“Fame itself doesn’t really afford you anything more than a good seat in a restaurant,” said the late, great David Bowie in 2003.
In the 16 years that have passed since Bowie shared that pearl of wisdom in a magazine interview, Twitter and Instagram have taken the world by storm, teen shows have rocketed in popularity, and Netflix has changed the way we consume television – so what does the concept of “fame” mean for new talent in 2019?
The streaming giant has brought about a unique cultural phenomenon – The Netflix Effect – in which young actors are experiencing instant international exposure to an audience spanning almost 200 countries. Rival streaming services exist, but no other platform can catapult their youthful talent to global fame in quite the same way.
This is in part thanks to Netflix’s penchant for teen series starring relative unknowns which rack up tens of millions of views worldwide – with the streaming service’s users often bingeing entire series in one go.
Ncuti Gatwa and Asa Butterfield, Sex Education (Netflix)
Gatwa, 26, bounced onto our screens in 2019 as the irrepressible Eric in one of the most talked-about shows of the year so far – Netflix’s teen drama Sex Education – and life has been somewhat of a whirlwind for the young actor ever since.
Before Sex Education, Gatwa had been grinding it out in classical theatre for a few years and had a walk-on part in a BBC drama as a character called Burger Man. “I just came on set and got a burger then I went off, so that was my cameo role,” he laughs.
But once the series launched on Netflix, Gatwa’s Instagram following grew to 735,000 and he has made it onto Elle’s 2019 list of 50 game-changers from around the world.
Gatwa reveals that he had no idea how big Sex Education was going to be when he first got the part, and it wasn’t until after he was cast that he found out famous names like Gillian Anderson and Asa Butterfield were attached.
But that didn’t relieve the pressure to be “HYSTERICAL!!!” which is how his character – who is best friends with Butterfield’s lead Otis – was described in the audition notes. Scene-stealing Gatwa quickly became a fan-favourite on Sex Education with his ability to make viewers laugh one minute with a banana blowjob and cry the next with an identity crisis.
Justin Prentice and Anne Winters, 13 Reasons Why (Netflix)
Anne Winters’ route to fame was a little different. When the then-23-year-old secured her part as cheerleading captain Chlöe Rice in the second season of 13 Reasons Why, she “knew the show was already super successful” and had even auditioned for the lead role of Hannah in season one – a part that went to Katherine Langford.
Initially positioned as one of the drama’s villains, Winters’ character Chlöe is revealed to be a sexual assault survivor, whose relationship with her boyfriend Bryce spoke to the #MeToo movement and has sparked widespread conversations about non-consensual sex.
No one really tells you how to handle your own fame
Now 25, Winters has 526,000 Instagram followers, has starred opposite Nicolas Cage, hung out with Rachel McAdams and won a Daytime Emmy Award for her performance in Zac and Mia – but she says it was her 13 Reasons Why part that changed everything.
Given the scale and popularity of the Netflix show, Winters says the streaming service prepped the cast for the intense scrutiny they went onto receive. “Netflix definitely prepares you, we have safety meetings all throughout the set. We have talks about not sharing any locations, not sharing any street signs around on any Instagram stories or Snapchat, we can’t post where we are…
“Apart from that no one really tells you how to handle your own fame, that’s just something you have to figure out on your own. That’s why there are so many people that don’t understand how to do it — no one really tells you.”
In contrast, Gatwa says Netflix didn’t warn him what the exposure would be like, because “no one had any idea how much this show was going to kick off”.
“The directors and producers were saying it would be quite underground and cult for the first and second season,” he says, “and that maybe by the third season it might be more than that. That’s why Netflix was more focused on pushing the show.”
Ncuti Gatwa and Asa Butterfield, Sex Education (Netflix)
Sex Education was anything but “underground”, with 40 million households estimated to have tuned in within the first four weeks of it hitting Netflix.
I woke up and had thousands of Instagram followers... it felt like my phone was spasming out of control
Gatwa recounts the very moment he realised Sex Education had changed his life forever, when he and his co-stars Emma Mackey and Asa Butterfield returned from a road trip in America. “I remember the moment precisely… we flew back to the UK the day after the series launched and, because of the time difference, by the time we landed people had already binge-watched the whole thing.
“I felt like I went to sleep on the plane normal and then I woke up and had thousands of Instagram followers. When I turned my phone on there were so many notifications that it felt like my phone was spasming out of control. It was going crazy.”
Winters describes a similar experience: “Definitely when 13 Reasons Why came out, it was like I was waking up with thousands of followers every day, or as the minutes were going by my followers were just rising, and since then it’s just all been growing.”
