Ncuti Gatwa on 'feeling seen' by Doctor Who, being a Ken and why his Time Lord is 'very human'

While the world waited for his take on The Doctor, Ncuti Gatwa was busy with Barbie and Spielberg. Now, with his unveiling upon us, he’s here to talk all things Doctor Who

Ncuti Gatwa as The Doctor

The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa). Image: James Pardon/BBC

Ncuti Gatwa is trying to avoid the question. It’s an art every Doctor Who actor has to embrace. He’s sitting on an orange sofa, arms flailing, words spilling out. And he’s trying desperately to avoid describing his Doctor in too much detail. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” he says. He’s looking around the room for inspiration. Suddenly his face changes. Eyes go from playful to serious. And I think I see his Doctor for a fleeting moment. 

“Whoa,” he splutters, gathering himself, face relaxing again. “Don’t those teapots look like Daleks? Sorry, I just saw them and thought, oh my god, there are Daleks.” 

Although we have only seen Gatwa as the Doctor in glimpses and alongside his predecessor so far, the 31-year-old actor has been deep in the world of Doctor Who for almost two years. He is in. The. Zone. 

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Gatwa is obsessed. As we all will be very soon. He is already fully immersed in the role of the Doctor and the entire history of Who.

“I got tips of which episodes to watch,” he said. “Now, obviously everything’s on a BBC iPlayer as well. Hallelujah! I’ve covered a decent chunk of the vintage episodes, but not all of them just yet. But I will make my way through.”

Gatwa joins at an interesting time for the show. Ratings were down. Enthusiasm was waning among diehard fans. But then came news that Russell T Davies was returning. Then came Ncuti’s casting – sending waves of excitement across the Whoniverse. The return of David Tennant and Catherine Tate for the 60th anniversary and the involvement of Disney+ only added to the hype.

“It feels like a very magic time to be joining,” says Gatwa.

“The show has always been magic. The show just is magic. It’s amazing that we have such a long running sci-fi drama that challenges minds. What cultural magic.

“I know there might be some concern with Disney coming on board and people wondering whether that American angle will take away from what’s special about Doctor Who. But I don’t think it will. It deserves that budget. It deserves that love poured into it – not that there hasn’t been love before. But that budget will enable the writers to go for gold. And that’s what Russell has done.”

Gatwa auditioned in February 2022 and was unveiled to the world by showrunner Russell T Davies two months later. He is already midway through filming his second series – set to air in spring 2025 – such is the new timetable that goes with Disney+ streaming the show around the world and needing extra time to dub Gatwa’s Doctor into hundreds of languages.

“It’s felt like I’ve been the Doctor and also had to hold off from being the Doctor for most of the last two years,” he adds.  

“So how do I feel about people seeing it? I feel ready. But I’m sooooo nervous. It’s been so long now that I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no. Don’t look! Nothing to see here.’” 

Returning to the original question of what he will bring that is new to the role, Gatwa is now ready with an answer. “I think that is for everyone to see at Christmas,” he grins. “You know what it’s like. Anything I say will get dissected, people will be like, this is exactly what it’s going to be. And I don’t want to paint anyone’s perceptions. But I guess he is very human.”  

Introducing the Doctor played by Ncuti Gatwa.
Introducing the Doctor played by Ncuti Gatwa. Image: BBC Studios/James Pardon

We meet at a hotel in Central London. Gatwa, as ever, is dressed impeccably. Prada jumper and loafers, sharp white shirt with collars up, pinstripe trousers showing plenty of his long yellow socks. From the early pictures released, his Doctor is also set to be the most fashion-forward we’ve ever seen. We meet two days before Doctor Who’s 60th birthday.  

“I don’t know how I’ll celebrate. But it’s so exciting to have David and Catherine back. A nice little lead-in for me! It feels like it’s come full circle – because David was my Doctor and such a great inspiration to me as an actor.  

“I would have been 13 – a pivotal time. And firstly, he’s Scottish. Plus he was so charismatic and fun – I mean all the Doctors have been fun, all the way back. Well, I don’t know if you can say that about William Hartnell. Maybe he wasn’t fun. But David had such a Scottish almost feral-ness to him, which is what I liked. I felt an affinity to that.   

“So for him, of all people, to be handing the baton over – it just feels really surreal. Because I just loved his Doctor so much. So I’m very excited to be a part of the 60th. But also, it signifies the start of my tenure, which is nerve racking.”

