On Netflix's Sex Education, 17-year-old Otis (Asa Butterfield) is your average lanky high schooler. Too co-dependent to be an outsider, too uncomfortable in his own skin to fit in, and too obsessed with The Cure to truly be depressed. But all of that unresolved anxiety and teenage ennui has manifested itself in an interesting way: Otis can't masturbate. This is especially awkward for Otis because his mom is a renowned sex therapist who loves to, well, therapize her son.
But all of that meddling does have its advantages. When faced with a lucrative business proposition from the school's resident alt dream girl, Otis, despite his inexperience, begins to dole out sex and intimacy advice to his classmates. What follows are very real, very earnest, and very healthy conversations about sex and intimacy, the kind we don’t often see in teen sex comedies.
MTV News chatted with Sex Education stars Asa Butterfield and Ncuti Gatwa about how the series subverts tired teen tropes, "the talk" they did — or didn’t have — with their own parents, and the set’s many distracting penis props.
MTV News: How are you pitched this series? What was the elevator pitch?
Asa Butterfield: The one-line pitch.
Ncuti Gatwa: How were you pitched this series?
Butterfield: I can't remember how they pitched it.
Gatwa: A new coming-of-age drama. I think that's how it was pitched to me.
Butterfield: A coming-of-awkward-age drama about sex.
MTV News: What was it about [creator] Laurie Nunn's scripts that really resonated with you both?
Gatwa: I had never read or seen anything like it before, and all the characters are so different and diverse. They've got their niches they all fit into, like the classic boxes of teen dramas, but they're all very layered and all very contradictory. Do you know what I mean? For example [looking toward Butterfield], you're a virgin, but you're a sex wizard. So everyone's got their contradictions and niches.
Butterfield: It sets up these tropes and then subverts them very cleverly, and I think what's very nice, especially in a comedy, is to have these characters, which are very self-complex and have these things that are going that are very believable and aren't just there for the gags. Everyone really has their own story to tell, and I think that doesn't happen very often in comedies. It struck that difficult balance.
Ncuti Gatwa (left) and Asa Butterfield (right) in Netflix's Sex Education
MTV News: I really love how it subverts teenage tropes. I'm sure you both have read for a lot of teen roles. Are there any tropes you felt like this show did a really brilliant job of addressing?
Butterfield: There are a lot of brilliant characters in this. We have Adam, who is, on the surface he's the bully, but even just throughout the end of the first episodes you see how layered he is, and how he's got his own struggles he's dealing with and his issues with his dad — and his large penis, which has become a very big hindrance for him. Throughout the series you see how his character develops, and how he discovers himself. It's very easy to play that character one-dimensionally, and Connor's [Swindells] done an amazing job of giving him a real vulnerability. Also, Emma [Mackey], who plays Maeve. Again, on the surface, she's seen as a bad girl, but she's smart and she doesn't know where she sort-of fits in the world.
Gatwa: You see the reasons behind her bluntness and harshness, it makes sense. Teenagers now are supposed to be the most sexually advanced, I guess, because they've got the internet, social media, porn, and all these kind of things, but like, still, no matter who you are or where you are in the world or what time you are in the world, being a teenager is complicated and it's awkward, and I feel like we're dealing with issues that haven't been dealt with before in terms of the conversations that we're having now, like toxic masculinity and revenge porn. We're talking about all these things that we as a people are just starting to talk about now.
MTV News: Are there certain teen tropes that you're tired of seeing in media? Because Eric, for example, could have been your typical gay best friend, but he's so much more nuanced than that. I haven't seen anyone else like him on TV.
Gatwa: It flips the conversation of the classic coming-out story — it's like what happens after. He is out, as is the only other gay at school, Anwar. They're both out, and they're both accepted in the school, and in Eric's case, he's only really bullied because he's just a dork, not because he's gay.
Butterfield: He's bullied because he once got a boner on stage.
Gatwa: So, yeah, we've taken these classic tropes and pushed them further. There is a certain portrayal of the gay best friend, and the classic black best friend. Those are two tropes that I'm not tired of seeing, but I think we can do more. People have layers. We don't need to make characters so two-dimensional. I feel like in this show, everybody is very three-dimensional, even four-dimensional.
Gatwa stars as Eric Effoing, Otis's best friend
MTV News: That's a lot of dimensions. Do you feel like that's because the writers' room was pretty young?
