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06 June 2023

Ncuti Gatwa: It was difficult to get through Barbie filming without dying of laughter

06 June 2023

There’s still over a month to go until Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie hits cinemas, but it’s already set to be one of the hit films of summer – and Ncuti Gatwa says it was “100% joy” on set.

“I’m chomping at the bit, I can’t wait for it to come out.” says the Sex Education star, who who plays one of the film’s many Kens (Ryan Gosling plays the main Ken alongside Margot Robbie as Barbie).

“It was so much fun making it,” the Rwandan-Scottish actor, 30, adds. “I remember Simu Liu [Fresh Off The Boat, Kim’s Convenience], who is a fellow Ken and brilliant, he said something so beautiful when we were filming one time. He said, ‘I hope people watching it are going to receive just like a percentage of the joy that we’ve had making it’ – and it sounds so pretentious but it’s true.

“It was 100% joy on that set, every day. It was very difficult to get through any one take without dying with laughter. So much fun and silliness and importance – and pink – all those things are what Barbie is in equal measure.

“Working with Greta and Margo and Ryan was amazing, they are all creators at the top of their game, who are just so friendly and lovely, and took the work seriously but never themselves.”

This description could fit Gatwa well, too. He speaks with fizzy energy and easy warmth, lighting up even more when conversation turns to the deeper intricacies of his craft.

He’s on his way to Cardiff when we speak, where Dr Who filming is under way (although he’s not allowed to talk about that today). The BBC announced last May that Gatwa would be taking over the iconic role – becoming the first black Doctor in the show’s six-decade history – after “dazzling” writer and showrunner Russell T Davies with his audition.

This follows his star-making turn as Eric Effiong, a sixth-former navigating small-town life as the gay son of Ghanaian-Nigerian immigrant parents in the multi-award-winning Netflix series, Sex Education. The new season of Dr Who isn’t out until next year, but the team’s been drip-feeding titbits and teaser photos and the hype is high.

Right now, Gatwa has just been announced as a judge on the BMW Filmmaking Challenge in partnership with the British Film Institute (BFI), alongside film journalist-turned-screenwriter Terri White and acclaimed documentary maker Asif Kapadia (Diego Maradona, Amy).

The competition was launched back in January by Michaela Coel, the Ghanaian-British actor, filmmaker and creator of 2020’s Bafta-winning series I May Destroy You, with the aim of ‘championing the untold stories of emerging UK filmmakers’.

The shortlisted teams are tasked with creating a 90-second film that fits the ‘Evolving Perspectives’ theme – and is captured to work on 32:9 aspect ratio (wide screen), inspired by the all-electric BMW i7’s ultra-wide rear-passenger ‘theatre screen’.

From over 400 applicants, the BFI has shortlisted five teams, who’ve each received a £10,000 production budget plus access to camera equipment and mentoring with Coel, before Gatwa and co select a winner later this year (the winning short will premiere at the BFI London Film Festival Closing Night Gala in October).

Gatwa signed up because “creativity and opportunity were at the heart of it”, he says. “Short film is such an accessible medium, so hopefully we get people from all different backgrounds and walks of life, doing things we’ve never seen before.”

He’s excited to see what “camera craftsmanship” comes out of it too, especially in this age of smartphones, where we’ve become so used to creating and consuming media on tiny screens. But it’s the opportunity to champion ‘untold stories’ that holds most appeal.

“It’s really important – not just for me, it’s important for society, it’s important for the world – to know and be told stories that we might not be used to seeing, or to be challenged on perspectives. We all grow when our perspectives are challenged.

“I feel like the industry is in constant need of new talent… it creates room for people coming up behind, new voices. People deserve to see themselves on screen, or see voices and stories that resonate with them, and people deserve the opportunity to tell their stories as well.”

Pinpointing a pivotal moment in his own career is easy. Before Sex Education in 2019, Gatwa – who was a young child when his family settled in Scotland after escaping the Rwandan genocide in the mid-Nineties – had been working in theatre for a few years, with a couple of small TV roles.

Sex Education “changed the trajectory of my career, it changed my life,” he recalls. “Also, without sounding too pretentious, it really – I mean I must have always understood on a subconscious level – but it really made me understand the important of art, and how important art is for the human condition.

“Because the amount of people that connected to that show and connected to the different characters, and what that show meant to lots of people around the world… I was not expecting that.

“When we were making the show, we weren’t expecting it to be a hit. And up until then in my career, not that I’d just been having fun, but I got into acting because I liked it – it is a passion, but it’s also fun, you’re telling stories. I didn’t ever really think about the weight of that when it lands with somebody. That’s what Sex Education taught me. And it taught me the power of representation and of people seeing themselves on screen, and those stories being done in a in a beautiful way.”

Is that a key to creative freedom – being focused on the process, and now how it’s going to be received?

“Yes, freedom is so important for creativity. I don’t think you should have any boundaries, any perimeters around it, it should just be allowed to flourish,” he says.

“And silliness – I’ve always said that silliness is very important for creating art. You shouldn’t feel like you’ve got someone over your shoulder telling you you’re wrong, or that they can only do X, Y and Z. So yes. I think freedom is vital.”

Before the judging duties commence though, he is looking forward to taking a well-deserved holiday this summer.

“Somewhere hot! And yes, I’ll switch my phone off. I don’t look at anyone’s texts, I don’t answer anyone’s messages, I’m off grid [when I’m on holiday]. It’s the way to go,” Gatwa adds with a laugh.

“I’ve been working for a long time, so I’m looking forward to a holiday. Rest is important.”

Ncuti Gatwa, Terri White and Asif Kapadia have been announced as judges for the BMW Filmmaking Challenge in partnership with the BFI. Visit bmw.co.uk/bmwfilmchallenge

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