“Sex Education” star Ncuti Gatwa has made a name for himself as Eric Effiong, the loud, colorful best friend to Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield). Now in its third season, which premiered Sept. 17 on Netflix, Eric’s journey is no longer in the shadow of Otis, but rather a coming-of-age story that he’s navigating alone.
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Gatwa sat down with Variety to talk about Eric’s new relationship with recently-out Adam, his relationship to his character by way of African representation on screen and the plot-thickening kiss in Nigeria.
In Episode 2, we see Eric wanting to go “all the way” with Adam — although they’ve done “other stuff.” How important is it in a show like this to educate people that sex and its acts are subjective?
Eric is a teenager and teenagers get so influenced by what their friends are doing, and they gain a sense of self worth and track their own personal journeys through where their friends are at. So, what I think is really important for all kids to know is that wherever you’re at in your journey is fine, and I think we have that dialogue through the friends a lot this season and we see a great amount of care from Otis to Eric about like, “Is this the right relationship for you, mate?” I think the show does a really good job of including the emotional and mental elements of sexual education. You don’t need to rush anything. I hope that we portrayed a message that it’s OK wherever you’re at in your own journey and [that] standing true in your own skin and your own space is the most powerful success.
Eric has such a way of being authentically Nigerian and British. How important is it to you to express African representation on screen?
I’ve enjoyed that element of Eric’s character since Season 1. That’s always been one of the pulls to the character — that we’re seeing representation of a young, African-British kid, which is what I was. Each season where we’ve seen elements of Eric’s culture, I’ve always really enjoyed those moments because it’s really powerful to be at work and surrounded by Black people. It feels really good.
How did it feel representing the culture even more in those scenes set in Nigeria?
Shooting those Lagos scenes was really special because I’m thinking to myself, “Fucking hell, we’re on a Netflix set, this is about to go out to the entire world, and we’re showcasing this beautiful culture that doesn’t get shown a lot.” It felt very powerful for me in my journey in life as an actor, as a human, and it felt like a homecoming. We’ve got to get it right; this was a Nigerian wedding, not an African wedding. I think quite often when you see African cultures represented in mainstream culture it gets portrayed under an umbrella of Africa and it’s an African wedding so let’s just throw lots of green, orange and red colors there and that will show that we are African. No, this is a Nigerian wedding, and we have to make it very specific to that.
Eric kisses Oba in Nigeria — which he tells Adam about. What was going through Eric’s mind at that time?
[Laughs.] Mentally it was a bit of a challenge with Eric this year because with Eric and Adam there’s so many moments where you’re like, “They’re actually perfect together and everything’s going to be fine,” and then you have another moment where you’re like, “Uh actually it’s really not working.” There’s a constant push and pull with them, they’re kind of like magnets that repel and attract each other. Eric meets Oba in Nigeria, who completely and utterly understands him in a way that he doesn’t even have to speak. He’s been the only one of him for so long — he’s a gay, Black, Christian growing up in a small English town. There’s so many places where he feels othered, and to go back to Nigeria and see someone who completely sees and mirrors him, I think was a really powerful part of his journey of understanding, “I need to take up space for myself, and I don’t know if Adam and I can carry each other.”
Did Eric truly love Adam?
I definitely think that Eric did love Adam, but I think he learned in Nigeria that he needs to love himself more and that he needs to love himself before he can love anyone. I think we’ve not seen that with Eric up until Season 3. Before Season 3 he was concerned with being popular and trying to please people and make everyone around him love him, and through constantly giving status to others, he’s reducing his own. Their relationship has been very dictated by Adam’s growth, and Eric has had to place himself wherever Adam is mentally and emotionally and had to deny his own wants, feelings and happiness for Adam to have space to grow.
Do you think if Eric had read Adam’s poem that they wouldn’t have broken up?
Who knows what’s in store for Eric and Adam. I don’t know whether that chapter will ever close and I think they’d be so great for each other, but I think they both made each other realize such great things. They see themselves in a very true way.
Let’s end with the funny stew scene at the Nigerian wedding.
Oh my God, can I tell you something? That scene almost got taken out of the edit. My director messaged me and she was like, “They’ve almost taken out the rice bit,” and I texted her back and I was like, “Whatever you do, make sure that five seconds is in this show. It’s important! Every African person, no matter what country you’re from, will get that and you need to keep that in there!”
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