Meet Leo Woodall: The White Lotus's Essex boy turned Bridget Jones star

It’s been a long time since the nation was enraptured by an Essex boy. The sheen of Love Island has completely tarnished and The Only Way Is Essex feels like a distant fever dream.

But then, for a short period in 2022, a fresh delegate had everyone – even those who should know better – weak at the knees. It was The White Lotus’s Jack, a cheeky chappy West Ham fan with a Cockney twang and highly sensitive nipples.

So what about the man behind the Cowabunga neck tattoo? That would be Leo Woodall, the 27-year-old, up-and-coming, Shepherd’s Bush-born actor destined for a breakthrough. Woodall first won hearts as Jack, then as Dexter Mayhew in Netflix’s fresh adaptation of David Nicholls’ bestseller novel, One Day. Soon, he’ll be appearing in the new Bridget Jones film, which is set to release in 2025 and in which it has been speculated he’ll be playing another love interest for Bridget.

Haley Lu Richardson and Leo Woodall in The White Lotus (HBO/The White Lotus)
Haley Lu Richardson and Leo Woodall in The White Lotus (HBO/The White Lotus)

The series follows Dexter (Woodall) and Emma (This is Going to Hurt’s Ambika Mod) from the first day they meet at Edinburgh University graduation over the subsequent 20 years, returning to them on the same day every year. Dexter, with his floppy hair and destructively carefree attitude, is a surefire heartthrob, destined to set TikTok feeds and fancams alight (sincerely, good luck to any thirsty fans, he’s already dating his White Lotus co-star, Meghann Fahy).

But Jim Sturridge, the last man to slip into Mayhew’s shoes, didn’t exactly have an easy run of it – he and Anne Hathaway’s 2011 movie adaptation was far from a success in critic or fan circles. So when Netflix’s One Day dropped in February, TV fans wondered whether Woodall was about to be thrown to the lions.

Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall in One Day (Teddy Cavendish/Netflix)
Ambika Mod and Leo Woodall in One Day (Teddy Cavendish/Netflix)

The answer was no, not at all. In fact, One Day was near-universally praised, and Woodall’s turn as Dex is almost guaranteed to bolster his already starry profile. But where did he come from, and where will he go? Here’s all the intel on blue-eyed Leo.

Born in West London to a long line of actors

Woodall’s family tree is laced with thespians, though none are exactly household names. His father is the actor Andrew Woodall, known for parts in The Count of Monte Cristo, Solo: A Star Wars Story and Belle as well as his work on stage. His step-father is Scottish actor Alexander Morton, who has cropped up in just about every British and Scottish terrestrial series you can think of: Casualty, Luther, Taggart, Minder, Extras, Take The High Road, Monarch of the Glen, Second Sight, River City – he’s been everywhere at least once.

Calum Finlay and Andrew Woodall on stage during the production ‘Bloody Difficult Women’ (2022) (Mark Senior)
Calum Finlay and Andrew Woodall on stage during the production ‘Bloody Difficult Women’ (2022) (Mark Senior)

The true star among Woodall’s kin is a much older relative, though. “I have a great, great, great, great grandmother named Maxine Elliott and she had her own theatre off-Broadway in New York,” Woodall told W magazine this year. As it turns out, Maxine Elliott was a bit of a pioneer. Her theatre, which opened in 1908, was the only establishment of its kind run by a woman in the United States at the time.

And while Woodall’s mum, Jane Morton, never went into acting, she did first meet Leo’s dad at drama school. So was Leo’s fate sealed from the start?

Not so much. “I wanted to be a PE teacher or a stuntman,” he told W magazine.

‘The dark years’ before a Peaky Blinders-fueled epiphany

Woodall grew up in Shepherd’s Bush in what he describes as a “fairly posh middle-class” family. He has two older siblings, and considers himself the “baby” of his family, according to an interview with The Guardian, where he admits he was “a bit spoilt”.

But as he got older, things became more difficult. Woodall went to a “shit school” in London, where he says he “didn’t really give a f**k” about his grades and violence was not uncommon. At one party, a boy who barely knew Leo pulled a knife on him to get him to give up the pair of gloves he was wearing.

This lifestyle changed Woodall. He told The Guardian: “I started shaving my eyebrows [...] I shaved my head. I wore a hood all the time, changed the way I talked. It was a kind of survival instinct, I think. To fit in. But I wasn’t nice. I lashed out. My mum was worried.”

Leo Woodall (Jordan Pettitt/PA) (PA Archive)
Leo Woodall (Jordan Pettitt/PA) (PA Archive)

This period is jokingly referred to as “the dark years,” by Woodall and his family. But something was around the corner: it just took an episode of Peaky Blinders for him to realise it.

While watching the hit BBC series, Woodall decided he wanted to become an actor, and eventually chose to break the news to his parents. “I think they knew I’d probably end up being one,” he told The Guardian. “I was so nervous about what my family would think of me as an actor. Just, was I any good? I’ve always felt this personal pressure to make it. And they’ve always been wonderful and supportive.”

The rocky path to stardom (and paying Tom Holland’s bar tab)

Woodall went to ArtsEd drama school in Chiswick, from which he graduated in 2019.

But the run-up to The White Lotus in 2022 was not a clear upward curve, but more of a wobbly line. In 2019, he appeared in one episode of Holby City, as most budding British actors do, playing the part of a boy whose friend had fallen off a wall (he later reveals that the pair had taken drugs).

