Ncuti Gatwa on Sex Education, love triangles and avoiding stereotypes

Ncuti Gatwa on Sex Education, love triangles and avoiding stereotypes

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Tuesday, 15th December 2020
Ncuti Gatwa (Credit: Netflix)
Ncuti Gatwa (Credit: Netflix)

When Ncuti Gatwa initially received the audition email for Sex Education, he was sceptical.

“I saw Netflix, I saw Gillian Anderson and Asa Butterfield and I just thought, there’s no way I’m going to get it,” laughed Gatwa. 

He was used to going for auditions that wanted big names, so joining Sex Education - where for most of the cast it was their big break - he thought it was great how new talent was being championed. 

“It’s Emma Mackie’s first job,” said Gatwa, “one of the big plus sides of [streamers] like Netflix is there’s so much work being created now, there’s a whole bunch of actors who now have opportunities that weren’t around before.”

Netflix’s Sex Education, created by Laurie Nunn, sees 16-year-old Otis (Asa Butterfield), a socially awkward teenager, set up a sex advice business with school outcast Maeve (Emma Mackey). Gatwa plays Eric Effiong, Otis' best friend who provides most of the stand out one liners in the show.

The series delves into the complexities of love, sex, relationships and identity when you’re a teenager.

With the massive success of Sex Education, Gatwa has become a household name, but an acting career wasn’t always on the cards. 

“My parents are really academic, so I grew up thinking that was a route I was going to follow,” said Gatwa. 

Despite this, he always had a creative streak and did a lot of dancing growing up. It was only when he reached 17 years old and was unsure of what to do at university that a teacher recommended drama school.

For Gatwa, drama school was the perfect route for him. “I needed the discipline and the appreciation of your craft that gets drilled into you at drama school,” he said. 

Playing a young, black, gay man, Gatwa was aware of not falling into the trap of playing up to stereotypes or embodying clichés in the role of Eric. 

But he was so blown away by the quality of the writing, his fears were soon dismissed when he saw how fully fledged the characters were. 

“I hadn’t read many characters that were as layered as Eric was, so I was very conscious of the fact that I couldn’t let the writing down,” explained Gatwa. 

This pressure was only amplified when Gatwa was preparing for series two and he saw how much Eric meant to people and the impact he had on viewers, “I didn’t want to let the side down,” he laughed.

Asa Butterfield and Ncuti Gatwa (Credit: Netflix)
Asa Butterfield and Ncuti Gatwa (Credit: Netflix)

Part of Eric's characterisation was very much dependent on meeting Asa Butterfield, who plays Otis. 

“You can’t be a character on your own,” Gatwa explained, “you have to be a character interacting with other people, so meeting the other actors and having people to bounce off was really fun.”

One of the biggest talking points of series two was the love triangle between Eric, Adam and Rahim. 

Although Eric was in a relationship with Rahim, Adam still wasn’t far from his mind and it was Adam he chose in front of the whole school in a heart-warming scene.

Gatwa particularly enjoyed this storyline because, in that moment, it showed how human Eric was, leaving the emotionally healthy choice, Rahim, and following his heart with Adam. 

“All of us make decisions based on what our heart or gut is telling us as opposed to what our head is telling us, so I think we can all relate to that,” said Gatwa. 

He added that it’s important that the characters are not presented as perfect and won’t always make the correct decisions.

With a ten-year age gap between Eric and Gatwa, he points out that they would have very different decision-making processes. However, this didn’t hinder him when it came to getting into the mindset of a teenager, “we were all teenagers, I think we can all remember that time,” Gatwa laughed. 

Right from the beginning, Eric is very open about his sexuality, and despite a few stumbling blocks in the first series, Eric’s family is very accepting of who he is. 

“It was a nice depiction of this West African family being so embracing of their LGBT son,” said Gatwa. “They’re hugely influential in the way that Eric is as a person and as to why he is so unashamed.”

Having an unashamed black gay character on TV was important to Gatwa, because he hoped it inspired other teenagers to embrace who they are and for their families to embrace them too. 

It’s not just teenagers who have been inspired by Sex Education. When Gatwa met Rose McGowan at Letter Live, “the first thing she said to me was that she wished she had the show when she was younger because so many difficult experiences wouldn’t have happened,” said Gatwa. 

Having the ability to reach people and help them with their problems was something Gatwa felt was very “powerful” and was something he is “really proud of.”

Since filming Sex Education Gatwa has felt a lot more comfortable talking about sex with his parents, “there’s no reason why those conversations should be made taboo, we’re all here because of sex!"

With filming put on hold due to the coronavirus crisis, Gatwa is currently enjoying some downtime, but his latest project The Last Letter From Your Lover, also starring Felicity Jones, is due out later this year. 

But for now, Gatwa said he “is focusing on Sex Education and bringing those Effiong performances to your screens.”

Sex Education is now available to watch on Netflix.

Ncuti Gatwa was nominated and won the Comedy Performance - Male award alongside Youssef Kerkour and Alex Murphy & Chris Walley at the RTS Programme Awards 2020 in partnership with Audio Network. For more information on the awards, click here.

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When Ncuti Gatwa initially received the audition email for Sex Education, he was sceptical.