With his megawatt smile, thunderous laugh, and colorful fashion sense, it’s hard not to fall for Ncuti Gatwa. The “Sex Education” star shares much in common with his character Eric, best friend and confidante to amateur sex therapist Otis (Asa Butterfield), except he’s got a bit higher budget for haute couture since becoming a breakout star of the hit Netflix series. In person, Gatwa is every bit as charming and dynamic as Eric. He’s also thoughtful about his work and grateful for the impact of the groundbreaking series is having on sex positivity around the world.
In the elevator on the way to our interview, Gatwa was thrilled to share news that the Welsh government had just made sex education classes compulsory for all students. While “Sex Education” the series was not directly referenced, the show films mostly in Wales, and it’s easy to make the connection.
“Sex Education” is set at the fictional Moordale High, a magical school where gay kids rule the roost and interracial dating is status quo. Creator Laurie Nunn protects her lovably eccentric characters in a supportive community, which is bolstered by a sharp sense of humor and the beauty of their natural surroundings. There are Muslim characters, bisexual characters, asexual characters, OCD characters, disabled characters — you name it. Somehow, even as Season 2 expanded the world to include an even wider array of people, none of this feels tokenizing. And even if it did, Gatwa would be OK with it.
“When people talk about diversity and inclusion, sometimes there’s a bit of an eye-rolling mentality or ticking boxes,” the actor told IndieWire during a recent in-person interview. “But I feel like that’s kind of necessary at times, because the playing fields are not level in the first place. Not a quota as such, it’s not as if we had one, but that is kinda necessary, ’cause we need to level the playing field. When we do that, we can show other people’s lives and other people’s experiences and show like — ‘see? It’s not that scary!’ It’s important that we show all these things, and sometimes you do need to be like — ‘has this voice been heard? No.’”
Eric’s storyline never feels like mere accessory; he’s so much more than the hackneyed “gay best friend” character. Though Otis and Maeve are the central will-they-won’t-they couple to root for, Eric has a rich life independent from Otis that includes family, religion, internal conflicts, and turbulent romances.
“It’s really nice to have a gay character, a black character, be at the forefront of this story on a show like this that has the reach it does on Netflix,” Gatwa said. “It matters, I hope, that other little black boys round the world can be like — ‘Oh, Eric is like this, and it’s cool.’ It’s important that we allow different people to occupy these spaces. Eric is a driving force in his own story as well, which I’m really proud of.”
While “Sex Education” may be a light on the actual education part, the show creates space to discuss a range of intimacy issues in a non-judgmental and de-stigmatizing way. Whether it’s communicating with a partner that you’re nervous about trying something new, or taking responsibility for your own orgasm during partner sex, the advice in “Sex Education” certainly won’t steer you wrong. What’s more, these messages are delivered with a fine balance of humor and heart.
“It deals with a lot of important issues, and the humor delivers those messages in a not shaming or preachy way,” said Gatwa. “But also the show has helped a lot of people find strength within themselves, ’cause a lot of the characters have a struggle they’re going through that a lot of people can identify with. The show’s very relatable, so I think it has helped a lot of people with what they’re going through in their lives.”