In the space of just one week, actor Ncuti Gatwa has gone from complete unknown to a breakout star in the most talked-about show of the new year.
Ncuti stars as Eric Effiong in Netflix’s critically-acclaimed new series ‘Sex Education’, stealing pretty much every scene he’s in as the hilarious best friend of Asa Butterfield’s leading man, Otis.
When he speaks to HuffPost UK, he’s in the middle of back-to-back interviews, famously a tough slog for most actors, but Ncuti admits he’s actually rather enjoying himself.
“Oh no, I don’t mind,” he jokes. “I’m a chatterbox.”
Ncuti says it’s been an “overwhelming” few days for him since ‘Sex Education’ began streaming, but notes with a laugh that he’s “definitely soaking in this moment”.
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“It’s just really special,” he explains. “Everybody that worked on this show really, really cared about it, and really believed in it. Everyone had a blast making this thing in Wales for four months last year, everyone was so excited about it and so invested in it. Now that it’s finally out and people are enjoying it, it just feels so crazy.
“But yeah, I’m definitely enjoying this. I’m liking coming to nice hotels, getting nice clothes sent to me – I got a pair of free boots the other day! It definitely makes a change from getting the 243 bus from Tottenham.”
He goes on to say he’s had an “emotional” time reading messages from fans who relate to Eric’s story, revealing: “The amount of love and support for the show is absolutely incredible, and I’ve had so many lovely messages from people that have watched it and gotten behind it, and taken so much from Eric’s journey and the other characters in the show. To be honest, it’s a bit crazy, I don’t quite know what’s happening to my life.
“I’m walking around and seeing billboards with my face on it, people are sending me photos of posters they’ve seen in Holland and America and all that stuff, I can’t believe how much support the show has got. But I definitely am very humbled and grateful for everything. It’s amazing.”
Ncuti puts the show’s instant success down to its diverse cast, and the writers’ way of straying away from relying on clichés and stereotypes.
“I think it’s resonated with so many people because it speaks to so many different people,” he says. “A really great thing is that our writers are predominantly female, so there’s a really fresh perspective on this show, and a lot of different stories being told from voices that haven’t been heard before. And I think that’s what people identify with.
“We’ve got these classic high school stereotypes and we’ve tried to push them a bit further. We’ve tried to push the envelope with all these characters, and push the stories that we’re hearing, and tell them from a different perspective. And I think people are really ready for that.
“We’re in a time now where everyone is looking towards diversity, everyone is looking towards equality. And rightfully so. And people are just sick of the same old shit! So we are trying to bring something new and exciting and fresh and empowering and inclusive of all different types of people.”
Although Eric brings the laughs whenever he’s on screen – responsible for some of Sex Education’s most memorable (if not mortifying) comedy moments – it’s rare for a character who is both gay and black to be so well-rounded, something which didn’t escape Ncuti’s attention during filming.
“I definitely felt pressure to serve those communities rightfully,” he admits. “And to just get Eric right. Because he has such an important voice, and he represents so many different intersections.
“It’s difficult to be a minority, and then to be a minority within a minority in the microcosm that is high school is such a mindfuck, but I think that makes Eric such a strong character. He is, to me, the strongest character in the show, emotionally. He’s so resilient, and that is because the world is still playing catch-up, and still trying to figure out how to deal with those two different groups.
“And we’ve seen the stereotypical black best friend, and the stereotypical gay best friend, before and there’s a danger of making them quite stock characters, and like caricatures or stereotypes. I really didn’t want to do that, because Eric has got so much heart to him, and he goes through such an important journey, and it’s a journey that so many people are going to be able to identify with, seeing themselves represented for the first time on a big Netflix show. So I definitely wanted to get it right, because I feel like he’s very important to a lot of people.”
The way the friendship between Eric and Otis, a straight character, is portrayed on screen is something Ncuti says he’s particularly proud of, and plays into a recurring theme of toxic masculinity that runs throughout ‘Sex Education’.
“I feel Eric and Otis’ friendship is one of the best elements of the show,” Ncuti enthuses. “It’s a beautiful thing. They’re very different characters, but they complement each other really well.
“They bring the best out in each other, they love each other, they’ve been friends since they were young, and they’ve got each others’ backs. They just understand each other, which is really lovely to see.
“On the show, we also see Eric and his dad, their relationship, and Adam and his dad, their separate relationship, even Otis and his dad – we’re dealing with a lot of different sides of masculinity, and trying to show that masculinity can be multi-dimensional.”
It’s obvious from talking to Ncuti that the unique role of Eric is one he’s thrilled to have been able to play, but is there one aspect of him that he’s especially proud of?
“I guess just that he’s going to speak to so many different people,” he says. “And people are going to see themselves represented on TV on a big show like this for the first time. And the fact that he’s got African heritage, and we’ve not seen an African character like him.
“I wish that I had seen myself more reflected on TV when I was growing up, and I think a lot of people feel that way. And so it’s just so lovely and nice that Eric is able to do that for people, to empower people and make them feel strong and less alone in this world.”
There’s a pause, before he adds: “And also his wardrobe. The wardrobe is fire.”
‘Sex Education’ is now streaming on Netflix.