There’s no polite way to inform somebody you had them pegged as a murderous stalker – especially when they don’t appear to be one. (If the person is a murderous stalker then politeness matters less than personal safety: confront the scumbag with maximum prejudice, just never in an abandoned meat factory.)
Best be upfront with these things. “I thought it was you,” I tell Amy-Leigh Hickman. “Sending those ominous messages. Killing all those rich people. I really thought it was you.”
She tells me that I’m not alone. Supposedly lots of people have her pegged as a killer. It’s all over social media. Friends text her for confirmation, strangers accost her in the street. Are we all wrong? Or does darkness lurk behind her seemingly perfect character?
What about you? What do you think?
Just to be clear, Amy-Leigh Hickman is not a murderous stalker – as far as I’m aware. She’s a successful actress whose most recent role is playing the bright and bookish Nadia in the fourth season of the Netflix phenomenon You.
For the few who need the primer: since its 2019 debut, You has established itself as one of the era’s buzziest TV shows and enshrined former Gossip Girl star Penn Badgley as the internet’s most problematic crush. His Joe Goldberg is quite the obsessive type and tends to inadvertently murder those in his obsession’s orbit. (Joe is the master of the inadvertent murder; he’s also very good at sexy narration, rasping out numerous bon mots to justify his increasingly high body count. Hence the internet crush; that and the fact he’s played by Penn Badgley.)
Season four has Joe pitch up as a university professor in London. Hickman’s Nadia is one of his students, an expert on murder mysteries and pretty much the only member of the ensemble who isn’t a) stinkingly rich and b) stinkingly awful. Several of them are soon stinkingly dead – and not by Joe’s hand!
As the only wholesome character in the show, Nadia seems the obvious suspect. And although the killer was supposedly revealed in episode five – the show has taken a mid-season hiatus, returning in March to finish itself off – everybody knows the game doesn’t end at halftime.
“It is you, isn’t it?” I press Hickman.
Our confrontation takes place in the perfect setting, albeit ten years too late: no longer a derelict husk, Battersea Power Station is now doing a passable imitation of an American shopping mall. We don’t face each other atop one of the chimneys but a secluded table in a rather swish hotel bar, stubbornly situated on the ground floor. The chimneys aren’t even bloody visible. Still, one makes do.
Smiling, Amy-Leigh Hickman invites me to share my theory. Quite a few people have shared theirs with her and nobody has got it right yet. Confidence slightly dissipating, feeling less Poirot and more Inspector Japp by the second, I duly share mine.
She nods. Leans forward and says in a lowered voice…
Hold up! I’m breaking the rules here. We’re way too early in the article to discover the identity of the murderer – whether it’s Hickman or one of her castmates.
Let’s utilise another classic trope of the genre. Let’s flashback.
Amy-Leigh Hickman is 25 years old and has been acting more than half her life. Not even a teenager when she first appeared in Tracy Beaker Returns as the outgoing Carmen Howle, Hickman has amassed a heavyweight CV: EastEnders, Ackley Bridge, Our Girl. She attended Saturday stage school as a kid, caught the attention of her drama teacher’s brother who was starting up a talent agency. It proved a shrewd signing.
She spent eight years working on Tracy Beaker Returns and subsequent spinoff The Dumping Ground. Filming took her to Newcastle and out of school for half the year. “You had to get in minimum three hours, maximum five hours a day of tuition.” It was a tough job but an immensely rewarding one: people still approach her about the show to this day.
Ackerley Bridge is another fan favourite: Hickman played teenager Nasreen Paracha, whose struggles to reconcile her sexuality with her Muslim faith served as a major, groundbreaking storyline. When the show aired, numerous girls reached out to Hickman on social media to express their gratitude and share their own stories. “That was one of my favourite jobs I’ve ever done,” says Hickman of Ackley Bridge. “It was just very, very special. I’m still friends with them all now.”
All things considered, it’s impressive how balanced Hickman appears to be. Former child actors don’t get the best rep but she is both charming and probably cooler than you. Get this: she has a bar in her living room. Hickman and her housemate built it during lockdown. Her favourite restaurant is Burger & Lobster – a restaurant chain favoured by those with zero pretension and great taste.