Then came something a little starrier: Cherry, a 2021 film led by Marvel juggernauts Anthony and Joe Russo, with Spiderman Tom Holland set for the starring role. Sadly, Woodall’s scenes only made it as far as the cutting room floor, and all he had to show for his time on set was a £70 receipt from Tom Holland’s dinner table (“I accidentally paid his tab at a bar one night,” Woodall told W magazine).

Haley Lu Richardson and Leo Woodall in The White Lotus (HBO)
Haley Lu Richardson and Leo Woodall in The White Lotus (HBO)

He also appeared in the 2022 TV series The Vampire Academy, based on the YA fiction book series of the same name, “for five minutes,” he says (it was actually two episodes).

Then, in 2021, while filming mid-pandemic, Woodall found himself in need of something new to watch. “I’d gotten COVID on set, so I spent Christmas in a hotel room and my dad told me to watch [The White Lotus]. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard of it, but I quickly fell completely in love with it.”

Little did he know that while he was watching season one, an audition offer for season two was lying in his inbox. “And I stupidly wasn’t checking my emails,” he told YouTube outlet GoldDerby.

Becoming Joey Essex and falling for a co-star

“I’m not going to lie, when I did my audition I watched four videos of Joey Essex beforehand,” Woodall told GQ in 2022, while The White Lotus was still airing.

The Only Way is Essex act worked, then, because Woodall was picked by Mike White, the series’ showrunner, and shipped off to Sicily to start filming as Jack, our Essex lad with a dark secret.

“It shouldn’t really have happened for me at that point,” Woodall said in an interview with The Guardian. “White Lotus is a star-studded show and I was not a star. I was not even someone who had been on television before.”

“I was lucky that Mike White doesn’t give a f**k about stardom. I did a tape, I did it well, he liked it.”

Haley Lu Richardson and Leo Woodall in The White Lotus (HBO)
Haley Lu Richardson and Leo Woodall in The White Lotus (HBO)

Tom Hollander’s presence as a screen partner brought a taste of home to Taormina, but everybody else was flummoxed by Jack’s regional accent. “[While filming] they all had no idea what I was saying half the time. All the Americans in the cast, Mike [White, the showrunner], the Italians. No one really knew what I was saying,” Woodall told GQ.

As soon as Woodall landed on that set, his life changed. “When I got the gig I knew I was walking into something that lives on its own planet, it’s special and different to everything else,” he told GoldDerby.

There were a few pinch-me moments, like when Woodall tripped over his words meeting Michael Imperioli at the hotel gym. “He said hello and I just forgot the English language,” Woodall told W. “I said something like, ‘Nice to see you later’ or, ‘Nice to hi you.’ I remember walking away like, ‘You idiot. That was Michael Imperioli and you just made a fool of yourself.’”

But gaffes aside, Woodall maintains that it was the best summer of his life. “It was surreal for me because I arrived and was the youngest and least experienced of the actors, so I was meerkat-ing everyone,” he said.

Meghann Fahy and Theo James in The White Lotus (HBO)
Meghann Fahy and Theo James in The White Lotus (HBO)

And it’s no surprise it was so enjoyable: the filming period in Sicily also introduced him to his co-star and now-girlfriend, The Bold Type actress Meghann Fahy. The pair don’t talk about each other in interviews much, but they have been trailed by the odd paparazzo – who “cycled from block to block to block, trying to remain hidden”, in Woodall’s words – and were spotted getting cosy at this year’s Emmys afterparty. When asked by Vogue if he considered himself a good boyfriend to his 33-year-old love interest, he replied: “You’ll have to ask Meghann.”

Camden living and becoming the next Dexter Mayhew

Now he’s settled into his newfound fame, Woodall has landed in Camden, in a house he shares with his older brother. He’s preparing for the response to his turn as Dexter Mayhew in One Day, a role which he secured while still filming The White Lotus – he even turned up to one of his four auditions with the ‘Cowabunga’ tattoo still on his neck.

Mayhew was a “tougher” role, Woodall told Vogue: “What my character goes through is a lot.” And with much more romance. Dexter and Emma’s relationship is the core pillar of One Day’s storytelling. Which meant one thing: chemistry reads.

Woodall had several, including one with another actress, before meeting Ambika Mod, which he said he thought “went really well.” “And then they were like ‘Wow, you really had no chemistry with that person!’”

Leo Woodall as Dexter and Ambika Mod as Emma in One Day (Matthew Towers/Netflix)
Leo Woodall as Dexter and Ambika Mod as Emma in One Day (Matthew Towers/Netflix)

Luckily, he and Ambika were an instant hit, and the pair began their seven month filming schedules. “It started to feel like my whole life was not getting enough sleep and eating brownies for lunch,” Woodall told The Hollywood Reporter of this period.

“I struggled at the beginning of One Day,” he added. “I was struck by how much pressure I felt being a lead. I didn’t know if I should behave like the captain of a sports team. And I struggled with not having any kind of moment to myself, like you can’t tie your own shoelace or spit your own gum out.”

Now the series has been released, Woodall can finally share the results with the world. It’s been tough waiting: beforehand, only a handful of people had seen the series, including Woodall and his mum, who had to overcome the difficult hurdle of having a shared Netflix account. “Every time I tried to watch it, it would block her out,” Woodall told The Guardian.

“My mum said something very sweet: ‘Surely, if you’re the lead in a Netflix show, they give you your own account.’ I said, ‘No, mum, that’s not how it works.’”

One Day is streaming now on Netflix