Ncuti Gatwa, who plays Eric in the Netflix series Sex Education, talks to Clara Amfo on her new podcast about culture shock, Hackney vibes and why you can still see him in Tescos.
Speaking to radio presenter Clara Amfo on her new podcast This City, which interviews Londoners about what the city means to them, the Rwandan actor said: “I was so skint when I moved down to London and I never had money, ever.”
In fact, he says that before the success of Sex Education, in which he plays the effervescent gay teenager Eric Effiong, he was going to leave London because he just couldn’t afford it.
“I was going from job to job … I was booked and busy and it was peak trying to pay rent and trying to pay bills and then travel. And then that’s just to exist. And then you’ve got food. You have got to feed yourself. You’ve got to clothe yourself. It’s expensive to live here.”
Gatwa found himself in Hackney, which was “still a bit like rough around the edges” but at least it was relatively affordable. Plus, he explains, he liked the vibe. “I loved Hackney because they embraced me really, like with open arms.”
Gatwa says he was so broke that the Fair Deals across the road would often give him a discount or tell him not to worry about it. “They were just really, really really sweet. There was such a warmth there.”
Gatwa was born in Rwanda, but came to Scotland with his parents when he was just two years old, fleeing the genocide. After studying drama at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Gatwa’s agent repeatedly tried to get him to move down to London, but the actor told them that he wasn’t ready.
He was eventually forced down to the capital when he was given a part in Noel Coward’s West End production of Shakespeare in Love. It was clear, he says, that London was the only place where his career could thrive the way he wanted it to.
And for a young black man, he says, the difference between his Scotland and London lives was staggering. “I was used to being … the only black in the village! Growing up I thought I might be the only black person in the world.”
“So to come down to London and just, you’ve got clubs that just full of black people, like you’ve got areas of London that are just you won’t see one white person like it’s just so multicultural that I thought, wow, this is amazing.
“I feel like London is so good for that. Like no matter what your tribe is, you can find your tribe.”
But Gatwa, overwhelmed by the size of the city, didn’t want to live with “random people”. Very relatably, he says he wants to know who’s going to be in his bathroom.
“I need to know who’s gonna be my kitchen. Food is very important to me, so don’t be stealing my seasonings, my sauces … like none of my food you can steal.”
In fact, he says, what London needs is more Ghanaian restaurants. “I love Ghanaian food.” In this, he has something in common with his Sex Education character Eric, Otis’s best friend who comes from a Ghanaian-Nigerian family.
Of course, life is different for the young actor now that he has become one of the most recognisable stars on Netflix. The second series of Sex Education, which aired 17 January, sees Eric take on an even more central role, struggling to choose between new love interest Rahim and old flame Adam Groff.
“It gets difficult when you’re in Tesco,” he says. “You’re picking up like you’re picking up Cif or you’re picking up fairy liquid for your auntie like … and people come in to take pictures and stuff with you, it’s a lot … And I guess it’s just about adjusting.
“But I feel like life is what you make of it. And yeah, just kind of try carry on being normal. You’ll still see me in Tesco.”
Gatwa says that ultimately, he feels like everyone in London - accepted.
“I feel like I’ve like there’s so many different types of people here that no one really bats an eyelid … London just as a whole is very, just very accepting of who whoever enters her doors.”
He describes it as a magical place full of magical people of all sorts. “Oh, my God. This city is just amazing. It’s just such a hub of, like, creativity. And like, I just feel like it’s the IT girl of the moment. London is the IT girl of the world. ”
You can listen to the full interview on This City via Apple or Spotify from Tuesday 28 January. The episode also features guests including producer Mark Ronson, Louis Theroux and Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall.
Images: 4th Floor Creative
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