It’s lunchtime on a glorious Sunday and London is at its very best. From my rooftop position, I can see boats chugging along the Thames, a sun-soaked St Paul’s, and Ncuti Gatwa yelling ‘breasts!’ at Michaela Coel — who almost, accidentally, flashes the whole of the South Bank.
The pair — of actors, not breasts — fall apart laughing as Coel’s stylist tapes her back in. Their booming laughter has everyone there giggling along with them. And not for the first time today, either. Much like the city’s skyline, Gatwa and Coel are on top form. Their infectious energy could be because we’re here today to celebrate the climax of a year-long project, or possibly, because it also happens to be Gatwa’s 31st birthday.
Coinciding with the closing night of the BFI London Film Festival, the two actors are here supporting the BMW Filmmaking Challenge, for which five young film-makers were whittled down from over 400 applicants to be mentored by Coel, and later judged by Gatwa, alongside journalist Terri White and film-maker Asif Kapadia. Announced later that evening as the winning film, We Collide is a queer love story that unfolds in the unexpected, sweaty scrum of a mosh pit. And with approval from two of Britain’s most influential stars of TV and film, you already know it’s good.
Rwandan-Scottish Sex Education star Gatwa will make his highly anticipated debut as the new Doctor Who in December; while Londoner Coel’s back catalogue includes Chewing Gum, I May Destroy You and, most recently, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. They have both, separately, been named the most powerful people in British TV — Coel in 2020 and Gatwa this year. They also happen to be good friends, their relationship spanning the best part of a decade, before any kind of fame.
Almost 10 years ago, they met on a rooftop at an east London house party. Today, they stand on the rooftop of a luxury hotel having both conquered stage, screen, Hollywood and our hearts. It’s been a while since they last saw each other, so we simply decided to let them catch up.
Coel: Happy birthday! You’re a Libra, too!
Gatwa: We’re making money on our birthdays but I’m happy to be here. I’m very much enjoying going deeper into my 30s. Maturing and levelling up.
Coel: What year did we meet?
Gatwa: God knows. It must have been a decade ago. In Hackney at Lotte Boom’s party.
C: Oh, at Lotte’s! Around the time that season one of Chewing Gum was coming out. And I had just done Chewing Gum Dreams at The Yard Theatre.
G: I remember there being an aura about you. I was like, there’s something about this girl, she’s about to blow up. There was a fizz around you.
C: My memory is that we had a very deep, intense conversation.
G: YES! [claps his hands] On the roof.
C: On the roof! What was it about?
G: I remember it deeply. I remember it like it was yesterday. Girl, I don’t know if we can talk about it right now...
C: Oh, we can...
G: There was this project that was on BBC, it was a spy project and we were speaking about the casting of it and the industry...
C: Did we have issues?
G: We had issues with it. We had issues with the project.
C: Oh yeah, wait. It’s giving... miscast? People who weren’t authentic to something?
G: I think it was originally written Black and then it got cast as white.
C: Oh yeah, that’s right. All the Black men had auditioned for this and then when the show came out it was a white guy! [Both erupt into laughter] I guess they had a change of heart.
G: We spoke about the industry, diversity within the industry, casting and the landscape of British television. And then we went to go get more alcohol.
C: That was a chance encounter and then we met again years later. To go from that corner, sipping drinks, chatting deeply, theatre dudes, to all of this — congratulations doesn’t even do it justice. And now we get to see each other at things like this.
G: I see your name and I sign up to things.
C: Is that why you signed up to this?
C: What an honour.
G: I saw the name Michaela Coel and I thought this is going to be something, wow.
C: How has it been being on the jury? [of the BMW Filmmaking Challenge]
G: I loved this so much. I loved the guidelines: strength of idea, strength of team. There was a day we had when we got taken out individually into the cars and watched all five films on the BMW i7 screen [which inspired the challenge]. How was your experience of being a mentor?
C: I have been there since [the film-makers] pitched their ideas. We spoke about how they were going to take it from script to screen. Budget, time, casting, animators, editors. We would zoom, meet, and then I saw the final cuts. Wasn’t the winner amazing?
G: Oh, blown away. To tears — it was embarrassing. Stunning.
C: Jason [Bradbury, the writer and director] is a mosher. It’s a community that is very special to him. He talks about it with such tenderness. You realise that in this mosh pit is everybody, from every marginalised community you could possibly imagine — they’re all just rubbing up, bumping and colliding with one another. I was filming in Cologne and I actually ended up in a bit of a mosh pit. Me and Hunter Schafer were out. Neither of us had earrings on so it was safe. And we ended up having a really beautiful experience.
G: Religious almost. A release.
C: Have you moshed before?
G: No, no. Never moshed, but raved. I’ve been at raves and been topless at 5am. Dancing your soul out. Times where I’ve been like, I’m really going through something here. Like, I’m connected to something beyond me! We’re all feeling the same. You look to your left and it’s like, I don’t know you but we’re feeling connected, and it’s beautiful. These moments when human experience is like a church.
C: I remember [Bradbury] said you don’t even have to mosh. Sometimes you can just eat a pizza. Everyone else is moshing and you’re just having a slice of Domino’s. Come as you are, you don’t have to mosh, you can just watch the mosh, support the mosh, you can eat a pizza.
C: This is a house that says, come as you are. It’s a vibrancy that was originally — in this country —dominated by skinhead culture, by a punk scene, connected to the far right. But now the queer community has adopted this and re-appropriated it to make it a safe space for everyone and anyone and that’s what this film is about.
G: Incredible. Thank God we have these people coming up into our industry to shake things up. And how amazing that they had you as a mentor. You have evolved perspectives and pushed the industry to be what it is currently, how perfect to have you.
C: I’m trash with compliments.
G: Ah, Libra.
C: Yeah, you know!
G: I get it girl.
C: If you get it don’t do it to me!
G: But you need to hear it!
C: My hopeful side tends to think we’re going three steps forward, two steps back, three steps forward, two steps back. It may go one way or another, or maybe some things... [laughs at herself and retracts] I don’t believe what I’m saying.
G: Michaela girl! I’m looking at you like... okay?
C: I just failed in my mission. I don’t really think ahead, it’s too devastating. And that’s why I don’t work in politics, because you need to think ahead and I’m not that person. The change and the breaking down of the systems that make us feel safe happens so slowly, that it’s imperceptible and we don’t realise, but if you jumped 10 years from now I think it would be quite scary.
G: I think if you went back to 10 years ago and looked to now, what some of these politicians are saying, the speeches that politicians are saying, you’d think this was dystopian, this is the beginnings of something really bad. Groups are being openly targeted here on a public stage by our politicians. I dread so much what society is going to look like in 10 years time. I have hope in Gen Z, I have real hope in Gen Z. It’s interesting what you were saying about mosh culture and the queer community having reappropriated that. Because I feel like you can see that in fashion, too. I hope that Gen Z saves us.
C: I like that thought that you’re having. That actually if there was more diversity in politics, maybe we’d have more brains and decisions would be different. Like in tech, which is f***ed because everyone in tech is like a white male in their 20s, 30s. It makes sense. And then you look at the demographic of our political system and it doesn’t really represent this film-making challenge, for example. Where are they? They’re not there.
G: If we had a podcast I reckon we’d have deep chats.
C: They’d be deep and then I’d need a breather and we’d have to like, talk about sex.
All five shortlisted films from the ‘BMW Filmmaking Challenge in partnership with the BFI’ are available to view for free on BFI Player (player.bfi.org.uk).