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Ncuti Gatwa: ‘stratospheric rise’ from couch-surfer to Doctor Who

The 29-year-old Sex Education star will be the first black actor to play the Time Lord full time

First he became an overnight success with his role in hit show Sex Education, and now Ncuti Gatwa has hit another career high by landing one of British TV’s most iconic roles. 

After being announced as the 14th Doctor Who, the 29-year-old said in a statement that he was “deeply honoured, beyond excited and of course a little bit scared”. 

“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,” added the Scottish-Rwandan actor, who will take over from Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor in 2023.

Gatwa will be the first black actor to play the title role full-time, although some fans are “pointing out” that Jo Martin, who is of Jamaican descent, “played an incarnation of the character in three episodes spanning the 12th and 13th series”, said The Telegraph.

From Rwanda to Scotland

Gatwa was born in Rwanda but his family moved to Scotland when he was two to escape the 1994 genocide. He has said that he was an “easy target” at secondary school in Edinburgh, where there were few black families, but that he “always had faith in my charisma”, The Guardian reported.

His family lived in university accommodation while his father, an academic and journalist, studied for a PhD in philosophy and theology. But his father “was forced to leave the family and move to Cameroon because he was unable to get work as an academic in the UK”, said the paper, a decision that Gatwa has described as “an amazing sacrifice”.

Breakthrough role 

After training at the Royal Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where he graduated with a BA in 2013, the aspiring actor moved to London. But he “struggled to make ends meet”, said the Daily Mail, and “even had to borrow £10 from friends so he could afford the tube fare for auditions”. 

Before landing his breakthrough role as gay teenager Eric Effiong in hit Netflix show Sex Education, he spent five months couch-surfing. “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,” Gatwa said.

The show catapulted him to fame almost overnight. Gatwa had 1,000 followers on Instagram when the first season of Sex Education was released at the start of 2019. Today, he has more than 2.7m – “an indicator of his stratospheric rise to fame”, said The Guardian.

He has also appeared in a BBC adaptation of Iain Banks’ novel Stonemouth, and in 2021 film The Last Letter from Your Lover.

Bafta nominations and awards

Gatwa is a “very shrewd choice for the role” of Doctor Who, said the BBC’s entertainment correspondent Lizo Mzimba. Not only is he “incredibly popular with viewers in their late teens and 20s”, he is also “an exceptionally gifted young actor” who has been nominated for Bafta awards for all three series of Sex Education.

His performance has secured him a Scottish Bafta and a Rose d'Or Award as well.

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