Anne Winters, 13 Reasons Why (Netflix)
Nine months on from Winters’ debut on 13 Reasons Why, Netflix launched The Umbrella Academy starring Aidan Gallagher who blew fans away with his portrayal of Number Five, a man in his 50s living in a child’s body.
Netflix says the superhero series was watched by 45 million households, the latest in a long line of teen drama hits, and aged just 15, Gallagher now has two and a half million followers on Instagram. With a burgeoning music career alongside his acting work, in 2018 he was made the youngest ever United Nations Environment Goodwill Ambassador.
Umbrella Academy wasn’t Gallagher’s first taste of fame – in 2014 he starred on Nickelodeon’s Nicky, Ricky, Dicky and Dawn which won him a hoard of young fans.
“When you are ten years old and people are screaming your name, trying to grab you at the Kids Choice Awards, and you go to the mall and groups of girls start following you around, it’s very unreal and like a dream. I can’t say I get used to it, it’s always been a little freaky.”
It’s an experience which has only intensified – and gone global – since Gallagher’s Netflix role and the rise of Instagram and Twitter. “With social media, some people are supportive and there are some haters and people who make fake accounts. It’s out of my control,” he says.
That’s when I realised, ‘Oh sugar, day to day life is now different'
For Gatwa, the first time he was recognised in the street was equally surreal. He was in cosmetics store Lush on London’s Oxford Street at the time, with Sex Education stars Emma Mackey, Aimee Lou Wood and Connor Swindells, and struggling to find the right soap.
He says: “I turned around and Emma was standing right behind me and she was like, ‘We need to go. Now.’ And I was like, ‘Why?’ but then I looked behind her and there was a kind of frenzy, there was a crowd gathering. Phones were out – there was a commotion happening. And it took me like five seconds to realise why, and then Emma again was like, ‘We need to go. NOW.’
“That’s when I realised, ‘Oh sugar, day-to-day life is now different.’”
Gallagher maintains that the public’s perception of him is very different from reality.
“I live in the same house as I did when I started acting,” says Gallagher. “My life hasn’t changed. Only people around me have changed with how they look at me. Exposure is this thing people think they want but at the end of day it doesn’t matter.
“This interview for example might give an impression but it could be misinterpreted. That’s why a lot of major celebrities stop giving interviews. That’s the problem with exposure.”
Aidan Gallagher, The Umbrella Academy (Netflix)
Gatwa adds: “The thing I didn’t prepare for was the fact that people think they know you. It’s such a nice thing that people love the show but what perplexes me is when people call me Eric in the street, or come up to me and are like, ‘Hi Eric!’ and hug me or touch me or grab my arm. And I’m just like, ‘No, I don’t know who you are.’
“It’s striking because in a way they do know you, because they’ve spent hours crying with you, laughing with you, going on a whole journey with you. People really connect to that. I just didn’t prepare for the fact that people would have such a strong connection to all the characters.”
Ncuti Gatwa, Sex Education (Netflix)
Gatwa admits that there are “naturally” negative aspects of fame, especially when living in a big city like London.
“I feel like a tool for saying this because I’ve been famous for five seconds,” he says, “but the one day when you look like s*** and London just annoys you – like everyone in the street’s taking a long time to walk, the tube is packed – on those days you’re sweating and you look a mess and someone’s right beside you and they’ve got a phone in your face. Those days, I could live without. You have to be ‘on’ all the time.
“It’s also annoying when you go home and see that someone’s been videoing you from afar. That’s always a bit like, ‘Woah. I was totally minding my own business and I had no idea.’
“But in the grand scheme of things, I’m in a very nice position. No one put a gun to my head and was like, ‘Sign this Netflix contract.’ I was aware of the world that I was going into.”
Winters adds that she has had concerns about her safety. “I dislike how I’m sometimes worried about people finding out where I live and somehow breaking into my house, whether that’s to say ‘hi’ or whether that’s to be creepy, I don’t know. That’s one thing.
“I know a lot of people that have been stalked and have crazy stories and there’s really not anything we can do other than have a security system put in. That’s one downside for sure.”
“I do remember my cousin asking me after I finished filming, ‘Have they got you guys therapy to deal with the change?’” recalls Gatwa. “I was like, ‘Why the hell would you get a therapist?’ And now I see what she’s talking about, because it is a mental transition, a mental and emotional transition. It’s a nice one, but just intense.”
Nothing can prepare you for sudden mass exposure
Should Netflix offer therapy for young actors who haven’t had exposure before?
“Yeah, I don’t think that’s a terrible idea,” he concludes. “But also I feel like nothing can prepare you for sudden mass exposure – no matter how much you talk about it, it’s going to be a bit odd.”