Butterfield: I think that definitely had something to do with it.
Gatwa: And a lot of women.
Butterfield: And a lot of female writers, which gives a different perspective, I think, and that's why there's so many amazing female characters in this script. Aimee, especially in the first episode, you think she's a bit of an airhead, but then by the end of the series she has her own episode which reveals so much about her and you realize why she sort of is the way she is and and the social pressures that have been put on her.
MTV News: I was particularly moved by Eric's scenes with his West African father. What made that relationship so special to you?
Gatwa: As an actor, I think it was just the love between them. There's no denial that Eric's dad loves him unconditionally. He's just completely terrified for the world that Eric is about to inhabit, and it's a world that he doesn't understand. He's a traditional West African man, so Western culture is foreign to him. I come from an African background, and I know that my parents always told me, "You have to work harder, twice as hard as any of your peers to make it, or to be respected" and that's just the way it is.
It's shit. People are gonna look at you differently, and they're gonna treat you differently just based off how you appear, but you just have to deal with it and you just have to prove them wrong, you just have to work three times as hard. Eric's dad is just scared and worried for Eric that Eric is not following the path that he would have followed. I used to dance a lot when I was younger, and I know that there's a lot of decisions that I make that my parents are like, "Oh my God. He's gonna die." But the love between that family is just so special and apparent. We don't see a lot of African-British families on TV, so the representation is really important to me. I know how important of a character that Eric is and it is going to be for so many people.
Eric and his father
MTV News: It's such a sex-positive show, which I think we need more of, right? From the very first scene, it establishes itself as a show where sex is a part of everyday life for teens, for older people, for everybody. I think that's pretty refreshing.
Gatwa: My mum just texted as I got off the airport, being like, "Is this show OK for 11 year olds?" And I was like, technically no, there's a lot of graphic sex scenes in there, but at the same time, the messages that the show puts out are so positive. It's so inclusive. I can't see how that can be negative for anybody to see. I'm not recommending 11 year olds to watch this show, but I'm just saying that there's a lot of positive messages that comes out of it.
MTV News: I'm sure 11-year-old Otis saw worse. There are penises all over his home.
Butterfield: That house. Wow. Just wow.
Gatwa: Just the trip down the stairs… you're seeing a lot.
Butterfield: The front door.
Gatwa: The front door. The doorknob. The doorknob is a real nob.
Butterfield: It's a penis.
MTV News: Was it like a game for you guys to find the penises on the set?
Butterfield: It was, but even at the end of filming, it was like, "Oh my God! I've been using this salt and pepper shaker the entire time…"
Gatwa: And it's a penis.
Butterfield: It wasn't until the end that I realized, "Oh my God, this is also a dick." Like, it's everywhere.
Gatwa: Everything was phallic.
Butterfield: I think my favorite one is, there's this chess set that we have, and in fact all the pieces are lining the bathroom upstairs, and they must have designed it because it had been 3D printed. It's a chess set, but every piece is a differently shaped penis. And I was like, "This is amazing!"
Otis and his mother, Jean (Gillian Anderson), have an awkward conversation about masturbation
MTV News: Do you recall the first time you talked to your parents about sex?
Gatwa: My dad's a minister, so I've never had that conversation about sex with my parents. I think they still think that I think the stork comes with the bag and the baby.
Butterfield: I remember my mom trying to talk to me about masturbation and I could see it in her eyes she was about to pose a weird question, I was like, "Mum, what are you doing?" I can't remember what she said, but it was something like, "You know what masturbation…" I was like, "Alright, I'm going, I'm out. Done." It's a hard conversation to have with your parents. It's hard for parents to have that conversation with their kids. I wouldn't want to have that conversation with my child.
MTV News: The show could definitely spark some interesting, and important, conversations if you watch it with your family.
Butterfield: Maybe not your grandparents.
MTV News: Well, if your grandparents are cool.
Butterfield: Depends. Actually, my grandma's pretty cool.
MTV News: Do your families watch things that you're in? Are you waiting for them to text you?
Butterfield: They generally do. And I haven't actually thought about that, about my grandma watching this show. And I'm just now thinking of Episode 1, my wanking scene.
Gatwa: Grandma Butterfield is gonna be on that phone.