Ncuti Gatwa has spent all day running around New York promoting the second season of his hit Netflix show, Sex Education. Now it’s dinnertime, and he’s ready to unwind. But before he can enjoy his food, the 27-year-old Londoner needs to announce something: “I have not slept,” he says, grinning. “Because I have just been obsessed with this thing: I just downloaded Co-Star and the Pattern.”
For the uninitiated, these two horoscope apps hide out on every other 20-something’s phone. Co-Star gives in-depth birth charts and insightful horoscopes; the Pattern is infamous for doling out harsh predictions and warnings. “I wouldn’t say it’s mean, but it’s so precisely accurate. It words what you’ve been feeling, deep down inside, in the most succinct way,” explains Gatwa, who is a Libra. “We’re very indecisive. We’re real diplomats, like we’re always searching for balance. We’re the scales.” In person, he’s also immediately gregarious. There’s no small talk, no awkward introductions: He launches into stories, occasionally clapping to punctuate his sentences and throwing his head back to release a laugh that’s positively full-bodied. “This is how to ease me in an interview,” he says with a sly smile, savoring every bite of a Thai moo sarong, a thin, crispy noodle wrapped around a pork meatball.
Gatwa’s life changed last year when Sex Ed premiered on Netflix and became a surprise breakout hit. The show is anchored by Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson’s mother-son duo of sex therapists — Anderson plays an actual therapist, while Butterfield is a shy high-schooler improbably offering pleasure-centered sex advice to his classmates. But Gatwa’s best-friend character, Eric, has all the personality. “We had no idea, making it, how it was gonna take off,” Gatwa says. “We thought it might make a little bit of a dip in the ocean, then maybe by season two, people would be like, Oh, what’s that show that Gillian Anderson’s in?”
A lot of teen dramas are about about horny, thoughtful teens, but Sex Education shows them as clumsy, eager, unsure, trying to figure out sex and desire and pleasure in their own lives. It’s sweetly relatable, a show all about the “Is this how I should feel?” and the “Are we doing this right?” of early sexual experiences. “A lot of our sex education at school is so biological. It was so just the birds and the bees,” says Gatwa, who went to secondary school in Scotland. “There’s a whole emotional side to it. I love that we’re in a show that opens up conversations.”
During production, Gatwa grew close to the show’s cast and crew, especially Butterfield (his next and last appointment today is a massage with his co-star). He compares filming the second season to coming back to school after a holiday break, even though, for the first month of production, he didn’t shoot many scenes with his bestie. “It didn’t feel like I was filming Sex Ed,” he said, “unless I have Asa beside me — my Otis, my baby O-cake.”
But Eric is such a fan favorite precisely because he’s not just a best friend. “I love that I get to play a black character who’s not a stereotype, who is not afraid to be vulnerable, who comes from a loving home situation,” Gatwa says. “I know it sounds stupid, but for me, these tiny, little glimpses into people’s lives matter.” Reviews of Sex Education’s first season praised Eric as a full, vivid character that goes beyond the black-best-friend trope. He doesn’t show up to punctuate the end of Otis’s sentences. He goes to class, dresses up in drag, kisses boys, and lives his own life. “[The writers] were not afraid to shy away from his African heritage,” Gatwa adds. “They weren’t afraid to come and ask me what it’s like to grow up in an African household.”
Gatwa was born in Rwanda, grew up in Scotland, and lives in London now. As a child, he was a loudmouth with a performative streak. “At home, I was very traditional, studied, made sure I brought home those A’s and B’s, made sure I went to Bible study,” he says. “Outside of that, oh, I was such a little chav!” (Chav, he clarifies, is slang for “smart-ass.”) He graduated from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2013 and spent his pre–Sex Ed years trying to do theater. Six months before he booked the show — his first big project — he was couch surfing and looking for odd jobs to make rent. “And then my life changed,” he says. “I was able to pay my bills! Let’s put it like that. I was able to pay my bills — and then some.” His first splurge with all that Netflix money was a Gucci fanny pack. (It usually runs about $800.) “That was so obnoxious,” he laughs, half-embarrassed. “It was red and just said ‘Gucci’ on it. I do love that fanny pack.”
Lately, the Pattern has been telling Gatwa what he’s been feeling at this stage of his life and career. There are new friends coming into his life, new opportunities, new tangents. “[The app has] been talking about how I’m going through a change in my life and I need to realize what the change is and allow myself to be present in the moment,” he says. “I have a tendency to not be grounded, to not deal with what’s going on, but I need to do that because there’s a big shift happening. And that’s really how I feel!”