When Sex Education was released on Netflix early last year, it had cult hit written all over it. A teen comedy drama from the John Hughes playbook, but set in the UK, it ended the year as a bona fide mainstream smash, with more views in the UK than Top Boy, Black Mirror or The Crown.
The breakout star of this breakout hit? Ncuti Gatwa, as Eric Effiong. The character could have been a cliché, a TV trope, but with skilful writing and a wonderfully effervescent performance from the young Scottish-Rwandan actor, instead broke stereotypes, broke boundaries and, particularly in scenes with his father or his initial response to being the victim of a homophobic attack, broke hearts.
For five months before Sex Education, I was couch-surfing among all my friends. I didn’t have a home. I was homeless.
As season two of the series – which also features a joyous turn from Gillian Anderson as central character Otis Milburn’s oversharing, sex therapist mum Jean – arrives on Netflix, Gatwa is enjoying the ride.
And little wonder. His opening line of the new series is: “You have discovered the joys of your own penis, my friend.”
But, as Gatwa reveals midway through our interview at a central London hotel, during which his loud and excited enthusiasm barely dips, life was not always so dreamy for the actor, who at 27 is 10 years older than his alter-ego.
“I was constantly working but I still found it impossible to survive in London. Because it was so expensive,” he says.
“I am from Scotland and moved down to London when I was 21. I was working constantly – and at some good places – I spent a year at the Globe Theatre, I did a lot of work at Kneehigh, who are a physical theatre company.
“But you have to feed yourself, you have to get to work, with rent, bills, travel, days off from temping to go to an audition, I couldn’t seem to handle it all financially. I was supposed to move into a new place and it fell through.
“So for five months before Sex Education, I was couch-surfing among all my friends. I didn’t have a home. I was homeless. The only thing stopping me from being on the streets was the fact I had friends. But you can use up that goodwill. Or you feel scared to ask people for help. Your pride kicks in. So my life before Sex Education was SO different. To go to my audition, I had to get my friend to transfer me 10 quid so I could top up my Oyster card.”
It’s a startling revelation. And explains why Gatwa has agreed to become an ambassador for youth homelessness charity Centrepoint. Gatwa continues talking, and his story becomes even more compelling and revealing.
“I was thinking it was so mad, because if someone was to see me on the street – on my way to temping at Harrods in my trenchcoat and brogues, because you have to be so well-polished and look the part – they would never believe I was about to spend two hours on the phone to people trying to find where I could sleep that night.
“I got a sense of how lucky I had been. I was looking at people, thinking, ‘You are so lucky to be about to go home to your own bed.’ Then I was going to work to sell £7,000 perfumes.”
My life before Sex Education was SO different. To go to my audition, I had to get my friend to transfer me 10 quid so I could top up my Oyster card
Wait, what? Perfume can cost how much?
“Oh, £7,000 is cheap, honey!” grins Gatwa. “There were some for £36,000. Let’s not even talk about it! So, of all the places to see extremes. I couldn’t believe I was homeless and working in Harrods. How many people must be going through this in London?”
Gatwa’s backstory informs his feelings about his character in Sex Education. Eric, a gay young man from a specific and well-researched religious West African background, is a beacon of positive representation.
“I get messages from LGBT people all around the world every day,” says the actor.
“They say how the show has helped them, or the character has helped them because it is illegal to be gay where they are from. And there are kids who have run away, I get a lot of messages from underprivileged people who are struggling with their sexuality. I’m so glad the show is there to empower them.”
Amen to that.
“It’s nice to have thorough representation in a show,” Gatwa continues. “And what is nice about Eric is that he doesn’t just exist in his sexuality. He doesn’t just exist in his ethnicity. He is a fully fleshed-out character who is the best friend of Otis but also has his own beginning, middle and end, his own highs and lows. And in terms of kids watching that, it is great they will be able to see themselves represented.
“Eric is a black best friend. He is a gay best friend. So there was a danger of making him a caricature. But the writing is so nuanced, so good. Even the worst actor would do him justice.”
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I suggest Gatwa should take at least a little credit. The scene towards the end of season one between Eric and his father, who is supportive and loving but worried how the world will treat his son, was a thing of great beauty and heart.
“It is a nice way to do it. Telling important stories through comedy. Dealing with things in a very frank way has its benefits, but when you are dealing with issues very close to the heart and personal – as Sex Education deals with matters of the body and all that stuff, it’s nice to have a bit of comedy there.
“Because everyone feels awkward around those issues. So the humour helps the emotional weight of Sex Education. Whenever I get a new script, I get really excited. What is this boy going to do now? And I’m a massive nerd. I have different colour highlighter pens. I’m that guy, preparing my script for months in advance.”
Of series two, Gatwa gives little away.
But new characters shake up the status quo at Moordale, where Eric’s pal Otis is tempted to return to offering sex and relationship advice (for a fee) to his schoolmates.
“It is like a Sex Education explosion,” says Gatwa. “We’ve gone so deeply into that world. Eric has his eye on a couple of newcomers. And Adam comes back into town, which leads to a couple of love triangles. It is like a love hexagon. A love rhombus!”
I couldn’t believe I was homeless and working in Harrods. How many people must be going through this in London?
The series has seen Gatwa get noticed around the world. From the messages he was sent featuring his face on promotional posters in Times Square in New York to being seen for new roles, Sex Education has taken Gatwa into realms that were out of reach previously.
“In terms of work it has opened up a breadth of opportunity. I’m halfway through filming The Last Letter From Your Lover. It is exciting that films want me now,” says Gatwa. “It’s an exciting young cast and the majority of my scenes are with Felicity Jones – I play her best friend, we’ve got a very cute relationship. She’s so fucking brilliant at what she does.
“And I met Billy Porter [award-winning star of Pose] and he knew who I was, which was really strange. He was so lovely.
“And I’m also getting used to being recognised. You hop on the 243 bus and people know who you are. That will always be weird.”
Sex Education series two is on Netflix now