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The remarkable rise of Ncuti Gatwa: From sofa surfing and Sex Education to Doctor Who

As Ncuti Gatwa is revealed as the new Doctor Who, we look at the journey that led him here, including the big issues in his life he’s had to overcome.

With the inspired and inspiring casting of Ncuti Gatwa to take over from Jodie Whittaker, Doctor Who has done it again.

There was an outbreak of joy when it was announced that Gatwa, whose high energy blend of warmth, humour and heart is well-known by fans of Netflix global smash Sex Education, will be the new Doctor.

Coupled with the return of showrunner Russell T Davies, a writer of huge compassion, massive brain and quick wit, fans can expect an exciting, optimistic and bold new world for the series.

Scottish actor Gatwa is a major talent. “Ncuti dazzled us, seized hold of the Doctor and owned those Tardis keys in seconds,” Davies said. “It’s an honour to work with him, and a hoot, I can’t wait to get started.”

The 29-year-old actor went to school in Edinburgh, trained at the prestigious Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, and moved to London aged 21 – where he found regular acting work in the theatre alongside temping jobs.

But before he found fame in Sex Education, Gatwa was homeless, he revealed to The Big Issue back in 2019 as he launched season two of Sex Education.

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“I was constantly working but I still found it impossible to survive in London. Because it was so expensive,” he told us.

“I am from Scotland and moved down to London when I was 21. I was working constantly – and at some good places – I spent a year at the Globe Theatre, I did a lot of work at Kneehigh, who are a physical theatre company.

“But you have to feed yourself, you have to get to work, with rent, bills, travel, days off from temping to go to an audition, I couldn’t seem to handle it all financially. I was supposed to move into a new place and it fell through.

“So for five months before Sex Education, I was couch-surfing among all my friends. I didn’t have a home. I was homeless. The only thing stopping me from being on the streets was the fact I had friends.

“But you can use up that goodwill. Or you feel scared to ask people for help. Your pride kicks in. So my life before Sex Education was SO different. To go to my audition, I had to get my friend to transfer me 10 quid so I could top up my Oyster card.”

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Among the more startling revelations was that Gatwa was homeless while temping at the world’s most famous, and perhaps most expensive, department store.

“It was so mad, because if someone was to see me on the street – on my way to temping at Harrods in my trenchcoat and brogues, because you have to be so well-polished and look the part – they would never believe I was about to spend two hours on the phone to people trying to find where I could sleep that night.

“I got a sense of how lucky I had been. I was looking at people, thinking, ‘You are so lucky to be about to go home to your own bed.’ Then I was going to work to sell £7,000 perfumes. I couldn’t believe I was homeless and working in Harrods – how many people must be going through this in London?”

Ncuti Gatwa with Pushkin the cat during the actor’s time sofa surfing

Gatwa revealed more the following year. He sat down with The Big Issue at the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards in 2020, where he picked up his Breakthrough Award.

As well as sharing gossip and laughing constantly, Gatwa said he wanted to write about his experience of homelessness. That’s how he became a contributor to The Big Issue.

In a startling article, he revealed that, like so many others currently experiencing food poverty, he could at one point only afford to eat once a day: “When I lost weight due to only eating once a day, people said how lean and healthy I looked.”

Gatwa, who was born in Rwanda and whose parents fled the civil war there when he was just two, explored the mental torment endured whilst sofa surfing.

“Sofa surfing is tough. No matter how nice your friends are there is a limit. I could see the strain I was putting on them. It felt awful being that guy – using the electric and water but not contributing. And sharing a bed with someone you’re not intimate with, no matter how close you are or how nice they are, gets annoying.

“I developed depression. But I never let people know how down I was feeling. That would have been another burden for my friends to take on. 

“I felt very alone and trapped, like I was the only one going through this experience. But the sad reality is that last year, 110,000 young people approached their local council because they were homeless or at risk of being homeless.”

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After being cast alongside Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson in Sex Education, life changed dramatically for Gatwa.

He has been nominated for three Baftas and won one Scottish Bafta for Best Actor, he was awarded the prestigious Breakthrough Award at the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards in 2020. And now Gatwa has almost three million followers on Instagram, where his sense of flair and style wins plaudits.

Gatwa’s success has been so impressive that his casting in Doctor Who feels like a logical next step. So what can we expect from his Doctor?

We’ve seen fast talkers, scenery-chewers, wild-haired eccentrics, intense intergalactic grumps, wisecracking adventurers and haunted warriors. There are many ways to play The Doctor.

Gatwa is a huge personality, with an infectious laugh. His laugh lights up a room. But he has a serious side. So we can expect to see his empathy, understanding and humanity shine through alongside his humour in his portrayal of The Doctor.

Oh, and, like his predecessor, Gatwa turns his scripts into intricately coded works of art to ensure he is fully prepared.

Ncuti Gatwa with a copy of The Big Issue.

He told us: “I’m a massive nerd. I have different colour highlighter pens. I’m that guy, preparing my script for months in advance.”

We should catch a first glimpse of Gatwa as The Doctor in Jodie Whittaker’s final, feature-length adventure this autumn, before a first full series in 2023. As his casting was announced at the 2022 Bafta Awards in London, Gatwa was full of positive intent.

“This role and show means so much to so many around the world, including myself, and each one of my incredibly talented predecessors has handled that unique responsibility and privilege with the utmost care,” he said.

“I will endeavour my upmost to do the same. Russell T Davies is almost as iconic as the Doctor himself and being able to work with him is a dream come true. His writing is dynamic, exciting, incredibly intelligent and fizzing with danger.

“An actor’s metaphorical playground. The entire team have been so welcoming and truly give their hearts to the show.

“And so as much as it’s daunting, I’m aware I’m joining a really supportive family. Unlike the Doctor, I may only have one heart but I am giving it all to this show.”

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