Sex Education's Ncuti Gatwa and Aimee Lou Wood on goats, fake moustaches and 'killing' their characters
The breakout stars of the returning Netflix series reflect on filming new episodes in a pandemic and reveal their biggest wish for next season.
"I'd be lying if I said I don't feel the pressure," admits Ncuti Gatwa. The third season of Netflix's award-winning Sex Education is finally about to drop – nine months later than originally planned, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. With anticipation at an all-time high following an acclaimed debut outing in 2019 and a follow-up last year which saw the show reach even greater heights, the cast are now starting to feel the streaming equivalent of first-night nerves (though if the early reactions – including RadioTimes.com's own Sex Education season three review – are anything to go by, they've got another hit on their hands).
"It's been cooked with a lot of love," says Gatwa, who plays the ebullient Eric Effiong. "I really hope people like it. But also, I think you have to take the pressure off how other people view you, ultimately, in life."
"I just finished watching it and I absolutely loved it," says Aimee Lou Wood, a BAFTA winner for her role as Aimee Gibbs. "I finished episode eight and I was just crying, because... it sounds really cheesy, but I'm so proud of us and I'm so proud of it. I have seen my friends deliver these incredible performances, and I'm so proud of them. So even though it does feel like a lot of pressure – especially because it's delayed coming out – I'm safe in the knowledge that I think it's brilliant and everyone is just so special and beautiful and amazing in it."
Sex Education charts the exploits of the students, staff and parents of Moordale Secondary School as they contend with personal dilemmas, romantic turmoil and issues relating to sexual intimacy and has earned plaudits for its wit, charm and sensitive approach to what might've previously been considered difficult subject matter.
The show began filming its latest batch of episodes in September 2020 under COVID safety protocols and, remarkably, never had to pause production once the shoot was underway. "Out of all the jobs to be doing during a pandemic, acting was not the most difficult or stressful," says Gatwa. "We're very privileged to do what we do and we were very privileged to be able to get back to doing what we do...
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"But also, it was different – it wasn't as fun. I'm used to just running up and jumping on Kedar [Williams-Stirling, who plays Moordale's head boy Jackson Marchetti] and Aimee, and people just coming into each other's trailers, and popping into each other's houses... I don’t even knock to go into Kedar’s house, I just walk in! So it felt very weird to, you know, step off set and suddenly have to put a mask on and social distance and all of that.
"There were times when I got quite emotional and sad, because I thought, 'F**k me, everyone has a COVID story.' I was talking to members of the crew and they all had a different story: 'I've not seen my girlfriend in six months,' 'My kids are having a a really hard time home-schooling…' And yet everyone was there on set, trying to make it work and dedicated the whole time to making this project happen.
"It felt really special to be working again – it felt like a privilege because there's many people in our industry, so many actors, who've had jobs taken away from them. So many people lost jobs, so many people had to retrain, so to be able to go to a studio, put on a colourful costume and pretend to suck off a banana was lovely!"
For Gatwa, perhaps the most surprising moment of the pandemic came when his character Eric became the face of a meme promoting good hygiene – with a fan-favourite Eric quote from the second season of Sex Education ("Wash your hands, you detty pig!") ending up plastered on a fake NHS poster.
"My mum works for the NHS and she sent me that and was like, ‘I always knew we were gonna work together one day!' – thank God we all had to be in our houses... had I been allowed to go outside and seen that in bathrooms, it might've been too much."
The pandemic wasn't the only obstacle that the cast of Sex Education faced in bringing the third season to our screens, however. As glimpsed in the recent trailer, the new episodes see Aimee adopt a "commitment goat" with boyfriend Steve (Chris Jenks). "That goat… so cute, but she absolutely was queen of the set," says Wood, sending her co-star Gatwa into a fit of laughter. "I mean, she decided how the day was gonna go. When she was on set, it was all about her. We were just waiting for her, constantly. The goat was on a lead, but she was leading me. It was bizarre, actually.
"She hated me, absolutely hated me at first. She loathed me. She would not go near me – and she loved Lino [Facioli] who plays Dex, loved him, flirting so much… and just would not go near me."
The pair eventually developed a "mutual respect", according to Wood. "She’s a natural, that goat, but she is a diva."
Gatwa was also forced to contend with a furry foe this season, in the shape of cast-mate Asa Butterfield's fake moustache (with the show's shooting schedule often filming scenes out of order and so precluding the Otis Milburn actor from growing his own facial hair).
"It was the bane of my life," deadpans Gatwa. "I mean, all eyes were on the moustache. The moustache, like the goat, it took up the day. It was annoying. It wasn't real, so it would always fall off – you would always have to do checks, glue Otis’s terrible moustache back onto his face... like, it took over the day. And I felt like it overshadowed me, and I didn't like that!"
"It's always the thing that's, like, the flight of fancy," says Wood. "It's that little flourish that in the script will take like a second to write – they go, 'Oh, it'd be funny if Otis had a moustache. Oh, it'll be really funny if there was a goat there.' And then those are the things that become the main event, always."
It's part of the brilliance of Sex Education that it can veer from broad humour with a pet goat to powerful depictions of anxiety, depression, sexual assault and other tough topics without suffering from tonal whiplash. Running the emotional gamut does take its toll on the cast, though – in the upcoming season, Eric experiences happiness with boyfriend Adam (Connor Swindells) but also goes on a personal voyage to get in touch with his roots, while Aimee attends therapy with Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) after being assaulted on a bus last season.
"It's not normal, to experience that range of emotion and in such a small amount of time," says Wood. "It's not. It's actually quite strange. Sex Education very much operates in this space of emotional honesty – all these characters, even if it takes them a while, will eventually be honest about how they're feeling.
"I don’t think people who do that have that much honesty around their emotions in real life, so just being in a space where people talk about how they feel a lot... a lot... it's kind of a model of what it could be like if everyone didn't sweep things under the carpet, but at the same time it can get to the point where afterwards you're like, ‘Oh, I have purged a lot of emotion here and now I want to go back to being kind of repressed'."
"I need to take a break," Gatwa says of his post-filming rituals. "Literally, you need to, like, kill the character. I do. I need to, like, not talk to anyone, think about anyone, not look at anything, regarding Eric or Sex Education... until it comes back out again and I'm talking to people like yourself. I need to, like, completely shut it off.
"Because otherwise… we revisit these characters, and in every character that you play as an actor, you put a bit of yourself in them, and so when you're revisiting a part of yourself constantly, it can then start to bleed into how you look at yourself and all of that. So you need to literally just kill that character and be like, 'No, you're dead now in order for me to live my life. I need to live my life as Ncuti – Eric Effiong, you’re dead!’."
Hopes are high though that both Eric and Aimee will live again in a fourth season of Sex Education – if that happens, both Gatwa and Wood have the same request: shared screen-time for their characters. "We've been asking since season one," Gatwa says. "They always say, ‘Oh, definitely, next season!’ – lies, lies, lies that they tell us."
Having worked extensively with Gillian Anderson on the third season, Wood now has ideas of how Jean, Aimee and Eric ("the dream trio") might share a scene or two. "I've already thought of ways that it could happen. And I'm ready to suggest them."
"Let's have a little meeting after this, Aimee, and get our notes together," says Gatwa. "We'll get Google Docs set up. And we'll send it to the writing team..."
Want more Sex Education content? Why not check out the full Sex Education season 3 soundtrack, read our Big RT Interview with Ncuti Gatwa and Aimee Lou Wood or find out where Sex Education is filmed with our location guide.