If Ben Hardy is feeling a little nervous about meeting the press, it’s understandable.
The 23-year-old only joined EastEnders last June (as the sixth incarnation of Peter Beale), and as he puts it, “spent the first six months just selling fruit and veg”.
But now, he’s suddenly at the core of one of the soap’s biggest ever storylines, as the twin brother of Lucy, who was found murdered last month. And with that comes a topless cover shoot for gay magazine Attitude (more on that later), press intrusion, and lots of questions over who might be responsible for the mysterious death.
“I don’t know who it [the culprit] is - none of the actors do, as far I know,” says blond-haired Hardy during a break in filming. “There’s a big veil of secrecy and some censored scenes that I haven’t been able to read.”
He knows his on-screen father Ian, played by Adam Woodyatt since the show began 29 years ago, is hiding something. “But I don’t know what it is and Adam won’t tell me - as much as I ask him!” he adds.
The storyline is set to run for months and the perpetrator won’t be revealed until next year, but Hardy doesn’t think it’ll turn out to be Peter. “I don’t think he has enough motive and if it came out that it was him, I’d wonder where it’s come from,” he says. “With the facts we know so far, it’d be a case [of him being] some psychopath that’s been pretending to be nice for his entire life.”
His character’s affability is the reason Hardy’s surprised by his sex symbol status. “I don’t see Peter as a sexy character. I think he’s more cute, a nice boy, whereas sexy means bad boy.”
While he finds the attention flattering, “it’s not made me think ‘I’m so good-looking’,” the rising star insists.
“I know people from school who are as equally good or better looking, and I know if they were in the show, they’d have all that [adulation] as well.”
Unsurprisingly, Hardy’s the recipient of “quite a bit” of fan mail. Mostly from school girls - and gay men (hence the Attitude shoot), whose letters are pretty descriptive. “You don’t want to know,” he says, grinning. “I’ve learnt a lot about sex from that fan mail.”
Although he’s previously been quoted as saying “stardom made me a recluse”, today he’s keen to clarify what he actually meant. “It depends on my mood,” he explains. “Sometimes, I just want to be on my own.
“That’s what’s not very nice, the fact you’re public property, a commodity. People feel like they know you because they see you on TV.
“But that’s understandable,” he reasons. “When I see someone famous, I go, ‘Oh my God, it’s so and so’.”
He’s taken to dressing differently as a disguise - “but it doesn’t seem to work”.
“I’ve tried hats, sunglasses,” he reveals. “I come in to the set [at Elstree Studios] on the train and I’m usually there with a load of labourers, so try and dress up like one of them.”
More often than not, though, he’s spotted by the local school girls. “They go, ‘Peter, Peter, oh my God! Tell me what’s hap’nin’!’”
Although he claims he doesn’t pay attention to ratings, he has sensed a resurgence of interest in the soap. “The public opinion seems to be that it’s back on track and my friends back home [in Bournemouth] are watching it again, not because of me - because they didn’t start watching it when I joined - but because of the storyline.”
Filming the aftermath of Lucy’s death has been an emotional slog. “But I’m glad to have the challenge,” says Hardy, who primes himself for scenes by thinking about his own family being in that situation.
“I don’t have a sister, but I try and think about me and my brother or my mum and dad.”
He believes Woodyatt has “a gift” for accessing those feelings so quickly. “We don’t really talk much before the emotional scenes, because he doesn’t like to do it too many times,” Hardy reveals. “He gets upset just reading it, so wants to do one take and it’s done. But it can take me three or four goes to get to that place, and he’s very supportive of that.”
EastEnders, BBC1, Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays