Spoilers ahead for Sex Education, season one.
Netflix’s newest gift to teens is Sex Education, a show seemingly set within a fever dream of suburban England, where one student, Otis, (Asa Butterfield) becomes the underground sex whisperer to his entire high school, solving his classmates’ confusion over everything from masturbation to scissoring. But the real masterclass comes from his best friend Eric, played by breakout star Ncuti Gatwa, whose life as one of only two out gay students at the school clashes with his home life, where he’s the eldest son of two devoutly religious African parents. How to reconcile walking in his truth — be it in all-traffic-cone-neon or gold heels — with what that means for both his masculinity and his safety makes for heartbreaking tension between Eric and his father (DeObia Oparei). It isn’t until a shocking revelation from another student that Eric discovers he’s less alone in that struggle than he assumed.
Vulture spoke to Gatwa about how the show avoided making Eric a stock character, the story behind his jaw-dropping prom look, and how he predicted Eric’s surprise hookup from the very beginning. During our conversation, Gatwa also let slip that Sex Education’s second season, though not yet ordered or announced by Netflix, is currently assembling a writer’s room.
Watching the pilot, I feared that Eric might end up as a caricature black-best-friend character to Otis’s lead. But as the season develops, Eric rarely plays second-string to Otis. How did you shape Eric’s identity so that he’s a stand-alone character?
I’m so happy that [creator] Laurie [Nunn] really took the time to develop him into his own person. There is always a danger of making him a stock character because he’s black and Otis is his best friend. He’s also gay and Otis is his best friend. Those are two avenues whereby you could just make him comic relief. But he’s so much more than that. We see him struggle with his religion, parents, and heritage and, obviously, his sexuality, and accepting all those things about himself.
Because I come from a religious background and an African one as well — my parents are Rwandan — I infused him with what I felt was needing to be infused, like the things that he says and the way he says them. But it comes from the writers first and foremost, which is great because our writer’s room is predominately female. A lot of people have been talking about how fresh the show is and I personally think that comes from having a female writing room. We’re able to push the characters a bit further than what we’ve traditionally seen.
I was struck by the nuances of African culture that the script was able to capture with Eric and his family, especially his dad. Do you know if any of those writers are also African?
I’m not sure about this season. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I actually met one of the writers for season two in a toilet in a club in London — it was a unisex bathroom, by the way, I wasn’t in a female toilet for no reason — and I know that she is [African]. She’s actually a really wicked actress in the U.K. who was on Chewing Gum. But for this season, either way, they definitely captured the essence of Eric’s family. The script supervisor felt very comfortable coming up to me and asking, Is this accurate? Do I need to change anything? and I was comfortable recommending things to them. They were very focused on getting that part of Eric’s heritage right. We were very specific about it: Eric comes from a Ghanaian-Nigerian household, hence why, at prom, he was in a beautiful kente suit from Ghana and gele from Nigeria.
You mentioned season two, which hasn’t been announced. Is that all a go?
Whew, ohhhh nooooo! There’s talks of a script, yeah. [Editor’s note: A Netflix rep later clarified that scripts for season two are in early development, but a second season has not yet been ordered.]
Style is essential to Eric’s identity and his statement piece is that prom look. It’s also so symbolic. What was the process like for putting it all together, from the suit to the heels to the gele?
Oh my gosh. Well, I had two suits made for me in Ghana from kente cloth. I got to choose which one I wanted and they were both stunning. They fit so perfectly. I often have a hard time buying trousers because I’ve got a small waist but quite a big bum, but having those suits made for me in Africa, for my African body, made so much of a difference. We shot prom over three or fours days, so you can imagine being in heels for about ten hours a day for four days. Honestly, the blisters that I got from that were a lot. I’d never worn heels before, but I used to dance a little. I’m used to being on my toes, so the heels weren’t actually that much of a challenge. I wanted to go with higher ones, but they said those ones went with the outfit. It was also my first time wearing a gele since I’m Rwandan and that’s a Nigerian headdress.
I never really felt like Eric until I put on the clothes. Costume really helps you feel in character. He’s got some amazing pieces in his wardrobe, but what we see from episode one through eight is that, when he pieces them all together, they never quite work. He’s just always a little bit off the mark of being, like, walking down the runway at fashion week, which is amazing, because in those episodes we see Eric trying to discover who he is.
What I love is Eric’s attention to detail in extending his style beyond fashion. He commits to doing full-glam in his makeup for prom and then incorporates blue eyeliner into his look for the rest of the season. Did playing Eric change the way you think about personal style at all?
I’m a little bit more polished than him and I’m definitely not as brave as him, but he has inspired me to have a bit more color in my wardrobe. Because I live in London, everything’s just black, black, black, black. And I had never worn makeup before Sex Education, apart from stage shows. I had seen in the script that Eric enjoys experimenting with makeup, so I went to Harvey Nichols in the UK and spent an obscene amount of money on Fenty Beauty. I went home and I tried to do a couple tutorials — beat my face, I think is the phrase. [Laughs.] I’m not gonna lie to you, it was shocking. I looked like a kid who was just given his first crayon set. It was horrendous. Who knows, maybe I’ll incorporate it in my life one day. But I’m in no rush because I’m really into my skin-care regimen.
What was more fun: the prom look or the Hedwig and the Angry Inch cosplay?
Ooooh, gosh. Probably Hedwig, because Asa was dressed up as well and I just love laughing at him. He was just so cute and awkward in that. Us running around Wales in our denim two-pieces was a lot of fun. And the fact that I had the better wig.
Going into the season, how much did you know about how Adam’s storyline would intersect with Eric’s? The pilot hints that Adam might be struggling with his sexual orientation, but it’s not revisited until that moment when they’re in detention together.
I’ve got to say, I did call it from the very first episode that I read. I don’t know why, but I just had an inkling that these two were gonna get together. A lot of people are saying they never saw it coming, others did from the first episode. People are making really cool conspiracy theories about, like, five signs that Adam has always loved Eric. And it’ll be shots of the way Adam is looking at Eric in episode two. It’s so cute to see the shipping.
It’s that classic closeted bully who’s secretly in love with his victim.
Yeah, but they’ve got quite similar paths in terms of their relationships with their dads. Their dads just don’t understand them at all. Who knows what the future holds, but they might really be good for each other. They could teach each other a thing or two.
There’s so much repressed aggression released in their hookup scene that it begins as a literal, physical fight. How did you and Connor Swindells approach filming that? Also, I have to ask, did you actually spit in each other’s faces?
No. [Laughs.] We blocked that really carefully and mimed the spitting, then we’d cut and add artificial spit to our cheeks. It does look real, but we were very cautious of trying to be as respectful of each other as possible. On Sex Education, we had an intimacy director, Ita O’Brien, who was there to give us guidance with those scenes. Before we started filming, we had an intimacy workshop. The whole cast and crew was there. Everybody gave examples of sex scenes they’d done before and we had great conversations about how those made them feel. We had conversations about consent and feeling comfortable with your sex scenes. Then we moved on to [laughs] emulating the mating rhythms of snails, lions, dogs, and more. It was very physical work!
We all got to know each other very quickly in that workshop, but it was great because it meant that by the time we got to shooting that scene, the walls had already been broken down. Ita was also on set for it and every sex scene. Before the scene, we choreographed it. It’s literally like a dance. We’d agree between us about where we could touch, how long we’d kiss, and then have those counts in our head when we filmed it. We felt very taken-care-of, so shooting that scene became like another day at the office.
Which I think is the point of the show: It’s common and healthy to explore your sexuality and should be normalized as such. Those scenes translate that, even when you’re giving a blowjob tutorial on a banana in front of the whole school or vigorously pleasuring yourself.
I’d come in and say to someone, like, Hey, yeah, I’m sucking off a banana today. What are you doing? And they’d be, Yeah, gonna have sex in the back of a car. Everybody had a scene like that. I hope they do come across as normal and average because we didn’t want to glamorize sex. We’ve seen that in other shows, where you’ve got these ridiculously beautiful, tall, confident people playing teenagers having the best orgasmic sex of their lives. That’s just not realistic at all. We wanted to show the awkward, messy, uncomfortable moments — sex for what it really is.
Moordale feels like such a fantasy world, especially in how it fuses American and British high school tropes and doesn’t seem grounded in a particular era. If the show didn’t reference Pornhub, I would’ve thought it was set in the ’80s. How does it compare to your own high school experience? Were there any Erics?
We definitely wanted to make it a very British school, but it’s definitely got this otherworldly vibe to it. I went to school in a place called Dunfermline, which is in Fife — it’s like the middle of Scotland — so I didn’t have sprawling lawns of green and high school bomber jackets and an amazing clock tower. It wasn’t as nice as Moordale High, but we had the football lads, which you guys call “jocks,” and the mean girls. That experience is a bit universal. There were a couple of Erics at my high school, but not me. I’m not as vulnerable as him. I don’t think I could ever allow somebody to slap my face and call me “shit biscuit” and they walk away freely. [Laughs.]
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.