Doctor Who and the outsiders

As well as getting up to speed on the history of the show, Gatwa has been learning about its audience. About the intensity of the fandom for whom the show represents so much. The three 60th anniversary specials have won huge plaudits – not least for introducing the character of Shirley Anne Bingham, kick ass UNIT commander – and debunking outdated ideas about disability in the process.

“I think representation is so important. When I watched the show, before auditioning, I remember feeling very, very seen by it,” Gatwa said.

“I was catching up with my mate, Clara Amfo, the other day. She studied media at university and one of her modules was the Doctor Who fandom. She talked about how huge the queer following is within the fandom. I didn’t know that until watching the show more either.

“But it makes perfect sense when you look at the formula of the show. This outer space alien that regenerates into a different body every time they’re hurt. They’re everywhere and nowhere. You can see why it has developed the following it has and why it makes people feel seen and like they can escape.

“So hopefully with this new generation now, it continues that – but I guess in a much more visible way. “Because every Doctor I’ve watched has made me feel welcome and a part of the show. Because they’re so weird. They’re outsiders. They have that outsiderness – just look at Sylvester McCoy!”

Beyond his Ken 

Doctor Who is going global. And so is Ncuti Gatwa. This has been quite a year – he also had a prominent role in the year’s biggest and boldest film, playing Artist Ken in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.  

“It was just nuts,” he says, arms splaying wide again, leaning forward, another huge grin. “I try not to think about how nuts it was because it will make my head spin and might send me a bit crazy.  

“I like to think of everything as just a job, just a moment in time. But it’s hard for me. As an actor I get so sentimentally attached to my projects. I am still very much in love with Ken and with being a Ken. Oh, gosh!” 

Maybe being a Ken is like being the Doctor, I suggest. Because once you are cast as the Doctor – as everyone from Tom Baker to Christopher Eccleston to Jodie Whittaker and David Tennant will tell you – you are the Doctor for life.  

“Yes! You’re Ken forever, like the Doctor? I like it. Very different internal monologues and very different mental capacity, the pair of them, though.  

“Oh, but Barbie… That project still lives with me. It was just an incredible project to be a part of. Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie are the best.” 

Ncuti with fellow Kens Kingsley Ben-Adir and Ryan Gosling from Barbie
Ncuti Gatwa (right) with fellow Kens, Kingsley Ben-Adir and Ryan Gosling. Image: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo

To date, Gatwa has always shone in big ensemble casts. Whether in Sex Education or Barbie or Masters of the Air, the upcoming Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks follow-up to Band of Brothers – “that was another madness!” – Gatwa has always been part of a big team.  

But being The Doctor in Doctor Who is different. Leading a revolving cast and regular guest stars through all of time and space is quite the gear shift.  

“I learned from Asa Butterfield on Sex Education and Margot Robbie on Barbie. So generous, so kind to the crew, so hardworking, such servants to the production as opposed to feeling like the production serves them,” says Gatwa.

“I couldn’t believe the patience Asa had, dealing with a whole bunch of newbies. And I don’t know how Margot found time for anyone else when she was so up against it. The pair of them are such generous leads and that’s what I tried to take into Doctor Who.”

A lovely, lovely secret

According to showrunner Davies, Gatwa brings something very special to the role.  

“With Ncuti, I feel like I’ve got a lovely, lovely secret that I’m keeping close to my chest and that soon everyone is going to see,” he told us. “Because he does things the Doctor has never done before. Without me writing it at all, he explores areas that Ncuti himself naturally goes into, he reacts in ways you have never seen the Doctor do before.  

“It feels new and it feels completely Doctor Who-y all at the same time. I literally cannot wait. I think [Christmas special] The Church on Ruby Road is one of the best episodes we’ve ever done. It’s such a laugh. It’s so much fun. And it’s so thrilling. It’s so mad. It has an enemy the like of which we’ve never done before and a fairytale quality to it. It has snow. It’s Christmas. I love it!” 

The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson).
The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) and Ruby Sunday (Millie Gibson). Image: BBC Studios/Lara Cornell

For Gatwa, the fandom is mutual. He has, he says, really embraced the message of hope and joy that Davies has always threaded through Doctor Who.  

“Russell doesn’t shy away from big, bad danger,” he says. “The scripts are everything. They’re intense, they’re energetic, they’re funny and light, but also very dark and heavy. You know, the way he writes – he’s dealing with such existential crises and huge issues channelled in a really artistic, creative sci-fi way.

