews, improvising details about their potential histories and relationships. They created special character handshakes. They did ‘animal work,’ a technique in which the actor embodies an animal’s physicality that best mirrors their character. As Neve, Lauryn found herself embodying a giraffe – “which is not something you would normally do unless you were in drama school or something,” she remembers, laughing. “It was an easy icebreaker for all of us because we would just laugh.”
“We all just go along straightaway,” adds Spike. “And as soon as I saw that, I felt like we were making something quite special. We’re all friends now and we get on and we chat all the time.
From the show’s first moments, the chemistry that Lauryn and Spike describe jumps off the screen. And it’s a good thing it does. After all, Tell Me Everything demands a lot from its young cast. For the show to work, it’s crucial that we believe in the realism of these teenagers and their relationships.
As Jonny, Eden found himself in one of the show’s more demanding roles. A party boy who never wants to slow down, Jonny lives life always looking for the next high – whether that be from romance, friendship or just from partying all night long. As we soon learn, when his fast-paced world starts to slow down, he has to confront his own mind. For Jonny, nothing could be more terrifying.
Jonny, we learn, could confide in one person – his father. “Johnny’s complete reliance and expectations are placed on one person,” says Eden. “He’s the only real person Jonny can be himself around and truly express himself around and that is taken away at such an important part of his life.” When his father dies unexpectedly, Jonny starts to lose his grip on his happy, carefree facade and his undiagnosed depression and anxiety become harder and harder to push down.
“I think that this spiral was inevitable,” says Eden. “But the tragedy that happens really catalyses it and makes it perhaps a little bit worse. I mean, I just don’t think Johnny fundamentally has a coping strategy in place for the things he’s dealing with when we first meet him.”
Unable to cope with his own emotions, Jonny slips into his old bacchanalian facade like a disguise. His funeral selfie captioned merely, “FUNeral”, sums up his vibe. “The way that he bottles things up and deals with things, I think, is through humour,” explains Eden.
From his first self-tape audition, the high-octane Jonny felt familiar. “I know, it sounds like I’m lying saying this, but it was the best self-tape I’ve ever read. I instantly clicked with it,” says Eden with a smile. “I saw myself and I see lots of people in him, because I think getting to know yourself is something you’ve got to figure out by yourself at that age and Jonny just doesn’t know who he is at all.”
Eden, a first-time actor, is the same age as his character. Nevertheless, he gives a remarkably colourful and mature performance, his private and public personas flitting across his eyes sometimes just within the space of a few seconds. To get into Jonny’s headspace, Eden started with his physicality. “I like specific movements for certain emotions – I don’t know, it’s like a psychological trick to kind of get yourself into it,” he says.
“But, I don’t think it’s about getting yourself into a mood,” he quickly clarifies. “It’s very easy when you’re talking about depression and mental health in teenagers to play this angst all the time. And it’s important to allow yourself to interpret whatever’s coming next in a new way.” As Jonny deals with the aftermath of his father’s death, his childhood best friends, Neve and Louis, watch on.
“They’re a really tight friendship group,” says Spike. “They’ve grown up together, they’ve known each other since they were kids and naturally when you’ve grown up with someone, you start to learn their characteristics and just how they are as a person,” adds Lauryn.
Lauryn comes to Tell Me Everything off the back of Boiling Point and Netflix’s The Last Bus. Next up, she’ll be appearing alongside Idris Elba in the film version of his show Luther. She knew Neve was a dream role as soon as she read the script. “I absolutely loved it,” she recalls. “She’s a bit wild, she’s a bit out there, but then again, she’s quite studious and she’s very intelligent. I was like, ‘Oh, this is quite a complex character.'”
Spike, previously seen in small roles in Aftersun and The Batman, also gravitated towards Louis from the beginning. “I’d normally play more of, like, the Jack the lad, kind of tougher, funnier characters – Louis is the polar opposite. I was like, ‘I can see how awkward this guy is,'” he says of his first impression. “I’m definitely a very awkward person. But seeing that Louis was awkward, it? was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna have the challenge of playing someone that’s awkward and taking it to where it’s about to cross the bar, but still keeping it real and natural.'”
The threesome expands when Regan and Zia, besties from another school, enter the picture. These are teenagers we’re talking about, so, naturally, we’ve got some crushes: Jonny likes Regan and Louis likes Zia. “Regan is just so funny,” says Tessa, a relative TV newcomer, who incidentally happened to go to the school where Skins was filmed in Bristol. “She’s so blunt and sarcastic, which was definitely something to get used to. I’m not like that.”
