Every season of Sex Education is a treat, with the Netflix teen comedy expanding its all-star cast with new additions to the world of Moordale Secondary. In Season 3, which premiered this week after a year-plus wait, new student Cal became the first trans/nonbinary character to play a starring role.
As Cal, Sudanese-American actor Dua Saleh brought a nuanced depiction of life as a nonbinary person, as they faced discrimination from the school's new head teacher. While Sex Education is their debut TV role, Saleh is also an accomplished songwriter and recording artist whose discography is definitely worth a listen. Here's everything we know about this young phenom.
They were born in Sudan and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The 26-year-old was born in Kassala, Sudan. Their family left the country when they were five, seeking political asylum amid the Second Sudanese Civil War. After moving around different refugee camps in Eritrea and several U.S. cities, they settled in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, per the Minneapolis Star Tribune. They later graduated from Augsburg University, where they studied sociology and theater.
They grew up writing poetry.
When they arrived in the U.S., Saleh started reading African-American YA literature and writing poetry. They later got into spoken-word poetry in their sophomore year of college, performing at Button Poetry in Minneapolis with the hope of making money at competitions. Their spoken-word performance "Pins and Needles" even went viral in 2017.
Eventually they started writing songs to help get through a depressive episode, saying "something [in their body] compelled them to start singing and start writing songs." They told Them, "I started trying to perform the songs at open mics just to see how people would respond, and they responded very well, so I started making songs on my phone. I think one person saw me perform a song at a poetry slam and booked me for an event. I was like, 'Hm, maybe I can make some money off of this,” which is terrible to think about it in that way.'"
They're an indie musician and songwriter.
Saleh's been writing and recording songs since TK, with their music being described as pop, R&B, TK TK. Their debut EP Nur (2019) explored gender and racial issues along with their personal experiences, and it was produced by Psymun, who has also worked with Young Thug and Lil Baby. They also have a 2020 EP, Rosetta, named after the Black queer rock musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe, in which they wrote about their queerness and their Muslim cultural background. They even recorded the song "smut" partly in Arabic, their first language, per Them.
In an interview with Teen Vogue, they revealed that they even wrote their newest song, "signs," during lockdown while filming Sex Education in Wales. "Having that time to myself, not being surrounded by any distractions or friends or family members helped me create different worlds," they said.
They were invited to audition for Cal, and gave input on the character.
Though Saleh had previously done underground theater in Minneapolis, including a 2018 production of the play Waafrika 123, they told Autostraddle that they weren't acting much when Sex Education came along. The show actually contacted them specifically for the role, after which they auditioned alone and with Kedar Williams-Stirling, who plays Jackson.
"It was really random because I wasn’t doing acting at the time. I was working on some music stuff and they reached out to my manager and asked me to audition. They liked my self-tape and then they actually got an acting coach to help guide me through the next two auditions."
They added that the show took their input on Cal as a character, and they were able to help on the script, along with a nonbinary consultant.
"And then when I got cast they were like oh you’re trans can you help us with this. The writing team had a nonbinary consultant but they wanted me to be comfortable so they asked me questions. How do you feel about this? Do you have any issues? Any questions? That helped a lot with the script. And they also had a nonbinary consultant on set especially when me and Robyn (Holdaway) who plays Layla were there. They especially helped with the binding scenes."
They love science fiction, anime, and manga.
Saleh's a huge fan of science fiction books and television, and they've said in multiple interviews that reading magna and watching anime is their escape. They told Them, "It provides a sense of escapism that live-action content doesn’t provide. I can find myself in certain characters, in both their strengths and flaws. In sci-fi manga [and anime], humans can morph into beings outside of the common scope of reality. The main characters often tap into a tremendous amount of untapped energy. There’s a transmutational process that goes beyond any human capabilities. It’s intriguing for a trans person like myself, especially being nonbinary."
They're outspoken on social issues.
Saleh is a former youth organizer who has participated in demonstrations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, including several rallies protesting the murder of George Floyd in 2020. They also discuss social issues through their music. After Floyd's death, they released a song on police brutality called "Body Cast" and used it to raise funds for the organization Women For Political Change, which works with "young women and trans and non-binary individuals throughout Minnesota."