“But hope is certainly something he has put into these scripts. I was speaking to him the other day – not as actor to producer or Doctor to showrunner, just as Ncuti to Russell. We were talking about the world. And I was like, it’s just not in a good place is it? And I don’t think it is going to get better, Russell – it seems like the human race is kind of useless!’ All of us.

“We keep chopping down trees, you’ve got bloody Suella [Braverman] chatting rubbish. How are we gonna get better? He told me the other day that you have to have hope in life… Hope is what saves us. 

“My mum says the same thing. And that’s what my name means. Mizero [his full name is Mizero Ncuti Gatwa] means hope. So I must remember to have hope. Because what else is there? And this show always reminds me of that. There’s always hope at the end of each episode. Did that answer your question?”

Who knows? But what an answer.

“It is remarkable to have a show that’s about an extra-terrestrial and yet at the heart of it are these really human lessons – that allow us to be able to escape our human condition, but also that everything comes back down to trying to connect and trying to respect one another and trying to create enough space for one another,” Gatwa adds. “I just love that the Doctor always fights for the underdog.

“It is getting harder and harder to find hope when you look at the News. So it’s amazing to have someone like Russell back at the helm of a show like this with the reach that it has. Because he understands all of that. He understands the lightness and the darkness of life. He’s seen it all. And he puts it into scripts. But he has real hope. And that’s really great thing to have.”

If anyone knows about hope and its opposite, it’s Gatwa. He’s experienced the fear, the trauma, the constant anxiety of not knowing where he will be sleeping of a night.

When he first found fame as Eric Effiong in Sex Education, Gatwa sat down with The Big Issue and opened up about his backstory. He talked at length, and later wrote for us, about his time sofa surfing – a period when, despite working regularly in the theatre in London and taking temp jobs – including at Harrods, the world-famous department store – he did not have a regular roof over his head.  

These days, his period of homelessness, first revealed to The Big Issue, is always mentioned whenever profiles are written about him. Gatwa talks brilliantly and openly, yet remains a private person. How has opening up about this  difficult time been for him? 

“I’m constantly trying to find a balance of how to be open and how to be private,” he says. “But with that particular issue, I always wanted to speak out about it. Because I wanted it to be quite clear that it can happen to anyone. A majority of people are one bad incident or one bad pay cheque away from a really drastic situation.  

“To this day I still wake up and check my bank balance and that there’s food in my fridge. And that’s because of that brief, brief, brief period where I was struggling.

“So for someone like Suella, with that platform, to say homelessness is a lifestyle choice? The levels of privilege that speaks to is really quite crazy.”

He pauses for a second. “So how does it feel to have talked about it? I feel good that I spoke about it. Because it can happen to anyone and can be extremely difficult to get out of. There’s just so much judgement towards people who are homeless.  

Gatwa as The Doctor with Millie Gibson as Ruby Sunday. Image: BBC Studios,/James Pardon

“I think about us as a society. As someone who grew up working class, who didn’t have money but now has some – and I’m sat here now in my Prada loafers – seeing how the world reacts to you differently depending on your situation is wild. 

“Nothing is certain. When climate change happens, AI takes over and the global economy collapses, we’re all just gonna be meat! So we really must practise humility and compassion.” 

Gatwa bought his first home recently. It understandably means a lot to him. “It feels really good. I’m so obsessed,” he says. “I struggle to leave my home, because I love it so much. I never thought I’d ever be able to buy one when I was doing theatre in London. None of my friends… none of my ‘normal’ friends can buy a house. It’s just so impossible. You need to be a bloody millionaire to buy a house in London. So it feels really nice to have a home. But I do know how lucky I am.” 

On Christmas Day, Gatwa will be welcomed into the homes of tens of millions of people around the world. He will be part of so many Christmases.  

“I love that,” he says, beaming, again. “Because Christmas can be hard for some people. It’s not joy, joy, joy for everyone. Not that Doctor Who will be the cause of everyone’s Christmas happiness – but it might bring the joy for many people. It’s nice to have that show that encapsulates ideas of coming together with respect and love. But it’s also flippin’ terrifying that I’m going to be on all of those screens.” 

You love it, come on, I suggest. He pauses, throws his head back, looks to the sky. “Ooooh, do I love it? I think I do in theory. But realistically, I’m like – I need to watch my swearing – fffffudge!” 

Doctor Who: The Church on Ruby Road is on Christmas Day on BBC One.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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