Despite spending more than half her life in the acting industry, she still has an aversion to self-tapes. Rather than enlist a friend to feed her lines, she prefers to record the whole scene on her phone and play both roles. That’s how she filmed her audition for You: “talking to myself” as both Nadia and Joe. She still has the video on her phone but hasn’t shared it with co-star Penn Badgley. “I didn’t show him, no!” she says, laughing in a manner that implies Badgley won’t be seeing her Joe impression anytime soon.
Joining a series in its fourth series would normally mean an established cast was already in place. However, You relocating Joe to London meant that Badgley was the only, ahem, survivor from previous seasons. Most of Hickman’s scenes in the early episodes were with Badgley alone. “He was the only person I really worked with. I didn’t really meet all of the others until maybe two and half months in.”
Joe is a rotter of the first order but Badgley has a reputation as one of the nicest guys in the industry. A well-earned one, according to Hickman. “He’s very sweet, he’s really nice, very humble, calm and just very, very easy to be around. And he’s a really generous actor as well. I ask him so many questions when we are doing scenes together and he’s quite happy to sit and help me. He didn’t have to do that, you know? He’s a great guy and he’s a really brilliant actor to work with.”
While she’s worked on several big shows in the past, You is a whole other level: a global behemoth watched by millions around the world. Taking the Tube to Battersea Power Station, I was frequently confronted by Badgley glowering out of digital billboards; with all due respect to two fine shows, you don’t get that level of exposure with Tracy Beaker or Ackley Bridge. Did Hickman notice the scale difference when filming? Navigating hordes of screaming fans, being chauffeured to set in a Bentley, lunch being served on golden plates by Michelin-starred chefs?
“No, it feels the same,” says Hickman, sounding almost surprised this was the case. “I think it helped filming in London as well. I was going home at the end of the day every night, which was a luxury for me. We were all new and it was in London, so it felt normal.”
She didn’t even recognise herself on one of the billboards – although in fairness, all the characters were blurred out. “I sent it to Tilly Keeper [who plays Lady Phoebe] when it came out and I went, who is that? Because I know that’s you and I know that that’s Aidan [Cheng]. She’s like, ‘I haven’t got a clue. I haven’t got a clue.’ Then I realised it was me!”
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I hope she shared it with her grandparents, Hickman’s “biggest fans” even if her nan finds You too gory to watch. “She actually hasn’t watched a lot of stuff I’ve been in. But if there’s even a tiny picture of me in a magazine she will have that cut out and put in a folder somewhere. She supports me in her own way!” We look forward to making our debut in Nana Hickman’s folder; she might struggle with the billboard, though.
There should be many more billboards in Hickman’s future. Despite her considerable experience, her career is only just getting started. She’s currently filming the sitcom Ruby Speaking for ITVX in which she plays a glamorous training coordinator. It couldn’t be more different from You. What does she look for in a job? “Nice people,” she replies. “And for it not to feel easy. If it feels easy then it’s probably time to move on.”
Hickman’s Nadia tutors Joe on the mechanics of the murder mystery genre; Hickman ensured she had read all the books mentioned on the show. (Her favourite? The Murder in the Vicarage – the Agatha Christie classic that introduced Miss Marple and St Mary Mead, a sleepy countryside village with a body count to rival 1980s Medallion. ) But what of the mystery at the heart of You itself?
“It is too, too good,” says Hickman. “The twist is unbelievable!”
I’ve told her my theory. It has to be Nadia, surely? Her love of murder mysteries may actually be research. Her affair with her deceased professor offers both motive and opportunity. Her appearance in Joe’s life just feels a little too neat.
“So, none of us knew who it was,” says Hickman. “And I was convinced it was me. For all of those reasons. I was quietly confident!”
Was her confidence misplaced? Or is Nadia indeed a coldblooded killer masquerading as a sweet-natured English student? I fear there’s only one way to find out.
You returns to Netflix on 9 March.