As a burgeoning influencer, Zia is the polar opposite of her friend. Where Regan is blunt and to-the-point, Zia, like Jonny, uses social media to put up a careful facade. “I think all social media for everyone is like a highlight reel,” says Carla. “And I think it’s kind of interesting how it takes you a while to get to know Zia, because it’s almost like she’s got this Instagram filter up. She wants everyone to think her life is perfect. But nobody’s life is perfect.”
While the pair couldn’t be more different, Tell Me Everything steers clear of any female rivalries. “Something I definitely noticed quite quickly was how lovely the relationship between Regan and Zia was,” says Tessa. “There are a lot of female rivalry stories, which doesn’t necessarily resonate with me as a person. It creates a good TV show, but in reality, I’m just completely in love with my friends.” “They’re not competing against each other, or stabbing each other in the back,” chimes in Carla. “They genuinely want the best for each other and support each other, which is so nice to see. On TV, I don’t think it’s always a point of view that we get to see between two young women.”
And then there’s Mei, the elusive outsider who develops a strange connection with Jonny and remains on the outskirts of the tight knit group. “She was described as this odd girl – only certain people in the world are on the same wavelength as her,” Callina says, remembering receiving the audition.
Callina can’t say much about who she really is – which seems appropriate for the mysterious Mei. “She’s definitely an odd one,” she offers with a cryptic smile. “She knows how to manoeuvre her way into people’s lives. She will do whatever it takes to get what she wants. Oftentimes she’s quite self-destructive, but also very lost and broken.”
Callina landed the role from her hometown of Toronto, Canada, where she had just graduated from the Toronto Film School. “Mei was actually supposed to be British. So I prepped my character, did the accent and everything and right before they were like, ‘Maybe Canadian instead?'” she explains.
In many ways, the nationality change works perfectly for the enigmatic character. “She’s moved around quite a lot and had to basically bring herself up,” says Callina. “She’s very independent. I related to that a lot. It’s kind of what I went through when I grew up. So it was very easy to kind of just merge the two together and bring a little bit of my life into the character as well, which was really nice.”
Ultimately, what O’Sullivan manages to capture with the ensemble of Tell Me Everything are the real nuances of that delicate period when you’re right on the cusp of adulthood. “Sometimes, you can tell if something is written by someone who maybe is a bit out of touch with that age range,” says Carla carefully. Tell Me Everything is different. “I think that was the first thing that stood out to me straight away – the writing.”
“I feel like a lot of teen shows don’t really show what teenagers have to go through by themselves,” agrees Callina. “But I think this show does it really well. To find a show nowadays that portrays mental health in a true and raw and grounded way isn’t easy. I feel like a lot of shows glamorise it, but that’s not how it is.”
For Tessa, it was O’Sullivan’s ability to capture teen friendships and teen communication that stood out. “You’re just terrible at kind of being a friend in a lot of ways, when you’re young, because you don’t know how to necessarily communicate,” she says. “It’s something you learn to do within that time frame and they’re really at the start of that learning curve in the show. And Mark was just amazing at writing how horribly awkward and funny teenagers can be, as well as how big the consequences can actually be in those moments – because when you don’t communicate effectively, it can cause really, really big issues between you and friends at that age.”
Of course, after Skins, O’Sullivan is already known for his unique ability to capture the teen experience. But Tell Me Everything goes beyond just bringing the gritty teen experience to life – it shows us what it’s like to be a teen today as a member of the first digital generation.
“Mental health looks a lot different than it once did,” says Eden. “Mark is not lingering on what mental health looked like when he was a kid or a teenager. With the rise of social media, the ways we have of expressing our feelings in those intimate moments has changed. Even when you’re completely alone, now, you still have a phone with you.” It’s no wonder Jonny bolsters his facade by posting online whenever he finds himself alone for even a moment.
Tell Me Everything offers no solutions to the problem of our ever-increasing reliance on social media, nor does it preach about its impact on our mental health. Instead, it simply tries to show it for what it is. “It is ugly, it is nasty,” Eden says thoughtfully. “It’s not pretty to look at, and you don’t always react how you should react. And hopefully people see that and see that it’s okay.”