Ncuti Gatwa: A Timelord making history

Ncuti Gatwa: A Timelord making history

By Caroline Frost,
Wednesday, 8th June 2022
Gatwa as Eric in Sex Education (credit: Netflix)
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Caroline Frost profiles Sex Education star Ncuti Gatwa, who was recently given the keys to the Tardis.

When the Bafta TV Awards took place in London at the beginning of May, amid the sea of famous faces on the Southbank’s red carpet, all eyes were on one young man – Ncuti Gatwa, announced a few hours earlier as the new Doctor in Doctor Who

If this could be considered a little intimidating for any actor, Gatwa showed no sign of nerves. And anyway, he could bask in the enthusiasm and support of the man beside him, Russell T Davies, considered by fans to be the official Tardis-whisperer of the long-running show and clearly thrilled by his new recruit to the blue police box. 

“We love him, don’t we?” was how Davies responded to the inevitable question of what prompted him to cast Gatwa. “It was a blazing audition. Our very last audition. We thought we had someone, and then he came and stole it. I’m properly thrilled.” 

Gatwa described the relief of knowing he no longer had to keep to himself the big secret he’s known since February: “It’s been emotional. I woke up crying and then I started dancing, but I’m glad it’s finally out. It’s been tricky keeping this under wraps as I have a very big mouth.” 

Bafta’s red carpet is 6,600km away from the Rwandan capital of Kigali where Gatwa was born in 1992, the son of Tharcisse Gatwa, a journalist with a PhD in theology, and Josephine, an admin clerk. Two years later, the family fled the country’s genocidal war and settled in Scotland, moving between Edinburgh and Dunfermline. Gatwa has since revealed that, as a child, he experienced racial bullying. He told the BBC Scotland documentary Black and Scottish: “I definitely felt, growing up, that I wasn’t seen as the same as anyone around me because no one around me looked like me. I remember my mum being like, ‘Everyone looks the same’. She travelled all around Edinburgh trying to find someone who was black, and she couldn’t see anyone. 

“Role models? There were no black Scottish role models. I felt like I was the only black person in the world.” 

Unbowed, Gatwa studied for a degree in acting at Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, graduating in 2013. This training nurtured his love of theatre and much of his earliest work found him on stage across the UK, including at Dundee Rep, and in London, at the Yard, the Noel Coward Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe. 

His very first TV appearance took him back to Scotland, with a tiny role in the BBC Four sitcom Bob Servant (2014) – buying a burger from a pre-Succession Brian Cox. This was followed by an appearance in an adaptation of Iain Banks’s Stonemouth (2015) and a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2016). Bob Servant writer Neil Forsyth recalls a young Gatwa: “Ncuti was only on set one day, but I remember him well as a bright presence on a gloomy day of filming in rainy Broughty Ferry. He had one line, ‘What was in that burger?’. There is no doubt that Bob Servant would take full credit for launching Ncuti’s career and would now be looking to be installed into a management role.” 

Seemingly on his way in the industry, Gatwa moved to London, aged 21, but a dip in his fortunes found him sofa-surfing between friends, borrowing money for Tube fares to auditions and struggling mentally. He described the pressure of not wanting to let down his parents and other loved ones.

In 2020, he wrote of this time in an article for The Big Issue: “It felt awful being that guy – using the electric and water but not contributing. I developed depression. But I never let people know how down I was feeling. That would have been another burden for my friends to take on.” 

Things changed when he won the role of Eric Effiong in Netflix’s Sex Education, the zeitgeist-surfing teen sex comedy watched by 40 million viewers within the first four weeks of its release in 2019, and almost instantly recommissioned for a second series. It remains a show for the moment – a comedy that pays nostalgic homage to the ever-popular screen staple of teens going into battle with their hormones, while bringing it bang up to date thanks to its serious discussions about sexual politics and contemporary attitudes towards relationships. 

The three central youngsters are Otis (Asa Butterfield), his love interest, Maeve (Emma Mackey), and his best friend, Eric, played by Gatwa. From the off, he was applauded for his portrayal of a black, gay, Christian teen, and won the Comedy Performance (Male) category at the 2020 RTS Programme Awards.  

Creator Laurie Nunn previously told Television that two writers contributed to his storyline because of Eric’s “intersectionality – I’m a white female, I wouldn’t presume to know what he was going through. Eric was the only character written so specifically”. 

Gatwa reflected in an interview for his alma mater, the Royal Conservatoire: “Eric has so much love to give but it isn’t always reciprocated. He’s openly gay but comes from a very strict, religious family background. His parents are African. He resonates with so many people because of all the sections of society he represents. When you have a character who is bringing those things together, it is a lot of pressure, but it’s so beautiful.” 

Three seasons later, Gatwa has scooped up Scottish Bafta and Rose d’Or awards plus an Instagram following of 2.7 million and counting... and now the keys to the Tardis (metaphorically, before Whovians get cross).  

When Russell T Davies was previously revealed to be returning to the helm of the show he rejuvenated back in 2005, many were convinced he would bring with him one of his young It’s a Sin cast – perhaps Omari Douglas or Olly Alexander. 

Instead, he’s gone for someone who can match them both for telegenic charisma, has an established fan base and, many are convinced, the power to bring a special magic dust all of his own. 

Science fiction writer Tade Thompson told The Guardian, “Casting Ncuti Gatwa is an inspired choice. He can pull off the mercurial madcap nature required. He has the energy and the physicality, and he brings youth to the role. Plus, he will be coming with young fans already. I’m happy to stick my neck out and say that he will go down as many people’s favourite Doctor for a long time to come. 

“Maybe having a black Doctor will open up new storylines, although, when it comes to science fiction, we’ve never been limited by anything [other than] the writer’s imagination.” 

As for Gatwa himself, despite all the new attention, even before he appears in the upcoming Barbie movie alongside Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, it’s clear he hasn’t forgotten his roots and is determined to make a difference in his birth nation. He recently said of his blossoming reputation, “I want to build a school in Rwanda. There are so many amazing fresh young minds in Africa that need nourishment from outside.” 

When he makes his Doctor Who debut next year, Gatwa will be the 14th Doctor, the fourth Scot in the role, and the first black actor to be cast as the series lead.  

But he shows no sign of being intimidated by the part’s history when he says: “I’m definitely going to do my own thing. This role is an honour, it’s an institution and means a lot to so many people, including myself.  

“It makes everyone feel seen, something everyone can enjoy. I feel very grateful having the baton handed over and I’m going to try and do my best.”  

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