NCUTI GATWA’S Eric – the character he plays in Netflix’s Sex Education – is easy to fall in love with. Fans of the show, which released its second season on Friday, have, and so too have several students at Moordale High, the fictional school that’s the nucleus of all the series’ drama.
For Gatwa, who hails from Rwanda and Scotland, he was attracted to the character of Eric for some of the same reasons that have made his character a fan favourite.
“He represents so many different intersections and is really funny as well and drives his own story and isn’t a sidekick,” Gatwa told The Voice.
Eric Effiong is the gay, drag-loving son of two immigrant parents from Ghana and Nigeria. He is best friend to the show’s main character Otis, who starts an unofficial sex clinic at his secondary school, using insights from his sex therapist mother Jean’s work – and the internet. But Eric is also more than Otis’s best friend. He is a powerful force on an exciting trajectory of his own making.
His courage in being his true self regardless of what others think of him – only temporarirly blighted after he is the victim of a homophobic attack in the first season – has made him a powerful figure of representation for many.
“There’s a lot of obstacles set up against him and he’s still really happy and that’s strength right there. I was really excited to be able to play a character like that – who portrays strength in a way that we don’t see often. He’s taught me a lot about sticking up for myself and not apologising for myself and not being too much of a people pleaser.”
The role is one with incredible range. Eric’s arc of self love in season one has a triumphant end but there are heartbreaking bumps along the way, and Gatwa’s ability to be incredibly sincere in these moments draws you in. In season two, a more self-assured Eric comes into his own even more and deals with other kinds of conflict.
“Getting spotted and asked for selfies when you’re at the urinal isn’t always the most appropriate”
On the flip side, Gatwa’s comedic timing and humour, which often features him delivering lines with an African accent, is pretty perfect. As a result, Eric is thoroughly refreshing and real. But despite all of this, Gatwa did have some initial reservations.
“I had hesitations as [about] the handling of the issues that Eric goes through, how would that be on set. Like, when the cameras are off, how do these things go?” he said.
His concerns, while understandable, quickly dissipated because of how the subject matter was treated by the cast and crew.
“They’ve been really great. For example, I love that the writers would call me…they just want to make sure that things are accurate in terms of the home life, especially the religious side of Eric’s character,” he said.
With a minister for a dad, Gatwa’s well positioned to advise on authenticity.
While he’s without a doubt one of the series’ breakout stars, Gatwa wasn’t at all prepared for how big the Netflix show was about to make him.
“I didn’t realise how big a character Eric was until I watched,” Gatwa said. “I was like, ‘oh my God, I’m in it quite a lot and then I was like, ‘wow’. That’s when I started to get a sense they really wanted Eric to be at the, kind of, front of this story and so I was like that’s good because representation matters.”
The thought of being in the public eye was at first a little scary for Gatwa and it is still something he is getting used to, if such a thing is possible, especially when it comes to certain fan encounters.
“It’s like a weird thing to get my head around. Like, getting spotted and asked for selfies when you’re at the urinal isn’t always the most appropriate time.
“I’ll be like, ‘that’s actually not really appropriate, sir. Have you washed your hands?’ Those types of things are difficult to deal with.”
“The work needs to continue in terms of continuing to tell stories from a fresh perspective”
But not all interactions with strangers who know more about him than he does about them have been as odd as that.
“When I think about the fact that like I’ll be at my gym in Tottenham and the bruddas will come up to me, like, ‘Oh, you’re my favourite character in Sex Education’. I love that because I just think, ‘you rock with the gay boy in heels and gold lipstick. Where you come from that isn’t something that’s supposed to happen’ – and yet it has through the power of representation, so we need to keep doing it,” Gatwa said.
With the increasing progress that is being made when it comes to the exciting opportunities for black actors, especially with production companies like Netflix celebrating, creating and providing a platform for more inclusive content, it is no surprise that Gatwa is particularly passionate about them getting their dues.
“I think that the work needs to continue in terms of continuing to tell stories from a fresh perspective, telling new narratives and pushing the narratives and pushing boundaries. We keep doing that, we keep having proper representation and we make it a priority,” he said.
“What annoys me is when people are like, ‘oh, isn’t diversity just about ticking boxes and quotas and all this stuff’ and I just think to myself well, the thing is, the playing fields were never even anyway,” he added. “They weren’t even before so if it’s ticking boxes at this point I think that that’s fine because we need to even [out] the playing field. It’s not been even before so we need to keep doing that – and representation helps educate as well.”
The 27-year-old said he knew he “had to come with receipts” in terms of playing Eric, given how well written the character was. Viewers will no doubt attest he’s done just that.
Sex Education is available to watch on Netflix now